Boarding the flight to Budapest on Wednesday morning, I couldn’t have been more unprepared for the weekend if I tried. Last minute bike packing, last minute rush to re-print some Stolpejakt maps (the project has been full on since January), last minute race prep, and long training sessions squeezed into small amounts of free time.
It was a relief to finally sit on the plane and know I had a weekend of relaxation ahead.
As per the plan, Tuesday 28th April signalled the start of my 6 week plan for the Europeans, which meant another moderate-high volume week. All-in-all, my preparation for these races was 7 weeks of moderate to high training load, with a good focus on killing myself in each interval session. Needless to say, the training, combined with work left me more fatigued than fresh both physically and mentally. BUT, the 7 days before Friday were all deliberately low intensity high volume, so I had a good chance to recover. My high volume work over the winter has really paid dividends in terms of encouraging my body to recover faster and not build so much fatigue.
Although I was optimistic about my strength and speed, I also knew I was deliberately training hard in order to focus fully on the World Champs later in the year. I always planned to ‘skip over’ these races and just use them as a gauge of early season form, rather than trying to do anything spectacular.
I was really excited for the first race; the new mass start format. We’ve had mass start races in the past, but typically they are long distances. The new format focusses on an 80 minute winning time, so somewhere between a middle and long, with emphasis on good forking and splitting the field.
As the start gun went, I ran for my bike. I haven’t run in months, and carbon soled shoes didn’t help. As the field drew level with me, I decided I wasn’t going to be beaten to the bikes and accelerated. Map in the map board, jump on and pedal. Already to the start kite I had some metres gap, so I slowed down and waited for the field to come back together. At the start kite I was still leading so I made the route choice decision alone. I opted for the fast track. A gentle climb with a longer length than the alternative, but much less risk. This was the first experience of the terrain so choosing the shorter but mapped slower route was a huge risk to take to the first control. For Barlet of France, the risk paid off. As we entered the control, she was leaving with a nice 30 second advantage. The pack had already fractured on the 100m climb and there were just four of us together at the top with me leading. I kept ta good pace up here. Not enough to be a big effort, but just enough to break the pack.
I set out alone on my wing (of three). Leaving the two controls I saw I already had a gap of several minutes over the others with the same wing. During the course of the 2nd wing, I started to catch those who had the short loop first. It was nice to have some riders to chase. I was always in control and happy to sit behind for some seconds on the narrow paths to wait for a good opportunity to overtake. The final wing for me was the short flat one. The entrance back to the node control for the final time was the same as the exit of the route home, so I expected to see some riders just ahead. As I neared the control I thought I saw Barlet FRA leaving. The chase was on. Only it was a mystical chase, because the rider was actually the younger French girl, Hueber (but I didn’t find this out until the evening)! I thought I was 2nd. Little did I know Stengard had my back just some 25 seconds behind and could probably see me at times.
After dropping down the hill, I saw Barlet heading in the opposite direction. Then I knew I had the lead, and it was just to check over my shoulder and get the last controls right. It was such an amazing feeling to ride the final 500m from the penultimate control and see no one behind, cruising down the hill with a big smile 🙂
World Cup mass start, part 2
Stengard FIN, finished 42 seconds behind after losing map contact near the end, and Poverina RUS took 3rd, but nearly 2 minutes behind. The top six were rounded off by Tichovska CZE, Barlet FRA, and Brezinova CZE. Brezinova took her first top six place in the elite class, with a strong performance that will surely inspire her for the rest of the season.
This was a good performance for me, good riding speed, good hill strength, and full control of the map. I suppose it was close to a perfect race, but really it was too controlled for that! I always had some extra gears and speed to make an attack if I needed it. My not-maximum riding speed in the race meant I was able to recover nicely for the next day. Anti-doping control helped. By drinking lots of water I was certain to be re-hydrated quickly!
Saturday dawned, bringing with it my 26th birthday. As a junior, a birthday on the same day as a race was really distracting and usually resulted in mistakes. I’ve a lot of bigger distractions to cope with over the past years, so this time around a birthday was just a small distraction from the race routine! No biggie. Once I got my race head on, that was it.
It had rained steadily all night and morning. By the time my start came around, the roads were drying and the track to the start was solid, if marginally damp. I hoped the forest tracks were dry too. Only two races in my life could have prepared me for the mud fest that ensued, and both were in the last 365 days: Crow Hill Southern XCO, and WOC sprint in Poland. I was greatful I changed from Thunder Burt tyres to Racing Ralphs in advance of the races, although my reasons were more to do with sharp rock and thorn potential rather than clay mud.
From the off, it was a slide fest. The route to control two, up the hill, was a nightmare. The trick was moderate cadence with no power. Fatbiking in soft snow has taught me this trick, and rode the hill cleanly. I was 30 seconds faster than the 2nd fastest time up this hill, but most of that was gained on the flat top section. There weren’t really so many speed variations on the up. It was either pedal, or walk. Some smooth controls on the top, and then I hit the same hill. But this time to descend. I had some degree of speed (although nothing like the fastest times here), but I lost all confidence when I head two riders approaching quickly behind. With little confidence in my handling skills in the mud, I had less in their ability to overtake me safely. That was it. Game Over. I got down in my own speed, reset mentally in the saddle between the hills, and got some confidence back. I lost 70 seconds down the first part of the hill. I think I have some work to do…
After that, the course and my orienteering went smoothly again. I caught rider after rider who started ahead of me. Partly due to an unmapped fallen tree section that cost the riders who choose that option some time. I lost some time near the end of the course, by opting to take a longer route that was drier down the final hill. It was 30 seconds slower. I need to find mud to train in and practise!
I was sure this would be another victory. Purely because I had been mostly mistake free, and knew I was riding strongly. Some more finish line smiles. Of course, I wasn’t certain until the final 5 riders finished. In the end, it was a win by more than two minutes to Antonia Haga FIN, and 5 minutes to Stengard FIN. For Haga, her best World Cup result before this was a 5th place in Portugal two years ago. A really impressive performance in such challenging conditions.
It’s been a fun and relaxed weekend. Great to finally be racing after a long winter. In fact, Brandbu had snow over the weekend … Seems winter is still in Norway. A strong start to my MTBO season. I’m certain there is more speed and strength to be found, but the World Champs are less than 4 months away, and anything can happen in that time. But I’m looking forward to the challenge 🙂