Having arrived at the Youth Hostel supporting the event in Graz, Austria the previous evening, after a week in the mountainous Alps near Lake Geneva and a day in the scorching heat of Italy, we headed through the quite city nervously awaiting our arrival at the venue set to host a rollercoaster of experiences over the next 5-days. Twenty minutes down the road, we arose over the brow of a small hill to reveal simply a bike heaven; an area set up with several challenging looking obstacles, ready for Wednesday’s technical element of the mountain-bike combined event, a few ginormous mountains, half hidden in the (currently) white clouds, some tape revealing what appeared to be the start of today’s prologue team time-trial race, a fairly appetising looking café and simply bikes everywhere.
Already nervous at the sight of so many professional looking athletes, we decided to spend a little time ourselves, firstly, on the skills sections. Most the zones I’d spent a long time practising at home, after watching videos from previous years, with most the sections being made a lot harder since then, which I thought was good for me, as it would really show who’s skilful and who’s not.
Each zone had three sections, each one gradually increasing in difficulty; the idea was that you entered the zone from a given point and rode the first section, which if completed, you would immediately roll into the next section, without stopping or placing your foot down. You’d get a point for each section of each zone you completed, but if you failed to complete a section, you were not allowed to continue with the zone, and would have to move on to the next one. The hardest of these zones, I thought, was the step-over; three logs lined up, where you would have to step one wheel over at a time, turn in the tight turning box, and step over the next log and repeat, without either wheel or you or your bike touching the obstacle. The first two were considerably easy, with the last section seeing many people fail. Although it was possible to simply step over your front wheel then your rear wheel, it was a lot less risky to complete rear wheel first, like a side step, but was still rather challenging, and I, like most people, couldn’t do this.
After inspecting the skills zones, we moved onto today’s course – a tight, reasonably flat circuit, with several spiralling corners, grassy berms, curbs and even a few short, sharp hills. The fastest riders took around 2 minutes, with the slower ones finishing after maybe three, so it was vital to make every turn and every twist perfect.
At around half past five, my team and I (Timothy Elsemore-Martin, Archie Lewis and I) were called up to the start, where teams would begin at thirty-second waves. Already very nervous, it didn’t help that on the start line we noticed they’d put in a ramp at the edge of the slightly-up hill start area, which would throw us down into the arena. I couldn’t tell how big it was, so I wasn’t entirely sure how much of a manual I would need. Either way, we had around thirty seconds until our start, so there wasn’t a lot I could do now. When the gun went off to signal our start, it took around half a second to register in our brains, due to the sheer noise of it, though when we did, we weren’t going for long, before Tim dropped his chain. Thankfully, he needn’t get off his bike, but we still maybe lost three or four seconds. The ramp wasn’t too bad at all, and could have just been rolled, and likewise the remainder of the event ran smoothly, and down to mostly good team work as well as speed, we finished in a fairly decent position of 39th out of 63, later founding out that there was only one second between us and six positions in front! As we headed back to our vans, the rain just began to start, and by the time our u17 team finished (very respectively in 23rd) the thunder began to pour down. Unfortunately for those off towards the end, the course had turn from a smooth grassy field into an almost flooded mud-fest in the space of maybe 20minutes. And although the rain seemed like it would pass us within an hour, none of us anticipated it would be with us for the next four days of racing.
Each thrilled with our positions, particularly realising that without any problems, our team could be up in the top 30s, we were all more than enthusiastic about our team relay tomorrow, after what had been an eventful yet promising start to our European Youth MTB Championships.
A day even more eventful than the first was yet come our way, as the day of the team relay began. Firstly, we had a lap of the XCO (which would later today be used in the team relay); the course started up a reasonably steep but fairly short hill, which then eventually turned left up into the woods, onto an even steeper section. After around 20 metres of climbing this part, we hit some very slippy rocks, leading onto the next very rocky ascent. Most of us couldn’t ride the slippy sections straight away, although on my second attempt, I found the ideal line, which so long as I could replicate, would leave me no troubles during the race. We then continued up the rocky hill, which steepened with every turn, until the u15 and u17 loops separated. The u17s would continue uphill, although for now we were heading back down a rocky descent. This part wasn’t too technical, but we all sensed this was just a taster of possibly the most challenging course we had ever witnessed.
