Race time. It’s a familiar feeling; one that my body has been craving for too long. I have neglected the competitive addiction, one that must be sated for everything to seem right in the world. The internal feelings are unmistakable; restless legs, concern for every unit of energy spent, and food constantly consumed. The external environment is new though. I hadn’t organised a lift with a friend, there was no pick up time, no packing of cars, or friendly albeit nervous banter on the drive to the race. We didn’t pull up to the car park in our own clique, and go through the motions of preparation with the support and backup of close friends.
I woke up at 5:30am, and ate porridge. That much will never change on race days. Then I walked downstairs and navigated the four separate locks that ensure my bikes stay mine. I haul my loaded rucksack onto my back and pedal to the train station, just in time for the 6:30 train to Zurich, but I’ll be getting off long before then in Imst in Pitztal. I buy my ticket for 12 euros and head over the platform where a surprisingly large crowd awaits the departure. The bike carriage is empty, 29 spare hooks, and I sit in the next carriage hoping that I can make the hour long journey without a conductor checking my ticket. Alas, the jovial attendant strolls past and asks whether its my bike that is hanging up. I look over and see my helmet on proud display next to me, and think that it may be hard to convince him otherwise. I somewhat begrudgingly pay the 10 euros for my bike, and wonder whether I’m also paying for the rest of the empty bike carriage. I wonder whether I would rather pay for my bike to travel in comfort on a clean, quiet and efficient Austrian train, or struggle to cram my bike into the bike compartment on a British train. I think back to my tribulations in England, and decide 10 euros isn’t so bad after all.
The train dumps me in Imst, or near it anyway. The train station sits at the bottom of a rocky gorge, and I pedal slowly up the road towards Pitztal – the small side valley jutting off of the Inn, that will be the host today for the ‘Tiroler Alpen Bike Challenge’. I had no other way to get to the race than by train, and with a lack of cycling contacts in Austria, my primary goal was to talk to people, get to know some faces, and generally let people know I exist in this country. The ride from the train station to the host town was a gentle 45 minute spin, with a little more climbing that I anticipated. Every car that passed me early on this glorious Sunday morning had a bike strapped to the back, or the tell-tale signs of a dismantled bike in the boot.
I arrived early, not wanting to have to rush through an unfamiliar situation, but found out that stress and hassle weren’t going to be the order of the day. As soon as I said my name at the registration desk, the woman’s face looked a little panicked as she realised I was the only non-Austrian on the registration sheet, but relief prevailed when I showed that I could understand her instructions in German. Number on the bike, timing chip on the leg. Simples. So me, bike and bag were all kitted up and ready with 45 minutes to go til the start, and I had little to do other than wait around in the crisp morning, and watch the cloud inversion that had filled the valley gradually dissolve with the increasing height of the sun. The haze lifted in time with the busying of the car park, and before long I was lined up ready to go.
I had no idea of what to expect, or how fast people were, or who to follow. I had spectated as matching 6000 euro bikes were delicately lifted off of racks by tanned and leg-shaven racers in perfect colour coordination. I tried to judge speed by equipment; reading books by covers when its the only information you’ve got. As such, I lined up one row back, not to crowd the locals who seemed more than eager to jostle on the front. I’d done some googling of the course map, and I could see that we had 8 km and 1000 metres of climbing before we reached singletrack – plenty of time for an order to sort itself out. The gun (whistle) went off, and gears clunked all around me, pedals clicked and lungs were shocked into action. As usual when a ‘neutral’ vehicle leads the race, the pace was crazy. The driver of the car in front having no idea that 25 mph is a fast start for an MTB race.
