Trackside: Sally Bigham's Top Ten At Marathon Worlds

Trackside: Sally Bigham's Top Ten At Marathon Worlds

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The World Champs was my big goal of the season. Fortunately I was given some time off my job at Bournemouth University where I work as a Senior Lecturer in Psychology, which enabled me to go to Austria early to prepare. We stayed in a great guesthouse in the countryside north of Graz. The marathon course was already marked so we spent a few days riding sections of it. The women course was 84 km with 3061 metres of climbing.

On the first day of exploring the course we were both really surprised. One minute we were leisurely riding on a fire road and the next we were sent without warning down a hair-raising 1km long steep, lose descent, which we later discovered was graded as ‘extreme'. It couldn't have been more different to the World Champ course last year in Italy, which basically consisted of two big mountain climbs and descents on fire roads. Over the next couple of days we discovered that the course was what the organisers described as ‘the most technical world marathon champs ever'. Yikes! Although my technical skills are improving they are currently not exactly my strong point. I was eager to see the final 20 km descent from the highest point on the course, the Schöckl Bergstation at 1438 metres. A quick word with one of the organisers revealed that this was going to be the most difficult. After the long winding climb to the top, which I loved, it seemed like the course literally went straight down on parts of a downhill course. The descents were very steep and littered with wet, slippery rocks and boulders. I found myself wishing I was wearing a full-face helmet and body armour! We were passed by Oli Beckingsdale who had been advised to pack his full suss and leave his hard tail at home. This seemed to be a popular decision!

Other members of Topeak-Ergon Racing Team arrived four days before the race, including Team Manager Dirk Juckwer (Logistical Genius), Team Mechanic Lars Hartwich (Mechanical Wizard), and Team Physiotherapist Werner Faust (Midas Touch). The other Topeak-Ergon team riders were race favourites Alban Lakata (Austria) and Wolfram Kurschat (Germany), and Robert Mennen (Germany). It was somewhat reassuring to hear the guys on the team refer to the course as ‘tricky'. Phew! There was lots of talk about the course amongst the riders and lots of people, including some of the top guys were changing smooth front tyres in favour of ones with more knobbles! Originally I planned to use my treasured Race Kings, which have accompanied me on all of my racing adventures this year. However, torrential thunders storms the day and night before the race caused me to whip the front Race King off and replace it with a 2.4 Mountain King!

Race day quickly arrived and the 10.45am start time meant that we didn't have to rush for once! We had a leisurely breakfast comprising of gluten free bagels (I have a gluten intolerance) and polenta (very high in carbs and really tasty with honey!) before driving to the start area in Stattegg, near Graz. Surprisingly I wasn't that nervous. I think that I had relinquished the idea of my initial aim of a top 10 finish because I felt at a massive technical disadvantage relative to the other girls. Upon seeing the course my sole aim was simply to survive and not to add to my growing list of crashes! I reasoned that racing on this course would be valuable experience, something that I do not have a lot of. I have only been mountain biking for three years.

I was number 17 so I had a reasonably good start position. Looking at the startlist before seeing the course I noticed that two of the top riders were Milena Landtwing (Swizerland) and Elisabeth Brandau (Germany) who both finished 3rd and 4th respectively in the Trans Germany where I finished 2nd. I decided that I would try to stick with them and if possible get a lead on the climbs. I knew that I had the strength but I was uncertain how I would compare on the technical sections. The commentator interviewed the top riders including Sabine Spitz (2008 Olympic XC Champion) and Gunn Rita (2008 World Marathon and XC Champion). After recently becoming a mother, Gunn Rita stated that she would be happy with a top 10 finish.

The count down began and my heart still wasn't racing. Weird! The gun went and we were off. Slowly. Huh??? This was really strange. The pace was super slow. It seemed like we were all out on a Sunday ride. It was relatively windy so I figured that nobody wanted to take the lead before the first 28% road climb. I stayed as close to the front as possible but with all of the riders jostling for places I soon found myself a few rows back from the front. This was a mistake because as soon as we hit the climb the pace increased. I had to weave around some of the slower riders but by that time I had lost contact with the lead group, which included Elizabeth Brandau. I worked hard to reel them in but I couldn't quite close the gap.

