UCI Mountain Bike World Championships
Val Di Sole
The most important race in my whole biking career so far. What an honor and an excitement to take a trip all the way to Italy for a biking event. When I started biking and racing I did it for pure joy of being on my bike and overcoming challenges and obstacles that for us mountain bikers are all the time in our way as well as on our path. But all of it grew and grew, I kept wanting to ride more, to be better, to be faster, to be one of the best, to be unafraid of almost anything. I also enjoyed challenging myself, setting goals and working on accomplishing them. With time I wanted to go to and win bigger races. How a little girl gets from local bike circuit to the stage of a world class race I just don't know. Lots of passion, loads of stubbornness and a lot of hard work filled with good and bad days. One way or the other we flew across the globe for my dream race!
At this very moment we are in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with still over 6 hours to go and some 3200 miles. The path that our plane is taking is not the usual one; usually you would fly to and from Europe up high near Iceland and Greenland, this time we are going way lower than that and straight across the middle of the ocean. The storm passing through Florida in our absence made its way up here and that’s why our route had been modified. It was the worst part of it all and the plane would be jumping in the air for hours, I knew I had to suffer through this to get where I needed to get. Sadly teleportation is not in order yet for us, but if it was I would be one of the first in line...
But the trip begun a whole week ago with relatively much more peaceful travel to Venice and then a scenic drive of about 3.5 hours though the beautiful Dolomite mountains to Val Di Sole. By the time we arrived in the hotel up in the mountains it started to rain. It was already around 5 o clock and we were up with pretty much no sleep at all for some 26 hours. I had best intentions despite my exhaustion to get out on the course just to see what was there, but we were quite some time away and still would have to put my bike back together. The pre-ride was simply not happening. We took a nice walk through the rainy streets of the skiing village in Maddonna Di Campiglio and grabbed something to eat. We were more than ready to simply collapse.
The practice the following day was starting already at 10 am and I knew I had to go get my race number and get out on the course as soon as I can. The time slot was for two hours and I didn’t think I would be there for that long either way but like everything in life, nothing is ever just as we imagine or plan for.
I was excited to see the course but right from the first look the side of the mountain looked just ridiculously steep. It was not the California nice and round rolling hill, it was this cone shaped straight up and down kind of look.
The beginning of this 3-mile-long loop was on the grassy open field at the foot of the mountain, in a matter of 0.45 miles it took me straight to the wet double track climb. It would start more mellow and keep getting steeper and steeper as it progressed. Along the course there were many volunteers signaling with a whistle when the rider would go by. I passed by already, 2, 3 and the climb just kept on going. Each time you look up, it just looked steeper and there is no end. Far far above there is another volunteer but by the time you get there you quickly realize that the climb kept on going. The final portion of this climb was just plain brutal, the pain from pushing for so long and so hard up this mountain cannot be described. I wanted to get off so badly quite a few times, I was sitting on the tippy end of my SelleSMP saddle, leaning forward s much as I could, cranking my smallest 28 Rotor Q-Ring at some 49-55 rpm’s and was just trying not to faint from the effort. The was no "easy way" unfortunately to pre-ride this course.Video of the course below.
It was not fun and at the top there was no reward, not even a foot of a flat surface, the trail instantly aims down into a little narrow on the side of the mountain path. It was filled with little loose wet rocks and mud. Riding it down was tricky. Than it went straight back up to the next small climb which by surprise leveled out for a little while and led us to the waterfall section. It was full of rocks and twisty climbs; it would be extremely tough when dry if even possible but definitely not rideable now when wet. It was quite nice up there and after crossing the fall the single track pointed straight down to the steepest downhill I ever got to ride.
I didn’t even know when to start gathering my thoughts when I saw it. The lower it went the steeper it got and rockier. It was big, scary, slimy slime that would end up consuming my whole day.
I ended up doing this brutal loop three times over. On my second one I felt like I spent there the whole day, trying again and again the same section, each time sliding down a few feet further. Sometimes it worked and others it didn’t. It was an exhausting process considering how steep the slope was to get back up again. On the last lap I crashed pretty hard, bruising my tail bone and looking on the back side like I was attacked by a Bengal Tiger. That’s right, not any other Tiger but a Bengal Tiger! I was completely fed up at that point and called it a day. It was unfortunate that I didn’t get an opportunity to practice on this course in better conditions like some of the girls I spoke to did.
