I rode my first bike race over the last weekend. I don’t usually write ride reports but I thought I’d do it this time. It was really interesting, nerve wrecking, very tough, but deeply satisfying at the end. Alas, I spent 10 weeks training for it. It’s worth some time to keep memories.
I never did any competitive cycling before. I enjoy the so-called “randonneuring”, or long distance non-competitive cycling, where the key is perseverance and being self-supported. Races are different. But somehow (and it’s a different story), I got myself into one of the hardest amateur bike races in Europe – the Ötztaler Radmarathon. With 230km and 5100m of climbing over 3 high mountain passes in Austria and Italy (Kuehtai, Jaufenpass aka Passo di Giovo, and Timmelsjoch aka Passo del Rombo). All of them are above 2000m, all require >1100m of vertical ascent (aka climbing), all are categorized with HC (hors categorie, or top difficulty in cycling parlance). And there’s that “small” Brenner bump with 770m of climbing between the Kuehtai and the Jaufen…
So it isn’t the kind of race one normally picks as their first. It’s harder than any individual stage at any of the pro-cycling Grand Tours (though the Queen Stage at this year’s Giro came close). So my goal was surviving, not racing. The job was to make the time cut-offs at the Brenner and the Jaufen, everything after that would be a bonus.
It was nerve wrecking the day before the start when I saw all those hundreds of super-fit people on pro-level bikes who looked like they could ride Le Tour tomorrow. I was wondering what I was doing there…
The race started pretty badly. Just seconds before the start I realized that my front tyre had come off the rim (for about 2cm), creating a big side bulge. No idea how I could have missed it when I was pumping it that morning, maybe I was still asleep at 5AM? Or maybe I pumped a bit too much? Anyway, with >90psi in it, I couldn’t obviously put it back in with just my hands so I dropped maybe 20psi and went on. The bulge was still there and since the race started with a fast downhill to the foot of the Kuehtai, I immediately felt bumps and was worried that it might come off completely and I’d crash…
I stopped as soon as (most) people went forward and gave me some space, dropped pressure, fixed the tyre, and started pumping with my small pump. If you never tried to pump 6-7 bars into a racing tyre with a foot-long mini pump, it’s hard to imagine the labor. It was agonizing, everyone sped ahead and I was one out there pumping my tyre. I saw the official car which sweeps too slow riders (the Schlusswagen) getting ahead of me. I thought my race was over.
Anyway, I managed to put maybe 50psi back in, hopped on the bike, and after some frantic pedaling I passed the Schlusswagen and got to the back of the peloton at the foot of the Kuehtai. Then I immediately saw that most people climbed very slowly so I calmed down, chatted with some Britons, and thought that things were OK… only to realize 10-15mins later that we’re waaay to slow to make the Brenner and Jaufenpass cut-offs. So I left the Brits and pushed up a bit. I ended up overtaking like 400 people on the Kuehtai climb, it wasn’t easy because the road wasn’t super wide.
At the top I nearly screwed my race again because I *thought* I saw a service car on the side of the road, swerved over there and missed the electronic gate (which is used for progress tracking)! Luckily I realized few seconds later, turned around and passed the gates to hear the beep from my tracking chip. But then again, I was so fixated on finding service (with a proper pump) that I didn’t stop to eat and went all the way till the start of the descent. Didn’t see a car, went back to pick some food. More time lost.
Something like 250 people passed me on the descent. Since my spectacular high speed crash 2 years ago on a fast downhill section (which caused concussion and stuff), I’m a pretty bad descender. Descending is all about confidence, reflexes, and managing fears, not physical labor. At 60-70kph only an inch-wide highly inflated piece of rubber separates confident cornering from a skid, crash, and possibly life-threatening injuries. Also I wasn’t confident about my front wheel, and people were just flying down the road… I wasn’t super slow but everyone was just insanely fast with speeds hitting >90kph.
It became hot as we descended to Innsbruck so I shed some layers and started the long and gradual climb to the Brenner (40km at 2-3% or so). I was feeling good but the problem was that since I was still close to the back of the peloton, I couldn’t find a proper group to sit up and rest. Most people climbed too slow. I was moving from one group up to the next, usually pulling some people and sometimes sucking wind. Fortunately there wasn’t much of the latter. But I started to sweat and had to remind myself to take salt pills ( I tend to lose more minerals, particularly sodium, during sweating which caused bad nausea before).
Eventually I made the Brenner with about 30mins to spare, which wasn’t a lot given that I had to work quite a bit to make it. But I was happy as I didn’t lose any stupid time at the top and *eventually* pumped my front wheel so it got rolling well. At km 125, i.e. already half of the race!