At the top of the road the course went along a fire road climb and into a rooty climb. This was largely rideable in the dry but the previous rain had made it slippery. I messed up and dabbed. I decided it would be quicker to hop off and run the section. Gunn Rita passed me at this point but she too jumped off and legged it. I followed her down the fire road descent but she soon pulled away. A few other riders including Milena Landtwing joined me. I decided to take the lead and increase the pace up the next short climb knowing that there was a rooty single track descent ahead. Some of the other girls followed. As we turned a hairpin I caught sight of Gunn Rita not too far ahead. As we approached the single track there was a fight for position and Pia Sundstedt won, gaining entry first. The section had been really churned up by the rain and also by the stampede of other riders that had set off on the course at 9am before the elites. Frustratingly we were catching some of the master's men who set off behind the elite men. On one of the steep ascents one of the men literally stopped in front of me, I had to jump off and run. Milena skilfully weaved her way through and I saw her disappear over the summit. I jumped back on but not long later I was stopped once again by several of the master's men who were walking down one of the descents. There was no way around them and they wouldn't get out of the way so I had to jump off and run past them. By the time I had emerged the other girls had gone.

This was not good because there was now a long road section to the first feedzone and being in a group would have been a massive advantage. Fortunately I managed to get a Swiss girl to work with me and we took turns to take the lead.
When I reached the feedzone Dave told me I was in 16th position. There was a short road climb where I managed to pull away from the Swiss girl and catch a German girl who, unlike the Swiss, wasn't prepared to take her turn at the front. Instead she stuck behind me and let me do all of the work. Luckily the course soon turned up a fire road climb and on to a rooty climb that was reasonably dry and rideable. Before starting the long rooty descent I noticed that I had pulled away from the German putting me in 14th place. The course then sent us through a small café area where the crowds roared. A sharp right turn then sent me down a very steep, muddy, slippery single track descent. I skidded down off the back of the saddle and managed to stop just in time before sliding off the track where it had been washed away. The Swiss girl had caught up with me and we both ran around the tight single track hairpin which had a big drop down to the river on the right.

I now knew that there was a road section through the town before beginning a road climb to the second feedzone and it was here that I managed to pull away from the Swiss girl again. A fire road ascent weaved upwards and I dug deep. I soon caught and passed a couple of girls and not long later I passed another before reaching the top. This put me into 11th position. I powered along the top of the mountain in order to make sure that nobody caught me. I wanted to enter the next 1km long steep slippery descent well ahead of the others. I got off the back of the saddle and carefully picked my line down. Spectators lined the sides of the track and shouted words of encouragement, "Zuper!" I finally reached the bottom without too many heart-stopping moments and climbed up the road to the third feedzone. I grabbed two bottles ready for the long climb to the top of the Schöckl. This was the part I was looking forward to! It was now my chance to make up as much time as possible because I would surely lose time on the impending descent. Dave shouted that I was one minute behind Gunn Rita. Now I had my target. It wasn't long before I caught my first glimpse.

The fire road climb was pretty rocky and tricky in places so it was important to pick good lines. Frustratingly one of the race motorbikes filming Gunn Rita and I blocked my line causing me to take a different line and dab. I ran a couple of metres and jumped back on. I quickly gained on Gunn Rita and then spent a little while thinking what on earth I should say when I passed her. I decided to ask her if she needed anything, to which she replied no. She said she was dying. I told her that what she was doing was amazing only 5 months after giving birth. Respect! I pushed on in an attempt to pick off some more riders.
Not long later I heard riders approaching from behind. Surely it couldn't be the men already? They set off 15 minutes ahead of the women on the same course but with an extra 20km loop between the 1st and 2nd feed zones. I was crossing my fingers and hoping that the first man to pass would be fellow team mate Alban Lakata. Gutted. It wasn't. It was Roel Paulissen (2008 World Champ) closely followed by another rider. After about two minutes I heard Alban offer words of encouragement as he approached behind me. I shouted to him that Roel was not far ahead. A little while later team mate Wolfram passed, closely followed by Christoph Sauser. It was pretty exciting to see the men's race unfold in front of me.