The next day the sun came out and the guys had a great course to race on, it was really exciting to watch. Funny we got winded walking by foot to the downhill section on the side of the track with little wooden stepping spots placed. It was a really tough hike. I felt today completely beat and sore; most likely from my fall and also from riding too much, this course just used up entirely the whole freshness from my legs it was so brutal. I had no idea how I was going to recover for the following day. I just had one day to my race...
Besides the not so good weather predictions there was this beautiful blue sky on the race morning, that was really a good thing... Soon after arriving on the race course however I learned that it did rain here overnight. So the track was not as bad as it was on Tuesday but for sure not as good as yesterday.
Thursday, September 1st is the happening day. I tried to relax and just get to my pre-race routine and ignore the fact that I was going to race in my first world class event in mountain biking. There was no time also to worry about how my legs felt and how little sleep I got the night before. I was going on a little less than 3 hours of sleep as I was so stressed out the night before it. It was less of the course itself, which was really technically tough but even more how much pain I will need to endure. There was no skipping that in that event for sure. But now it was go time and I had to put all of it behind. Just getting on my bike and beginning my warm up I started feeling instantly better. It is the anticipation that is the worst. The knowledge that it was going to hurt really bad and also all the unknown. We rolled to the start line and I was called up 5th; the first four were the ladies who raced last year in Vallnord and the first to go to the line was no one less than Marga Fullana herself, the Olympic Silver medalist and 3-time World Champion, one of the times on exactly same course! It was quite insane but I just rolled in like I belonged there.
When I learned at home who I was going to race I could not believe. I was expecting regular people who work 9 hours a day and bike whenever they can, just like me. But I ended up having to race with one of best riders from Europe and best in the World. I found it pretty exciting actually more than intimidating and though it would be an amazing chance to have a real life test to see where I stand.
The position position I had in the first raw was not the best but it will have to do. In a minute time we were off.
I pushed through the grassy field having all those incredible riders on my right and in a matter of few seconds I was making ground and found my way around most and onto the smooth path. I was in second now after one Italian rider, Marga was just a little back behind to the side. There was just one bridge, two turns and we were on the bottom of the grueling climb.
I got passed by two riders and was thinking it would be the end of me seeing them, but I didn’t give up. To my surprise I managed to hang in there with the lead group and was cranking in misery and pain somehow toward the top. Now everyone was in line and I was sitting on Marga’s wheel. I was shocked a little I was doing so well again in such a tough group of women but at the same time I can’t remember a time when I was in such amount of pain last. My system was maxed out, my breathing, my heart rate, my gears, the tip of my saddle, the power left in my legs. If I could I would scream when I was in the final meters to reach the top, but I was too tired for that too. All I could do was to keep my head down and hide the pain and keep fighting and keep moving. It was so so so so hard…
My heart rate reached levels that high, that I was completely sure for many years now that my body is not capable any longer of taking me there. I think I didn’t see this heart rate for some 5-6 years if not more. It went beyond what I consider normal or my max effort. It all in theory should have stopped when we finally reached the top but the system is so fatigued at that moment that it’s so tough to recover in any way even when the trail is facing down. My group slowly started getting away from me and I could not keep my sight on them for much longer. It happened way too quickly.
