I accidently became the Haute Garonne Midi Pyrenees Champion on Sunday 12th August. I love routine, and hate being disorganised, but every now and then a little spontaneity and a good ol’ training session on the mountains here in Luchon reminds moi that I’m alive…just.
It all started Saturday evening when AQR’s bike flying chef Russ mentioned a mountain bike race was going to be held on the top of the Superbagneres (1800m) out here in Luchon, French Pyrenees. Russ giggled as he described part of the race course he checked out that afternoon, a course where his Orange Patriot felt every bump, and that even rocked his insides. Now, for those of you who know Russ and know the death defying trails he plays on, know that if he thinks a trail is technical then it really is technical. If Russ says a trail is bumpy on his six inch, too heavy for me to move, free ride bike, then for mere mortals it will be an absolute killer. Russ also has this little giggle, an evil giggle when you know he has discovered a ‘challenging trail’, a red bull death wish, or when he has just scared himself silly or even worse…when he has planted a little seed in your mind, when you know your husband expects you to be resting after a 6hr training session.
Ian and I finished working at Russel’s hotel at 11pm, and the thought of taking part in this cross country race the next day continued to stir my thoughts. It was too late to call my coach Matt Hart to ask his opinion on whether I should race or not, but I knew if I didn’t decided before going to bed, then I would just be tossing and turning all night thinking about it. However, it turned out it would be a sleepless night for the Potter’s anyhow, as our village summer festival had kicked off, and what’s usually a sleepy little village of only a few houses and holiday homes had turned into a mega street rave party until the wee hours of 3am.
After 4 hours of sleep, I was definitely not racing. Ian would be in Toulouse all day waiting at the airport for AQR guests to arrive, and I was going to enjoy my rest day, and chill out at the hotel with our guests, fellow xc-racers Paula and Luke Mosely.
After chatting for a while the Mosely’s suddenly looked at their watches and said I must hurry if I was going to race. Before I had a chance to protest, I had jumped on my reliable guiding work horse (Cotic Soul) and charged for dear life to the lift station. I narrowly missed two cars as I zoomed down the narrow lanes that make up the back streets of Luchon. I arrived out of breath and all a fluster, just in time to find the gate to the lift locked. Never mind, I was supposed to have a rest day anyhow. I decided to spend the afternoon by the pool. I have always believed things happen for a reason, and my tan could really do with looking like a tan since it’s now the middle of August….but thoughts of the pool soon disappeared from mind as one of the lift workers recognised me and let me on.
As I headed towards the top of the Superbagneres, I still hadn’t decided whether I should race or not. Then I realised that I had my down hill tyre on the front of the Cotic Soul. A great tyre for going down, but certainly not a tyre I would recommend for a cross country race, especially when climbing started at 1800m (gulp). I also had my guiding kit bag, which contained an assortment of spare bike bits, 6 tubes, and the bulkiest first aid kit known to woman. The bag was far too heavy to use for the race, plus my leg armour was strapped to the outside of it, so it made perfect sense to spend the afternoon down hilling instead of racing. Just as I made my way across the car park, I bumped into one of the race organisers who I knew from a previous event. He convinced me to race (double gulp), took my guiding pack, and before I knew it I was signed on and waiting to be called to the start line.
I tried to warm up, a very weird sensation at 1800m, as your legs try to find that second gear and your lungs burn from the lack of oxygen in the air. I found myself called to the very front of the start line, as the organisers were thrilled that an Australian/Angleterre/American (they couldn’t quite work out quite what I was) had turned up to race.
Les Femmes started at the same time as the men, but I couldn’t work out who my competitors were. I was surrounded by stern looking men in lycra who looked like they were about to go to war. I knew it would be a fast start and prepared for a big ring take off. I didn’t have time to check the course out, but as I know the Superbagneres mountainside so well I didn’t think it would be a problem.
The gun sounded and I took off…only to discover that I was in the lead by quite a distance. I thought that seemed quite strange, so I slowed down and as I looked behind found myself engulfed by the entire group who were riding at a very leisurely pace. Now I was completely confused, but enjoyed the fact that I could breathe easily. As we hit the first off road descent I let the brakes go and blasted down the grassy bank, thoroughly enjoying myself in the process…before riding into the back of a rider who had suddenly stopped still. I ended up on my side, still clipped in, and the rest of the group looked down on me as they had stopped too. I picked myself up with the assistance of three very nice competitors, and I looked around to see everyone helping me rather than getting on with their race.
Then I realised the race had not officially started, and in fact we were riding for a position on the start line. I looked in front of me and noticed we were heading towards a long steep bank, a trail we would normally use as a descent (triple gulp)….I had three minutes of normal breathing left before take off…..T.B.C
Trois! Deux! Un! The race had started for a second time and I was off. Tired legs and altitude don’t mix, and I struggled up the first steep climb. I noticed one girl shoot off to a good position behind the leading group of men. I dug deep and managed to move past riders as the gradient flattened and I managed to catch the leading woman on the next descent….I was so grateful to have my Bontrager King Earl tyre on the front, as the descent was fast and very rocky. However the next climb was murder, and I was cursing myself for not swapping to my lighter XC tyres. Bodies were falling from bikes in an attempt to push their way to the top as quickly as possible. I could feel the resistance from the front tyre, but I had the grip and the determination I needed to ride past people walking out in front. Feeling quite chuffed with myself for clearing that particular section, I ended up mincing my gears and was forced to jump from my bike anyhow, in order to put the chain back on. As I looked ahead all the people I had passed were back on their bikes and charging ahead. I soon realised I was back chasing again (doh!).
