Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Race Report World Cup Round 1 – Pietermaritzburg, SA

Well, I’m glad I got that out of the way, my first ever World Cup, in the beautiful lush green, hot, sunny and humid surroundings of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. When Ryan, Kate Potter (AQR Holidays) and I arrived on Wednesday after a very long trip from the UK, we were hit by the heat. We checked out the course on Wednesday evening, just when the air started to cool down.

The Women Elite Start

The course was a 5.4km affair, with about 225m of vertical climb per lap. Most of that climb was done on super steep, 30% climbs, with 45% gradient in the switchbacks – some of the Olympians said they were comparable to those in Beijing. The course was basically an eight that looped back to the start arena. The first loop of the eight was shorter, with more draggy climbs and less ascent than the second part. The second part was a very long steep switchbacky climb, a bit of a flat section through some cooling forest and a long fast and flowy descent. The climbs were just killer, it was a real climber’s course. The descents were just as steep as the ascents, but quite smooth. Apart from the steepness, the course wasn’t what I would call technical, just a few little drops and a few logs to get over. The ground was all dry red clay, the type that would make the course a slippery slide in the wet.

Elisabeth Osl already in the lead, followed by Mary McConneloug

On Thursday we had planned a hard training session on the course, but the heat and humidity were so bad, buckets of sweat running down your skin and I had absolutely no power in my legs. So we cut our training short - as did a lot of the others too, everybody seemed to suffer. By now I was getting very concerned about how I was going to complete 5 laps of this course if the weather stayed like this!

2007 World Champ Irina Kalentieva took 2nd place

Then, on Friday, the weather had cooled down and it was nice and overcast, thank god! Our final pre-ride of the course went well and I was praying for the weather to stay like this. However, when we woke up the next (race) day, it was back to blazing sunshine and humidity. At least my race started at 10:30 in the morning, so I was hoping it wouldn’t be too hot by that stage.
About 50 Elite women lined up at the start, including almost all of the big names. I was so nervous, my heartrate was up at 112 while standing still (usually it would be around 65), and we seemed to have to wait forever for the start.

Willow Koerber chasing Mary McConneloug

Finally we were let off and the suffering began. I was holding back at the start, to avoid being caught up in any early race crashes (as a lot of people predicted), but thankfully everything went smoothly. I tried to make up a few places on the draggy climbs and was able to catch a few girls. It was hot and humid and my heart rate was sky high. There was a lot of running on the steep bits, just a queue of girls trying to get up and I was stuck behind some slower girls on the descents, which let a gap open up to the group ahead of us.

Concentrated on a descent

Finally, mostly through the climb on the 2nd part of the course, I was able to catch up to Kate Potter and hung onto her wheel. On the draggy climbs, I was still on Kate’s wheel, but I thought I was able to go faster, so I overtook her and took the lead of our group. Everything went fine until I went down the steep descents and I took the chicken run on the drop. What a mistake! I washed out and crashed (and I actually was able to ride the proper line no problem!). I thought I had damaged the closing mechanism on my shoe, but thankfully it was all fine. However, until I got going again, the group had caught up with me and the riders had streamed by. This debacle cost me about 5 places and I was stuck again behind slower people. I caught a few girls on the following ascents and was working my way up again, but then my second debacle happened. When jumping over a log, I rode too tight around a tree stump and my rear derailleur got caught which messed up all my gears. I was weighing up stopping and trying to fix it, but I was afraid I would loose too much time, since I might not be able to fix it (maybe I bent my hanger), so I just tried to find some gears that didn’t skip and tried to keep changing gears to a minimum. Of course this wasn’t ideal on this type of course that required the whole range of gears.

Chasing and being chased

On top of all this, I was really starting to suffer from the heat and humidity. I had no power on the climbs and had to use my lowest gear or even walk some of the steep bits, every pedal stroke was a struggle. On lap 4 I was so exhausted that I was hoping to get lapped, I had no idea how I was going to finish my race. Every time I arrived on top of the climb, I was starting to feel cold and getting the shivers, a telltale sign that I was pushing myself to the max. I didn’t get lapped then afterall, so I had to do my 5th lap. I had to take it very steady on the climbs and felt like I was going backwards. Being overtaken by another rider on the last 3km didn’t help my confidence. I finally crossed the finish line in 1:59:36, in 35th positing, 18min46sec behind the winner, Elisabeth Osl.

Looking very tired....

After the race, I was so dead tired, dizzy and dehydrated, I had to lay down in the shadow for a while before I was able to move again. I was supposed to take pictures of Ryan’s race, which was on straight after mine, but I was barely able to stand up, so my radius of pictures is only around the feedzones and the start/finish area. Thank god Alan was over to support us in the feedzones – a huge thanks is due here to Alan for his amazing support – there aren’t many friends that sponteneously fly over to SA to help out doing bottles!

Jose Hermida (winner) coming down a singletrack

I really suffered in the race, it’s not nice to start a race with the feeling of dead legs. I felt a little better on my recovery ride the day after though. At least I could see some of the countryside then. After the ride, Ryan, Alan and I went to watch the Downhill final. We got an uplift to the top and worked our way down as the riders whizzed by. The atmosphere was amazing when the last few riders came blasting down. Steve Peat, who had qualified in 4th place beat Sam Hill’s time by 0.93 seconds and made it into the hot seat. Then Chris Kovarik came down, but he couldn’t push Steve out of the hot seat. Then, when the South African downhiller Greg Minnaar came down, the cheering reached its peak, the noise was unbelievable when the commentator announced a split time that beat Steve’s and when he came into the finish beating Peaty’s time by almost 6 seconds. He was the clear winner of the race on his home ground, a fairytale win. It was so nice to have time to just enjoy the buzz of the Worldcup without having to stress about racing any more. Then the last man down, Mick Hannah, was also able to push Peaty into 3rd position.

Ryan and Mel elated after the race :)

We decided to do a hard training session on the course on Monday morning, because our flight home was only late on Monday evening. And funny enough, all of my 4 laps in my training session were faster than any of my laps in the race! For example, the longest climb took me about 10min20sec in the race with an average HR of 176, but in training I did it in 9min30, with a HR of 167, what the heck?? Even my descents were faster in training. It was the first time since arriving in SA, that I actually felt strong and powerful on the climbs and very comfortable on the descents. I don’t know if it was the acclimatization, the slightly cooler temperatures or the hard race effort on Sunday, but I wish I had had the form that I had in this training session in the race.

A guy getting some air over a table top jump

The World Cup was a fantastic experience for both Ryan and me. Even though I didn’t have a great race, I’ve achieved all the goals I’ve set out for myself (I’ll set higher goals next time): I finished the race, I didn’t come last, I didn’t get lapped and I finished in the top 40 (so I will have a great grid position in the next World Cup race in 2 weeks in Offenburg).
It was great to watch the downhill

Finally I would like to thank Kate Potter for arranging our accommodation and flights, Alan for coming over and being our general handyman, feedzone support and photographer and of course our sponsors Cycleways/Specialized/KCNC and Torq for giving us the best equipment to carry out our sport.

Crowds lining the final downhill section

We are planning to be back next year, this time hopefully a little earlier, so that we can acclimatize properly and explore the area little more.

Full report, results and pictures can be found on Cyclingnews.

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