My first race in Europe was a lot like my first race in the USA. A lot of new things to learn, exciting new places to be at, and an incredibly difficult racing experience. Before I came to Heubach, Germany, to compete in the UCI HC (hors categorie, meaning above classification) cross-country race, I knew the racing level in Europe is quite a bit higher than in the States, but I had no idea.
To begin with, I got an offer from my friend Christian from Luxembourg to join him for the race. The original plan was to do both this race and one in Belgium the Friday before, but I threw a wrench in that plan by missing my flight. At the time a horrible mistake, but as we got closer to the start on Sunday in Germany, it was good to have fresh legs for the big day.
Christian, being a great host, offered me to stay at his home before we took off with his assistant to Heubach on Saturday morning. We did a course ride and discovered the track flooding with mud and water, with people coming off the track almost unrecognizable. The conditions were bad, even for the experienced European racers, because of constant rain and a mud filled track.
The track itself was, as Christian put it, old-scool. Consisting of one long climb right off the start line with only short flat sections near the top, followed by one of the scariest descents I have ridden down with a fully extended seatpost. It was exciting to say the least, to ride down a valley where even the best XC tires could only slow down a little bit, there was no stopping once the descent started. This was the full track, basically a big climb with a big downhill.
I was quite happy though to get some training in the course, and after 4-5 runs down the descent I was getting the hang of it, although things were so slick that I was having trouble hanging in the pedals, something I have never experienced with my Crank Brothers pedals.
Preparing for race day took a long shower and even longer cleaning the kit and equipment. I have to say big thanks to Christian’s assistant for cleaning my bike for me, something I might not want to get too used to, because it saved a lot of time, which instead went towards thinking of tomorrow’s horror show of a race. The forecast was not very friendly, calling for rain throughout the night and through all Sunday. At least it was warm.
Race day came, and we did as much as we could to relax before the 3:15pm start. The startlist was reviewed to remind myself of the “competition”. Julien Absalon, Nino Schurter, Jaroslav Kulhavy, Florian Vogel, the Fluckiger brothers and many more. Pretty much the best in the world were here, all of them. Being the first “big” race in Europe before the first round of the World Cup later in May, everyone was here to test their form and take a peek at the rivals. This time there was no goal to get a specific result or beat any names, it was only to survive the day.
I lined up, dead last as usual, and took off my jacket in the rain. 5 minutes to the start, and I looked ahead to find Christian lined up close to the front. 67 racers were at the startline, waiting to do 6 laps in the rain soaked track, which looked even worse than the day before because of the rain. The gun went off and there was a crash instantly after everyone clipped in. Another crash before the first corner into the big climb, and I was already stuck behind the pack. Things heated up as soon as I got to the climb, which felt like it would never end. I started to feel good, having had a better than usual start, and was able to pass a lot of riders. We got to the top and as my chest was about to explode I managed to take an energy gel and a few sips to drink before heading for the descent. The descent was fast, loose, and above all, scary. Everyone was in a rush to get to the bottom, and I just followed along like part of a train going down the side of a mountain. Having survived the downhill, I started the climb again and passed Christian’s friend who passed a bottle and whispered “49th”. I immediately felt good, having passed 17 guys in the first lap. I kept going and hoped to be able to stay as long as possible in the race before being pulled out via the 80% rule. As it turned out, I got 4 laps of 6, more than I got at Bonelli Park in April, and only lost one position to finish in 50th place. I can only be happy with the result, as the only real goal was simple survival.
This was my 3rd professional race of the year and the experience was already stacking up, and doing me good during the race. Huge thanks to Christian, his assistant and his wife for having and supporting me.
Next race is the second round of the SRAMliga series in Denmark. It’s a UCI C1 race so there should be plenty of action!
Here’s the race data from Strava for anyone interested: