Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Never forget where you started!

At 7.30am (far too early in the morning!) last Saturday I lined up on the start of the 22nd Dolomiti Superbike, which is a brutal race in the truly spectacular Italian Dolomites. It's a very special race for me because in 2008 it was the World Championships and my first ever international race - a baptism of fire! - where I finished 28th. Returning as the current European Marathon Champion and Vice World Marathon Champion to take my 4th victory was magical. The race and region, South Tirol, remind me of where my journey started and how far I've progressed in my 8-year cycling career. After 119km with 3800m of vertical ascent and 5 hours and 33 minutes in the saddle I had goose bumps when I realised that I had just become a 4x winner of the race which first captured my heart, inspired my passion for this sport and sparked my love of the mountains. 

Next up is the Bike Transalp: 7 days racing across the Alps (520km with 17,750m of vertical ascent) with Ben Thomas where we'll be looking to repeat our 2014 win in the mixed category. Follow us on my Facebook page or Twitter

Thanks for following!
Sal :) 

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

World Marathon Championships, Laissac, France

Last week I wrote about how in 2013 I raced and won Sellaronda Hero and one week later I won my first World Championship medal - Silver in Kirchberg, Austria. This year I decided to try to replicate this, well actually the goal was a medal of any colour with Gold being the obvious preference! Coincidentally, I matched 2013: winning Sellaronda Hero and a Silver Medal in Laissac, France last weekend. I'll take that as 'mission accomplished'!

The course in France comprised of technically challenging descents and climbs - a real MTB course in the Midi-Pyrenees - not too dissimilar to the riding in the UK. The course was pretty much 70km of slippery, muddy trails littered with rocks, roots, drops, jumps, log piles and river crossings. I liked it! The most difficult part was the first half but the latter half had a sting in the tail so it was pretty important to make sure there was something left in the tank.

The rainbow stripes of the World Champion are hotly contested so it's not unusual to see top XCO riders lining up to fight for the prestigious title. Preparation went really well and the week leading up to the race was pretty chilled. We have such a great team of staff and riders and it's so cool that as well as being focused and professional we also spend time relaxing and having fun together. This I believe is part of our success. Taking 3 World Champs medals (Alban: Silver, Kristian: Bronze, and me: Silver) is testimony to that! Jeremiah Bishop and Erik Kleinhans performed a great feat when they came from the back of the field to finished 23rd and 29th!  Here's a nice link to our team story.

Chilling with rum and coke in the days before the race

The race went smoothly for me with no mechanicals or crashes. Luck obviously plays a role but excellent preparation in terms of course reconnaissance (thanks to Ben Thomas for his company) and equipment plays a huge part too! I don't underestimate or take for granted the importance of our staff in our success. We have the best mechanic (Peter Felber), the best physiotherapist and massage therapist (Torsten Walter and Craig Gerber), a meticulous team manager (David Padfield) and soigneur extraordinaire (Robert Novotny, aka Gio).

Starting with race plate number two perhaps was a sign of what was to come! Finishing second to multiple XCO World Cup winner Jolanda Neff is a result that I can live with - after 4 hours I crossed the line 2 minutes back. However, as a marathon rider the World Championships is the most important race - marathon is not an Olympic discipline - and it is this rainbow jersey that I'd dearly like to pull over my head.

Thanks for following!

Friday, 24 June 2016

Last weekend was one of my favourite races: Sellaronda Hero. It's a special race not least because of the dramatic location - possibly the most spectacular mountains I've ever seen - but also because the organisation and media coverage is exceptionally good (2 hours of live coverage on Eurosport!). 

Set in the Italian dolomites the race circumnavigates the infamous Sellagroup sending riders up and down four unbelievably steep mountain passes that require the smallest of front chainrings! The altitude - between 1600m and 2300m - also adds to the challenge of the race as does the weather! Heavy rain and thunder storms in in the days and night before softened the ground and made the climbs even harder -soft ground sucking the power from the wheels - and the descents more slippery and tricky.  Starting at 7.10 am is another challenge; its not so easy to eat breakfast at 4.45am! However this only makes the race even more appealing to the thousands of riders who love to tackle and conquer it. 