After some more muddy, cyclo-cross hills, we had reached possibly the hardest part of the course. The section was called ‘wood-rock’ and was essentially split into three parts; on a very steep hill, the course would drop down off a just about roll-able log, into a nasty rock garden, forming the second element, and finally off an un-roll-able log, into a tight berm to continue around the course. There were three possible lines to take, from the top the section, where the easier route took you round the two logs and rock garden, but was obviously a lot longer and could lose you a lot of time in the race. The middle line went through all three elements, but was considerably slower and slightly longer than the faster route. The ‘A’ line was similar to the ‘B’, but was slightly more direct, although involved taking precisely the right line, and with very minimal braking or you risked a nasty fall.
First I rode the ‘b’, which was fine, though I realised I couldn’t afford to lose that much time, so I decided to try the A line. My first attempt found me taking the wrong line, as a result of too much braking, and caused what we later found to be fatal damaged to my frame. I couldn’t leave without trying again, so this time I came at it a race-pace and actually completed it with a smile on my face.
The next section of the course followed a small bit of reasonably technical single track, into a rather steep drop down, which was fairly hidden, so was a bit of shock when I suddenly realised I was falling. After an accidental detour of Saturday’s u13 route, we were heading up again. This time the hill was even steeper and some people were even getting off their bikes to push, which had seemed tempting in the rain and heat. After an even steeper – though shorter – grassy hill, we approached the next element of downhill; some windy, slippy single track sections. The first few parts were fairly easy, with an exciting log placed in the midst of the steepness, but as the section wore on, it became increasingly harder, particularly as it became even muddier. After just about completing some technical and sketchy turns, we hit the hardest element – plainly a really slippy berm. I stupidly tried to take the easiest looking line, which resulted in yet another fall, then took the line suggested by my team mate Tim, which ended slightly better, but still not perfect. We decided that it would have to do, as we were running out of time and hadn’t even completed the first half of the course. We then headed up (again), on a hill which seemed almost impossible to ride, so ended up running the last half. After getting back on our bikes, we hit another technical section, again with three possible lines. We straight away chose the harder, quicker line, which was a short sharp drop, through a rocky gully, into a tight and muddy bend. We then headed back onto the single track, through tight, muddy turns, and across some slippy and even un-ride-able roots.
We then headed down into another technical area, with two possible lines; one which went directly into a tight, slippy bend and another which brought you out a little, but almost guaranteed you made the turn. I took the former, but after having to put my foot down, decided I would ride the latter in the event. A few more turns and un-roll-able rocks brought us to possibly the most dreading part of the course; maybe 200m worth of the very slippy downhill. This part would have been easy in ideal conditions, but the rain meant even the best riders struggled to hold onto the control over their bike, if they could stay on their bike at all. At the end of this section, we headed up a completely unrideable climb, before heading down another muddy chute and into more mud, which was more sticky than anything else. After just about surviving the mud in this section, we realised we back out into the arena. We then headed back to our vans to thankfully get out of mud-covered gear, and start preparing for first big race of the week.
The first real disaster struck around 30 minutes before my event, when we realised my frame had a large crack right through the left seat-stay, which - after a trip to the mechanics – we realised wouldn’t be safe to ride. Fortunately, Tim’s mum Emma, who was also our team coach, offered her bike, which I gladly accepted. We only had time to set the saddle height right for me, but I was just thankful I could still ride at such short notice
Just after mid-day, the first riders set off for the start of the team-relay. Our team had put Archie first, followed by Tim, with me off last. With only one rider being allowed in a pen for each team at a time, I was allowed to keep warm on the nearby road, on close stand-by, in the spitting rain and cold, having realised that we were definitely not going to be getting any of the sunny, warm weather we were promised. As the first few riders began coming home into the arena, the mud around the field was already beginning to surface, and we guessed that it would be even worse around the remainder of the course, particularly for me, once 120 more riders had raced around. It was also quite interesting to see that the first rider home was from the team gridded next to us, whom had only been 0.2 seconds faster in the TTT.
