Wednesday, 23 September 2009

European Marathon Championships, Estonia

As the plane started its descent into Tallinn airport it was clear to see that the race course was going to be flat! A bird’s eye view revealed that forests densely cover Estonia, broken only by a few roads and small towns. During the 250km drive from the airport in the north to Otepaa in the south I was amazed to see how undeveloped Estonia is. We needn’t have bothered printing off the directions because we literally just followed one straight single carriageway road all the way. The only town that we passed through was Tartu, approximately 200km from the airport!

A quick look at the course profile confirmed that there would be no climbs in this race.

(Click to enlarge)

I had a couple of days to check out parts of the course. On the first day I planned to ride as much of it as possible in 2 hours, while Dave drove to each of the feedzones. However it soon became clear that the course was not only very flat but it was also going to be very fast! Within 2 hours I had already ridden almost half of the course and unbelievably Dave was able to follow me in the car for a large part of it! It certainly made a change from him following me on a bike ;-) The first half was predominantly fire road or dirt track, and it wasn’t until the second half of the course that things got a little more interesting with the odd sprinkling of singletrack, some muddy forest trails and a stream crossing. Scenic it was, but technical it most definitely wasn’t.

The view from our balcony

There were more than 4000 riders taking part and it had attracted good media attention with Estonian TV and radio covering the event. There was a mass start with the elite riders lined up first. The men and women started together, with the men taking up two thirds of the start line and the women the other third. I was in the first row with Gunn-Rita just behind me. I knew that a good start was going to be absolutely critical in this race. The race was going to be pretty much determined in the first 10km after which there were long fire road sections where riders would be drafting and working together. On the start line I stood looking at the long grassy descent that lay ahead. This was not only going to be a super fast start but it was also going to be hectic with everyone fighting to get to the front. The gun went and I literally rode as hard as I could. It was all going well for about 3 minutes until lactic started to build in my legs. I was riding with Elisabeth Brandau (Germany) but I had to let her slip away, her XC racing clearly giving her the advantage. When we emerged onto a 5km tarmac section I had to watch her disappearing within a large group of other riders. I battled to close the gap on the riders in front so that I too could benefit from drafting. My legs were screaming and my lungs were burning but I eventually managed to close the gap on the wheels in front.

Warming up

The tarmac road led onto a fire road section and then some slippery grassy trails. Magdalena Sadlecka (Poland) passed me and a crash in front caused me to slow and I lost contact with her. I passed straight though the first feedzone without taking a bottle – before the race we decided that I should start with enough carb drink to last me until the second feedzone because if I came through in a large fast group it could be difficult to take a bottle. I used this opportunity to pass a few riders who were grabbing bottles and I moved to the front. I worked as hard as I could to pass riders knowing that the effort I put in here would benefit me once we got onto the fast fire road sections after the second feedzone. I could see the dust trail of a larger group not too far ahead so I tried to motivate the riders around me to all work together to close the gap. We took it in turns to take the lead but the gap remained the same. Occasionally some of the riders from the group in front would drop off the pace and our group swallowed them up. I made a big effort to always be near the front of the group to make sure that I could respond if anyone made a break or if the group started to separate. I never eased up and constantly pushed on.

As we approached the second feedzone I realised that I had not been drinking and my bottle was almost full. I signalled to Dave that I didn’t need to take a new bottle. I was in quite a large group of men and I stayed at or near the front. The pace was fast and I concentrated hard. I don’t like drafting in large fast groups because the risk of crashing is high. I was closely following the wheel of a guy in front of me when he looked behind and slowed. This caused me to clip his wheel and I was deflected sharply to the left. I lost control and almost crashed but I somehow managed to regain control. The man behind wasn’t so lucky, he clipped my back wheel and I heard him hit the ground hard. I looked over my shoulder and through the corner of my eye I saw the guy behind him go over the handlebars while the other riders behind all started to skid in an attempt to avoid the carnage. I hesitated for a moment unsure of whether to stop and help or carrying on riding. I wanted to stop and ask if they were OK but this was a race and I was losing contact with the group so I sprinted off back to rejoin the group. I gave the man that caused the crash a wide berth and went to the front. I heard the sound of tyres rubbing again and as I looked round I saw that the same man had caught the wheel of a rider in front causing him to crash this time.

The speed through the third feedzone was high and I didn’t want to slow and lose the group I was in. This was a mistake because as Dave passed me a bottle it bounced out of my hand. Dave and I definitely need to practice high-speed hand overs! Luckily I could see a neutral feed ahead so I took a bottle of water. Not too long later I caught a glimpse of Magdalena Sadlecka. I had finally started to pull her back. This motivated me to work really hard to close the gap to her wheel. Over the next 10km there were a few slippery forest trails and I decided to stay behind. I don’t think she knew I was there and I wanted it to stay that way until there was a good opportunity to make a break. Once we exited the forest I could see some men not too far in front. I knew that there was a long fire road section to the fifth feedzone and that if I could make a break here and catch the guys in front then I might be able to put some distance between us. I put in a burst, overtook her and managed to make contact with the group in front. I never looked back to see if she had managed to hold on to me, but I guessed she hadn’t because I didn’t see her again.