Here's a link to the Eurosport TV coverage.

In 2013 I raced and won Sellaronda Hero for the first time. One week later I won a Silver medal at the World Championships in Kirchberg, Austria. This year the timing is exactly the same with the World Championships this coming Sunday in Laissac, France. I'm hoping that my second win in the Italian Dolomites will set me up for similar success this weekend in France! 

Keep your fingers crossed for me this weekend!


Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Silver Spell is broken!

After 4 Silver European Championship medals (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014) and one Silver World Championship medal (2013) there really was only one goal in Sigulda, Latvia last weekend: I wanted GOLD. Badly!

After training on the course - 80km with just 1300metres of climbing - it was clear that it'd be a high speed race with riders staying together in groups to avoid wasting energy riding alone in the wind on the long open sections. Staying together in the peloton and sprinting for the finish wasn't really how I wanted the race to pan out but I knew it would be risky to ride alone in front while the chasing group worked together behind me. But not being one to turn an opportunity down I made a break from the group after about 25km leaving only 55km to go alone! When I knew that my lead was gradually increasing my attention started to turn to not making any mistakes and avoiding punctures! Riding up the final climb, hearing the incredible support from the crowds and knowing that I'd finally broken the Silver Spell was awesome. European Champion. Finally! 

© LenaXol 2016
Congratulations to Jennie Stenerhag (Sweden) and Katarina Sosna (Lithuania) for their Silver and Bronze medals both well deserved! 

Here's a link to a nice video:

Now I'm back in Austria for some quality time sleeping in the same bed and eating great food before the next big goal: World Championships in France on Sunday 26th June.   

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Three weekends, three race wins!

Three weeks ago we packed our van and started our annual Euro road trip. We'll be driving around Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy and France for the next 3 months. Our trip started with the UCI World Series Race, Roc D'Ardennes, in Houffalize, Belgium. In the weeks before the race heavy rain meant we were faced with a mud-fest and very challenging conditions! Despite the cold my legs and body worked well and I was able to win ahead of BH Suntour rider Helen Marcouyre (France). At the finish I looked a little bit like a Belgian mud-chocolate - and it took more than 30 minutes in the shower to wash off the Houffalize mud!

The following weekend I was eating dust rather than mud at the UCI World Series Race, Rothaus Hegau Bike Marathon in Singen, Germany. It's a fast 80km course with only 2000m of climbing so it's not easy to make a break but after 40 minutes an opportunity came and I grabbed it building a lead over the chasing group of 8 riders. Riding solo for so long on such a course is a bit of a gamble but fortunately there were light winds and the gap gradually increased. After just 3 hours I finished almost 4 minutes ahead of Swiss rider Esther Suss with German Silke Schmidt a further 3 minutes back. 

Last Friday we headed back to the stunning Ardennes for the 3 day Belgian Mountainbike Challenge. Stage 1 kicked off on a beautiful warm sunny day BUT it was Friday 13th - and our hotel room number was 113 - so perhaps it was unsurprising that after less than 5km I heard the heart sinking sound of air and sealant leaking from my tyre. A huge sidewall cut which was tricky to fix saw me sidelined for more than 15 minutes during which time the whole field of pros and then amateur riders passed me. Chasing back lost time while over-taking hundreds of riders was a big challenge but I tried really hard to regain some lost time. I finished 5th with a 20 minute deficit. The next two stages were all about chasing and trying hard to see how much time I could recover. Amazingly, on the second stage I closed nearly 8 minutes, leaving 12 minutes to try to recover on the last day - a seemingly impossible task! On the final stage I gave everything and crazily managed to take the lead in the last 30kms! How cool is that!!!???? I felt a bit guilty taking the leader jersey from Serbian rider Jovana Crnogorac after she wore it for the whole race but that's bike racing! After 13 hours and 15 minutes I won with a lead of 6 minutes over Jovana, with German Stefanie Dohrn finishing in 3rd. 

