The second stage of the Engadin Bike Giro featured over 2,500 metres of climbing in 74 kilometres. Most of the uphill was in the second half of the course, including a whopping alpine climb from 1,750 to over 2,500 metres above sea level that started at the 47-kilometre mark. Having been ensconced in the world of marathon racing recently, I’ve forgotten how different stage racing can be – how unpredictable the mix of amateurs, weekend warriors, and profis is, and how often the pace and rhythm of the race can surprise you.
Shame then that I came into today woefully under-prepared. Physically things haven’t been great since last weekend’s World Champs, after which I did the worst recovery any sadist could devise (a completely sleepless night and 13 hours in the car), got sick, and required two days in bed. (I’m really happy just to be able to race here!) Psychologically? I had been feeling pretty burnt out, but normally I can overcome this just by knowing what to expect and meeting it. Alas! I had expected the race to break up early, but it didn’t. I had expected good weather, but we began in cold rain. I had expected people to pace themselves conservatively for the climb, but they went berserk. I had expected to understand what was going on around me, but I was completely lost.
With the rain everyone stood huddled wherever they could find shelter – for me, this was inside the toilet block. The commentator issued forth a stream of German, so Mike and I had little idea what was going on, made worse by the fact that we’d got the start time wrong, so had 30 bonus minutes of getting wet and cold. Of course, understanding so little, we were last to the start chute and had to line up at the very back of our block. I crossed the start line 7 seconds into the race itself… not an ideal start position!
Under way at the Engadin Bike Giro
It got worse. After drenching road we came to the forest roads and some uphill. It wasn’t a great start for me, sure, but usually as soon as we start climbing and I can find a rhythm I make up places. Not so today! Riders from start blocks behind me tore past at incredible speeds, doing all-out anaerobic sprints up the little hills. I was hooked, jabbed, and chopped – all of this made worse because (although I speak French and can get by in Italian) I speak barely a word of German – I couldn’t get a feel for the race, or communicate anything at all. I felt that some riders were being a bit too aggressive with their lines but couldn’t put out a friendly ‘hey, you right?’ I bottled it up. Never a good idea.
When we reached a few nice bits of singletrack that I was looking forward to it turned out I was in a queue, as some of the super climbers were apparently completely confused by, for example, how to ride over a root. I’ve kept a really level head throughout this trip, whatever’s happened, but now, worn out psychologically from six-months’ racing and preparation, I became increasingly frustrated and negative. This was, of course All My Fault – I should have gone out harder, held wheels, defended. I felt pretty stupid but there was nothing I could do.
I let some of it out when a guy decided to chop me down a switchback and forced me to unclip and nearly crash down. It was a stupid move and I had no idea why he did it, just to move up one spot in a line of about 50 riders. When you’re a girl, too, it’s always in the back of your mind that blokes want to pass you because they don’t want to be beaten by a female, and this can play with your head – or at least it does with mine! Things got worse from there. The first half of the course was much flatter than it had seemed on the profile and I found myself in an intense road race full of somewhat underskilled, but incredibly fit Euros gifted in the short hill climbing department. My usual get-out-of-jail-free climber’s card was useless. I couldn’t move up… and worse – I just didn’t have any fight. I could probably have physically coped with the effort but mentally? I just couldn’t force myself to mix it with a bunch of guys feverishly duking it out for 103rd place.
The mental quicksand sucked harder and harder until I finally just broke. At about the 25km mark I threw the toys out of the pram and sat up, waving bunches past me, soft pedalling until women in the ‘damen fun’ class passed me with barely concealed glee. I decided to treat it as a training race and tapped along between recovery zone and endurance pace, just wishing all the other competitors would pass me so I could have clear track in the singletrack, avoid any further jabs or chops or unnecessary hill sprints, and get some goddamn peace and quiet. Clearly I was too tired… Maybe I could pull out when we curved back towards St Moritz?
When, after 25km of cycletouring, Things cleared and I cheered up and enjoyed the view and the sunshine, late but welcome. Soon I reached the bottom of the ginormous climb, and I decided the little group who had caught me most recently were too slow, and tapped along past them. Then the next group, and the next, and the next, and the next, and so on, until I must have passed 50 or so people… or maybe 100. My fight was back! I was back to race pace! The higher we got, the tougher the climbing became, until we were snaking through incredibly technical singletrack at altitude, and many, many people were walking. Proper. Mountain bike. Racing. The kind of epic, uplifting, breathtaking, treacherous race I had been hoping for! I found all this rather motivating and my mood improved further. I also discovered that assertive, English-language track calling (plus pleases and thankyous) would work, and rode my way past perhaps another 50 or so riders, getting mightily annoyed with those who (‘Oh, no. No girl’s passing me!’) blocked me (I will pull over for ANY faster rider – especially if they aren’t even in my category), and extremely thankful to those who let me through. I even made a few friends.
Back in the race
We descended for a bit down techy trail with creek crossings over jagged rocks. I messed this up slightly, but then we were on the holy climb from hell up an incredibly steep alpine ski lift service road and suddenly I was passing women. Elite women. And a respectable number of them. After a long time battling some fit chicks it was over and we were ducking into the Corviglia Flow Trail, an incredibly long pump track set into a ski slope with 500m vertical drop in 3 kilometres. One nice guy passed me, but I think, with my handy dropper doing its thing, I put a really good gap into the multitudes behind me.
That done, we climbed some more, and I set about passing more men – some of whom were happy to let me through, some of whom were not. This turned out to be an EPIC climb with some very steep, rocky hike-a-bike to top it off. No worries, I was having a great time. The technical challenges had really set in – again, a class A mountain bike race – and the track was clearing up as I rode into a position where the blokes weren’t much slower than me and, as I often find, the higher you ride on GC, the less other competitors mind getting girled. We descended some of the most fun, difficult, ROCKY, sharp, technical terrain I’ve ridden in competition – equal to the Swiss Epic, and I cleaned the lot, including stuff I’d never usually ride sight-unseen – I respect my collarbones too much. The treeline and forest singletrack rushed up to meet me. I crashed on a root and high-sided, tumbling metres down the mountainside, but climbed back up to my bike, thankfully in one piece, and rode down, down, down. Suddenly, the town: arrows, arrows, arrows, headwind, headwind, headwind. Bumpy grass field, marshal, arrows. The finish line! I heard them say I’d come fifth on the loudspeaker… what? Out of 38 women, most of whom had passed me? I was actually fourth in elite women, and am left wondering what would have been if I hadn’t soft-pedalled 30 per cent of the race. Never mind… another learning experience. And who knows, maybe I just saved my legs for the best part.
Tomorrow’s stage is really, really similar – same distance, same climbing – except with (wait for the bad news… ) a longer, flatter start that will be incredibly fast and very challenging for me after today’s mental breakdown. My goal is to hang in there until the big climb of nearly 1,000 vertical metres – if it’s anything like today it’ll be huge, long, technical, and wonderful – and see what’s left in my legs.
Out the front
At the front of the race, Karl Platt stamped his authority on the men’s field, and Nadia Walker was again in a class of her own, coming in 5 minutes ahead of 2nd place in Elite women. Who will take home the overall win tomorrow?