Catch up on Episode 1 Here
The winter preparation and early rounds are past, now it's time to settle into the summer hustle. Work is typically 8:30-5:00 with a few modified days to catch a lunch ride or gym workouts with VASTA on Tuesday's and Thursday's. The evenings are often consumed with time in the saddle, whether it's base miles, cardio, technical thrashing or just a laid back ride with friends, I am always looking to maximize any window of time to ride. With the first 2 rounds done and going better than expected, in the middle of my winter nonetheless, I had high expectations for the rest of the summer ahead. All the fears of travel logistics, being physically capable of finishing these races or whether I have any right being in this circuit for a full season were laid to rest. Now it was time to attack the next few rounds and settle into the season.
In order to make this season of travel feasible (and keep my employment), I had to book most trips rather tight. Certainly tighter than your typical factory rider or van lifer Kiwi. France started with work Monday and most of Tuesday, then drive 3.5 hours south to Boston and catch an overnight flight to Paris Wednesday. The final leg of travel had me arrive in Montpellier, France where I was picked up by a long time familiar face and friend from years of racing downhill. Dan has a newborn on the way for mid-summer, so he decided to sneak in 1 round of EWS racing before dad duties begin. In a matter of moments after leaving the relatively small airport, we were rolling through the quintessential landscapes and vineyards of Southern France. When we rolled into the old village of Olargues with all the surrounding mountains, Dan and I both decided that despite the long travel and lack of sleep, we better get out for a quick rip. The two of us felt a strange magnetic pole imbalance from our long travels and the ride was brief, but what we saw had us pretty excited for the days ahead.
Practice began promptly the next morning, but we both lay lifeless in our bunks for about 45 minutes of alarms like felled timbers in the forest. We made our way out to the first practice runs and an aggressive wake up call. It was apparent that the technical rocky tracks would be a challenge all week. Beyond the difficult trails, there was something far more unique about these tracks, a figure of speech many have heard of, but likely do not have an adequate understanding of unless you have been to the south of France to ride. What is this you are wondering? It’s called the “French Turn”. Imagine this, the tightest radius turn you have ever encountered, now make it tighter, add some poorly placed shelves of bedrock, mix it up with some shark fin boulders in a haphazard assortment, sprinkle on some loose gravel to ensure it is devoid of all traction, then go race it! Nearly every stage had some of these European classics and I personally had never seen such a thing. It was only 2 minutes into stage 1 practice and I would have to pass the first crux. As you can see below, 5 attempts, a few OTB’s and a broken spoke puncture through my rim tape later, I decided to move on.
By the time race day arrived, I was now a semi-capable amateur trials rider and excited to race down these incredible fast techy tracks. Day 1 started well and only got better. The first 3 stages were increasingly longer and more technical. As the day went on, my confidence increased and for the first times in EWS racing, felt like I was really attacking the stages. Sure, every run had opportunity for improvement, but at that time, it was my best performance over the course of a day compared to any other race. I’ve raced in Europe years ago for a World Cup downhill and knew the depth of competition is greater than that of North and South America, but I had no idea where day 1 would land me. I even said to some friends at one point, “You know, I’m having a great day, but I don’t know if I’m going to finish in 50th or 80th, your guess is as good as mine.” Well turns out my guess was shit and I was actually in 90th! At this moment I knew my summer of racing 5 rounds in Europe was going to be tough, really tough. There are about 100 racers that come out of small villages from all over Europe that are just as fast or faster than you are. However, I was closer to the leaders than I ever have been percentage wise, so this was comforting. Just 15 seconds faster on each of the first 3 stages adding up to 23 minutes of racing and I would have dropped from 90th to somewhere in the top 30. This was feasible to me at the time and gave me hope for better results at some point during the season.
