Monday, 29 June 2009

TRANS GERMANY, ERBACH TO SEIFFEN

The Trans Germany is a 7-day stage race starting in Erbach, West Germany and finishing in Seiffen, East Germany. The 660km route included 15,300 metres of climbing. This was my first stage race and I had no idea what to expect.

Our Topeak Ergon team of riders included Alban Lakata, Robert Mennen and me, and we were supported by our Team Manager, Dirk Jucker, Team Mechanic, Lars Hartwich, Team Physiotherapist, Werner Faust, and last but not least, Dave Padfield, my amazingly supportive boyfriend.
Lars set up his mechanics office each day

The first stage started on Sunday 21st June and we arrived in Erbach the day before. The start list looked pretty impressive and all eyes were on Esther Suss from Switzerland, who is currently ranked number 1 in the world for marathon racing.

Stage 1: Erbach – Frammersbach 102.08 km - 2257 metres

Each day my morning routine involved forcing down breakfast (pre-race nerves suppress my appetite), packing up our baggage, and a 20-minute warm up on the rollers before heading off to the start line. I was in start block A and I tried to get as near to the start line as possible. In true style I was as nervous as ever but I figured that as each day progressed the nerves would lessen –wrong! AC/DC High Way to Hell signalled the count down to the start each day before the gun was fired.

The first day nerves are clear to see!

I found this stage one of the hardest. I had no idea how tactical these races are. I just naively did what I normally do – race alone. I knew that there were at least two girls ahead of me, including Esther Suss and Nina Gassler, Kona Norway. I figured that it was a long race and that I might be able to catch them as the race progressed. I didn’t feel great in the early part of the race, partly because I had been ill (again!) in the week leading up to the race and also because my legs needed waking up! I normally get stronger as the miles clock up, so I hoped to catch glimpses of them in the latter part of the stage. Sure enough I did start to make up some time and on one of the long fire road stretches I could see Nina and the German Marathon Champion Elisabeth Brandau, Team Haibike. I was quite tired at this point and I decided that I wouldn’t worry about podium positions so early in the week, time is most important and I wasn’t that far behind them. It was going to be a long week and conserving energy was more important. I crossed the finish line less than 1 minute behind 2nd and 3rd place but 6 minutes behind Esther.

I was a little disappointed but I focussed on making sure that I spent the rest of the day recovering, i.e. eating, eating, a little more eating and some massage.

Stage 2: Frammersbach - Bischofsheim 82,89 km – 2050 metres

Lars collected our clothes at the start

I started this stage armed with the knowledge that a successful stage would mean a fast start to get in with a fast group of riders, and most importantly that I must not ride alone but instead I should always look for opportunities to save energy and draft as often as possible, taking my turn to lead when necessary. This worked well and I found myself in a group of men with one other lady, Nina Gassler. One of the guys in the group told us that he had worked with Esther the day before and that today he wanted to help us. Thanks! It was really nice to ride with Nina and I saw her as a team mate rather than someone I was racing against. I had miscalculated my feeding and when I started to run low on carbs Nina kindly gave me one of her gels.

Taking the lead

As we approached the final descent Nina took off and knowing that I was in third and that we were near the finish I decided not to take the risk of crashing in a chase. The terrain was quite wet, rocky and steep in places. Losing time on the descent meant that I had lost contact with the group and I had to contend with the head wind to the finish on my own. I finished less than 40 seconds behind Esther and 10 seconds behind Nina. This put me in third place overall.

Stage 2: Third place


Stage 3: Bischofsheim - Oberhof 94,60 km - 2696 metres

This stage started off with a fire road climb before an exposed road section. It was fairly windy so a good start today up the first ascent was even more critical. Nina and I worked together to chase Esther up the climb. When I tired Nina took the lead and when Nina tired I took the lead. When we finally emerged onto the road section Esther was in a group of guys ahead. Nina took the initiative to get the guys in our group working hard with us to bridge the gap. It was hard work but eventually we did it. Esther seemed a little surprised to have us for company. Nina advised me to tuck in now and rest. It was interesting to see how tactical the race was and I was learning very quickly what I needed to do in order to be at the front of the pack.

Chasing Esther's group

There was a fair bit of climbing in this stage, which suited me well and it also meant that it was more of a level playing field for me, Esther and Nina. In other words, there was little benefit from drafting on the climbs. I was looking forward to the latter part of the stage because there was some nice climbing to the finish. Unfortunately Nina dropped off the pace and this left me hanging on to the group without her. We descended down a muddy slippery track and one of the men in front slid off his bike. Esther managed to get round him but I didn’t and I slid off behind him. I jumped back on quickly but Esther was already disappearing round the corner. I worked hard to get back to the group and with the help of the guy that crashed we eventually caught them. We had to hike-a-bike over a railway bridge and, out of our group, Esther was the only one that rode down the steep steps on the other side. This meant that I lost contact with her again but luckily the course climbed steeply and I was able to regain contact.

