Mountain biking didn’t start in Europe, and I’m not well placed to argue who actually invented it. But Europe has thoroughly embraced mountain biking in its own way, and the Marathon (XCM) format is hugely popular, especially in countries like Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Poland and the Czech Republic, to name but a few. Some Australian events get huge numbers, even unto 2000 participants for races like the Briar’s Highland Fling (entries open 10th July!). But popular events here can routinely draw in 3500-4000 people, year in year out. The sport is big, it supports a number of professional athletes, and the events are well run and embraced by the local communities, not shunned by them.
The Dolomiti Superbike is a classic event in a picturesque part of the Dolomites. Even if you’re not a competitive mountain biker, you should experience this race because of the places it will take you. Being on a bike lends a certain amount of freedom, and despite being constrained to a ‘race track’ of sorts, this course allows a varied experience of the local area – especially on the 120km version. You go through farms, villages, mountain passes, old roman roads… it’s quite a journey.
As a round of the UCI Marathon Series, the Elite fields were quite impressive. Many notable professionals were in attendance, with most of the Team Bulls riders, a lot of the Wheeler-IXS Team, Topeak Ergon top pro’s Alban Lakata and Sally Bigham, Urs ‘Iceman’ Huber – and a health representation from the Subaru-MarathonMTB.com Team.
For me, most races are a personal journey. Often of self discovery for where you can mentally take yourself, or what you can put yourself through physically. Plenty of times it’s a battle of wills to carry on. It’s rare that I can race with a podium position in reach, so often I need to find another focus. Any athlete will have an arsenal of motivational sayings that keep them going, and I called on all sorts today. In short, it was a day without.
From the start, I was in no position to see how the race played out. I know the results! Alban Lakata and Sally Bigham scored another amazing double victory in the men’s and women’s races for their Topeak-Ergon Team. A stunning performance from two hard working professionals, and a great reward for those who work to support them.
Partway into the first 15km climb, I was surprised to be riding with team mate Will Hayter. He did just place 3rd in the Mountain Mayhem 24hr Solo – in a mud bath. That probably helped me keep pace with the lanky British gazelle. A minor gear snafu had him behind near the top, and I passed a surprising amount of top riders with flats on the descent. My climbing hadn’t been great, and I was trying to utilise some fresh emotional pain to fuel my legs. But there just wasn’t much there (save for jet lag, probably).
The slight downhill past the lake was fast. An Italian old man mountain who resembled Will, but twice his age, was tearing our small group to pieces. I could do a short turn here or there, but his 45km/h beat my 43km/h – so I snivelled in 2nd wheel instead. The next climb came all too soon, and our group of 4 became a group of three, as I was now no longer in it. This climb took me through some pretty dark places in 2010, as a guy with a moustache passed me. While that didn’t happen today, I did get caught by riders repeatedly. Since the top 5km of the first climb, I’d been making up ground. Rare – but pleasing. Somewhere lower on the climb, I’d shifted into reverse and couldn’t get out. My mind wandered from racing back to the real world, and I continually slowed, didn’t eat, and just sulked along at about 6km/h. Climbs take a long time at that speed.
In European Marathons, you don’t always need to know the top altitude of a climb. If you’re not at the chairlift top station, you’re not there. This is a Fact. The next lot of trails from the top of this 2nd major climb were fun. Singletrack and doubletrack, rock, trees, roots, and some amazing ruined buildings at the bottom. I just find that sort of stuff interesting, and a welcome distraction on my wayward racing journey today.
Onwards to Sesto and Moos and it was a case of pedaling in no mans land. I was doing a pretty poor job of translating internal hurt into muscular hurt, but did notice even more top riders on the sidelines, with Konny Looser chatting to Phillip Gerber, and Andreas Kugler pulled over further on. Pretty hot up front then, I guessed.
The stream of people passing me was like a flood of riders of all shapes and sizes. Less higher end team kit, more club kit, V-brakes, rigid carbon bikes, and a lot of grey hair. It’s really exciting to see the breadth and depth of those who compete – but it can grow disheartening when they pass. Especially when they look back, realise they have taken another Elite scalp, and double click you.
Groups came and went. Feed zone volunteers were amazingly enthusiastic and friendly. I accepted a Red Bull from a four year old, and I could hear the praise from the adults for the job he did. My journey became more tiresome. I questioned my participation in the event, my time management in recent months, and my failure to meet a variety of expectations either of myself, or held by others. I didn’t want to race anymore. Not just this particular race, but in general.
Something fired up briefly for the last few kilometres, no doubt aided by the fun single track descent – and attaching the final climb with some vigour that had been lacking. I was done. Finished. And a bit over it all. No more European Marathons thanks. This sentiment lingered for some time.
Later, Will came across the line. We swapped stories over pasta and a beer (and some chocolate cake). We met Claudio from Bianchi, and looked at the lovely Methanol 29 bikes. Stu, Naomi, Kath, Gayes and Chris were located and things looked up. The social element kicked in, and some positivity returned. Those of us racing the long distance event had hard days. Kath and Gayes were pretty much bouncing around, enjoying the event expo vibe.
And so that’s the Dolomiti Superbike for 2012. Not an amazing race experience, but a pleasing end to the day.
Full results can be seen on Datasport