For Day 2, heavy rain rolled in overnight bringing a bitter cold front with it and the temps dropped from 24°C to 4°C. We were lucky to not be riding in the rain, but keeping extremities warm would be difficult throughout the day. Many of us were trying to predict what the traction was going to be like on course, but assumed all the hard pack clay like soil and rock would handle the water pretty well. I cannot articulate the exact reactions, but I will never forget the comradery of surprised and horrified responses of riders at the finish of the first stage that day. I would also like to mention, day 2 had some of the most difficult stages technically of the race and that opening stage was perceived as the easiest of the day. This was also at the end of a long week of pedaling, day 2 alone was 30 miles and 8100 ft of climbing (48km, 2450m) and when paired with day 1 and the practice days, it ended up being 114 miles and 23,000 ft of climbing on the week (183km, 7000m). The remainder of the day would be a downward spiral for me. Numbing hands, accumulating exhaustion and technical trails in nearly un-rideable conditions. The only thing that kept me pushing back up and sliding down run after run, was that I wanted to finish. I had found new limits mentally and physically at this race, but I remembered my goal at the start of the season was simply finish every race and enjoy the circus.
After a recovery week or two at home after the French round, I headed to a local race in the Northeast U.S. I was so elated by the broad sweeping turns and familiar grip that I over cooked a section on the first stage of the day resulting in a big crash. It was one of those moments when you are helplessly watching a big collision ensue, but there is nothing you can do to stop it. The result was a nasty high-speed wreck with a large oak tree (I was intimately wrapped around the bark of this tree and can confirm it was definitely an oak). I was lucky enough to stand from this but a bad contusion to the right quadriceps would keep me crutch and couch ridden for the next 3 weeks. It was only 6 days before practice began in Austria that I was able to regain enough range of motion to spin the pedals. I went out for increasingly longer rides the weekend before and decided to make the trip despite reservations regarding the strength in my right leg.
Like the last round, I would work Monday and Tuesday, this time flying out of Montreal, Canada. The overnight flight and connections landed me in Venice, Italy around midday Wednesday. I picked up a rental care and began the 4-hour drive north through the flat Italian countryside in search of the Alps. The Dolomite range slowly began to emerge from the haze and as I came closer the shadow of my petite Italian rental car became seemingly smaller and smaller. These were real mountains and the sight of them promptly justified the trip, whether I would be capable of riding the entire week or not. I did this trip solo and each tunnel I passed through would reveal a unique perspective of these giants. I shouted aloud to myself in surprise at each impressive view. Finally arriving in Petzen at 7:00 PM, it was just enough time to build the bike in the parking lot, grab a quick bite and find my way to the hotel where I was bunking up with a couple photo squids.
Something special about EWS racing compared to other major mountain bike series is the exceptional journey throughout the event at these unique locations around the globe. I think every EWS racer would agree, the sights and experiences during the event that are not on the clock are the ones to remember. Every location we visit, we pedal long distances between the stages, meeting and connecting with the racers seeded around us. We travel through different towns and villages, getting a small taste of the local culture. We ride to stunning ridgelines and pasture overlooks that only the farmer who works that land gets to enjoy. For this race, we meandered our way through 4 miles of abandon mining tunnels with just 2 small headlamps for almost 20 minutes to arrive on the opposite side of a mountain. These experiences, and watching other racers enjoy it for the first time as well, are the memories that will last my lifetime.
Recall my explanation for the "French Turn"? Well take the rocks out, replace it with roots, make it steeper, let mother nature sprinkle in some rain so it is devoid of all traction and all the sudden you have an "Austrian Turn". These proved to be equally as tough as the French variety. There is a trend I am beginning to see with the roots in Europe versus those in eastern North America. It sounds odd to say, but when the roots at home are wet, they are actually quite grippy comparatively. Here in Europe, the bark quickly peels off exposing the white core that's slick as ice.