It didn't rain every day!
Not long after my last feedzone I lost my bottle on one of the rooty descents and I had to ride for some time without any fluids. This meant that I started to dehydrate but I was kindly given a bottle of coke by one of the supporters of another team. This caused me to lose contact with the group and I had to chase to try and catch them. I started to run out of energy and faded fast. The climbs just seemed to keep coming and the ground was muddy and energy zapping. I was filled with relief to finally cross the finish line albeit 4 minutes behind Esther and 5 minutes ahead of Elisabeth Brandau who finished 3rd. I was disappointed to have been with Esther for so many miles and to have lost so much time in the last 10km but I was pleased to have been in contention for the first 80kms. Esther told me that it was good to have raced me and that I had pushed her – to hear this was an honour :0)

Lars set to work on my bike

Stage 3: 2nd place

Stage 4: Oberhof - Bad Steben 120,44 km – 2502 metres

I planned to take this stage a little easier. Although there was a fair amount of climbing, the climbs were short and not long and draggy the way I like them. I decided to save energy for one of the later stages that was better suited to me. Perhaps this was a bad decision – I lost another 8 minutes to Esther. Nevertheless, I still finished in 2nd place and 9 minutes ahead of Kertsin Bratchtendorf, Team Fiat Rotwild.

Stage 4: Second

Stage 5: Bad Steben РSch̦neck 97,95 km - 2232 metres

Today I woke up and decided that I had to stay with Esther from the start. I wanted to see how much I could push her. From the gun I sat with her and managed to get in a fast group. I tended to stay at the back but a couple of times I pushed on and Esther followed. Dave and Lars were excited to see that I was still in the fast group when I past them at the 3rd feedzone. It made me smile to hear Lars shouting “go Surfa!” (Surfa is my nickname due to my windsurfing adventures!). It was raining and misty, which made it difficult to see at times. I felt like I was riding well and became more confident with the fast cornering and descending. The kilometres clocked up and I still felt strong. At the last feedzone Werner shouted that today was my day – I hoped so. From here on the course climbed gradually to the finish. When I saw Esther go I went with her. Our group dispersed – some of the guys went with her and others got left behind. The climb got steeper and a gap started to emerge between us. We past a crowd of cheering spectators who shouted words of encouragement, unfortunately my German is terrible and wasn’t able to understand what they were saying, however I guessed that they were telling us how much further it was until the finish. I wish I had of known because this might of helped me to judge how hard to push. We turned a corner and the course continued to climb through the streets. At this point Esther pulled away and I couldn’t go with her. I could see the finishing straight and Esther heading straight for it. Damn. There were children lining the road waving huge cardboard hands for the riders to high five. I eased off and gave some of them high fives. I crossed the line 24 seconds behind Esther and 7 minutes ahead of Milena Lantwing, Cube. Esther had said that she wasn’t sure she could win that stage and that I had once again pushed her. I would of course liked to have won but to hear her say this made it a sweeter pill to swallow :0) That evening we stayed in a great hotel and the Champions Party was in the bottom of the valley, which could be reached by a ski lift. Lars, Dave and I decided to go back to the hotel on the ski lift while Dirk and Werner took the team van. As we were half way to the hotel we managed to drop the hotel room key. We watched it fall in slow motion 100 feet to the ground. We all rolled around laughing until we realised that one of us needed to go and find it - Dave pulled the short straw and had to go back down to retrieve it :0)

Digging deep

Stage 6: Schöneck - Oberwiesenthal 80,93 km - 2017 metres

This was the stage that I was REALLY looking forward to. Although it didn’t have lots of climbing the climbs were long and dragging – Wahoo, my favourite :0)

Not long into the stage there was a single track section that was really rooty and slippery. Roots have never been my forte, particularly when they are wet and on a narrow section with small drops to either side. This was not good. I made a complete mess of it, though I wasn’t the only one. Esther however didn’t seem to have any trouble and was quickly out of sight while I got held up and held others up. Sorry! I decided that running was probably quicker so I legged it to the fire road and hopped back on. The chase was now on. Rather than staying with the group I was now with, I decided I had to close the gap to Esther. Oh why, oh why, did I make this decision??? We were only approximately 20km into the stage. As I powered along chasing hard I braked for a corner. The road was wet and I felt my back wheel lose traction and slide out. It then seemed to re-grip and I got high-sided. I hit the ground first on my right side, taking most of the impact with my thigh and elbow. I remember sliding along the road and then flipping onto my left side. This wasn’t good :0( The guys behind stopped and I asked them to help me. Someone picked my bike up and twisted the handlebars back round while someone else picked me up. The next thing I know I was on the bike riding cautiously down the road. Someone asked if I was ok and I said I wasn’t sure, he asked if I felt sad to which I replied “yes” :0( I decided I’d ride to the next medic. I didn’t really look at the damage to my body. Ignorance is bliss. However I couldn’t help seeing that my shorts were ripped open on the left side, my left leg was covered in road rash, and blood was running from my right arm onto the handlebars. I hate seeing blood, especially mine. OK, time to focus all efforts on not fainting. I decided I needed to drink lots and deny. I gingerly rode on while telling myself that blood always makes things look much worse than they are and that I probably just had a few scratches that were bleeding lots more than necessary. I got to the next marshals and I decided that if I stopped and saw the damage then I probably wouldn’t be allowed or able to continue. I carried on riding.



