Saturday, 11 June 2011

TransGermany Day 4 - the home straight (and flat!).

Having bitched relentlessly to Hamish about the profile and surface for this stage (flat, and a lot of tarmac), I find myself in the embarrassing situation of having to admit I rather enjoyed it! The initial section of tarmac that took us out of Garmisch was, as is always the case in these events, nothing short of terrifying – it never ceases to amaze me the carnage that braking waves in such a large group can cause, and I had an unfortunately front-row seat for no less than four separate crashes! More amusingly, we were told by the organisers that the start of the stage would be delayed due to a train crossing being closed, only to find the crossing closing as we got there! The train must have decided to wait for us as well!!

Once we hit the first section of gravel road (schotterstrasse auf Deutsch), things calmed down a little, and I managed to work my way forward slightly, only to find a massive bottleneck waiting for me at a gated bridge further down the course. I was left queuing in a long line of elbowy people, and kicking myself for not wading through the knee-deep stream when I had the chance. This impromptu pause was doubly vexing because of the nature of the stage – it was split into two timed sections divided by an untimed “transition” ride of around 35km. My plan had been to treat to the two timed sections like time trials, and to chill out, refuel and catch up with Hamish on the neutralised transfer in between.

After the timing point I grabbed a banana and some watermelon (both staple foods at the feed stations on these events), and sat down in the sunshine to wait for Hamish. Just as I was settling down, he arrived, and we grabbed a bit more food to sustain us over the flat 35km to the next clock start point. We rolled along the valley road in a group with some wonderfully exuberant Italians, and A German dude who was so into the music on his iPod he couldn’t hold a line, and kept trying to run me and Hamish off the road (either that, or it was something we said!!).

Once we got to the second feed, and the clock restarted, I took a gel and got going on the big climb of the stage (things had to be re-routed last minute, and thankfully included a 600m climb for me, unlike the route profile above). I decided to use all my remaining energy on the ascent – it’s day four and it’s not like I need to do much tomorrow apart from get home, in an attempt to make up for time lost earlier in the stage. I crested the top after 45m, with the ego-boosting experience of passing all the riders around me on the way up, all that was left between me and a weissbier was a final schotter descent, and then a flat drag on the tarmac bike path around the Achensee. The descent was littered with fallen riders, including one guy who was hauling himself out of the river at the side of the path (it was hot, but not THAT hot), but by the time we got to the tarmac, I found myself in a good working group. The sign on the edge of the village told us we were going 34kph, not bad I thought, and we worked well for the last few km, dragging weary bodies to the finish line in Maurach. United by our mutual working experience, we all shook hands, then had an awkward moment where we realised we couldn’t really communicate further! I grabbed a finisher’s jersey, and was given my finisher’s medal (which only just fitted over the peak on my lazer helmet!) – job done! I finished 163rd on GC, 3h13m behind Christoph Sauser who took his second victory in the event, in spite of Alban Lakata throwing everything (including the kitchen sink) at him over the 4 days.

To me, there is a nice symmetry about coming back to stage racing. The transalp in 2006, where I raced with Hamish for the first time was what got me hooked on racing for multiple days through fantastic scenery, and ultimately caused me to give XC a go. To say that first race was anything much more than a waymarked holiday would be a fib, whereas the TransGermany felt more like a genuine race to me. I’m now plotting my return next year, but I can’t decide which one to go for. Only 6 months to decide before entries open for 2012!!

Thanks as ever to for supporting me, building me a front wheel at short notice and for the fantastic Giant bike that got many admiring glances. Thanks to Plan B racing - the organisers – for organising a fantastic, safe and enjoyable race once again and to for the excellent photos.

TransGermany Day 3 - the migrating knee pain

The day with the best weather to date also coincided with the hardest route profile for me. Most people look at the stages and fear the days that look like a woodsman’s saw, by contrast I find that I flat-line on the flat lines. Needless to say, I seem to have totally failed to acquire any of the characteristics of the flatland time-triallists in whose lands I spent my formative cycling years.

A similar-distance route to yesterday, today was equipped with around 500m less climbing, and with almost all the uphill confined to the first half of the stage. These two 500m ascents saw me feeling strong, although I was suffering a bit with knee pains that didn’t quite know which knee to settle in. Initially it was the right, then on the second ascent, it abated only to come back on the other side, and by the top of the climb I saw suffering with both knees. It didn’t bother me unduly however, a chap at the top of the second ascent counted me through in ~200th place overall, which by my reckoning would have put me in about 130th in the senior men. All I had to do was hang on down the other side, ready for a 250m climb to the finish.