Thanks for following!
Sal :)

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Cape Epic 2016

After racing 800km and climbing 15,000 metres on beautiful trails in the Western Cape, South Africa, Adelheid Morath (GER/BH Suntour KMC) and I crossed the finish line at the stunning Meerendal Wine Estate on Sunday. The Cape Epic - regarded as the worlds toughest MTB stage race - set a precedent this year with the introduction of separate starts for the Elite Women. Consequently, it was the most closely fought, exciting race amongst the pro women in it's 13 year history and a landmark event in professional women's MTB stage racing. 

Lining up for the Prologue I was excited to be side-by-side with Adel - my winning team mate from last years Swiss Epic - but I was all too aware that over the following 8 days there would be many unexpected challenges to overcome. While I'd already started 6 Cape Epics I'd failed to complete 2 when my partners were struck down by illness and heat exhaustion respectively. In my mind I wanted to make sure that this race contributed to my 'completed' tally rather than my list of 'DNFs' - but more than that I wanted to win!

The Prologue was fast and furious with us finishing less than one second off the Podium and just 1 minute behind the stage winners (Ascendis Health's Jennie Stenerhag and Robin de Groot). We were happy and excited to begin the next 7 long, hard days in the saddle. 

In addition to the separate starts the new race rules stipulate that drafting amongst the different categories (i.e. women and men) is prohibited thereby making the race a fair fight amongst the women - a rule that I wholeheartedly welcome and one that continues to raise the level of professionalism.

Stage 1 (108km) saw us lose 5 minutes to the race leaders - though we did move up to 3rd in the General Classification (GC) - so on Stage 2 (93km) we were  determined to claw back some time with a strong performance. In the final 10kms we saw our stage win disintegrate when we were caught and passed by Spur Specialised (Ariane Kleinhans and Annika Langvad). During our chase along the fast district roads the backdraft of a low flying helicopter blew Adel off her bike. At the time we were frustrated by the seconds lost but it would later become apparent that this crash caused more damage than we initially thought. We finished the stage in 2nd position just 45 seconds off the stage win (3rd overall in the GC). 

Stage 3 (104km) was a long transition stage which saw the 4 top women's teams stay together until the final 15kms. It was thrilling from start to finish and the final 7kms were caught live on TV. Adel and I were able to make a break on the final climb and finally a stage win was in sight for us but during the last few flat kms the intense heat and sheer exhaustion meant Adel was running on empty and Spur Specialised beat us to the line by 30 seconds. Sadly Team Ascends Health were forced to withdraw from the race due to health issues, as a result we moved up to 2nd in the GC. 

Stage 4 (75km) took us on a tour of the finest singletracks of Welvernpass with kms and kms of switchbacks, twists, turns, rocks and drops. It was now however that the earlier helicopter incident really impacted on our race. Adel's knee injury was becoming increasingly painful and every pedal stroke was starting to hurt. We lost a further 5 minutes on the race leaders Spur Specialised putting us 12 minutes behind overall and 2nd in the GC with a 7 minute lead over 3rd position.   

Stage 5 (93km) was a transition stage from Wellington to Boschendal and once again saw the top three women's teams race closely together until the final 10kms. Exiting the final technical descent together it was full speed along flat district roads and farm land to the finish line. Adel's knee pain was especially troublesome and she battled to keep contact. After giving it everything we finished in 3rd position while retaining 2nd position in the GC. Team Sport for Good (Sabine Spitz and Yana Belomoina) won their fist stage with Spur Specialised 50 seconds ahead. 