The 3 weeks spent recovering on a couch before this race did me no favors on this wet week in the alps, but I was just happy to be there. Several flat muddy stages gassed you on the pedals while 2 monster stages lasting 15 minutes of compression absorbing steeps turned your arms into overcooked spaghetti noodles. I thought to myself, what could be harder than the 20-minute stage in Chile, or the heavy mud in Colombia, or the horrendously slick clay in France with huge days on the bike. Well, Austria showed me that it could get harder by including elements of all those previous challenges wrapped into one race. At the end of it all though, you look at where you are, who you are with, take another sip of beer and revel in the positive memories and physical feats that are now behind you.
La Thuile was the next stop of the Vermont and Europe back and forth. For this one, I intentionally gave myself an extra day to adjust to the European time change. The last two rounds were a brutal shock to my body. This time around, I was attempting to squeeze in a 36-hour weekend trip to Seattle on the west coast for a close friends wedding, then back to work Monday and off to Europe that same night. Going from east coast to west coast and back just before Europe, I decided the extra day was necessary. Once in Europe, I paired up with another east coast racing friend and we made our way to the village of La Thuile where we would be bunking up with 4 other familiar folks. This entire season would not be possible for me if it were not for the collaborative efforts with all these great people making their way to select races. We got word from some other friends in the village that our added rest day paired up with a Tour de France stage finish just 12 km over the mountain pass. So like many other riders, we rented e-bikes (so not to over exert ourselves) and went for our own tour over the mountain and into France to witness arguably the most prestigious cycling event in the world. This was not something I had on my bucket list, but what an experience it was to be in this amazing place and serendipitously have the opportunity to see. This may end up being the most unique experience of my season. The adventure to and from the race revealed stunning views of Europe's highest peak, Mont Blanc and witnessing the emotions of riders crossing the finish line is something I struggle to put into words.
The chairlift out of the village felt more like an elevator than a lift ride until you hit the tree line. The glacial landscape of La Thuile had 3300ft (1000m) descents begin with several minutes of low angle high speed open slope, followed by a frighteningly steep dive back to the valley floor. Practice was underway, the sun was shining and we got right into some rowdy stages. I definitely struggled in practice, crashing more than any other event all year by a long shot. Aside from one nasty rotor burn, they were all relatively humorous tumbles and I really enjoyed the challenge. However, my fears of riding these stages top to bottom without stopping paired with the threat of rain for the more technical stages on day 1 had my nerves building. Most stages would end up being about 10-14 minutes long with the final 5-6 minutes of each stage (when you are most fatigued) being the steepest terrain I have ever encountered. The European theme was shaping up to be steeper and harder with each round.
As usual, the rain came in and changed everything. The organizers scrambled to shorten or re-route portions of the stages and even cancel one stage completely for the riders' safety. The start was delayed in hopes of letting the tracks absorb some of the rain from overnight. When the race was finally on, I hit the steep tree line after about 7 minutes into stage 1, and instantly knew this race was going to be a mental and physical battle. When the rain and several hundred riders came down, it exposed a network of repugnant roots and physical exhaustion late in the stage that would absolutely crumble my ability to ride a bike. I have never experienced failure to this degree and have never wanted to quit a race as much as the end of stage 1. I had lots of time to think about this on a long transfer across the valley to another peak for stage 2. This happened to be one of my favorite stages and was the only thing that kept me pushing on at the time. I had a good run and figured I better keep pressing on and finish day 1. Stage 3 was another disaster and again slipped back into the thought of calling it quits, hell I might just pull the plug on the season, this was just getting too hard for me. I was legitimately concerned for my safety as I witnessed several riders end the day with injury.
Day 2 was a new day and I was excited to run stage 6 twice (part of the course modification) and tackle one other stage that I thought was quite good. Opening stage felt great and I was finally charging, maybe too hard because I snapped a chain. After all the other concerns throughout this week, I couldn't do anything but laugh at this. I had been through enough already and was determined to finish, even if I was dead last. I finished out the day and mandatory celebratory beers with the lads afterward. We had made it through another!
The Aosta Valley has the most remarkable beauty I have ever witnessed first hand. Mont Blanc towering over these other giants to one side and reflection ponds amidst the glaciers to the other side. This place rests atop the list of places to revisit.