The announcer stops calling out the numbers at 130, and instead turns his attention to the front of the race. I roll up towards the back of the pack as Julien’s palmarés are read out to the baying crowd. We have three minutes until race time. The music builds. I look up and around. The spectators are three deep at the start line, but I know there’s even more waiting for us up on the hill. Above the immediate noise we can hear the MC up in the valley hyping the thousands-strong crowds. The beer started flowing when the women were out on course, and it’s only got louder since then.
With 30 seconds to go the music is cut, and replaced by a thunderous heartbeat being played over the loudspeakers. Talk about tension. Complete silence. Normally I’d be in the zone, but this was too good to miss – I keep my head up as the gun goes and watch as the sprint ripples back through the pack. It takes a while to get to us, and after a couple of soft pedal strokes the pace quickens. The first crash happens in an instant. Muffled yells and the sounds of bikes hitting the ground. I get around it smoothly and hammer down the opening straight. Keeping my head up and gaining places at the same time. I pass a rider with a flat tire. Another with a broken chain. We get to the first corner and I see dust rising from the inside and more riders hit the ground. Any gaps that had been opening up come closing down again, and I squeeze around the outside just as the mass of riders realise their lines have been shut down. I escape the first corner and we hit the grass.
15 seconds into my first World Cup and it feels like an hour.
The carnage continues. Two Germans tangle bars and hit the deck. Rolling into the path of oncoming riders. I stretch the course tape to its limit as I swerve, and find an empty path around the next couple of corners. Then the climb happens like a car accelerating into a brick wall. The pace comes crashing down. Derailleurs are tested to their very limit. Riders get off their bikes and hold them aloft. Elbows are at their sharpest. I dismount and start jogging into every open gap. Steadily gaining places one by one. The first climb is a mix of running and furiously mashing my pedals up the opening 29% grade climb. I’m not going to try describing how steep it is. I’ve watched plenty of re-runs of the Albstadt course, and I had no idea until I got the chance to ride up it myself. The bottom of the link trail in Boulder? That’s a walk in the park.
The first descent is a blast. Wheel to wheel from the outset, two people pass me on either sides and proceed to crash into each other. I swerve uphill and continue unharmed as they pick themselves up. We do some more running on the final drop, followed by the second climb of the course – a climb that would be the main feature anywhere else.
From here the clock is ticking. One lap in, and I’m 2 minutes 45 seconds down on the leader. By my pre-race estimations, I’ll get pulled from the course as soon as I’m eight minutes down. That gives me another 5 minutes to play with in the pursuit of more places. I race each lap as if it’s my last: a tactic easier said than done. Each accumulated effort burns a little deeper until I feel like I may actually fall off my bike.
Descending well becomes a secondary priority. Recovery is first. Simply breathing is first. The descents are so steep that brakes stay on the entire time. The lactic coursing through my legs numbs them from responding to the normally natural movements of riding downhill. The traffic builds again as I approach the “Merida Devil’s Corner”, the famed left hand corner at the very top of the course. As we file towards it I pause for a second and have a chance to look down across the valley. 10,000 people look back.
Lap three comes around and I know my “guns blazing” approach is coming back to get me. I drop back through the field as if I’d pulled a parachute cord. The effort is no easier but the pace is exponentially lower. I manage to squeeze a gel half into my mouth and half over my left cheek just before hitting another 30 mph downhill. It’s enough to keep me going, and I pick it up a little again.
Suddenly from behind I hear a buzz from the lead moto. It’s not far back. I clock the gap at 6:30 as I pass through the start, and know this is my last lap. Everything now must be put into going faster. I pass some of the people that went by my on the last lap. I ride the descent smooth for the first time and find some flow on the lower sections of the course. I feel like I’m finding my stride just a little. The final climb is an all out sprint. Everyone knows this is it – the end is coming. The pace goes mental once more: as fast as the first lap. I sprint (crawl) to the top. Going past just a couple more people in the process. The last downhill is a procession. I’m too tired to look good or make moves. I hold on. I’m so happy my bike is capable and my seat is down. The last few grassy turns are another battle. I have no idea what we’re battling for, but I cross the line in ecstatic agony.
104th place. Three laps down on the winners. Personal victory accomplished.