On the following 35km of gentle downhill, I found myself being passed by groups of 20-25 riders which I simply couldn’t hold onto. Ordinarily it wouldn’t have bothered me, as I would have been able to make the places back on the next ascent, but with only a short climb to the finish, they were gone for good. 183rd on the stage, both knees are killing me, my right ankle has got it in for me, and i’ve had the black eyed peas’ “I gotta feeling” rattling around in my head all day. It’s enough to make a chap quite, quite vexed! I’m now dreading tomorrow, which is longer and even flatter...

Post-stage finish, there was a nice little descent on open roads (and therefore untimed) to get to the main finish area in town, where the rather poorly-explained Scott sprint was happening; apparently you could win scott goodies, but it was far from clear how. Hamish, ever the serious one of our stage-race duo suggested that it might be judged on the “erotic content” of our sprint in an X-factor style. We struggled conceptually with how best to use this information to win bike bling, and decided (wisely I feel) that whatever it took, we probably didn’t have! We were determined not to get sucked into wasting energy, but with crowds of several hundred people cheering, we ended up drag racing one another down the main street – oops!

It took us a little while to find our hotel in Garmisch, but it was worth the hunting around; it looked like a good choice, and the fact that quite a lot of the organisation (including the legendary Uli) were staying there too only sweetened the deal. When we went to check in, however, we were told that there was no room at the inn – we would have to transfer to the 4.5* sister hotel across town; what a hardship. We got an interesting insight into how the other half live when we arrived at the Grand Hotel Atlas, seeing the Multivan-Merida mechanics prepping bikes in the courtyard definitely gave us a pause for “what if...?”.

Last stage tomorrow – Rachel’s sage advice by text message is to smash it. After all, how long can 100km take? Let’s see what, if anything, I have left...

TransGermany Day 2 - what goes up...

So, in spite of the apparent respite offered by the more gentle route profile as compared with yesterday’s “Queen” stage, today was definitely tougher! I slept okay, but the town bells in Pfronten woke me at 3am, and the organisers very kindly organised for them to be tolled continuously at 6am, just in case we’d forgotten we had a race to ride! The day broke very much in the spirit of the previous one, damp and overcast. I said goodbye to almost all of my luggage at 7am (apart from a well-travelled pot of chammy cream that hitched a ride in my back pocket for the duration of the stage), having elected to ride with arm and knee-warmers again, and stumbled down to breakfast. My stomach was (is!) a bit iffy, so I didn’t manage to force down quite as much heavy rye bread as Hamish, but it was actually quite nice to start the stage not feeling too full of stodge.

We got to the start line in the centre of Pfronten at 8am, and joined the assembled riders near the front of the B-pen, where our respective finishes of 150th and 180th had us gridded. After much standing around in more German spray, we were given a briefing on the stage ahead, which included a tantalising warning about the tricky and technical nature of the first descent, and before we knew it we were off the line to the dulcet tones of AC-DC’s “Highway to Hell”. The timing of the organisers was almost impeccable, as the clock ticked over to 9am, the first repeat of the chorus started! The fastest amateurs and pros in the A-group got a nice head start, whilst we sat at the start watching them go, ready to chase after them when our turn came. I made sure I got a decent kick off the line in anticipation of the first descent, and was rewarded with a manageably small number of technically inept riders! The descent itself was rather reminiscent of the Peak District on a wet day, complete with a muddy, rooty section that provided a momentary resting-place for four stricken riders!

The remainder of the stage is something of a blur – I remember that the mist lifted and the sun came out, and that I never really got into my stride – i’m pretty sure I lost some time on my early running , but it was more than made up for by the “freeride” descent in Lermoos. I managed to stay with a working group early on which saved me from losing too much time, but everyone is racing hard around me, even for 200th place, making every little loss of legs or enthusiasm costly!

Hamish came in around half an hour behind today, after going off-course and then having to call the emergency recovery crew to a woman who had crashed and landed on her head. At the time, he hadn’t a clue where he was, but thankfully the alpine walkers were better prepared with maps! I think I would have placed 12th or 13th in the women’s field, which i’m pleased with given how awful I felt for most of the day. My knees are feeling it, however; in the past two days they have done more riding than they would normally see in a week, so they are entitled to complain a little. As an example of how much the weather improved, I am now a little sunburned, and sporting two-tone arms which go white – pink – brown; I am an accidental Neapolitan! Aside from that, I don’t feel too bad, and have just reminded myself that there’s a gelateria on the main street...

