With a lot stage racing experience on the road, my first MTB stage race was a real eye opener and a great learning experience.
Since setting up this site, it was immediately apparent that limiting my races to the road meant that I was missing out on a slew of races that simply looked amazing. Full week stage races that involve camping along the route, racing alongside the pros and having the opportunity to explore the forests, jungles and mountains of the world seemed like something I had to try. I therefore purchased an MTB and entered the 2019 Mongolian Bike Challenge.
Now with the 6 stage MTB race set in my calendar for August, getting a stage race under my belt before this event seemed like a good idea. With a holiday in Austria scheduled for July, the Alpen Tour Trophy seemed like the perfect event to attend.
The plan was to travel to Europe with my wife, visit some sites around Vienna and Budapest before making our way to Schladming for the 4 day event. With my training plan focused more for August I came to this event seeking nothing more than a training ride and learning experience. I also figured that with stage lengths of 50km - 70km for 3 days and a 10km time trial to conclude the race, this would be an event that wouldn't push me too hard.
I WAS VERY WRONG ABOUT THAT!
The weather for this race was sensational and a lot warmer than I had anticipated, particularly after having received an email 4 days before the event that extensive snow had forced some alterations to the course. It was only now however that I came to grips with the fact that Stage 1 of 63km was a loop that had an elevation gain of 2,500m. As a road cyclist new to MTB racing, climbing 2,500m over 126km of tarmac is a big day. Going up 2,500m in half that distance was a frightening prospect.
As a consequence, finishing stage 1 of the Alpen Tour proved to be a huge challenge. With several climbs that were simply too steep to ride up and others that seemed to go on forever, I was put to an extreme challenge both mentally and physically along the route. To add to the challenge, the course was loaded with technical descents that didn't allow any mental respite and imposed new physical challenges on my body as it contended with relentless humps, bumps, rocks and roots shaking me to my core.
When a puncture occurred with 20km's to go, I was already looking for an excuse to stop. However, as the tubeless tire fixed itself, I managed to carry on, finishing the day in just under 5 hours and feeling very much 'the worse for wear'.
I genuinely wasn't sure if I would wake up in a condition where I would be able to repeat this feat the next day.
Stage 2 was reduced in length to only 54km, but again had a total ascent of 2,500m.
Incredibly, I woke up feeling OK and after riding to the start line I was ready to go. This time however, knowing what was in store, and being so far out of contention that it wasn't even worth looking at where I stood in the GC, I approached stage 2 with a sense of calm and was intent on enjoying the challenge.
This had a really positive impact on the day and the way I rode. I didn't waste mental energy looking up road and feeling that anxiety each time the summit didn't appear around the next corner. Instead I was able to settle into a cadence and keep pacing my way up the climbs without the stress.
I also attacked and enjoyed the descents, knowing that this is an area I need a lot of practice. The day was over in just under 4 hours and I managed to actually finish with a smile on my face.
Stage 3 was about continued improvement. My first strategy here was to line up early and approach the first single track climb with the stronger riders, hoping to avoid the traffic jam that occurred on the first two days, forcing at least two thirds of the filed to have to wait and walk the track.
Despite getting to the paddock 45 mins before the start time, I was still in the rear half of the bunch. In any case, I rode hard for the first 15 mins and got to the first single track climb in a relatively good position and was able to ride through the section without interference. This set the scene for a good, but again, very hard day.
This stage however will be remembered for the final 5km's. The final descent was largely the Schladming Plainai downhill track, and it was intense. Towards the end of such a long steep and technically challenging descent with jumps, burms, bridges, mud and rocks, my left shoulder gave way on a steep but otherwise innocuous drop, causing me to flip over the handlebars. A little skin off the knee and arm was the extent of the injury and I managed to steer the bike home without any further difficulty.
I rode up to the start for the stage 4 ITT, with the full expectation of having a short 9km ride and then going out with my wife to visit Hallstatt and enjoy other scenic parts of the region. As I approached the start line, I was shocked to see riders going UP THE DOWNHILL TRACK!
Stage 4 was subsequently absolutely brutal. It was without doubt the hardest and slowest 9km I have ever ridden in my life. Despite the dark thoughts running through my mind, I convinced myself to carry on and get to the end.
After a brutal 4 days of racing, the finisher medal I received for this race is one that actually meant something. Never have I been prouder to just finish an event, as there were several times it just didn't seem like it would be possible.
The Alpen Tour Trophy is a serious challenge. Those with world class climbing ability will do well, however when it comes to the rouleurs, just finishing is a serious challenge, but a treasured accomplishment.