A few months back, I foolishly agreed to participate in my first mountain bike race. Having managed to steer clear of competition for so many years, my time had finally come in the shape of the Dolomiti Superbike.
The event, which can be taken on in 59km or 120km formats and involves thousands of metres of climbing, is something of a legend out in South Tyrol. 2016 marked the 22nd edition of the cross-country race, which attracted a staggering grid of 5,000 riders.
I was signed up as a guest of title race sponsor Fizik, and was lucky enough to join competition winners Nicholas Kennedy and Ben Phillips to take up the final three places of the sold-out event. Our bikes were provided by a rental firm somewhere outside of the region, and I’d had to provide my frame size preference – XL – but other than that had no idea what to expect.
Following a period of thoroughly inadequate training and with questionable faith in my unknown equipment, the weekend rolled around all too soon.
- The course: 36 miles/59km (shorter of two routes) of mostly gravel and asphalt. Climbs are both steep and lengthy. The descents aren’t especially technical with the exception of a couple of rooty and damp singletrack sections. Total elevation gain 6,349ft (1,935m)
- The equipment goal: A weight-conscious build with a wide range of gears, Alpine-ready brakes and fast rolling, puncture-resistant tyres.
- The horse: A well-used Cannondale Flash with Lefty PBR 90mm fork, Shimano XT/SRAM X9 2x10, Shimano Zee brakes, Fizik Tundra, Front wheel: Stans ZTR Crest with Maxxis Ikon 2.2in tyre, Rear wheel: Stan’s ZTR Rapid with Schwalbe Racing Ralph 2.35in tyre; Fizik Tundra saddle
Surprise package with Lefty fork and heavy-duty brakes
Three bikes were waiting for us at the Villabassa tourist office, all Cannondales but all different models. One had a frame that seemed larger than the rest, and given my 6ft 3in / 190cm height it had to be mine.
Thoroughly wrapped in frame protection tape but with plenty of visible wear, the Cannondale Flash 29er had something of a Frankenstein build. The carbon frame appeared to be a 2012 model and was matched to a top-shelf version of Cannondale’s signature Lefty PBR fork. Given the climbs ahead of me I was delighted to see a double transmission, even if it consisted of workhorse components from Shimano XT and SRAM X9. Another pleasant surprise was the Shimano Zee four-pot brakes at each end. The Splash also rolled on quality but strangely mismatched Stan’s wheels with different rubber on each of the rims.
One pressing issue that I dealt with immediately was to switch the brakes from European mode to UK spec (RH front brake). In the absence of a suitable spanner I walked to a local bike shop and paid a nice Italian chap €3 to swap my brake lines. Thankfully, he managed to do so without introducing any air or losing any fluid from the system.
I then fitted my complementary Fizik Tundra saddle and put on my pedals of choice – a controversial one. While most riders took on the Dolomiti Superbike clipped in, I went with my lifetime preference of flats – a large pair of Crankbrothers' size-specific Stamps, ideal for my UK size 12 / 47 feet.
Out of excuses
At this point I had conflicting emotions. On one hand I had a bike that appeared almost perfect for the job in hand (great); on the other, all of my pre-prepared excuses regarding the bike not being suitable to perform well had evaporated (not great).
After spending the rest of the morning trying to cram in as many calories as possible, I was also feeling pretty sick. I was acutely aware that the Superbike begins with 10 miles of climbing – something I'd been trying to put at the back of my mind since seeing the course profile for the first time a few days earlier.
The start proved relatively drama free, particularly considering that I was sharing a narrow section of tarmac with probably 10 other competitors. Enthusiastic villagers cheered and filmed as the final block of riders passed through.
After an hour or so of pretty relentless climbing through mostly woodland, the faster riders from my group had dropped me and anyone slower was now out of sight – leaving just me and the rather alien Cannondale. Happily, I'd have to say the relationship was going rather well.