Archie arrived after close to twenty minutes, allowing Tim to take his turn. I then took my turn to wait by the pens. Archie had already told me the course was a lot muddier and more challenging than before, but when the girl from the team who was originally leading came back to the gate next to me in absolute tears, covered in cuts and mud, I soon got the idea. Tim took a similar time to Archie to complete the course, so I wasn’t waiting too long, before I was off. Most teams had put their girl second, so I realised with mostly boys out on the course, I wasn’t going to be catching much, but I just had to make sure I wasn’t over taken. The course was defiantly more difficult and a lot different to what I’d remember, so I ended up having to run a lot of the course which I could previously ride and due to the fact I wasn’t quite comfortable on the new bike yet, I had to take the ‘B’, suggested by my dad, at wood-rock.
Up the hill I was defiantly overtaking people or at least catching, which I was pleased about, as hills were one of my strong points going into the event. After not too much trouble along the twisting muddy section, running up the next hill surprised me as I was overtaking several riders, even though this was defiantly not one of my strong points. I rode most of the rest of the course fine, until I approached the long slippy downhill, where I’d maybe rode 5 metres, before I found myself crashing into a tree, and spending maybe 10 seconds with my foot stuck. Thankfully, probably only one rider overtook me, but I decided to run the remainder the section either way and actually caught the guy again running up the next hill. When I came down the chute, and fairly smoothly through the next muddy section, into the arena, it came much to my disappointment to realise I then had to also ride the start loop, instead of going straight into the finish. I was quite annoyed by this, having been overtaken during this loop, and slipping on the wet, wooden bridge. I crossed the line in 49th position, which was fairly decent, and the fact that we were greeted with free coke, melon slices and wafer biscuits at the finish made it even better! After our u17 team finished happily in 53rd, we were even more excited about racing again tomorrow, and competing in the skills event.
The third day was supposedly the busiest day, with the technical part of the MTB combined in the morning, then the XCO event in the afternoon. It would be another earlier start, with the u15 girls starting at 9:00, although I wouldn’t be off until around half past, with gridding based alphabetically on your nation.
Due to a large amount of flooding in the forest, sections 6-8 were cancelled and replaced with three new events; bottle pick-up, side-step and bunny-hop. I was fairly confident I could do the bottle pick-up, and watching many people fail at picking up the easiest of objects, I knew that I would do well compared to most. I’d come across the side-step once before, but hadn’t been much good at it, and although I’d practised it a lot, I still wasn’t certain I could do it. I could bunny-hop a reasonably sized object, but I didn’t think I would be able to complete three in tight succession, with increasing difficulty, so decided I would step-over the first two and attempt a bunny-hop over the final, as that one had been proved impossible to simply step-over.
Shaking and nervous, after some last-minute practise while the riders before me took their turn, I began the start of my skills test. The first zone was the circles; maybe eight bottles set up into a fairly tight ring, where you would enter the circle and cut cross to the other side, putting your front wheel on the outside and keeping your rear wheel inside the circle, the idea was to work your around the ring, without knocking any bottles over. Once you’d got back to where to started, you would have to cycle straight through the first two bottles, again, without knocking them down or hopping either wheel. I’d practised them at home, and was quite confident I could complete the zone, only I was a little edgy at my exit out of the hardest circle, with the two bottles incredibly close together.
Like I’d hoped, I completed the first two easily, although on the last section, nerves got to me, as I tried to rush around, mistakenly thinking I would just about get around a bottle, when I unfortunately couldn’t. This had shaken me a bit, so I was a little more scared than I had been. Luckily, I had seen many people make a similar mistake, if they’d even made the last section at all. With this in mind, I just had to go straight onto the next section; the step-over. On day 1, I’d described how this zone worked, and since then, I hadn’t gotten any better at it. The first two, I, again, cleared fine, although on the final one, knowing that I’d never done it before, and wasn’t likely to complete it now under pressure, knocked the top with my rear wheel, to make it a fail.