The course was surreal. In all honesty, it was the most brutal course I have ever had the pleasure of racing. It really tested you physically, mentally and I learnt plenty of french along the way, not the french I would come across at my weekly french lessons mind you. As soon as I hit the next piece of single track I caught the leading girl again. The single track was narrow and off camber, with slippery rocks and roots to ride across, and a huge drop to your right if you decided to take some air. There was no where to pass, unless the person in front fell off the edge, which ended up being the case, as the girl in front slipped and fortunately found herself in the spiky arms of a pine tree. I didn’t increase my lead though as I was still caught behind a lot of racers who were struggling to ride this particular section. I hit the next steep fire road climb out in front, and once again my chain fell off. A few girls moved past me at full speed. I took off and looked ahead to see where the climb finished, but all I could see were the thick clouds as they settled over the top of the Superbagneres. I managed to reach the top in the lead, but was unable to see two metres in front as the trail became a steep fire road descent. I almost missed the next turn, but soon found my way back down the next piece of single track that I knew really well. Here I could let the brakes off without worrying about the technical sections as I felt completely at one with my Soul and knew exactly which lines were the quickest.
The next section of the course was very difficult to navigate, no clear trail to ride, just tape in the trees that you had to ride towards. I had no one in front to follow, and found myself way off course. Some how my competition ended up a long way below me, and I could see one of the girls take a short cut through the trees. I tried to follow her line but ended up tangled in some branches as I tried to fight my way through the forest, which felt more like a jungle. I had lost a lot of time trying to work out where to ride, but knew the big climb of the day was still to come and I looked forward to the challenge.
This climb is one of the most popular switch back descents on the Superbagneres. It is steep and technical as a descent, but as a climb, impossible to ride without pushing your bike at some point; even pushing your bike was difficult, and there was no resting as every muscle fibre in your body was forced into action. I finally reached the top, gasping and spluttering from the intense effort that was needed. To my horror the climb continued and we headed up a loose dirt track that is normally used as a competition ski piste in the winter. I love steep technical climbs, but this climb was taking the ‘wally’. I won’t go into anymore detail here, but I saw this climb reduce grown men and a little aussie to tears….it was horrible!
Soon the course turned to a traverse across the cow filled meadows. I took a longer route around the herd, as the bull didn’t look too pleased with all the mountain bikers riding past. The trail was tight, with some testing narrow sections that were not suitable for large feet. I found my wide or should I say quite ‘muscular’ feet kept bouncing from side to side, and a couple of times tripped me up to add more bruises to my already battered body.
Some how I managed to move into second place, and as we hit a gentler fire road climb, I started gaining time on the leading lady, passing her just as the course turned to a descent. The clouds had dropped again, and it had started to rain. I was riding within myself as the rocks were becoming very slippery. Call me a wimp, but I wasn’t risking a fall, as I heard the rumble of thunder in the distance.
When we hit the narrow single track for a second time, I was passed again, but my competition had too much speed and lost control. The girl missed the trail and headed off down the side of the bank. I tried to help her (honest…but I couldn’t stop myself from giggling), but when she started throwing her bike at me to stop me from taking the lead it was time to race. I had the ‘red mist’ in my eyes and it was time to race hard, to hurt…even more so this time. The adrenaline was pumping as I took off and started spinning on the spot at 180rpm or more….but the chain had fallen off….again . I was going no where, but over the edge, as I lost balance and fell into the arms of that same pine tree that had saved the french girl on the previous lap. By the time I had scrambled back on to the trail, I was all alone, it really was a comedy of errors. I figured all the other girls had passed by as there was no one in sight. I didn’t ease off though, as thoughts of second helpings at dinner crossed my mind and I knew I had to earn it, so I pushed on, and was determined to race hard all the way to the finish line.
I left behind the single track only to find the girl who I had been fighting it out with for all this time had fallen as well, but unfortunately this time her race was over. I stopped and helped her to a marshal, as it was obvious she had broken her collar bone. I was told to go on, so I continued to ride hard, although it was difficult to push on knowing that my main competition was badly hurt. I still had half of the second loop to ride, and that horrible climb to face, which I wasn’t looking forward to.
I had no idea where I was in the field, and frankly didn’t care. However my climbing legs were back in action and I must have passed half the field who decided to walk from the very bottom of the climb. The storm was really growing in intensity by now and I charged back to the finish line as fast as I could. The cloud had dropped even lower and I didn’t fancy being caught on top of the Superbagneres with lightning around.
After almost 2.5hrs on the bike I crossed the finish line and became the first Aussie Angleterre to become the Haute Garonne regional cross country champion.
My Cotic Soul, not built up as a race horse by any means, did the Cotic Bontrager Team proud….and I earned double helpings at dinner that night.
This race was not part of the 2007 plan, but it will certainly be on the racing agenda next year as it was the most punishing, gruelling, horrible, exhausting, painful race of my life…that I had the pleasure of finishing. Why return for more aches and pains? For the simple reason that it made me feel alive.