After the fifth feedzone there were some nice trails winding through the forest for about 10km. The pace was very fast as we took it in turns to lead the long line of riders. Two faster guys in Finnish team kit appeared and went straight to the front of the group. I instinctively followed. If they made a break I wanted to go with them. I knew that there was only about another 20 to 30 minutes of racing left so I took a caffeine gel to give me a boost. As we passed through the final feedzone I grabbed my coke and Dave shouted words of encouragement, “Leg it!” Ha-ha, I was kind of hoping for something a little more informative but I guessed that there must have been another female rider not too far ahead – or behind! The pace was already virtually maximal but I managed to find another gear. The fire road stretched out ahead and I could see two lone riders, one of which was Laura Turpijn (Netherlands). It didn’t take long to catch them and when we did I decided to stay behind Laura who hadn’t seen me yet. I gulped down my coke ready for what was going to be a very fast finish. I wanted to spend a little time unnoticed so that I could plan what to do.

I knew that there were some muddy fire road trails ahead and taking the wrong line could lose valuable seconds. After that there was a 500 metre finish on wood chippings. I didn’t want to go too soon and blow up, but then again I didn’t fancy my chances in a short sprint to the finish. The 3km marker soon appeared and I decided to blow my cover and move towards the front. The two Finnish guys kept darting to the front in an attempt to make a break from the group of 10-15 riders, and I always went with them. With 2km to go the single file line of riders broke and became a wall of riders, everyone wanted to be at the front! It wasn’t long before the 1km marker appeared. Laura and I were yo-yoing; sometimes she would get a metre ahead and sometimes I did. It was critical that I didn’t let her get a gap. I needed to be on her wheel if she tried to break away. As soon as I saw the 500 metre marker I decided to go for it. I looked over my shoulder and Laura was on my wheel. I tried to shake her off but she wasn’t going. I decided to slow; there was no point in letting her draft me to the finish line. She came along side me. I had to think quickly because I wasn’t sure who might be behind and we might not have time to start playing games. As soon as I heard another rider attacking from behind I upped the pace and locked onto his wheel. I put my head down and went for it. There was a left hand turn and then a right hand turn with a slight climb. I came out of the corner too wide and I could see Laura on the inside. She attacked and managed to get a metre ahead. I pushed on as hard as I could but I could not reel her back in. I finished in 7th place, 1 second behind.

It was only when I looked at the results that I realised that one of the two Finnish riders was actually a woman! She finished 7 seconds behind. That explained why they were in such a rush. This highlights two of the reasons why I am not such a fan of races in which the men and women start together. First, it is difficult to see who and where your competition is, and second the men influence the race in such a way that it is not a level playing field as it is in women only races.

Post race coffee at the Tower cafe

All in all it was a fast fun race and a great end to my season. The competition was high and the times were all really close which made it an exciting race. I have never raced for less than three hours before! Covering 89km in 2hours 57 minutes also meant that it was a fast race for Dave - he had to drive to each of the 6 feedzones, find somewhere to park and run to the pits with the wheels, bottles and spares. He is still complaining about his newly acquired achillies injury even as I am writing this! What is amazing is that the course was so flat and smooth that the two newly crowned European Marathon Champions both won on amazingly lightweight fully rigid bikes!


Elite Women

1 Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjaa (Norway) 2:51:34
2 Maja Wloszczowska (Poland) 0:02:20
3 Ivanda Eiduka (Latvia) 0:02:24
4 Maaris Meier (Estonia) 0:04:18
5 Elisabeth Brandau (Germany) 0:04:21
6 Laura Turpijn (Netherlands) 0:05:42
7 Sally Bigham (Great Britain) 0:05:43
8 Carina Ketonen (Finland) 0:05:50
9 Magdalena Sadlecka (Poland) 0:06:59
10 Linda Larsen (Norway) 0:08:23

In the men's race the one, two, three (four, five, and six) went to the hosting nation with Alban being the first non-national in 7th place.

1Allan Oras (Estonia)2:34:49
2Kalle Kriit (Estonia)0:00:04
3Caspar Austa (Estonia)0:03:18
4Raido Kodanipork (Estonia)0:03:23
5Jaan Kirsipuu (Estonia)0:03:35
6Erki PĆ¼tsep (Estonia)

7Alban Lakata (Austria)

8Andreas Kugler (Switzerland)

9Hannes Genze (Germany)

10Alges Maasikmets (Estonia)

Full results can be found here