Well having had 24 hours to recover, gather my thoughts and get my head round things, I can now put into words the incredible experience that was the World Games of Mountain Biking in Saalbach Hinterglemm, Austria.
If I was to pick one word to describe the event, that word would be “contrast”. Contrast between amazing camaraderie between racers yet an unreal feeling of extreme loneliness out on the course. Incredible, beautiful scenery that managed to be both awesome to look at yet brutal and savage at the same time. Moments of sublime riding where you absolutely nail a section, followed shortly after by the most cruel and difficult climb on an exposed mountain side in freezing cold, torrential rain. It managed to be both life affirming yet soul destroying all at once – like nothing I have ever experienced before.
This was the 14th World Games and unlike the UCI World Championships, this is the world championships for what the Europeans (rather quaintly I think!) call “Hobby bikers” – in other words, non-professionals. This is a true world champs for your normal rider – the one who has a full time job and fits his or her riding in around real life. There were riders from all over the world – furthest travelled was from South Africa, but more of that later!
What always blows me away when racing in Europe is how the whole host town gets so behind it. You’ll see an entire town shut down for a weekend, high streets shut for start/finish straights, packed bars, cafes and restaurants with locals cheering, shouting, banging trays, pots and just about anything else they can make noise with, and huge hospitality with marquees, entertainment and food. Plus a whole load of beer afterwards………. One day small towns and villages in the UK will cotton onto the fact that they can have a great time hosting an MTB event and also make a heap of cash for local businesses too. What’s not to like?
So – onto the race. A freezing cold (5 degrees centigrade – in August!) and drizzly morning greeted us on the start line in the centre of Hinterglemm. The size of the field was MASSIVE – riders as far as you could see, probably half the length of the high street. TV helicopters flew over to film it, spectators leaned out of windows, lined the streets, hung off balconies – this was the real deal!
A ridiculously fast start (my Garmin was showing approaching 40km/h) saw the field split pretty rapidly – I fought hard to stay relatively near the front so I didn’t get stuck behind any slower riders and also stay well out of danger. With a field so big, pileup potential was high – I had a brief bar clipping moment with a Hungarian rider as we blasted through the town centre, but luckily we both stayed on.
Then the climbing started in earnest. I always knew the course would favour climbers with 1980m of vertical ascent. I also knew it would be hard for me with my enduro racer’s build – but I had no idea just how bad it would be. The first 10k out of the town was all uphill – brutal, slow tortuous and seemingly endless climbing. I started to think maybe I should have run a smaller chainring, but to be honest I doubt it would have helped. Near the top of the first 10k of climbing, we saw the first casualties already being brought down the hill on the back of quad bikes, wrapped in space blankets. This set the tone for the day – it was a true battle of mind, body and spirit against the elements. Talking of elements, this was the point it turned torrential too. There was absolutely no use stopping to put on a jacket – I was soaked through and didn’t want to start losing places so just dug deep and tried to concentrate on something else. Like counting pedal strokes on the next section.
After a brief flat section through some meadows, it started going up again. This was also the point where I experienced true altitude related hypoxia for the first time in my life. I’ve heard the stories about going sleepy, just wanting to curl up, struggling to think straight and going light headed – but now it was happening. A brief stop for a breather and 2 gels saw me get over it, but it was a very frightening experience that I never want to have again.
The next 28k or so was much the same – up, up and more up. More brutal weather, more pain, cramping muscles, helicopter fly pasts and moments of manning up for the camera whenever I spotted an official photographer. Each village we passed through had streets lined with spectators, shouting, cheering, handing out drinks and getting right into it – and believe me, when you’re soaked, freezing cold, absolutely shattered and in need of some moral support, it makes such a difference. The conditions were unbelievably bad, the course so incredibly hard and the sheer difficulty of it was overwhelming – I saw guys literally toppling off their bikes, made some really bad line choices myself and at one point saw a German guy who had looked so strong, so composed and on form earlier in the race in tears by the side of the trail. It was literally a war of attrition. 5k of hike-a-bike brought people to their knees, me included as savage cramp got the better of me. Some magnesium salts eaten undissolved (don’t try this at home kids – dissolve them like you are meant to or you get burns in your mouth!) sorted it after a few minutes though and I was back in action.
The last 600m of vertical saw the most horrendous conditions of all – thick mist brought visibility down to about 5 metres and it had snowed overnight. We were above the snow line with treacherously poor light, on soaked trails and at an altitude over over 2020 metres. Every breath burned the lungs and concentration was so difficult it was unreal. I was literally counting the metres off on my Garmin – and the last 60 were ridiculous, a 30 degree push up a soaking wet scree slope to the summit.
Then it was downtime! Just over 8k of superb, flowy, fast tight singletrack and switchback laden trails – I would have been in my element were I not so totally drained. The entire 8k were spent battling with an awesome rider from the Hamburg Jungs MTB team – he was on a 29er and had more in his legs than me by this stage, but I was faster through the techier sections. It was so well matched and we blasted past what transpired to be the remains of our category plus some of the 88k race too. All the way down the mountain, we swapped places until the final kilometre or so when my legs were spent and his faster rolling 29er wheels gave him the edge on the fast grass descent into the town. I had one last push in the last 500m and flew over a grass ridge, getting some pretty decent air, and got a good cheer from the crowd for that! Sadly my knackered legs meant I landed pretty shoddily and I burped my rear tyre, so sprinted through the town on a flat, so that I didn’t lose any spaces. The finish straight was immense – packed on both sides behind railings, a full crowd and a proper arch with a clock and everything. It was done – I’d just ridden to 100th place out of a field of 390, meaning I was now officially in the world’s top 100 non-pro riders.
Just 106 in my category finished though, and the cutoff time for the mop up wagon was brought forwards due to the awful conditions out there. When a race has such a high attrition rate, you know that even surviving it is an achievement in itself – and the number of ambulances and packed first aid tents in the town was a sobering reminder of just how brutal it had been out on the course. This had been a real test not just of legs and lungs, but of spirit too – I think I left a little bit of myself out on that mountain somewhere………