Next up was the no-handed line (simply cycling down an increasingly narrow line, no-handed); an element which I was a little to-and-fro about whether I could complete… and much to my delight I did! I’d got my first ‘complete’ of the test, and despite having another tricky skill coming up next, I couldn’t have been happier!
The planks were following this, and in the rain, weren’t likely to bring much delight. The idea of this zone was to ride along a narrow plank, turn in the tight turning space, ride along another narrow line (this time with two ‘brick-like’ objects placed along it), turn again and ride down an equally narrow, but less straight, line. The last section was made up off several smaller planks balanced on car tyres, at weird angles, so you couldn’t just ride straight along, rather you’d have to slow down before moving from each individual plank, to really test your balance. I’d actually found the third section easier than the second, but unfortunately I didn’t make it that far – I’d decided to blame the wet weather and the fact the girl before left the second plank at an angle.
With only one point in the last zone, I had to move onto the next one, feeling a little annoyed and even more nervous. The next zone was the tight slalom - like a normal one, only a lot tighter, and would involve a lot of hopping your wheel inline. The line obviously gradually increased in difficulty, with the third which made up the first point being easily ride-able, without hopping your bike, with the second third growing tighter, and the final third even tighter and with a fairly large log running down the middle, requiring even more concentration and balance. I’d completed this section many times in the practise, so I was fairly confident, although, again, I’d just enter the final third, when I slipped. By this point I was very nervous, having dropped quite a few marks on sections which I didn’t expect to, and with pressure of more spectators growing even stronger.
The next section was the bottle pick-up; simply where you’d pick one bottle up, place it down on a piece of wood, pick up the next, put it down, pick-up the final one, then put it down again, and exit the zone, without putting your foot down. It started off with a large cycling bottle, to be placed on large piece of wood, then a normal sized bottle, onto a smaller piece of wood, and finally, a redbull shot-can onto a tiny square of wood. I’d practised this one a lot, so was a little more confident than I had been on some of the others, which actually paid off, as I received my second complete on a zone. I then moved onto the side step, which involved stepping sideways across a fairly narrow mat on the floor, then a slightly wider one, and finally one maybe three times the size of the first. We weren’t allowed to practise the last three sections before the test, so I’d been recapping myself using lines on the pavement and roads, while I waited, which must have paid off, as I actually got a point, which was one more than I’d expected to get on this zone. I’d got my rear wheel over the second one, although my front wheel lift left me a little unbalanced and had to put my foot down, giving me only one point. I then moved onto the final zone; the bunny-hop. I’d completed a step-over on the first one, but hit my rear wheel on the second one, and again only scored one point, which annoyed me, as I felt I could have bunny-hopped it, and playing it safe hadn’t paid off.
Overall, I scored fifteen points in total, out of a possible 24, which put me respectively in joint 21st position, meaning in the handy-capped XCO event this afternoon I would start 1:45 after the first rider (Suisse rider Meret Luthi) who scored 22 points overall.
Five hours later, and we were eventually gridded on the start line for the handy-capped XCO part of the MTB-combined event. I was gridded on the eighth line, with each line starting at 15 second intervals, with every point you dropped on the skills placing you a line further back.
After almost two minutes since the first riders were off, me and the other two racers on my line were storming straight for the mud-bath of a start loop. Around the first bend, we were neck and neck, and by the next, one girl had a few metres, but paid the prize of sprinting straight into a mucky corner, when she slipped right off, allowing the both of us other girls to head in front of her. Seizing my opportunity to get ahead, I attempted a storming effort up to the hill. By this point I was beginning to pick off riders who started ahead, mentally counting down the places. On the slippy rocks, I’d got a lot further up than most people, before a girl walking had slowed me up, causing me to also have to dismount and run. The gradient of the hill, and the vast amount of loose gravel and large rocks caused me difficulty finding an appropriate place to quickly get back on, so I ended up running most of the hill. The way down was a lot more fun than I’d expected, and before I knew it, I was heading upwards again. I was still picking off slower riders, desperate to put my all into the one lap effort, knowing riders were quickly following behind me. My the time I’d got to the bottom of the next technical section and was running up the next steep hill, I had hardly any riders in sight, other than one girl I’d been with a while, who could cycle along the flat and the hills better than anyone else, yet couldn’t manage most the technical sections, so resulted in running most of it, and a girl the complete opposite. I realised I had to stay in front of both riders going into the single track, as there was next to no room for any overtaking, but unfortunately could only get ahead of the technically good rider. This meant I spent the majority of the next section trying and struggling to get around the other racer, and as we approached the long, slippy downhill (which I could barely attempt to stand up right on anymore) the rider behind managed to overtake both of us, after just about riding the section. She didn’t stay too far in front, especially when we hit the climb, and before we knew it, we were neck and neck again going down the final chute.