Stage 6 (69km) was, in my opinion, the best stage I've ever raced in the Cape Epic. The route covered kms and kms of world class singletrack twisting and turning through forests and traversing mountainsides. The steep climbs exacerbated Adel's knee pain which ultimately caused us to drop down in to 3rd position in the GC when Sport for Good stormed to another stage victory. 

Stage 7 (86km) was the final stage taking us from Boschedal and back to Meerendal. Once again the top 3 teams remained together until the final few kms. Nursing her knee, Adel gave 100% which saw us finish 3rd in the stage and 3rd overall. 

After 33hours and 30minutes Spur Specialised won, closely followed by Sport for Good (+15minutes) and Adel and me (+20minutes). 

Although my dream of once again winning the Cape Epic wasn't realised, I was thrilled to be part of the most closely fought women's race in the history of the Cape Epic - and in my opinion the best ever route. Big congratulations to Spur Specialised on taking their 3rd Cape Epic win and Sport for Good for 2nd in their inaugural Cape Epic. Next year I will return fully motivated to once again fight for the overall victory - a victory which would add to my previous 2 wins (2011, 2012).

In the Cape Epic I always say 'expect the unexpected' and this sadly rang true for teammate Kristian when he lost time with a broken shoe and was later injured in a crash that forced him to withdraw from the race. Alban once again continued as an outcast rider but he later became ill and was unable to make the finish line at Meerendal. Jeremiah and Erik - our support team for Alban and Kristian - continued alone and finished a respectable 10th overall in the GC. 

If you missed it then have a look at our team story where you'll find great images and videos:

We were supported by a great group of people including our team manager, mechanics, physiotherapists and chefs who kept our bodies moving and wheels turning. Thanks Topeak Ergon Racing Team!!! 

Thanks for following, 
Sal :)

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Monday, 29 February 2016

Andalucia Bike Race

After missing the last two editions of the Andalucia Bike Race I was excited to return to the event this year. Having won there in 2011, 2012 and 2013 it was no secret that I wanted to win a fourth time! With my Cape Epic partner racing at Cyprus I searched for another partner and was fortunate to be able to pair up with Swiss rider Katrin Leumann. 

Kicking off with a 50km TT in the mountains around Jaen we were quickly introduced to the steep climbs which would feature throughout the 6 days - off with the 32T front chainring and on with the 30T! As the favourites we started last and had the advantage of chasing down the other teams - much better to chase rather than be chased in my opinion! We didn't hold back and set a fast pace comfortably putting us in the green leader jerseys. 

The second stage was just 76km but packed in 2600m of steep climbing. Katrin - a XC specialist - is new to stage racing and doesn't train for long distances or multi-day events so throughout the race my role was to help her conserve energy whenever possible. As an excellent technical rider her role was to lead in the downhills picking the best lines for me to follow. This strategy worked really well and we took our second stage win. 

The third stage (72km, 1800m) took us to a different venue, Andujar, which allowed us to race on some stunning trails including one long descent down an old Roman road with twists, turns, rocks and drops. The final 3 stages (all varying between 70 and 90km) all started and finished in the historical city Cordoba where a myriad of trails - both flowing and technical - can be found in the nearby mountains. 

With no immediate pressure from the other teams were we able to ride without risk but on the 4th stage we could have seen the end to the race when on the last technical descent to the finish a rock flicked up into my front wheel breaking two spokes and puncturing the rim tape. The tyre immediately deflated. Working together we quickly removed the broken spokes, put in a tube and rolled to the finish taking another stage win. 

On the final day we timed our race to perfection when we crossed the finish line just as the first rain drops started to fall! Winning my fourth ABR was pretty cool. We didn't have pressure from other teams which is a big shame because it would be much more fun to have tighter, more exciting racing. I'd love to see more elite women's teams lining up and making an interesting battle. Riding comfortably in the lead does however have it's advantages for me at this point - now I'm not totally exhausted and I can continue with my preparation for my first big goal of the season: the Cape Epic starting on Sunday 13th March. Stay tuned!