Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Rocky Mountain Bike Marathon, Riva del Garda

On Thursday Dave and I flew out to Venice and then drove to Riva del Garda, which is situated on the northern tip of Lake Garda. The marathon on Saturday was to be my first major race of the season and also the first time that I would race with members of my new team, Topeak-Ergon. Irina Kalentieva, Wolfram Kurschat, and Robert Mennen were all in Houffalize at the world cup, leaving Alban Lakata, Benny Brochhagen, Kim Tofaute, and me to race in the first of the Rocky Mountain Bike Marathon series.

As we got nearer and nearer to the hotel the surroundings got more and more mountainous. I really love being in the mountains and I enjoy long climbs on the bike, however I started to get nervous because the last time I had ridden climbs like this was in July last year at the World Marathon Champs in Villabassa, Italy. I live in Poole in Dorset where the highest climb is only a few hundred metres so I was uncertain how my legs would respond.

The marathon course was a total of 105km with 3600 metres of climbing.

We arrived at the hotel near Arco at midday. The views were amazing; the tops of the mountains were still snow capped but the sun was shinning which made the snow glisten. Benny and Kim were already out riding so we quickly unpacked my bike and headed out for an easy spin along one of the mountain trails that run along the side of Lake Garda. When we got back the rest of the team were there. I had met Benny at the team photo shoot in March but I had never met Kim, Alban or Martijn Cober (International Sales and Product Manager for Ergon) before so I was really looking forward to meeting them. This is my first year on a pro team and it is so great to be part of it all but what makes it even more special is just how super friendly and supportive everyone is. That evening we all went out for dinner to a great Italian restaurant and fuelled up on pizza and pasta.

The Hotel near Arco was stunning

The next day we woke up to find that an enormous army of ants had invaded the apartment and had paid an unwelcome visit to Martijn’s bed! He had been woken up at 5am with ants crawling in his hair and his bed was literally covered with hundreds of ants. The cleaner came and fumigated the apartment and luckily for Martijn the next few nights he was the only thing occupying his bed!

Martijn checked everywhere for ants ;0)

After breakfast Alban, Kim, Benny and I all went out to test ride parts of the course while Dave, Martijn, and Anita (Alban’s partner) drove to all of the feed stops that we would use during the race. Luckily Alban had raced in the marathon several times before so both him and Anita knew the area well, which was a great help. We rode a small section of the first climb and part of the first descent. Despite very heavy rain earlier in the week the parts of the course we rode were pretty dry apart from one of the descents, which was a bit slippery but nothing to worry about; however, as usual, I was still very nervous! We all decided to use 2.2 race kings. We spent the rest of the day looking around the huge Expo area – I have never seen anything like it! There were so many stands, including big names like Scott and DT Swiss, and literally thousands of people. The atmosphere was really buzzing. Dave, of course, was in his element! He absolutely loves anything bike related.

Getting ready to test ride parts of the course

That evening we ate early in an attempt to get an early night ready for the 5am wake up call. The elite race started at 7.30am so we needed to have an early breakfast and warm up. Needless to say I was my usual bag of nerves and this combined with hay fever meant that I got very little sleep, but my adrenaline was pumping and I leapt into race mode – which is basically me being a bit dizzy and forgetting how to do simple things like how to ride a bike. Luckily Dave was pretty calm and organized and he ushered me out the door and on my way with the rest of the team to the start.

Dave took care of the bike :0)

The sheer size of the event was hugely intimidating. As we rode past the start area I could see that the elite riders had already started lining up but Alban, Benny and Kim were all cool as cucumbers and carried on with their warm-up and rode past the start area. I figured that they knew what they were doing so I followed. With about 5 minutes to go we rode back to the start area where I was expecting to join the back of the elite group; Alban, Benny, and Kim however rolled up in front of the start tape. I subtly indicated to Kim that I thought that I probably shouldn’t be stood there with them but he reassured me that should. The commentator and the cameramen were focussing on the big names including Pia Sundstedt (Finland) (3rd World Marathon Champs) and Katrin Schwing (German Marathon Champion and 10th World Marathon Champs). My knees started knocking…..the countdown began and the start gun sent a resounding bang in my left ear! The race was on…..