I lost even more positions on the main downhill sections. I made it through and was happy to ride the spot on which I crashed two days back and made it safely down but I was concerned now. I didn’t know if I had any chance to catch up with my leading ladies. The lap went by in the blink of an eye, I could not believe we were doing 21-22 minute laps. When I pre-rode I thought 33 minutes was not bad. Goofy me, once again I didn't think I was capable of times like that. I also didn’t know how I’m going to make this climb two more times in a row at racing speed. It seemed totally impossible. Toward the top people started to get off their bikes, I biked as far as I could and I was making back some passes. Went down, up, waterfall, big deep breath and toward the three arrows pointing down. This time I didn’t make as far as last time I did go slightly off into a big rock and was off the bike. Now I got passed by my Swedish girl. This was getting really ridiculous and I tried stay near her when we were coming off the descent. On the flat section of the course there was a bridge with a huge Swedish cheering group and even bigger flag, I think they had like a 10 plus feet long across flag hanging off of it and were cheering her on. This is when I put on the gas and just moments later was able to make my pass. I tried to get away as far as I could and she would not challenge me much. Now I knew that the top 3 girls were gone and I was racing for 4th. It was going to be about all staying ahead on the climb and not losing that gap on the descent, then I knew I could pull it off. The third time up the mountain was getting slower, there was just as much one could give at that point, toward the top I had to get off and climb on foot my misery up. I was so shaky from the exertion that I was all over the place when the trail did head down. I crashed. I was trying to gather myself back up and on the bike but it was pretty hard. I knew I was losing a lot of time. I finally found some strength to start riding down, the whole ride now was so sketchy on the shook up body from all this effort.
I knew I had to just get through the waterfall and somehow down. Part of me wanted to take risks and ride the small section that I would skip each time, part of me wanted to be safe however and finish the race. That was really hard decision and it will bother me for a long time to come that I couldn’t ride it as well as I would wish for. Now it’s the time when my Swedish girl was getting close and I could hear her on the bottom of the descent on the loose gravel turn. This was my time to hit the gas once again, but now give everything I got because in just minutes’ time it was going to be all over.
In an instant I started getting away really really fast, I made a huge amount of distance that felt pretty safe. But I still didn’t want to stop. I kept on pushing and now finally, probably fist time since we started enjoying the ride and biked to the finish in a safe 4th position. My Swedish rival told me later that she had nothing left to match my attack.
The first 3 ladies already gathered at the finish line and were getting all the media attention as the top three in a world event deserves. It was very inspiring to see that even though it is a Masters event, the most attention, appreciation and pride surrounds the efforts put so forth by the racers.
It was great to catch up at the finish with all the amazing ladies that raced on this crazy course, so many talented and driven women from all around the world. I had an opportunity to meet some of them on my practice ride as well as now when it was all over. Everyone had a story, the will and the desire.
They truly inspired me to keep on trying to accomplish more no matter what age. I met wonderful girls from Spain, Italy, Peru, Australia, Sweden and more…
To my surprise there was an award ceremony that would include me also, and it was the most beautiful, emotional, professional ceremony that I ever was part of, truly an honor.
Sharing the stage and the podium with mountain biking legends and one of the best in the world was simply incredible.
I loved looking down from the stage at my husband Pax and we both would just feel it in our eyes how incredible this moment was, we both had smiles on our faces and the teary eyes at the same time. All this work of so many years and always dreaming big brought me here to this stage.
It is something that will never be forgotten…
Val Di Sole is beautiful, food is amazing and the mountains are breathtaking. I loved the fresh air here, the high peaks up in the clouds, the wildflowers and the charming little streets and villages.
And the food, the most delicious breakfast and dinners, deserts that we ever had…
I am going to miss a lot because I love here so much… I wish I had more days to just spend some time on those quiet trails and in the high mountains, biking for leisure or just relaxing at the river edge.
The atmosphere here is something very special…
Every mile or so there is another little village with its own precious and original church tower, you can see them popping out everywhere as you go and once in a while there are unreal old castles hugging the mountain edge…
I loved those views so much and my eyes still can see all those images and I can feel like I'm still there. There is this mystical presence of old times stuck in those majestic mountains...
After leaving the mountains we drove back to Venice and spent a day there. What a sight. Pretty surreal views wherever you look. We walked the most we did in many years to make sure we see as much as possible. It was sad to leave but as much as we love adventures we also love coming back home to get inspired for whatever new is yet to come.
I’m so happy I got to share this beautiful journey and experience with my husband and I’m so grateful for all his support.
I didn’t forget when I was racing here of all those wonderful strong women back in Florida who contributed to everything I do whether they know it or not. As well as my friends who believe in me and felt it would be something I should do. Thank you for being incredible and thank you for positive words and wonderful friendships…
And last but not least, thank you to all my wonderful sponsors and supporters. You are also the driving force in what I do and a strong helping hand. I could not be more proud to represent some of the best companies in the world on my journey! Thank you so much!