At the feed zone Werner saw me and asked if I was OK. I replied with a quite “no” but didn’t slow as I grabbed the bottle and gel. I had completed 5 stages of this race and was comfortably in second place overall. I was not going to throw it away and stop without a fight.

No too long later a group from behind caught me and in it was Milena Landwing, Cube. I was riding the descents really cautiously partly because the bumps exacerbate the pain but also because my confidence was at rock bottom. I had to let her fly by me on the descents but I was able to pull her back on the flats and the climbs. As I passed Dave at the third feedzone I could see he was worried. I said I was fine and took the bottle. I made a plan: stick with Milena and save energy until the final climb at 65 km. The climb was perfect for me and so long as I rested and stayed fuelled then I should be able to make a lead over the 10km climb and this should be sufficient for me to take the descent to the finish slowly without being caught. As soon as the climb began I went and didn’t look back. I passed lots of men and kept the power on. Eventually I reached the top of the ski lift and knew that it was all down from here. I rode slowly. I didn’t want to crash again. I finally turned one of the last corners and saw Dirk waiting at the side of the track I shook my head and said sorry as I passed him to the finish arch. Werner and Dave were waiting for me with a medic. Everyone was talking in German and this helped me continue to deny and pretend that it was just a few scratches. My wounds were cleaned and my shorts cut off around my left hip. I had to go and have some X rays taken of my elbow at a clinic near the finish area. The X rays were fine but showed some stones stuck under the skin of my elbow. I had to go to hospital to be cleaned up.

Dirk drove Dave and me to the hospital 40km away. I was signed in and told to wait. We waited for a couple of hours until in true ‘Sally style’ I fainted. I had seen all the road rash on my hips and thighs. Shock set in and the windows closed. Dirk stayed with me because none of the doctors or nurses spoke English. I was told that in order to fix my elbow the doctor needed to give me a local anaesthetic, cut some of the damaged skin off, and staple it. I had slid along the road on my elbow and this had cause a dip ‘defect’. I then had more X rays of my elbow and pelvis, and finally ultra sound to check there was no internal damage. I got the all clear and we went back to the hotel.

I told everyone that I would ride tomorrow.

Stage 7: Oberwiesenthal - Seiffen 78,83km - 1590 metres

Werner bandaged me up and I went for a cautious ride on the road near the hotel to test if I had the strength in my arm to hold the handlebars. I did and my decision was made. I didn’t want to ride but I had no choice.

Feeling very tentative

I stood on the start line more nervous than ever. My arm was bandaged conspicuously to look like a liquorice allsort, so I hoped no one would hit it. I had a 38 minute lead on third placed Milena Landtwing, so all I needed to do was to finish the stage and not lose too much time. I rode really cautiously and didn’t chase any of the girls. I simply couldn’t make any more mistakes. The course was wet and pretty slippery in places and this made me even more nervous. Not long into the stage I could see that there had been a crash on the fire road ahead. Some other riders were already dealing with it and we were being waved past. I could see one rider lying in a ditch at the side of the track and another lying on the track. Their injuries looked pretty serious and I told myself not to look. I rode on and pushed it out of my mind. At the next feedzone someone asked if I had seen Nina and if she had crashed. I said that I didn’t think so. It then dawned on me that Nina must have been one of the injured riders. I felt sick. Poor Nina.

Starting the final stage

It felt like a long stage


I finally reached the final descent which was pretty steep, slippery and rooty. As I looked at what lay ahead I had doubts that I could ride it, but I got off the back of the saddle and slowly rode down. I thought the finish must be round the corner but the marshals sent me up another steep road climb. At the top there were lots of people cheering and a commentator called my name and said that I had finished second overall. Someone offered me a small glass of champagne. I was confused. Was this the finish? There was no finishing arch so I figured I wasn’t there yet and carried on along the road. I turned a corner and saw the finishing arch. I had to hold back the tears as I realised it was over and the job was finished.

Holding back the tears

I think that it has only just sunk in now while I am writing this. I feel very emotional. What an intense week. I had finished the Trans Germany, beaten only by Esther Suss, the European Marathon Champion.

Me, Esther, and Milena

I have been to hospital today. The doctors here in the UK were surprised to see how my arm had been repaired. Small pieces of dressing had been stapled over the skinless areas. The consultant took the decision to remove the staples and the dressing. OUCH! The dressing had already started to heal into my skin. One piece has been left there because it would have been too painful to remove. It will now be my permanent souvenir. I have to wait now and see if the skin grows over the holes. If not then I might need to have a skin graft. The road rash is healing nicely and I might try a gentle spin on the turbo tomorrow :0)

I would like to say a MASSIVE thanks to Dirk, Lars, Werner, and Dave for all of their amazing support and encouragement. I could not be part of a better team – Topeak Ergon Racing Team.

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