After a lot of sliding about and moving positions, we eventually hit the flat again. The Swedish rider who had been struggling with the technical elements, managed to achieve a good gap on us, although the Austrian rider, whom had also been riding with us, by this point seemed to have lost all energy, meaning I easily got a gap of my own in the last 600m to the finish. In the end, I finished 17th, which I was thrilled with, getting a top twenty finish in the European Championships, giving me more confidence going into tomorrow’s X-Large event. The rest of East Midland’s team did equally well, with William Gascoyne in the u17 team finishing 25th, Tim and Archie both finishing respectively around the 100s, Joni finishing 57th after snapping her rear mech in the last part of the race and Harry Lewis finishing 67th.
The fourth day of events came around quick, and although would only bring one race each, was still a jam-packed day, with an early start for the u15s (the boys off at 9:30, with the girls joining them 25 minutes later), who wouldn’t finish for around 45 minutes, and with the lack of sleep and fatigue of racing kicking in, the day was only going to seem longer.
From my rollers, I saw the u15 boys set off quicker than I’d expected, with Tim somewhere in the middle, and Archie comfortably towards the rear. The course would set off on perhaps 1km of fairly flat road, before kicking up straight up into the real gradient of the mountain. The first off-road, rocky climb would last a gruelling 3km, before heading back onto the road (again heading up). You’d then be taken back onto to the off-road, and down some miss-leading downhill single track, before being greeted with a bit more climbing, then flattening out a bit again on the road, and kicking up again after a few metres, as you headed back off-road. Having seen the last of the tarmac, the course continued to dip up and down for the remainder of the event, with a lot of rocky descents and equally rocky climbs. Occasionally, the route headed back onto grass, but for the remainder was mostly tricky single track.
The u17’s males were made to head up an un-ride-able climb, and back down again, to re-join for the best of the downhill stuff. In the whole, the single track was great fun, (although I wish I could say the same about the uphill), and with a lot of challenging stuff, and a cycle through the clouds on my practise laps, we headed back onto the XCO course. Originally, we were due to re-join the course at wood-rock, and continue from there, but ended up with a short-cut, meaning maybe only 500m from where we joined the XCO course, until the finish.
After a mediocre gridding position, and a quick tap down after narrowly avoiding one crash, and heading straight into another, I managed to work my way quickly through the bunch to the front. I knew I had to be here for the hill, not wanting to get stuck behind any slower riders, and having to waste vital energy weaving my way in-and-out, which worked fairly well, as by the time we reached the foot of the climb, I was still at the front. I knew I couldn’t keep with most the faster riders, so wasn’t surprised to be overtaken by a good 15 people near the start of the climb. For the first half, I stuck towards the back of the front group, and towards the last half of the climb, I was mostly alone, with a chasing group of around 10 fairly hot on my heels. What surprised me most, was that back in Britain, I was one of the stronger climbers, and enjoyed racing upwards, but in Europe, I felt like a sprinter trying to ascend, and was actually faster at the technical bits.
Once I really hit the downhill, I began overtaking riders quicker than before, gaining lost places, working a little with the riders around me. I noticed most the Austrian’s were a lot more reckless on the downhill, hardly touching their brakes at all. Surprisingly, I only came off once, on probably the trickiest sections, after trying to take an unsuccessful shortcut, and ending up running a little. When I finished, I’d done better than expected, and was actually only a few metres behind the girl who’d obliterated me going up the climb, managing 20th position. Tim just finished in the top 100, with Archie not too far behind in 105th. Will completed on awesome ride, to really prove his strength, finishing 9th, (after getting a little lost). Joni finished, pleased in 47th with Harry staying at the hotel, having been rather unwell during the night.
