As the dust settles on my suitcase and we eagerly hunt the internet for photos I thought it a good idea to pen a few thoughts on my first ‘proper’ European Marathon MTB racing experience. I put the word proper in inverted commas because I have done a marathon abroad before, once, in Gran Canaria and sprained my ankle in the process. I finished but it wasn’t so much a race as a battle for survival. I have also ridden one of the now named CRC Marathon Series events in the UK, however these are not races and won’t ever be until the law is changed in the UK to allow mountain bikes the same access to bridleways for racing as horses!
Going into the Roc Laissagais in the Aveyron region of France, one of the UCI Marathon Series events in 2012, I was therefore feeling quite apprehensive. We decided to make a week’s holiday of it along with Tim Dunford of the Cannondale team so we drove down on Wednesday before the Sunday race. We spent a happy few days pottering about on bicycles and in my case trying not to overdo it whilst riding with the boys in the days before the race. The weather was variable, cold but dry, until Saturday when the heavens opened and I hid indoors apart from a brief hour on the trails. The rest of the time I spent worrying about what I was going to wear for a wet, cold race from the rather poor selection of kit I had packed! By Sunday (thankfully) the rain had passed over and we awoke to an overcast but cold morning. Rethinking my attire again we headed over to the cattle market in the town of Laissagais to get ready to race. [As an aside apparently the weekly cattle market here is the biggest in France - according to the owner of the Gite we stayed in. I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions on whether this differs significantly from hundreds of mountain bikers!]
I was slightly disappointed with the number of women lining up given the status of the event – 19 seemed not to justify the effort the organisers and the UCI had made to get this event and the World Marathon Series off the ground. That said the field looked very strong and there were a number of national champions and obviously well experienced marathon racers in the line-up. So, this small but perfectly formed bunch was arranged by the commissaries and, at 9am, with the cloud still hanging ominously overhead, we set off up the trail.
I had a good start and was in the pack. This is rather a new experience for me given the lack of close pack racing in my background and I found it amazing how little effort you had to put in to stay there. We then began to climb and on a corner I made my first mistake. Thinking everyone was missing a trick by taking a wide line on the corner I went up the inside, only to end up in a big rut which brought me to a complete standstill. I took rather too long by my liking to get going again and was now hanging off the back of the pack.
We then went into the most horrendous part of the course. It would probably have been unridable in its sandy, rutty nastiness, without the rain of the previous day, but was definitely not rideable now. I found myself struggling to walk up the hill as fast as the girls around me and was frustrated at losing more ground. Coming down the next descent, probably still a bit annoyed at myself I somehow came off my bike and had now lost sight of the girls I was chasing! My wheel had been knocked out of position by the impact and now wouldn’t straighten – double argh. A big wrench on the bars got it close to straight and I got going again.
At this point I gave myself a stern talking to, and hit the next climb. The first 25km seemed to last forever. I had a real low just before the women turned off at this point and was crawling up the hills at a snail’s pace. All the boys who were staying in our Gite passed me at or around this point and were very encouraging – thanks to all of them for that especially Chris who attempted to give me a tow. After he passed I had another internal talking to, a top-up of water in my remaining bottle (my second must have come off in the crash earlier) and a gel at which point everything seemed to get much better.
I ended up riding with a couple of girls, each of us taking turns on the front. I have never worked with someone in a race before, since women’s racing tends to be a lonely, time-trial-like affair most of the time and it was a real pleasure to have company, even with a language barrier. Before long a polish girl and I had pulled away from the third girl on a rocky climb and as we continued up she also moved away from me. But then we started to go down. This was such fun descent, twisting and turning between trees, there were some little jumps and some bermed corners; almost instantly I was back on her wheel. Ok, I said, now I remember what this feels like. We hit a muddy climb and both jumped off but I realised I could ride it. On my bike again I started to get a gap, a bit excited I carried on. On the next descent I decided I needed to maximise my advantage and went hell for leather. Now I really was having fun....
I hit a fireroad and went right, it seemed to make sense, but there was no course marking. Turning around I saw the Polish girl had done the same. As we went back around the corner we saw where we should have gone. Rather annoyingly the girl who had been behind us saw our mistake and managed to go the correct way. The missed trail was another great muddy descent though followed by a ‘Paris-Roubaix’ style set of cobbles. My confidence had fully returned and I took back both places and hit the next climb.
For the rest of the race I felt really good. My legs felt strong, despite a bit of cramp, and I was riding well. I crossed the finish line in 4 hours 33 minutes and in 11th place.
I am very pleased. It is an OK result, but more than that I know I can do better and I can overcome feeling really horrid in the middle of the race. I know what to do differently - eat more and earlier; make sure I have two bottles firmly fixed to my bike even after crashes; carry some electrolyte tabs in the back pocket for emergency cramp prevention (the feed zones only had water which is was ok for most of the rest of the field who had support crews out on the course handing up bottles and food to them). Most importantly though I am confident I can do this kind of event now, rather than just thinking I could and even better I can be strong in the latter parts of the race. Going forwards I just need to make sure I give myself the best chance in the first half of the event.