“These Euros, they smell fear,” he said, whispering under his breath lest anyone hear.
“I gotta be honest,” I replied, leaning forward, “the descents on that single track ridiculousness scare the living bejeesus out of me.”
His eyes darted back and forth as though he was awaiting an attack by plastic tray from one of the other competitors that sat around us, hunched over shoveling in their evening rations.
“I know. Me too,” he said through a mouthful of pasta, wolfing it down as though he might be robbed of it at any moment.
“They go down it like fucking mad men!”
It was our 4th day in the TransAlp camp, and the combination of fatigue from riding, exhaustion from not sleeping thanks to sharing a sports gym floor nightly with 300 other men, and The Fear, had me going a little loco.
I thought about fashioning a shiv from my toothbrush that night, but thankfully common sense prevailed.
Two pool balls in a sock was a much better idea…
It seemed like a good idea at the time, to sign up for the legendary Craft TransAlp MTB stage race. 7 stages, 587 kilometers, 19,200m of climbing.
A doddle, I thought. I’d heard it was all fire roads, double track, maybe some goat paths on the high Alps but even I could handle that, even me, who as of October last year had only done one MTB race in my whole life, way back in 1988, when I was 16 and still fresh-faced and (kinda) pure.
After an 18 year break from all racing, I came back to road racing when I was 36, got a slot on a pro team at 37, rode in the UCI AsiaTour for 4 years, survived the tours of Oman and Qatar with the big boys and raced the post-Tour de France criteriums in Europe.
Getting a bit tired of the roadie life and then 41, I fancied a new challenge and signed up for the Genco Mongolia Bike Challenge last year. It was hard, no doubt about it, slogging my 29er through the barren, beautiful landscape of Mongolia, but the route was essentially a road course, just off-road.
There were huge, wide-open expanses, well-trodden, hard-packed track that allowed for drafting and not a meter of what you’d call real singletrack in the whole event.
It was perfect for a newbie to MTB like me.
Yeah, I figured, I can race MTB.
Talk about being lulled into a false sense of security.
7 days over the German, Austrian, and Swiss Alps and then a couple of days in the Dolomites for good measure?
Bring it on.
Famous. Last. Words.
The first day. The start line. 1,200 folks of varying degrees of fitness amassed on a little patch of road in the sleepy, picturesque hamlet of Obberamesgau. The smiles. The tension. Chatting on the start line to Magnus and Fiona, he from Sweden, she from Oz originally, never met them before but felt like old friends. Another reason to love MTB. Roadies might be nice but often you’d never know. Uptight and taut like tightropes, my skinny-arsed brethren usually are. Me, giddy, sat there waiting to go. Ready and raring. And then, suddenly, we’re off. Mad dash to the first corner, hundreds trying to cram through a lane barely wide enough for 5 abreast. Day 2, Day 3, the smiles appear less. Like white rhinos by Day 4, almost extinct. Someone saw one by the toilets but it couldn’t be verified. The ups and the downs. Why do the ups last 3 hours? And the downs only 15 minutes? The unrelenting daily grind. Getting sick of f&*%$#g pasta. Stealing rolls and ham and cheese from the cafeteria in the evening to eat in my sleeping bag like a refugee. Another energy gel and I will either vomit or attack a cow on an Alpen hillside with a steak knife and a bottle of BBQ sauce. And where has my arse gone? My average, normal, perfectly adequate taint, wherefore art thou, old taint! What is this mush of battered, shredded pastrami in your place? Will I ever stop walking like a cowboy?
So many questions, and such inability to think of anything but the kilometers ahead…
I loved it all, really. No seriously. It was wet, it was sometimes cold, then it wasn’t, sometimes, and the Alps reared up around us, encasing us in enough geography to last a life time. Absolutely stunning it was, proper breathtaking, in every sense.
The whole race ran like a Swiss clock, precise and clean, and though the entry fee may seem steep it’s worth every penny. I didn’t hear anyone grumbling about getting ripped off, as you do at some races.
I got schooled, of course. With my level of skill and never having ridden singletrack before, I felt like I went to MTB University, did the undergraduate program, an MBA and then a doctorate, stuffing 7 years of study into 7 days. Not sure if I passed, but I did survive.
I did get good at one thing though.
After days of being gripped by The Fear, it finally began to dissipate. I was still slower then most but I picked enough up from the guys who amassed behind me, yelling ‘’ACHTUNG! ACHTUNG!’ (I seriously only thought that word was used in submarines, or war movies anyway, but no!), watching them fly by, rear brake hard down, front break feathered, arse over the back of the saddle, raised a couple of inches off it, that I stopped having to jump off at every slightly gnarly decline.
And I got real good at yelling ‘Will you f*&k off!’ to them when they got too close, too. Next time – if there is a next time – I’ll be sure to learn that phrase in German before I go.
And in case anyone is wondering, the taint underwent reconstructive surgery and is currently recovering in hospital. I visit the old boy daily, and he’s loving the grapes…