Sunday, June 23, 2013

The First Dimension

To draw an analogy from physics and math (of which I am a layman, so bear with me), the abstract "dimension" of a bike race could be defined as the minimum number of surface and terrain types needed to make a race course.  For example, a mountain bike race, covering cobbled streets, gravel roads, and singletrack, has more dimensions than a road bike time trial on a paved road.  Alternatively, a course that involving downhill sections would  have fewer dimensions than a course that demands a combination of climbing, false flats, and descending.  Mountain bike racing is typically very multi-dimensional, which is one of the reasons it is so interesting.  So at the end of May when I traveled with the Kona Team to Germany and Austria to compete in two stage races (my first mountain bike stage races ever), the Alpentour Trophy and Trans-Germany Four Peaks, I was looking forward to getting an epic fix of 8 days of mountain bike racing through the Alps.  What we got was nothing short of epic and extreme, but the racing was all about one thing.  Climbing. Climbing. Climbing.  Bad weather, fugitive livestock, and other factors aside, we had entered the first dimension.

To make another semi-abstract reference, think for a moment about Mt. Everest, everyone's favorite reference for feats of climbing high. Over seven days of racing (it was supposed to have been 8 days, but one of the days was cancelled due to extreme flooding and landslides), we climbed nearly 57,000' (17,300m), equivalent to nearly twice the elevation of Mt. Everest.  Each day we averaged about 7,800' of climbing, primarily on very steep dirt (or mud) roads...with careening gravel road descents in between...often completing all of that vertical in two 1,000m climbs each day.  For road bike racing, these numbers aren't very surprising.  But for mountain bike racing, where the intensity is high all day, with no peloton to offer the respite of a draft, these days were just...big.

Daily and cumulative elevation gain over the course of Alpentour and Four Peaks. 57,800' of climbing in 7 days
Barry Wicks, Kris Sneddon, Cory Wallace, Helen Wyman (cyclocross superstar), and myself arrived in Schladming for the start of Alpentour Trophy, and were greeted by spectacular views and nice weather in the days leading up to the race...
The town of Schladming, AUS hosted the Alpentour Trophy, one of the premier off-road stage races in Europe.  Nearly 500 races came to town to participate in the event.  

...on race day, a serious weather system had begun to move in, and the freezing level crept closer and closer to town.

Day 1 of Alpentour started off well - I came over the top of the first big climb on the Hochwurzen (1,100m) in the lead group, at the halfway point.  At the top it was snowing and below freezing, and we faced a 40min, high-speed descent. A few minutes down the hill I slashed the sidewall of my tire.  Already cold, I was freezing within a minute of being stopped, and it took me extra time to fix my flat with numb hands.  After I got going again, fully chilled and dropped from my once competitive position, the rest of the day was all about survival.  We still had another 1,000m climb (and cold descent) to face before the finish.  And this was just day 1!!!

Fully drenched and frozen after Day 1 meant full use of the awesome Austrian boot drying wall

Fearless mechanic Dave has a special love for bicycles.  He likes working on bikes so much he takes them to the shower. Apparently Old Spice bodywash is good at repelling mud and keeping parts in fine working condition.  

Day 2 was the Uphill TT up the Planai.  It was more duathlon than bicycle TT.  The last 6km+ of the course was under a foot of snow.  Luckily it was all uphill so we didn't have to freeze again on the descents!  I came in with a respectable top-15 finish, literally running across the finish line.  
The snowy conditions favored us cyclocross riders, who are a bit more used to riding in these otherwise insane conditions.
Back at it on Day 3...more steep, seemingly endless climbing.  At this point, the course had been altered due to the heavy rainfall and snow, so we didn't get too deep into the mountains.  Still, there was no lack of climbing.  Having spent the last three years training for short-format cross country, where races last 90-100 minutes and involve short, punchy climbs lasting only a few minutes, the efforts here at Alpentour felt pretty unreal.  Climbing hard and fast each day for hours at a time.    
The night after Stage 3, the weather decided to get serious.  The rain poured all night without pause, and by morning,  central Europe was experiencing the worst flooding in decades.  Stage 4 was cancelled.  

Forced off day, watching the damage on TV

Images of the flooding in southern Germany and Austria that occurred the week of the Alpentour

An extra off-day meant more time for re-fueling.  People are often curious how many calories we burn in these mountain bike races.  According to our computers, we were burning about 3,000 calories during each stage (which doesn't include the baseline calories for daily metabolism).  The chart above is roughly the food equivalent that we were burning up each day.  Enduring the cold weather may have made it even higher! 
Still soggy, but re-nourished, we departed Schladming and arrived in Ruhpolding, Germany for the start of the BIKE Four Peaks.  Thankfully, the weather had eased up a bit, and we could see the mountains again.
Bike Four Peaks, previously known as Trans-Germany, covered 183 off-road miles through southern Germany and Austria.
Four Peaks, another of Europe's premier off-road stage race events, drew an even bigger field than Alpentour.  Over 700 competitors lined up to the start.  The front end of the race was stacked with heavy-hitters in the marathon discipline.

Every day was a brisk pace from the gun...

And straight into the huge climbs...

and the super steep climbs...

And the odd false flat...

No shortage of beautiful scenery in this part of the world.
Done! Everyone wins!  Sure felt good to pull this one off!  I'll admit, by the last couple days I wasn't a factor in the race, but us Kona boys still made a good impact as some of the only North Americans in the elite event.  Fourth in the team competition at Alpentour, and all in the top-30 at Four Peaks.  Cory Wallace was the star of the trip, bagging the best placing in GC for both events.  Plus, we've chiseled our climbing legs for the rest of the year.
After a sleepy trip home to Bend, the next afternoon Barry and I decided we would get over our jetlag by racing the Blitz 2 the Barrel.
Making up for the lack of singletrack and real mountian biking over in Europe, the B2B didn't disappoint.  Flying off the drop at Tetherow (photo courtesy of Whit Bazemore) 

After a good week of recovery (and back to work!), it was back to good ol' North American style racing for the Missoula ProXCT weekend.  Good to see the old crew and shred some trail.  

At home on the [multi-dimensional] trail.
In all, this year's Euro trip was an unforgettable, formative experience.  It wouldn't have happened without the support of Kona, and I certainly wouldn't have made it through my first stage races without the camaraderie of the Kona crew, Barry, Kris, Cory, Helen and Dave.  We made it through the uni-dimensional climbing saga and are now much stronger for it (although maybe still a touch flat).  We'll come around at the end of June for the BC Bike Race, which will be sure to offer plenty of trail.  
Thanks for reading!


  1. Nice pics! Love the sunglasses frame color, lens color. I wear Oakley Jawbone series optics for clarity and durability.

  2. AMAZING! Kudos to you and your team! Go Spence!