After the selection saga of recent weeks, it was a relief to set that distraction to one side and focus on some tough bike racing this past weekend at the World Mountain Bike Marathon Championship in the Belgium Ardennes. Having never done a "proper marathon" (a course that never retraces itself), this was always going to be a baptism of fire.
The experience certainly proved tougher than I had imagined but my thinking was, if I was going to suffer that much it may as well be in a race prestigious enough to warrant it. My eventual 18th place is satisfying for a first attempt but also leaves much scope for improvement in the future.
The Ardennes is a fantastic area for mountain bikers. It has been the scene of many World Cup cross country races since the birth of mountain biking, at venues such as Houffalize and Spa. With these trails we set off for the area in the hope of getting some riding done prior to the event. The weather did not decide to fit in with us and we were greeted with two days of persistent rain. While the enforced rest may have aided my marathon performance it ruined a rare couple of days of "holiday", with the four course evening meal at our hotel becoming the highlight of each day.
By Saturday the sun finally broke through. Jenn O'Connor and Liz Scalia had now joined us and we were able to pre ride the first few kilometres of the course. I was surprised by how technical it was. I had been told that marathons are not as technical as cross country events, but this course opened with some granny ring climbing that required ultra precise riding and followed with some steep slippery descending. Tyre choice was always going to be a compromise as the course presented sections at either extreme of the traction spectrum.
I opted for Bontrager XRs. These are essentially a fast tyre, not designed for mud. However their soft compound does allow just enough traction to get down most stuff, albeit in a slightly random way! We assumed that this opening section would be the most technical and that things would smooth out as the kilometres passed. How wrong we were! This course was a beast, 105km with just shy of 12,000ft of climbing. Given that no single climb would have been much over 400ft you'll get some idea of how frequent these climbs came along. They were also steep and technical. The descents followed a similar pattern and featured plenty of rocks and tree trunks to bounce off.
Going into the event I had the ease of someone with no knowledge of what was to come. I was quite looking forward to a good few hours in the hills. Other than a bizarre event in the Welsh hills where I was more surviving than racing, the only marathon I had done was the National Champs at Plymouth last year, on a course with laps. At that event I paced myself so that I speeded up in the second half. Here I was not to have that luxury. The women's race went off at a pace not far off cross-country race pace. After two hours I had put in an effort the same as I would in an nps event. After four hours I was feeling a bit stuffed but still able to put power through the pedals. With Jenn, Liz and I all trading places during the first half, I was able to use their pace to judge my own. Jenn looked very strong and composed while Liz was climbing like a mountain goat but suffering a little with the descents. The locals were all out in force and through some of the villages it felt more like a stage of the tour than an off road marathon.
As the event progressed the course became muddier and tougher, coinciding with my body getting increasingly tired. I had opted to race on my Gary Fisher hard tail bike. This was the right choice but it did mean that, after the four and a half hour mark, I was feeling pretty sore. At five hours I couldn't believe I was still out there. I was reckoning on a 4.5-5hr event. When I saw the 20km to go sign I could have cried! That meant another 1.5hrs of riding. My back was beginning to give in to the constant effort and my arms and shoulders were in agony.
With 15km to go we passed through the final feed. Apparently my face was a picture of pain. The only motivation for keeping going at this stage was the fact that I was damned if I was going to race 90km and then crack in the final 15km. At this time I had no idea where I was placed, it felt as though I must be in about 50th because I had the pace of a slug and it was all I could do to keep the bike straight and read which way the arrows were directing me. Apparently everyone looked this way but, at the time, I was unaware of this. Jenn seemed to have disappeared up the trail out of sight and Liz had dropped back a little, leaving me in a time capsule of pain and delirium.
The less said about the final 5km the better, except that the dark Belgium humour of the course designer took further turns for the worse with a one in five cobbled climb within the final 3km. The smooth pavement would have been an obvious option here except for the man swigging a beer in his deck chair right in the middle of it... the cobbles it was then. Finally I began to recognise the area and the lead into the finish. Spotting an ailing Norwegian rider up ahead I found a last ditch effort within myself to gain another place on the line to take 18th.
Only once I had finished did I realise that Jenn was behind not in front of me. She had become the victim of a section of poor course marking in the final 30km. Either that or she'd decided there was not enough climbing for her and had opted to add in another! Either way it was a disappointed Jenn who came in 21st, a good few places lower than she'd been on course for. Liz rounded off "our" team in 25th place, the course not suiting her style very well. My Subaru-Gary Fisher teammate and marathon expert Asa Erlandson placed a fine 13th, so I'll be scouting for tips from her next time we share a room!
In terms of learning I came away with many things to think about for future events. Marathon highlights all the details that don't always come to light in a cross-country event. Comfort is the obvious one, with every piece of kit, and position on the bike, all playing a crucial part in the rate of fatigue. Nutrition is something that has never been my strong point during races and the marathon highlighted this. I got through 5 gels while endurance pro Jenn managed 12.... says it all really! Finally the knowledge of how ones body is likely to react to such an effort certainly will help in future events, as would pre riding the final 10km since that it the toughest bit. For now though I will put marathon ideas firmly out of my mind and focus instead on the World Champs in Fort William next month!
See you there,