In a year where bike racing fell off the calendar due to a global pandemic it was amazing that the MTB circus was travelling to Turkey for the UCI MTB World Marathon Championships. It was only three weeks before that I finally committed to attend as I waited to see what travel restrictions would be in place.
I’ve travelled to different continents to go bike racing and I’ve explored much of Europe but here in Turkey I was on edge. Speak to my wife and she’ll tell you that I am a country boy, if we travel into London I feel overwhelmed and lost in the swell of people and expanse of concrete. Miss fortune began immediately, forgetting I was no longer on my European phone tariff I connected to data, just checking facebook messenger and I’d spent £40 and somehow used my data allowance till early November! My general unease began with an abrupt car hire employee who palmed me off with a car completely unsuited to my luggage and most unlike the car I’d reserved. Out of the airport and over one of the worlds tallest bridges, the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge. Soon the relaxed drive was interrupted as the mayhem began, lorries in all four lanes, cars undertaking at twice the speed limit weaving between lanes, not an indicator being used in sight, unlit dark motorways with no lane markings… Once in Sakarya I carved my way through the hustle to park up at the hotel. The Hotel Bakturk was a sea of calm with a storm around it. I’d planned on visiting Carrefour, a supermarket I’m familiar with but there was no way I was driving the car again unnecessarily so a local Metro supermarket it was. I’d reserved a suite in the hotel with a kitchen but wasn’t provided with dinnerware, cutlery or pots and pans, corrected the next day by the hotel staff but I had to improvise in the meantime. By bedtime Thursday I felt a long way from home and was far from focused on race day.
On Friday I had my first ride on course which was spent negotiating wild dogs and people appearing off every pavement, plus tractors, lorries, cars and motorbikes all driven by wannabe F1 drivers. What a crazy place for a bike race I was thinking, this definitely isn’t a tourist spot. The legs were feeling really strong though and in the afternoon I got the confidence to walk the long way to the local supermarket finding some nice quiet side streets and parks away from the madness. This tranquillity would soon be broken by a motorbike taking a short cut down the pavement full throttle! On Saturday I had another good ride on course with some pre-race openers up the first climb. That afternoon I go to sign on at registration. I retrieve the car from what I thought was the free hotel car park, a large elderly man knocks on the window asking for money, not realising I’d parked in a pay car park I thought he was a chancer trying to get some money. I start driving off and he starts trying to smash the car window before opening the car door and starting to pull me out of the car! Luckily a younger guy who works in the car park appears and explain the situation, I have no cash though and they don’t understand when I say I’ll come back with the money. The older guy is angry, in my head I’m thinking he’s about to beat me up so I wheelspin out of the car park! Number board collected I return to the hotel expecting an army of car park attendants there to tackle me for all I have. Fortunately I find a bank and the £4 I owe for the past 3 days parking! The younger employee apologises, I apologies, all good if a little confused and frazzled! I’m sure the general mayhem of the place is normal to the locals and I’m sure the locals are pretty nice, the car park situation was just a mix up.
Out in the countryside where the race course is is a very different place. Dogs come alive licking their lips at the sight of a skinny cyclists ankle to chew. Otherwise the sleepy villages are split by vast farm land where tired tractors carry families to their fields to work the land. The faint purring of farming machinery is all that breaks the silence. This is the place that would host the biggest race of the year. 3 laps of 30 kilometres weaved through the area rising and falling over 300 metre climbs. A very fast 10-kilometre route would take the competition from the venue out to the circuit, and then back from the circuit to the finish. At the venue was a state of the art velo park which would host a huge expo area, the opening ceremony, Saturday road gran fondo and then Sundays UCI MTB World Marathon Championships.
After an interesting few days I woke Sunday focused on the race. So many sacrifices go into just achieving the qualification for World Champs, this includes leaving my wife and four-month-old baby boy at home whilst I spend hour upon hour training and then travel for day after day to bike races. The honour of wearing the national colours is something special, it’s a moment most sports people aspire towards. Here today I would represent Great Britain an eighth time, last year I recorded my best result of 27th, a huge achievement but I knew better was possible. With feed zone support in place, the training level so high and some good days on the race track I was ready.
The velo park was alive with a packed grandstand and TV crews were in place to cover the race on national TV and the UCI’s online channels. The very best mountain bikers were in town, on the start line and ready to challenge for the rainbow jersey. The race starts and we whistled out of the arena onto the roads closed off by hundreds of police officers enjoying the spectacle. Through little sleepy villages we flew, I think on lap one the locals were a little shocked by our speed, they jumped out of the way to safety. There were plenty of people out supporting the race, I’d begun to warm to this quieter part of Turkey away from the hustle of the big towns. Farm workers busy picking their crops looked up to watch the race. Even the crazy dogs sat by the tracking side behaving today!
