The 2019 XCM world championship was held last weekend in Grachen, Switzerland and as I have written earlier this race was an experience like no other for myself and many others on the start line. Starting from the absolute back (#186) I got a good view of how things were panning out, at least for the first 60 seconds or so. Australian’s across UCI MTB competitions have a disadvantage from the outset in that there is very few opportunities to earn UCI points in our far flung corner of the world meaning Australian riders are often given start positions at the very back of the start grid, this has long been a challenge for Australian riders on the XCO world cup circuit and means emerging to the front often takes years of toil and thousands of dollars of funding to attend UCI races in the Northern Hemisphere.
This was again the case for the Australian team at the XCM worlds, with the exception of Sebastian Jayne whom had just completed his 3rd or 4th season competing in Europe the remaining Australian team members were all across the back row. The pace at the start of this race really highlighted to me how supreme the athletes at the front are. In road races that usually span 4+ hours the roll out speed with the exception of those eager to get in the early break is often fairly manageable. In this race which was 97km and likely close to 5hours long the start was as if we were in a 20minute short track race, riders pinging for the hole shot off the line. A small crash on the first corner caught up a few riders and created an early split with those on the front few rows storming off the front to the top of the first climb at the 4km mark. Here Ondrej Cink, Urs huber, Matthias Fluckiger and Martin Stosek asserted their strength on the rest of the field. By this point of 4km the race was split into small groups all across the trail with a rather large group including myself at the back pushing down the first long descent. At a regular XCM race in Australia if you were at the very back of the pack you can be expecting a long wait whilst weaker riders negotiate technical terrain. Here, even at the back world class riders powered through the first descent at an impressive pace. Which made me think the speed at which Fluckiger et al were descending here would be something to marvel.
The descents on the course were typified by tight, steep switchbacks. Each descent covered approximately 800m of elevation loss, so you can imagine by the bottom riders hands, arms were in quite a state from negotiating the bike down such long and technical descents. I witnessed some riders having to actually stop to allow the hands to recover. Especially given many of the European riders were racing with lightweight, short travel hardtails. Soon after zooming through the first feed zone the first climb to Vispertimen began, this was a long road climb up over 1000m of elevation gain which took close to an hour in training earlier in the week. By this point (30km) the front of the race was well ahead of myself but I found myself tapping into that ‘rhythm/zone’ that every athlete dreams for in competition. I was chipping away at the riders in front and comfortable in managing my effort. Being early in the race many of the swathes of spectators were still by the road as I came through. Climbing through endless Swiss cheers of ‘op op op’ and the occasional ‘GO AUSSIE’ was encouraging and certainly gives a lift to the legs and the feeling. Across the top and through the 2nd feed zone I was making the deductions of the course segments in my head trying to induce more motivation/ power that I was well on my way to the finish and in a position far higher than I had anticipated.
The 2nd climb to the town of Torbel was arguably the most difficult of the race unlike the first long climb, this climb was initially dirt and much steeper with no real rhythm to the gradient rather an erratic steep/ shallow trend. Here with about 45km still remaining I started to come really unglued. The sun was beaming down and my nutrition/ hydration strategy was really revealing it’s inadequacy. Legs were feeling weaker and weaker, head started throbbing. Much of this race occurred above 1500m asl which is not enough to compromise an athlete’s exertion but is enough to require a well thought out hydration strategy. Something I should have paid more attention to. Losing bulk time on this climb was frustrating but I was encouraged by the countless number of riders I saw descending this climb with seemingly no mechanical issues. Evidently, these riders had just U bolted and decided enough was enough. Having travelled from probably as far away in the world as you can possibly get from Switzerland I was not going to throw in the proverbial towel.
The final long descent was the most dangerous/ technical of the course as it switchbacked down a loose gravelly cliff edge. Hitting this well fuelled and switched on was going to be crucial not just to negotiate it at speed but also to not die. So I consumed what I could in my dilapidated state and managed this without too much stress. At the bottom of this there was just 18km remaining. I was eternally grateful to the Aussie supporters Brianna Rodgers and Melissa May who waited at the rapidly emptying feed zones for the tail markers of the race including myself. Enabling us to keep pushing on with some life saving (in my situation) fuel. I began the final climb with compatriot Benji May who then pushed ahead of me as I cramped and square pedalled my way the final 14km to the finish line.
Crossing the finish line is usually somewhat of an anti climax. Especially if it is a race you have devoted months and months of preparation to. You cross the line and a few moments of joy and then return to accomm, clean bike, pack bike, cook dinner and maybe have a few drinks but at the end of the day the same person crosses the finish line that was on the start line, the world does not stop or change for our pursuits of bike races. In the days, weeks, months after such an experience however I think the benefits/ happiness of having endured such an experience ring true. The interest was indelibly in the striving not the arriving. Having an event to ignite drive, motivation and spirit is pretty awesome for anyone I reckon. And although the experience of slogging around a brutal MTB trail for over 6hours at close to max heart rate is far from enjoyable in the moment. Like I mentioned earlier the stories gained are priceless. This was something I’ll never forget and am very grateful to have had the experience to represent my country, albeit at the back of the pack. A good weekend overall for the Australian team all things considered, team mate Imogen Smith rode to a credible 38th! Sebastian Jayne with a super strong effort to climb through the field to 68th, fellow first timer Tyla Windham in 133rd and Benji May making a mens for his 2018 DNF with 155th. Full results here.
I crossed the line in 156th, which was not last! I beat my start position by 29 spots (28DNF’s). But most importantly, I crossed the line completely empty! i still feel like I have been bashed up 6days later so am confident i gave it my all on the day. Full results and report from the front of the race are available here.