After our eventful trip to Salamina Island, we settled enough to find the race course and attempt to go ride it. We set off in the direction of Kanakia to find the time trial course. Forget the picture-postcard Greek island that you’re imaging though; Salamina is a little more down to earth. Belying the poor economic conditions here, there’s lots of run down houses and broken roads, and the occasional pack of feral dogs on the street. From our town of Selinia, we drove up a steep climb and dropped in to the centre of the island and through the town of Eantio (the start of day three’s racing), and then over a very steep and winding singletrack road to the village of Kanakia, that would host the first two day’s events. The road to Kanakia is beautiful. Lined on both sides by low pine trees, and with expansive views across the Aegean Sea. It was by far the nicest road on the island, and Christa ended up riding it many times on her road bike. She only crashed once.
The village of Kanakia is tiny. As we drove over to the village, we could see singletrack snaking off into the trees, and suddenly I understood why we came here. Kanakia is just a couple of streets wide, with one beautiful beachfront café that serves as race HQ. Only one 10×10 tent marked this place as being host to an MTB race. With the aqua blue Mediterranean lapping at the shore, it seemed an unlikely place for some of Europe’s fastest to be gathering. Despite the lack of evidence, The Island was hosting a four-week block of racing, and plenty of European national teams had come along for a training- and racing camp. The Greek team, as expected were represented well, but Denmark, Slovakia, Ukraine, Norway, Portugal, and Kazakhstan were also heavily represented.
Without my kit bag, but with my bike, I borrowed Christa’s chamois to pre-ride the course. Cotton t-shirt and short short shorts – I’m sure I looked great. From the beach, the 9-km time trial course climbed steeply on an old jeep trail around the coast, gaining the ridge and continuing towards the radio towers at the top. Crossing the single lane road, it then hit mind bendingly steep grades to the top of the hill, before dropping into the finish on a short sharp descent. Roughly 30 minutes long and containing very little technical interest, it was simply a drag race to the finish. My bag arrived that evening, thankfully, so I was back in Boulder Cycle Sport kit for the race itself.
Having just got to Greece, it being my first euro stage race, and being a time trial, stage one proved to be difficult: I raced blind. I pushed as hard as I could possibly imagine. Coming from altitude in Colorado, my power numbers in the thick oxygenated sea-level air seemed crazy high, and coming across the line I was happy with my ride. Perhaps I could have gone harder – but I doubt it. Time trials are weird like that. I didn’t see results until a little later that evening, but I’d moved from 46th on the rankings to 32nd on the results. That made me happy, as there’s always a niggling doubt of being completely blown out the water. The results also revealed the true strength of the field here. A little bit of comparing the results with Google showed the experience here; 12 of the starters raced at the London Olympics, and Howard Grotts (The US’s top ranked rider) would have been 10th on paper here. Starting just in front of me, young Dane Simon Andreessen had the ride of the day, starting unranked and finishing in the top 5. The Bianchi Countervail team from Italy also had a good showing, placing their new signing Stephane Tempier near the front. I was a minute or so back on Ben Sonntag, who I’ve pegged as someone I can ride with on my very best days, so I wasn’t entirely satisfied. I knew I could do better.
Day two: a little more time in the morning, some better breakfast, and a chance to spin before the race had me feeling fresh and ready. A proper Olympic style XC course (5-km long, two feed zones) had been laid out on the outside of the village, using the old goat tracks to great effect. The setting was almost surreal: the sea lapped up against a white sand beach, the hills looked pristine, and here in the middle of it all was a mountain bike race. The start raced across the beachfront and then climbed on a mix of loose gravel road and singletrack to the top of the climb. The downhill plummeted on fun, swoopy tree lined trail back to the beach. The descent was a revelation, having raced plenty of XC courses that take the fire-road option back down. In fact, many people were surprised to see such fun trail in a European race.
The racing was hard and fast from the gun. Unlike in the US, everyone was sure of themselves on the start line, and gaining places proved difficult. I erred by taking the inside line into the first corner, and got hung up in some traffic going into the singletrack. I had assumed that I would begin catching people as the race moved up, but I really didn’t make any progress. The race got more and more spread out, but luckily Jason Boutell, the other English guy in the race, provided the motivation to keep plugging to the end. I got more and more confident on the way down each lap, finally feeling like I was getting used to the idea of Mountain Biking again after a snowy winter in Colorado. I didn’t feel great on my bike for the whole trip, not being sure of my tire pressure and not trusting the gauge I’d brought with me. I came really close to catching Jason’s wheel, but in the end he finished just ahead of me. I came in a demoralising 37th place on the XC. Not too far back in terms of time, but a long way back on Rotem Ishay (Israel, riding for Jamis bikes) and Benjamin Sonntag (Germany, riding for Clifbar) on the second climb. We represent three nationalities, but have the common connection of all living, and racing together regularly, in Colorado. The mentality of stage racing made me race hard to the very end, and I realise that I probably have more left in me at the end of XC races than I use. Goal for the year: ride like Jamey Driscoll and battle to the very end.
Big picture from the XC race was that I finished within 12 minutes of the leaders. The leaders here are the same people finishing in the top 10 at World Cups, so that’s a really reassuring feeling.
I came into the final stage of the race confident that I could do better and gain some time. The 37-km course had three significant climbs and a couple smaller ones too, and generally I felt like it suited me better than the XC. Starting from the town of Eantio, we climbed up a cart track from the town, and then zigzagged up the hillside, gaining close to 300 metres in the first 15 minutes. I started much better than the day before, relishing the slightly longer climbs compared to the XC course. I suffered hard to stay in the group with Ben, and made it to the top of the second climb in a really good position. I also got a smooth feed from Christa who had been rallying around the island in a caravan of support vehicles to get to the aid stations. It’s here I made an error though, as I dropped back through our group at the top of the climb. I’ve done it before in Colorado, and it’s a bad habit. I need to race over the top of the climb and get into the descent first. Instead, I got road blocked by some really poor descenders, and lot contact with the people I needed to ride with. It was entirely my fault, and something that I will be working hard to fix going forward.
The descent itself was great fun, taking in some really narrow and fast singletrack through the hills. A few technical sections broke up the mainly swoopy trail, and then we found ourselves at the beachfront again before climbing up the same road as used in the time trial. I fell apart a little here, only being rescued by a feed of coke from Christa. The heat started to get to me and I didn’t choose lines very well. I managed to stick with a little group of riders, and we worked together over the top of the climb to the final chunk of trail. There must be an underground Mountain Bike culture on the island, as the trails are well built and looked after, and give you just the right amount of reward to alleviate the suffering from the previous climb. Rocky and loose in the right places, and fast in others, I descended back into Eantio with Guy Niv, a teammate of Rotem’s from Israel. I finished 31st on the stage, but more importantly gained enough time to move up to 32nd on the General Classification. That was exactly what I’d come for: some more UCI points, and an experience of racing a truly international strength field.
Although I didn’t see much of the front of the field, it was still an awesome opportunity to line up with the best and test myself this year. After speaking to other racers who have been on the European circuit for a few years, the competition this year is an obvious step up, and it will be a great year to watch leading up to Rio.