Pia (no. 11) at the start

It was crazy everyone went super fast and I went super slow! The mass start freaked me out and I let what seemed like the whole field pass me. After a short road section we hit the first trail that narrowed and went straight up. I had to carefully pick my way through the crowds and dodge people who had to stop and dab. I pulled myself together and started to focus on the job at hand. I began to claw back some of the lost places and I was pleased to start passing some of the other women. After about 15 minutes I couldn’t believe my eyes as I caught a glimpse of Katrin Schwing, and I seemed to be gaining on her quickly. At this point I started to wonder if I was perhaps going to hard; maybe the pace I was setting wasn’t sustainable? Yet I felt fine and unlike the other girls I wasn’t breathing heavily, so I passed her. Another girl, Kristine Norgaard, tucked in behind me and we both pulled away from Katrin. Shortly afterwards we then passed Myriam Saugy (Switzerland) as we continued to climb. I could hear that Kristine was breathing heavily and I seemed to be handling the pace more comfortably.

The views were amazing!

Unfortunately, not too long later a bad gear change on a steep climb caused my chain to come off. I jumped off my bike and put it back on again but by then Kristine and Myriam had passed me. I cursed myself for such a stupid mistake and luckily managed to get going again on the steep soil. Fellow team mate Kim was with me at this point and he told me to stay cool and not to panic to get back to them. I took his advice and in less than a minute I was back with them. Myriam dropped off the pace and I sat behind Kristine for a while.

Full of pre-race nerves the day before the race!

I knew that we were getting near the top of the climb when I had to pop my ears! After about an hour and a half of climbing we finally reached the top of the ascent and started the fast descent down to the first feed zone where Dave was hopefully waiting. The descent included some nice single track with some pretty rocky sections but also some fast gravel fire roads. I was fine on the single track and stuck behind or just in front of Kristine but when we reached the fire roads I couldn’t keep the same speed as her. I soon lost sight of her…I had to pull myself together, relax and feel comfortable with the bike sliding at high speed round the deep gravel corners. I let the brakes off as much as I could and went for it. Luckily Kim was still in my sight so I was able to follow his lines and gain some confidence. Eventually the fire road spat us out onto a tarmac road and I was able to gain more and more speed until I could finally see Kristine again. It was great to see Dave and the excitement in his voice made me realise that I was going well. I chucked down my empty bottles and grabbed a new one from him as I passed.

There was only 25km between the first and the second feed zone and it was relatively flat so I knew that I’d be seeing Dave again soon. I decided to up the pace and passed Kristine who stayed with me and we alternated in taking the lead. As we approached the second feed zone I upped the pace again to make sure that I got there ahead of her so that I didn’t lose contact while I grabbed some more bottles and gels from Dave, who excitedly told me that I was in second place. I couldn’t quite believe my ears, but I knew it was a long way to go yet and anything could happen.

The section between the 2nd and 3rd feed zone began with a climb and it was at this point that I planned to pull away from Kristine. I could sense that she had dropped off the back and on a couple of the switchbacks I could see I was pulling out a lead on her. I felt very comfortable and maintained a good pace. I didn’t want to push too hard because I knew that the final ascent at 70km was going to be tough. There were then some undulating sections with some steep, rooty climbs and some rocky single and double track. The whole course was really nice but I think that this part was my favourite. I felt pleased to ride past some of the men walking up the steep rooty sections, but as the trail narrowed it became difficult to pass and when a guy in front dabbed it meant I was off too. I had to run to the top and then jump back on.

Enjoying a post-race social ride

Shortly after the 3rd feedzone I had a decision to make: do I ride the full 105km Ronda Extrema or do I take the Ronda Grande which was the 87km shorter option? The course split at this point and I figured that if I rode the Ronde Grande which descended all the way back to the finish then I could win, but if I rode the Ronda Extrema I might be able to pick up 2nd or 3rd, providing I survived the final descent without any mishaps (e.g. punctures or crashes). My climbing instinct made me turn left up the 15km climb of the Ronda Extrema. I checked my watch and knew that I was in for at least an hour of climbing. It was lonely and I was in no-man’s-land. It was getting hotter at this point and I reminded myself to keep on drinking.

