Monday, June 08, 2009

9 Weeks In Europe

After avoiding the $500 excess baggage Etihad wanted to charge me on their innaugral flight out of Melbourne I landed in Milan on March 31. I quickly put my English to Italian pocket book to use trying to determine where my bike box was and after a nervous wait those big doors open and out it came. The next hurdle was getting the 30kg box to Castronno via public transport, fair to say I was happy to have a little lie down when I found the accom.

The rest of the week was spent riding around the local lakes that run into Switzerland. Even bumping into Cadel and Chiarra out motorpacing along Lake Lugano. I can see why so many road pro's choose to call the area home.

Next up was Easter in London visiting big sis before a plane, a bus, seven trains and 30 hours without sleep had me meeting up with Team Torq in Munsingen, Germany. That weekend I found myself next to Macca and Mike Broderick on a three person back row of a 130 strong field at a German National Round. The start went straight up a grass climb and there was a lot that could go wrong. It did, a chain went pop and we were all off and running. Back on the bike I soon reallised that going down I could pass people, going up the euro's go quick and that from 130 on the grid you're half a lap behind by the end of the first lap. I lasted four laps, Mike made it through five and Macca pinned it passing 80 on the first lap and finally finishing in the top 30.

Next on the calendar was my first experience of the big time, the Aussie run Offenburg World Cup. It was an Aussie invasion with 27 riders pinning on a number across the XC categories. While World Cup courses get a bit of stick for not being techy enough Offenburg certainly has its challenges and I lost some bark on my first practice lap. Come race day I was confident riding everything but it would have been a different story in the wet.

Race time arrived and even the call up was cut throat. With 200+ on the line a sneaky little move while awaiting the gun could gain you 20 positions and many a dodgy euro was trying them. I even scored a gash across the back of my calf when one tried to push past me. The gun went and the enevitable happened, a crash. The poor dude was ridden over multiple times and his wheels resembled crinkle cut chips at the end of it all. I squeezed through leaning on the fence and got caught behind two more crashes before completing the start loop. Even riding in the high 100s it was race on and perhaps there were some people very determined to not be beaten by a dude wearing kit with a cartoon character on it. I was eventually pulled and watched Absalon destroy the field to win his third straight Offenburg World Cup.

The next road trip was to Belgium for the legendary Houffalize World Cup. Taking over the town meant the crowds here were amazing and a few laps in it was only their shouting that meant I wasn't walking up the granny ring climbs. This time the leaders lapped me just before a long descent and I was able to follow them all the way down which meant getting my face on telly. Reaching the 80% mark I was once again relegated to the sidelines to watch Absalon continue his dominance and become the winningest XC rider in history.

We then journeyed over the channel to visit Torq headquarters where Macca, Kat and I raced the local club time trial half an hour after finishing the 9 hour drive. Macca stunned the crowd finishing 4th overall on his mtb and Mr Torq, Matt Hart finished 2nd but was left dissapointed after being unable to catch Macca, his minute man, despite time trial bike and helmet.

A couple of days of endless laughs were spent riding trails at the local mtb park and through sheep filled paddocks into Wales with bakery stops replaced by pub meals. It was then time to load up the Torq bus for a visit to a UK National Round at Dalby Forrest who just happen to have a bid in for a World Cup next year. In the womens Kat had the number one plate and held position start to finish. Macca had the number two plate in the mens and would have improved on it if not for some breathing problems still managing to come home second. I managed to finish this race improving on plate number 50 finishing in the 30s. The next day we covered every trail Dalby Forrest had to offer and with a bit more riding in will be attracting riders from anywhere and everywhere.

Next stop was Hauback in Germany for another Bundesliga and after a two day road trip we arrived at our lovely accomodation complete with slaughter house and bowling alley. The track had been described as up then down, and they weren't wrong. Climbing from the gun for 4km with prolonged sections over 20% meat a fair bit of granny time, then descending for 3km with prolonged sections of the DH track thrown in the course was the most physically and technically challenging I'd encountered. Add to that the week of rain and while the crowds got blue skies on race day the course was trashed. I did a few laps before that Absalon guy lapped me again. I go to follow a few of the top ten down the descent and was happy to see they were finding the muddy mess hard. I played it safe and left a gap to them which proved a smart move as it meant I didn't ride over Mr. Paulissen when he axed himself in front of me.

Next stop was Madrid for another World Cup and we broke up the 24 hour drive with a couple of days at the home of Michelin in France. We put together a brilliant road loop which started with a 10km climb from the front door and wound its way along deserted roads through a pine forrest with never ending views. Add to that finding chocolate eclairs that used chocolate mousse instead of cream at the local bakery and times were good. The setup was less good in Madrid with barely a gap big enough between the four beds to get to the toilet at night.

The course didn't have anything of note and funnily after Offenburg and Houffalize being dry Madrid was wet and made a similar mess of the bikes as the You Yangs do. That being said if I thought Houffalize had good crowds the Spanish love their cycling and I almost found myself wishing for earplugs so defening was the noise. Add to that their willingness to jump the bunting and give you a push when you're suffering up one of the stupid steep climbs and you have a very memorable race. It became extra memorable when I got stung on the throat by something and found breathing a task until once again Absalon caught me and it was race over.

After Madrid I put the bike away to go and watch some roadies suffer in some little race called the Giro di Italia. First up was Napoli and the Vesuvius hill top finish which meant walking 13km up and 13km down the mountain. Sastre pinned it for the win while unfortunately Dodger lost time and his GC hopes. I then spent a few days in Rome taking in the sights and the final ITT managing to surround myself with a few thousand very enthusiastic Di Luca fans, especially so when Menchov crashed a few kms from the finish with seconds between him and Di Luca for GC.

It was then back to Castronno where I caught one of the post Giro crits, and was educated on how spectacle races like these are 'organised' in Italy. The crowds were either oblivious or didn't care though and loved it. The final day was spent hiking up to 2000m altitude with a school mate turned roadie pro where we made some mountain goat friends, caught some awesome views of Lake Lugano and Maggiore, did some trick photography and froze our feet in the smatterings of snow that remained...in Summer!

It was then back on the plane, avoiding paying excess baggage again. I did score a 2 hour delay at my stopover in the UAE but was soon back in freezing Melbourne sleeping during the day and staying up all night. Hopefully the body clock is back on GMT+10 soonish. Stay tuned for pics.

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