I finally reached the top of the first part of the climb and took the left turning past a warning sign indicating that the next section was extreme. I picked my way through the steep, rocky descent and around the hairpin. Off the back of the saddle I negotiated a particularly rocky section that took me far too close to the edge (off which there was a sheer drop) for my liking! One of the spectators gasped and my heart was racing but I managed to make it to the safe single track below. There was some fire road descending now before another climb to the summit. As I turned one of the switchbacks I spotted Oli on the fire road below. I pushed on in order to hold him off for as long as possible! As I neared the top of the fire road I caught a glimpse of Milena and an Italian girl. I pushed on even harder. As I approached them Oli finally caught me and said that it wasn't long to go now. I asked for a rope but he didn't have one. I caught and passed the Italian girl putting me into 9th place and I stayed on Milena's wheel up the remainder of the climb.

At the summit the course then dropped down behind the back of the ski lift. This section was littered with some pretty gnarly rocks that were wet and slippery. I saw Milena hop off her bike and run a particularly rocky section so I did the same, as did the Italian behind me. We jumped back on and rode the remainder of the section to the road. Milena reached the top of the road climb first and began the aptly named ‘Rolling Stones' section ahead of me. That was the last I saw of her. I took the wrong turn and the Italian also overtook me and went out of sight. Oh well. I just needed to get down safely now and not chase them. I wanted to stay in one piece.

There was a quick fire road descent before the next black graded section. I turned left off the fire road and got back off the saddle. I heard another rider close behind and I hoped that he knew what lay ahead and didn't get too close. The single track descent opened out into a wide, very steep rocky 300 metre shoot to the fire road below. I picked a bad line and came to a stop, as did the guy behind. I walked a little and then cautiously got back on passing the guy as he walked to the bottom. There were then a few other tricky sections and it was on one of these where I narrowly avoided crashing. All of the descending had caused my index fingers to give up on me and at a critical moment they totally refused to brake any longer. I had to let the brakes off which caused me to start plummeting down the descent unable to pick smooth lines. I was crashing down over boulders out of control when I finally managed to grab a handful of brakes, nearly sending me over the bars. Unbelievably I stayed on the bike. This left me quaking in my race shoes all the way to the bottom. I was very relieved to pass the final feedzone and grab my coke! Only one tricky descent remained and I tried to relax a little.

After the feedzone there was a hike-a-bike section which was really energy zapping. I downed my coke as a hiked. Once at the top the coke seemed to give me some more power and I was able to push on hard along the road section that led to the last part of the course. This consisted of a steep off road climb that included a short run, and then some forest single track. I negotiated my way around and down the steep rooty drop into the Falschgraben. This is a trial that is almost always wet. It isn't steep but it is super slippery. I had to dab a couple of times here but I didn't want to make any mistakes and lose my 10th position. I was especially cautious. I was so relieved when I was finally winding my way through the finish area. I couldn't believe that I had managed to meet my goal of a top 10 finish on such a technical course. Milena and the Italian girl had made four minutes on me during the final 20km descent. I now know what I have to do - skills, skills, skills and some more skills training over the winter. I know I have the strength and if I can combine this with better technique then I know I can improve on my 10th position. Onwards and upwards! Congratulations to Jane Nussli (Great Britain), Jenn O'Connor (New Zealand), and Mel Spath (Germany) who finished 16th, 17th and 26th respectively. Also big congrats to Ergon supported rider Pua Sawicki (USA) on her 7th place.

Alban finished 2nd to Roel, just 50 seconds behind. Unfortunately Alban had a problem with his brake in the first part of the race. Lars (Team Mechanic) had to change the whole front brake at the 2nd feedzone. Amazingly he did it in just under 2 minutes, but this was 2 minutes Alban didn't have to spare.