The Czech Republic was the venue for round three of the UCI Mountain Bike XC World Cup series and it was an event I had heard good things about after last year’s race. I think current world champ and Czech rider Jaroslav Kulhavy winning on home ground probably created a pretty good atmosphere that people would remember for a long time.
On arrival I was excited to wake up to blue skies and some sunshine. Being able to eat breakfast at 8am outside in the sunshine was something that had not been possible in the UK as summer really hadn’t got going yet.
The weather really does help so much and I set off to the course in my short and short sleeved jersey loving life. I continued to love life as the XC course was a good one: natural, technical and testing with short sharp climbs all in a woodland filled with roots and rocks it was a fun track to ride.
The venue was very much out of the way about 5km from the nearest town but it’s a big cross-country ski area and will host the 2013 Biathlon World Champs. There was a huge grandstand and arena which created a nice atmosphere for the racing.
I ended up doing 4 laps of the course on my first day as I was enjoying it so much and I also wanted to test out my Superfly hardtail against the full suss bike. I have been trying to wean myself off the full suss bike as I know I need to climb faster and the hardtail is a little lighter and more efficient on the climbs but I just didn’t feel as comfortable on it and couldn’t have as much fun and carry as good speed on the downhills and rooty sections, so I ended up staying with my Superfly 100. It’s been so long since I have ridden a hardtail bike that I really need to spend some time on it to get the feeling and good technique back.
Before I could unleash my full suss bike on the XC track I put my 26er Elite 9.9 to the test for the pro sprint. I have chosen to use a 26in-wheeled bike for the sprints just to get maximum acceleration at the start with the smaller wheels.
Sadly however the eliminator course this weekend was not going to be about the start! It was 90% on a tarmac road loop with a massive long straight into the finish. It was going to be all about tactics, drafting one another and a big sprint to the finish. I have never raced on the road, so bunch tactics, drafting and timing your attack were all going to be new concepts for me to grasp in a short space of time.
The format would also be different as the heats were with six riders at a time, with the first two going through in the first round and then the first three in the next round. Confused…yeah, so was I! I still think the UCI are trying to decide how this event is going to work…
With all of the women qualifying I chose to have a steady qualifier and save my legs as the start and gate choice was not important. I qualified in 16th and was set up for a tough first round against the U23 World Champion Julie Bresset. I watched her finish after qualifying and she didn’t look to be out of breath!
For my race I decided to still attack the start as I didn’t want to get caught up in traffic in the first of the courses two corners. I lead from the start and then just settled into a steady pace and waited for the other riders to come back to me. As we started the climb I got onto the wheel of Australian rider Rowena Fry and the sprinting began.
Julie Bresset then came up along side me on the left and I managed to stay with them both until we entered the wooded section. I got squeezed by the Australian as we turned in and had to brake to not touch her back wheel. It was enough to just lose my momentum and a small gap appeared.
By the time we exited the woods I was off their wheels and on the long sprint into the finish I was in no man’s land and unable to close the gap. I was out in the first round. Pretty gutted but that’s racing and on a course that didn’t suit my strengths, the XC girls fitness won. At least this meant that my legs would hopefully be a bit fresher for Sunday’s XC race.
After the lovely weather we had things altered dramatically and it turned wet and very cold for the rest of the weekend. By the time our race came around on Sunday the course had dried out and was riding really well, but it was just not warm.
I lined up with plate number 79, a move up the ranks by eight places so it meant I wasn’t on the last row this weekend. It was a fast Tarmac start straight and the frantic sprint created a huge pile up at the front of the race. It was my first experience of witnessing a big crash in a bike race and the noise of bodies and bike frames hitting the tarmac was not nice.
I managed to avoid it and got around it only to come across another pile up just over the bridge. This one required stopping and getting off and picking my way around the carnage. Wow… what a start to a bike race, it did mean that the lead riders got a big break and the race was already really strung out before we even finished the start loop!