On the final day of racing, with just one event to change our positions in the overall classification, we hauled ourselves out of bed at 6:30am, for the last time this week, with more nerves than before, having been sent home yesterday with the news that today’s race would just be a replicate of yesterday’s, due to un-ride-able conditions, out on the XCO course. This meant we would have our races early than scheduled and would have even more pressure to perform just as well. Knowing all this, we decided rather than worrying, to take advantage of already racing the course, and think about everything we could improve on, and everything we would have to keep the same. I was just beginning my warm up, when the u15 boys lead off – again, Archie and Tim had good starts, both comfortably in the bunch.
This time, I would be a whole line further up in gridding, which I was fairly pleased about, and meant I had a crash free start. The bunch was going quite slowly down the road, although I knew if I wanted to be near the front up the climb, I would have to be even further ahead going into it, so decided to jump on the back of two girls making a break, with similar ideas. My group was maybe a good 50 metres ahead, staying at the same relaxed pace up to the foot of the climb. It didn’t take long for the leaders to get past me, but I expected this, so it was okay. I noticed this time the bunch was a lot more spread out than yesterday, so it was easier to climb past each rider. I knew from yesterday, I would have to put in a storming effort up the climb, as once you were at the top, other than a few short hills here and there, you were just descending. Saying this, it was a lot easier said than done, as I began my journey up the steepest sections of the mountain, I realised my legs could spin no faster. I mainly stayed with one other girl up the climb, just about reaching the few in front at the top, with the few behind just catching on. I knew the next section of climbing was shorter than I’d remember from my practised lap, so I put in an all-out sprint to the top, dropping the group behind, were I then dipped down the road, and turned into the first technical sections. One girl from behind had caught me up, as we caught a few in front. Once we hit the road again, I initially kept with the other girl, but then realised I had to keep going 100%, as I began to spy some more riders in front. I caught a few ahead through the rest of the hill, and down the descent I kept my lead. Yesterday, I’d found I hadn’t been as quick going down, so this time I was more confident letting go of my brakes and just rolling straight down, through the rocks. As I reached the ‘pits’ area at the half way point, I was sure to put in another strong effort, as once we hit the main downhill, we didn’t head up again, pretty much, until the finish. I’d only been over taken by a couple of riders since the summit, and was definitely catching riders ahead, even as we hit the real technical stuff.
I hardly recognised the XCO course when I hit it, simply because of the pure abundance of mud, and actually found myself running a large section of it cyclo-cross style, like most others riders, due to the afore mention ‘un-rider-able’ conditions. Despite the running being a lot faster, it did pay its toll, when I found myself slipping down more banks and chutes than I had done on the actual part of the X-Large course. Round the final bend, I’d again seen the girl would just beaten me yesterday finishing just two places ahead, putting me fairly respectively in 24th position, and 25th overall. After an eventful week, full of ups and downs, smiles and tears, and even more great experiences, I’d could proudly come away from the event, full of joy knowing I’d more than achieved what I’d come in hoping for, having just fallen outside the top third, with original ambitions of coming in the top half. To make me even more happy, once I’d cleaned my bike and got changed, I was greeted by the news that my team mate, William Gascoyne had come third in the u17m’s! In the u15’s, Tim had come home in 97th and Archie 103rd, both even better than yesterdays and Joni finishing 47th (the exact same as yesterday), with Harry unfortunately still unwell and not competing. In the overall team results, the u15 team had finished 47th with the u17stowards the rear, due to two DNS’s. After all the success and the few disappointments, we headed out to the after-race party, to celebrate this year, and to look forward to our hopefully return in 2015.
Thank you to everyone who helped us compete this year, especially Polaris Apparel Bikewear for the kit and all the helpers and parents who drove 2500 miles through Europe, fixed our bikes, washed our clothes and continually supported our success!