I end up in the second group, having decided that I should hold back just a little bit at the start. The front group of four seem to be banging their heads against each other up the road, and I watch the fireworks as three of the four blow up and wobble across the steep road as their pace falls. I find a nice rhythm, legs turning over fast, and soon drop my companions. I have a target in front of me now; one rider in bright yellow. Each bend shows no ablation of the ascent, and I slowly reel in the rider in front. I see he has earphones in, and looks comfortable pedalling in his own world. I pull alongside him, much to his shock, and we finish the climb together. The singletrack is hairy – a double down arrow greets us at the entrance, and the fall line trail takes in every rock and root it can find. The stereotype of European races being technical-free is obviously a myth, as I bounce my wheels over everything I seem incapable of avoiding. A quick glimpse behind suggests I have an advantage though, just enough for me to grab something to eat at the bottom, compose myself, and get ready for the next climb – another 1000 metres.
Our styles differ. That is, me and my unknown riding companion who still seems disturbed by my presence. We’ve spoken briefly – he told me to forget about the race behind as it will not effect us now. He’s worked out I’m a foreigner, and the conversation doesn’t go much further. His climbing is punchy; testing me every now and again with little accelerations that I have no choice but to ignore. Each one gives him 10 metres gap on me, and every time I close it down again. Then the attacks stop and I gain a little, then some more. I keep riding, and pick up the pace just a touch until he doesn’t have the elastic attachment to my back wheel. I know that his local knowledge might be handy later, but I’m willing to take the gamble and capitalise on my margins.
The dirt road turns to singletrack; upwards. Steep and rooted, and impossible to ride. I heave my bike onto my back and jog with as much intensity as my complaining legs can manage. “I thought we agreed we didn’t do running any more?” I ignore their cries. The downhill is about the best trail I’ve ridden in Tirol – loose and steep with loads of line choices. After riding by myself for 6 months, I’m happy that I remember how to ride fast, and my hardtail seems to respond well to every movement. Then it happens. It was slight, but I feel it straight away – the feeling when the tyre stops cushioning, and quickly ‘clunks’ against the rim. I pretend I didn’t hear it, and continue downwards, but soon enough I know I have to stop; puncture. My sealant comes to the rescue, and it blocks the escaping air to more of a trickle, enough that my C02 cartridge gives me some inflation. It doesn’t last long, and I’m relieved to see a gathering of people where the Singletrack dumps out onto the road. “I hab’ ein Reifenpan!” I call out to the ensemble, and feel relief when the the response is “Wir haben eine Pumpe”. So I pump merrily away and hear the ever-satisfying sound of Stan’s sealant blocking a puncture, and look over my shoulder to see my challenger for the day emerging from the woods. Perfect timing. We’re back together on the third climb and I still feel strong, but he has a little more kick than before – perhaps he was timing his efforts better than I? With an ever softening rear tyre, I take it steady on the straight-down trail through cow fields and out onto the road at the bottom. I loose sight of him around a corner, and then only a glimpse of him working his hardest to keep the gap he’s gained.
The last 10 miles were a challenge – stop and pump or ride on? How much time would each option cost me? I choose to ride on, and I get rewarded with every glimpse of the first place ahead of me. Its futile though, and I crest the final climb out of the river valley to hear the crowds cheering. As I cross the line I’m relieved that the atmosphere is friendly, and I sit down next to my erstwhile foe to learn who I’ve been battling. As we wait, and wait, it becomes apparent that he was correct about the race being between us. The next rider comes in 15 minutes down, looking more relieved than happy with his ride.
I eat the ‘Nudelparty’ pasta, enjoying the fresh spaghetti and comparing it to how it may taste in the UK. I wait around for the podium; the website says prize giving, and also I think skipping podiums is rude. An air of disappointment waves over me when I see the first podium category leave empty handed, and I realise that perhaps expecting some compensation for my racing may have been optimistic. Second disappointment was there being no overall podium – I would have much rather stood on the second step to the rider who bested me, rather than the top step in my category. After all, I was racing for the Win, big W, not ‘first place in 1984 – 1993’
My goal of finding a ride back to Innsbruck goes unfulfilled, so I pedal back to the train station in jeans and a t-shirt. I watch as thunder clouds break over the mountains that looked so peaceful this morning. As I wait for the train I realise that racing is in my blood. I feel a lot more complete after testing myself again the clock and against others. First race in Austria = success!