I had an OK start lap and moved up a few places, but I just lost time every lap on the climbs and would gain on the descents, passing the same people on the descents and then they would pass me on the climbs. I felt like my legs wanted to go faster but I just couldn’t get enough air into my lungs to keep up with my legs, so I always felt like I was gasping for air. I don’t think the cold weather helped, but I think it was more down to the fact that these XC riders just go flat out uphill for 1.5hrs!
I managed to move up a few places and finished the race in 69th place, but still ended up getting pulled out of the race with one lap to go as I had dropped too far behind the leaders. Yet again it was a great experience and getting to ride in front of such an awesome crowd was amazing.
I have ridden in front of some amazing crowds at DH races and it’s an amazing experience to ride with that wall of sound around you, but you are past so fast in DH that you don’t really get chance to experience it fully. When you are slogging up a hill for a few minutes and both sides of the track are lined with people yelling, ringing bells and generally making a noise it’s a pretty cool experience and one that only motivates you to try harder.
And onto La Bresse, France and ‘that crash’
I was pretty tired after the race and I still felt tired on Tuesday when we arrived at La Bresse, France the next stop on the world cup tour. I have raced at La Bresse twice at a downhill world cup, but this was the first XC world cup to be held here. It used the same hillside, so I knew straight away what I was in for…. a big long climb up and a great descent back down!
The weather was still not great and during my first ride over to the course it was actually snowing over the top of the mountain pass. I was freezing by the time I descended into La Bresse. The sun then came out and started to dry the course pretty quickly, however my first lap was pretty slippery, it was great fun.
The eliminator course I was really hoping would be a good one, and much to my relief it was. It was similar to Pickering last year, a complete town based circuit with some steps and ramps and it had some corners so it looked like the racing would stay together a little more than last week.
I had an OK qualifier finishing in 8th spot but I was hoping for a bit higher as gate choice was important for this one. I ended up in my rounds alongside fastest qualifier and 4x World Champion Anneke Beerten so I knew getting a good start was going to be important. I managed to get in behind Anneke in the first 2 rounds and just sat on her wheel. In the second round I did the same thing until Anneke unfortunately punctured up the stairs up to the churchyard.
I spotted she had flatted but struggled to get by her immediately and ended up losing some speed when I overtook her on the inside of a corner, which allowed the other two riders to gain on me and we ended up in a 3 way sprint into an important corner where the race was pretty much decided by.
I had both riders come up alongside me on both sides and as we neared the corner I started to move towards the inside of the corner, and the next thing I knew I was on the floor. Looking back at the slow motion footage I hooked my arm with the other girl’s handlebar and it just turned us sharp left and into a wall and barriers.
It was pretty nasty crash and I landed hard on to my back, smashing the back of my head on the tarmac. My immediate reaction was to get up and keep going, but as soon as I got up I fell over again. I just had no balance and ended up having to use my bike to support me and keep me upright for a few minutes, and slowly walked back to the van.
I was in no fit state to continue and my Bontrager Helmet had done its job. A fully cracked helmet and a pretty sore head was luckily all I had and thankfully Rowena who I crashed with was unhurt and able to ride in the final.
I ended up with an 8th place finish which was not what I had hoped for, but at the end of the day I was glad to be in one piece. Sadly I still had a pretty fuzzy and sore head by Sunday and did not feel that it would be sensible to try and race when I really could not afford to hit my head again, so I had to sit out what would have been my last XC world cup of the year.
Sadly a disappointing end to the XC portion of my year but it’s been one hell of an experience. I am very grateful to all the GB team and staff (Phil, Matt, Nick, John, Sarah and Angela) who have all helped me and supported me during my exploits into the XC world.
It’s been great to see what goes into being a top XC rider and having the opportunity to train and ride with Liam, Annie, Kenta and Grant has been fun. It was great to see Annie ride to her best WC finish of the year, 8th in La Bresse.
For me it’s been a tough challenge but I have gained some UCI points and learned a lot about suffering on my bike and most of all I now have a greater amount of respect for this discipline of our sport.
I am now turning my newly found fitness and my focus to enduro racing all over Europe with a few world cup downhill races long the way…
Photos copyright Rockyroads.net.