TransGermany Day 1 - a room with a view

So, first stage already done and dusted. I can hardly believe that I am here already, let alone that we’re already one stage into the race. I am currently sitting in a nice room on the 4th floor of a ski-hotel in the mountain town of Pfronten, and the view from the window of the surrounding mountains is nothing short of sensational.

The route for the first stage of the race was, as predicted, very wet, and very hilly (as you can see from the profile above), both of which I suspect may suit me quite well. The climbs today came in four main chunks, each dose between 400m & 700m of total ascent, on a mixture of tarmac and gravel road. At this point, I should explain that the gravel roads in the alps and tyrol are unlike anything you will come across in the UK – like most European mountain roads, they are nicely graded at somewhere between 6-10%, and are covered in a layer of fine, dusty gravel, not unlike kitty litter. Once you have found (or re-found) your confidence descending on these trails, they provide ample grip and control, but the initial sensation of tyres sliding towards unprotected edges can be nothing short of terrifying. It is with these words that I justify my fairly awful descending today!

It is possible that I went off a little hard this morning in an effort to avoid the bottlenecks I remember so fondly from the TransAlp; seeing XC-race heart rates for the first half an hour out of town seems like a much less sensible plan with hindsight! The first climb, the biggest of the whole race, passed amazingly quickly, and it wasn’t long before I reached the Fizik king of the mountains hoarding, the branding no doubt a source of great pride and amusement to my friend and travelling partner, Hamish, who has just started working for Fizik! The descent was a little sketchy; it’s been five years since I last smelled hot hydraulid fluid, and slid through switchbacks covered in ball-bearing gravel, I was definitely losing height accordingly gingerly. Others were more reckless, and there appeared to be many punctures and crashes on the first rocky section – not a great way to start the event!

The stage as a whole panned out much as I would have expected; I was out-pacing most of the people around me on the climbs to be re-caught on the descents and what little flat ground there was on todays stage by bigger, more powerful riders. This was doubly annoying as the approach to the finish was ~8km on flat tracks where I must have lost a good 15 places to the roadie groups that formed. I rolled in in 3h47m for 150th place on the stage, my average HR of 163bpm testament to my efforts on the climbs. Hamish appeared from the gloom and mist (“German spray” as we dubbed it, in homage to Scotch mist) around 20m later, and we caught up with our American friend again too.

The hotel is splendid and very comfy, but it’s now 9pm and i’m flagging. The bag drop system by which our luggage is transported from place to place is going to require a 6:30 start tomorrow, so that we have time to assess what clothes we need for the coming stage, and i’ll need my beauty sleep if i’m to lose less than 58m to the flying Swiss Sauser tomorrow...

TransGermany Day 0 - the storm before the calm

Today it rained. And it rained. And then it rained some more. In fact, if it keeps the cloudburst of the moment going until morning, the organisers would be wise to issue us with waterwings for our safety (and possibly comfort).
Today started well enough, sunny fenland morning in Little Eversden hinted that maybe, just maybe, the gloomy weather reports were wrong. Hamish and I had been obsessively checking the long range forecast for Munich in the preceding week, and it had done nothing for our spirits. The impression that we had been overly negative was confirmed when we landed at Munich airport to 22oC, sunny skies and light winds. This is what continental racing is all about!

Our train ride to Sonthofen, the start town for the race was punctuated only by a rather bizarre Jekyll & Hyde experience with Bavarian ticket inspectors, one of whom could hardly stand to talk to me, and the other of whom was nice enough to carry our bike bags down the train for us when we got on at the wrong door! As for competitors, we have met an American woman from Utah who now lives in Hamburg, and a rather serious German dude (it later transpired he wasn’t even racing, but supporting his sister!).
Registration was, as ever, a little chaotic. It was held in the space beneath an ice rink, and contrary to expectations was oppressively hot, and was only topped in oddness by the first night’s pasta party, which was held around the edge of a swimming pool. Unable to contain our excitement at Uli Stanciu pouring forth his pearls of wisdom about the following day’s course, Hamish and I headed outside to eat and keep an eye on our bikes; it’s not unknown for them to go missing the night before these events start. The man in charge of the Parc Ferme provided for the storage of bikes seemed delighted to see us, and we soon discovered why! We were obliged to leave our beloved cycles outside in the pouring rain overnight, so far only eight out of 1100 people have decided this is a sacrifice worth making. My lovely anthem is currently sitting (illicity) next to me in the hotel room as I write this.

Tomorrow should give us a relaxed start to ease ourselves into the race – kick-off is at 10am. I have to do my best not to get swamped in the flat first few km; hopefully the rain will dampen some European spirits! So far, the event is missing the characters and the sunshine that the TransAlp had, but it’s a long long way to Achensee...