I’d made good use of that little ring on the double crankset and felt absolutely no need to lock out the plush yet remarkably stiff little Lefty. I’d not spent a decent amount of time on one of Cannondale's forks before, but had heard other riders praising their stiffness for a long time. To be honest I was never bothered by the weird looks and the people who’d spoken to me about this fork were right – its lanky little leg refuses to wobble.
Whoever had been riding this bike before had a pretty unusual setup. The stack height looked like some sort of prank you’d play on a friend, but aside from looking awkward it certainly wasn’t causing me any comfort issues.
Talking of comfort, it’s vital that I mention the Tundra saddle, a seat that – quite literally – saved my ass. You see, I was so careful to remember every tool, spare part and bit of energy food that I forgot the one thing that I needed to remember on race morning… chamois cream. To my eternal gratitude, the odd-shaped perch worked superbly and let me get on with riding without fear of tenderising myself. Despite being seated for the majority of the race distance, not once did I encounter any comfort issues – it's without a doubt the most comfortable saddle I've ever encountered and I can't praise it enough.
A great descender
It wasn’t long before the first climb was over and I’d made it to the first food station. Local volunteers from miles around were on hand to pass me as much cake, Coke, energy drink and water as I could stomach and carry. It’s truly amazing to see how the local community gets behind this event.
After a brief stop I started the first real descent – and this is where I really started to enjoy myself. I was immediately surprised at how encouraging the Flash was to descend with – its back end really does feel comfortable for a hardtail, to the point that I kept having to look down and check whether or not I was losing pressure at the rear tyre.
This descent wasn’t technical but its loose gravel surface was there to take out those who aren’t on top of their game. Plenty of width plus good line choice meant that overtaking was a joy. This was really, really fun.
People had raised eyebrows at my flat pedals/shoes and who can blame them, but on this loose surface I was popping my legs out all over the place to aid my balance and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Shortly afterwards, though, I came across a grim reminder of what can happen when things go wrong. A local girl had come off on the gravel and had sustained pretty serious injuries to her face. The medical services were already on the scene and she was evacuated by helicopter shortly afterwards. Thankfully, her injuries weren’t life threatening, but it was a thoroughly sobering experience and I don’t think many riders can have passed that accident without slowing down a fair bit afterwards.
A long, mostly flat section followed, I tucked in behind a couple of riders and set in at a pace that felt good. For a while I took in the scenery of the area, which truly has to be seen in order to be believed – it’s postcard material wherever you look.
My energy wasn’t quite where it had been and the sun was starting to pick up so I began scoffing back gels like a man possessed. Still, I was feeling extra fortunate that I’d not punctured, having passed what felt like countless competitors with tubes and pumps in hand.
The second half of the race took me up another huge climb, this time an exposed mountain pass. Once again, pleasant villagers clapped and cheered as I chugged through at a true crawling pace. Raising my gaze above my handlebars proved a masochistic move as the numerous speck-like riders in the distance reminded me not only of how far there was to go but how bloody steep it was too.
The next 30 or 40 minutes involved a lot of pushing, swearing and sweating. I was getting seriously irritated by the morale bolstering chants of other competitors. Thankfully as the terrain flattened out I was once again able to stuff my face with delightful local cakes. The bike remained brilliant, and hadn’t developed so much as a creak in the previous three hours.
The final quarter of the race was a mishmash of small climbs and more technical descents. A small amount of rain from the previous day plus thousands of riders had taken its toll on most singletrack sections meaning mud, glorious mud. Better still, as the going got steeper, various rooty sections separated the cautious from the brave, triggering some ludicrous off-camber overtaking manouevres. I clocked profanities in at least three languages.
Shimano's Zee brakes came into their own on the descents, and while I could smell the hot pads of competitors before me, my own brakes remained consistently powerful and predictable.
Crossing the line at 4 hours and 6 mins placed me 52nd in my ambitiously assigned category (if I'm a 'licensed elite sport man', it's the first I've heard of it) and 1198th overall. The Cannondale had not only got me through but it had made most of the experience very enjoyable. A few weeks on, someone else, somewhere will probably unknowingly be renting my first-ever race bike too, and I think that's pretty cool.