Stage 3 was the Queen stage, not long at 67km, but with 3100m of ascent and the weather report was looking tough too, heavy rain all day. Thankfully the unpredictable mountain weather did its thing and changed for the better, overcast and humid, with a just a splattering of rain. The main climb of the day was over with in the first 20km, the rest of the stage , more rolling, relatively speaking.

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There was the usual weaving in and out, vying for front spots as the peleton streamed through town. Never sure why riders waste energy like this as as soon as the road goes up, many of them go backwards. The course is well thought out, in that the initial climbing is on wide tracks/back country road giving everyone space to find their pace, others finding the gaps to pass up and through. Learning the words for left/right/middle in the language of the country you are racing in is always handy! Links, rechts or mitte usually worked, or try English or French! Sharp voice needed as understandably it's not always easy to hear when the the red mist is down, especially with an English guy shouting German with a dodgy accent.  

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Pushing hard in these first few kms is worth the effort to get ahead before the trails narrow, and start to switchback upwards, wet roots being a seemingly tough obstacle. Trails snake their way upwards, looking ahead up the switchbacks, you see the lead pros fire off the front, in total awe of their speed!

Mind back to your own abilities and trying to keep momentum along the rooty singletrack as others falter, that 2nd place spot won’t keep itself.  We gradually gained height along rolling singletrack through the valley, steep slopes both sides. A repeat from stage 1 but no matter, these were great trails to ride! Dropping back down along forest tracks gave some respite before settling in for some big height gain.

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The way up was far from a fireroad bash. Yes there were sections of course, but it was a constant change of terrain and trails, keeping the legs and mind continually challenged; ribbons of singletrack  and rooty tracks through the trees popping out onto rocky switchback trails winding their way deeper up into the dense forest. It was hard to see sometimes where the trail went as it disappeared into the tress, flashes of coloured lycra further up the only clue. 

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Then I passed a rider awkwardly bumping along a rooty trail. A glance sideways and I was thrown back to the 90's and my own bike set up. Super long stem, super narrow bars, bar ends and a bar to saddle height difference that would make even the most flexible wince. So long as he was having fun.

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Locals were out en route on the lower slopes cheering everyone through. Higher up there was the silence of the mountain, broken only by the clunk of changing gears and rear tyres losing grip. Without the mind having been locked onto fireroad, the top came quickly it seemed, not as high as stage 2, but the chill in the air was a reminder that this was alpine.  The final 1km sped by on the bumpy mountain access road to the mountain top restaurant and a water point, a great place to linger on a hot summer's day out on its terrace taking in the views. A run up the steps onto the terrace and a ride down the steps the other side straight down a steep wet, grassy bank, where a rider tried to overtake! A fast descent, winding its way back down the mountain, on loamy double track and sections of singletrack. .

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The gradient levelled out, the terrain now more, relatively, rolling, the kms seemed to tick by, keeping a high pace through the forest trails, wet roots catching a number of riders out. Climbs now seemed brief, small groups collected together, working off each other’s wheels, which all came to a brief halt. The cadence dropped, weight was slung forward as the track switchbacked upwards, alongside the local ski jump, rear tyres barely gripping on the loose dirt. It made the ‘did you make it all the way up’ dinner conversation, along with the usual chat around 'awesome riding, that hurt, check out my bruises'. I made it up.

[caption id="attachment_14937" align="aligncenter" width="300"]AT_03-9128 so much steeper than it looks past the ski jump[/caption]

Just. The next descent made the talking point too. A long, loamy, steep singletrack trail which wound its way down through the trees, just a controlled slide down the hill. It left those with the skill to ride it with a huge grin and massive arm pump from the constant braking. Superb riding.

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Getting caught at feed 2 by the rider in 3rd, spurred the legs on up the the iconic climb of the race, to the huge cross atop an exposed peak. The rutted, rooty singletrack back down was awesome, with the now damp weather, dust turned to a slippery top coat, just like riding back home!

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Legs now ragged from pushing hard on steep stuff, they had to find the strength for some more, veering off forest double track, back into the forest. One slip and it was hike a bike. 

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Popping out of the dense trees to views of Schladming below, we were onto tracks we now knew, but in the opposite direction, riding with the contours until dropping straight down them, over spoke breaking drainage ditches if you got it wrong. I did, snapping a rear spoke. Switchbacking down steeply between farm houses, tracks and trees, the finish was close visually, but with 10km still to ride. The sting in the tail was a steep climb, just as you thought it was all downhill, meandering its way to the top of the DH run. The track had dried out well now from the really wet stage 1, huge breaking ruts formed on each berm, fighting to control the heavy chattering of the hardtail through each turn, getting some air over each lip dropping you down steeply into next berm. 

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Ridden well enough to keep 3rd place at bay by just 90seconds, as this guy could fly downhill. A tough, but fun stage. 

Photos courtesy of Regina Stanger/Sportograf.