Also at the Brenner I discovered the magic thing called “the soup”. Oh man, it was just some salty awesomeness! It gave me salt, liquid, calories, and kept me warm at the subsequent high altitude stops. I think I drank like 6 cups in the middle of the Timmelsjoch climb.
After a quick drop to Italy we started climbing the Jaufenpass. I really thought that 2hrs between the Brenner and the Jaufen (40kms or so) should be more than enough but that climb was hard. There again I started in a group of people at a really low heart rate and quickly realized that we’re not going to make it. No one seemed to care, no one was trying to pull ahead, everyone climbed with their head down, but we were too slow. So again I had to ride ahead… I passed another 160 riders during the climb and I made it with only 18mins to spare.
Actually I had more time but they placed the checkpoint station about 1km before the summit. I didn’t even realize it was the official control stop as I was so focused on steady climbing. I felt good and thought that I’d just get to the top and there’d be food and water. About 200m later I saw a sign saying that the next food stop is at Schoenau (mid-Timmelsjoch), so I stopped, ran back down to pick some food, and back to the bike. Couldn’t ride down against the stream of racers! Another 10 mins or so lost for no good reason…
During the climb I saw many people having obvious issues: some had to lie down, some pushed their bikes, some were breathing like their heart was going to explode. Looking down from the summit I saw
hundreds people who were not going to make the cut-off… It seemed like the organizers decided to make it tight at the Jaufen to make sure that everyone who makes it would finish in some reasonable time and they wouldn’t have to evacuate exhausted folks from the middle of the Timmelsjoch.
Somehow not too many riders passed me during the descent to St. Leonard. I was maybe tad less nervous because my front wheel was good now but I still wasn’t too fast. Maybe others were getting tired.
And then the Timmelsjoch… Actually there’s not much to say about that beast. It’s 28kms at 6.5% with some steep ramps but somehow the Jaufenpass, I think, is harder. Jaufen’s 7% is just that, it never really flattens out, it never gives you any rest (and not much views to distract from climbing). Jaufen is just pure hard work with some stress to make it on time. The Timmelsjoch, on the other hand, is more like the hills where I live (just x10 multiplied . It causes some pain for 2-3kms, then eases off, then makes you suffer again, but it’s never overwhelmingly difficult. And at that point I knew I was going to finish, so I was super happy. Somehow, and that was surprising, I felt better as more people suffered. I don’t have any rational explanation for that thing… just every time someone dismounted and started pushing their bike (saw someone throwing up), I felt a little surge to climb faster which I had to suppress to keep my heart rate low. That was so weird but I wouldn’t say it was unpleasant…
Heavy rain and wind hit us about 5kms to the summit (already above the forest line) so I had to stop and put on my rain jacket. It was getting cold too but I didn’t mind that part, only the wind at switchbacks was problematic as I started to worry about the descent and whether it’d blow me off the mountain at speed. But actually it wasn’t too bad, after 2-3 switchbacks I realized that my disc brakes and 28mm tyres handle it just fine. I didn’t even lose places during the final drop to Soelden! Actually some people still passed me, but many were taking the wet turns very slowly now and also there was a short but sharp bump (about 170hm) in the middle of the descent so I went by some riders there. No one wanted to do any more climbing at that point
Looking back now I can see that I can probably shave off about 1hr from my time without much extra training. Lots of time was lost for stupid reasons, from tech issues to being sloppy at the checkpoints.
Also the long 40kms between Innsbruck to the Brenner should have been faster if I was a bit ahead in the pack… Motoring along a false flat in some high steady tempo (or even not so high) isn’t something that I
do well or enjoy. It’s a time-trial kind of riding and I suck at it. And of course being able to descend faster would have helped too.
Funnily, I wasn’t super tired at the end (the attached pic was made right after the finish line). I think I never went above 160-165bpm for more than 30s during the whole race. I felt good but I didn’t know if it was going to last or not… I have bonked before so I never allowed myself to push hard. Maybe for the 15 last mins at the Jaufen, but even there it was like 11-12kph at 160bpm.
So it would be nice to ride this thing once more… and, you know, actually race it rather than trying to survive!
PS. Massive thanks to Triton Bikes for making me a beautiful titanium road frame, Eva Heims (Rückenwind – mentale Stärke im Triathlon) for helping me recover from my mental crash-related descend issues and working on my training plan, and all my local club cycling folks who make me sweat during our club rides. Oh and big hugs to Elena Klinova and Xenia who always support me during these adventures, it’s unbelievably important!
PPS: Track https://www.strava.com/activities/1156889169