Eventually I caught a glimpse of another rider so I used him as my target. When I passed him he spoke to me in Italian. My Italian is terrible and I told him I was English, to which he responded with a slightly cryptic “1 minute”. I figured that he must mean that the next woman was 1minute ahead. Blimey! Could I really be gaining on Pia? Perhaps he was mistaken. After a couple of minutes however I could see what looked like Pia about 200 metres ahead. Was this really happening? I decided that I would try to ride up to her quietly so that I could follow and watch her on the descent. My plan was dispelled when a crowd of spectators at the summit of the climb let out a cheer as I passed. Pia turned around and had a double take, and she then put in a burst of speed. I made a risk analysis and decided not to try and chase her down the fast, rocky descent. I didn’t want to get a blow out or crash in the excitement of a chase. Pia is incredibly experienced in the mountains and I knew that one mistake could see me out of the race. I just wanted to get back to the finish and not make any mistakes.

As the temperature started to rise I knew that I was finally getting near to the bottom of what seemed like an eternal descent. My forearms were starting to get really pumped from all of the breaking on the sharp switchbacks. I entered a road section and then to my surprise I saw Dave leap up and down into the air as though he was on a springboard! He was shouting excitedly that I was in 3rd. Third? I thought he had told me I was in 2nd earlier. Anyway, no time for a discussion just yet ;0) ….. I grabbed my coke for the final 10km to the finish and put my head down. I still felt strong and I overtook lots of other riders who were finishing the shorter, Rhonda Grande course. Some of the men tucked in behind and drafted me. The police were stopping the traffic so we were able to whiz round the roads to the finish.

When I saw the finishing arch I didn’t want to stop until I was definitely over the finish line. Once I was riding through crowds of people I figured that I had finally finished! I could relax out of race mode :0) Martijn appeared first armed with his camera, and he was followed by a cameraman who was filming. Then I saw the rest of the team. Alban had regrettably punctured but still managed to finish the Rhonda Extrema in 6th position. Benny and Kim had decided to take the Rhonda Grande course, but Dave was nowhere to be seen – it was incredibly difficult to park in Riva del Garda because of the masses of people that had descended upon the area for the event. Finally he had given up trying to find a place and he parked in a tow-away area and ran to the finish. Job done. We were all very, very happy!

The results are as follows:

Elite women

1st Antonia Wipfli 5:16.47 (Gisler Craft)
2nd Pia Sundstedt 5:24.05 (Rocky Mountain)
3rd Sally Bigham 5:26.34 (Topeak-Ergon Racing Team)
4th Myriam Saugy 5:35.29 (Team Texner BMC)
5th Kristine Norgaard 5:41.28 (Team Cube WLS)

Elite men

1st Hannes Genze 4:30.25 (Mutlivan Merida)
2nd Bohme Tim 4:30.55 (Team Bulls)
3rd Zahnd Thomas 4:32.57 (Team Stockli Craft)
4th Dietsch Thomas 4:33.41 (Team Bulls)
5th Stoll Thomas 4:33.44 (BIXS-IXS Pro Team)
6th Alban Lakata 4:33.46 (Topeak-Ergon Racing Team)

Rhonda Extrema: Elite Women’s Podium

Thanks to my amazing new team – Topeak-Ergon Racing Team – and of course Dave, without whom none of this would be possible. I’d also like to thank Stuart Bowers (Scott UK), Des and Kate Betts, and Mel Alexander (Element Racing) and Mark Spratt for all of their support and skills coaching. Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to Rich, John, and Mansel at my loyal, local bike shop for their unwavering support –

Sal :0)


  1. Wow, great report and well done! You are flying!

  2. Fantastic write up and well done on a hard earned place :)

  3. Hi Mel, Fat Lad, and Jeff,

    Thanks for your comments. It's good to know that my ramblings are not making people snooze ;0)

    Sal :0)

  4. Fantastic stuff Sally and a really great read.
    Roll on marathon champs!

  5. Thanks Matthew. pressure then!

  6. Great report Sally - you have really made huge strides from this time last year. Some big names your dropped in the race!

    Due to a broken clavicle, I'll be on bottle duty for Mel at the marathon and cheering you on for a repeat of last year from there. See you soon.

  7. CONGRATS!!!! (I'm a little late reading your post). You rocked it, and 2 min out of second is nothing. :)