From the start a large group developed, I felt comfortable and made myself work to stay near the front out of trouble and away from the splits which happen further back. Lap one the climbs were ridden tempo, the gravel descents were ridden fast but I did enough to hold pace with around 20 others in the lead, they included Héctor Leonardo Páez, Tiago Ferreira, Kristian Hynek, Frans Claes, Sergio Mantecon, Daniel Geismayr and Fabian Rabesteiner.
By lap two the pace was increasing which caused the group to split before reforming with one or two less people. Big stars were falling away from the group whilst I sat not so comfortably but doing enough to match the pace at the front. On the penultimate decent of this lap I was behind a couple of riders who let a gap open, at that moment I didn’t have the legs to close the gap, those two did and I was left a few meters back. By now the heat was burning hot, 28 degrees and it was really humid, sweat was pouring off everyone. A massive thankyou to my supporter Torsten for stepping in to look after me, without those three bottles I wouldn’t have finished the race. All the indoor races I’ve been doing have helped with the heat acclimatisation.
At the start of lap three the TV helicopter still buzzed overhead so we knew the leaders weren’t far in front. My chain is dry from the river crossings, I’m wasting power with the resistance through the drivetrain, worst still I worry I’m going to snap the chain, please please please don’t take this away from me! I’m in a group with Frans Claes and two Spanish riders fighting for seventh!!! Yes seventh! Ahead the lead group splits again, I hope we can catch others ahead who might be shelled from the group or blow from the relentless steep climbs and heat. Soon it’s just Frans and I as we approach feed zone 3, he’s making me suffer clearly stronger at that point. I make a quick stop for some chain lube then grab my water bottle and set off with a smooth chain and a huge motivation to seal the result. I ride with Frans again, he’s quicker on the descents but now I’m stronger on the climbs. One last time down the most technical descent on track, I take it easy to prevent any risk of crashing or suffering a mechanical. The last descent if a wide gravel road, we hit speeds of 80 kilometres per hour!
Final climb done and just the 10-kilometre flat gravel drag back to the velo park. Frans is struggling, I’m struggling but we pull our turns on the front. The kilometres seem to take an age even though we are still pushing big watts. Think of all those massive days of training, those punishing high intensity workouts, that was all for this moment. Into town and there’s some short steep tarmac climbs towards the arena. The crowds and commentator are making a huge noise, it motivates me to attack and open a gap to Frans. Onto the velo park cross country circuit, onto the finish straight, onto the tarmac infront of the crowds, over the line.
I gasp for air exhausted from 110kms of tough racing and in disbelief. Seventh best in the world! What just happened!? Hard work pays off.
Just in front on lap three Héctor Leonardo Páez the defending champion had decided to show who was boss. He pulled away and was only followed by Martin Stosek and Ferreira as the rest of the field exploded behind. The Colombian applied more pressure to create a gap which he extended all the way to the line to take his second world title. Stosek was in second for the rest of the final lap but Ferreira never lost touch and in the final dash to the line the Portuguese overtook the Czech rider to take silver. Behind many top names including previous world and continental champions fill the results sheet. In the women’s race a close battle saw Ramona Forchini and Maja Wloszczowska worked together to gain time on the chasers, changing lead several times until Forchini took matters into her own hands to move slightly ahead of her Polish rival with several hundred metres to go. She kept her slight advantage to cross the line in 3:42.18, one second ahead of 2003 UCI World Champion Wloszczowska. Ariane Lüthi made it a double medal celebration for Switzerland after her strong ride back into contention to claim bronze, 1.22 behind her compatriot. A big congratulations to British rider Isla Short who took seventh! A double seventh place finish in the men’s and ladies races for Great Britain, a huge achievement for British mountain biking.
A huge thank you and congratulations has to be said to the race organisers for hosting such a well-run professional event in these very tricky times. My time in Turkey has seen many ups and downs but as I pack up to head home I’m already starting to think about how I’d like to return here another year, with or without a bike to explore more of the country and learn about the history behind this fascinating place. I might not be a city man but the Turkish countryside away from the hustle holds a whole different world, here I see the real country, the one I’ll remember.
That’s it for another year, now its time to fly home for the offseason, time to rest the body, evaluate the year and to enjoy some time with the family. It’s been emotional, thanks 2020 cycling season!