European MTB Youth Champs
When: 14th - 17th August 2012
As told by Harry Johnston
Day 1: The airport was bleak and cold however I was buzzing, raring to go at the prospect of representing my country in a sport I loved. We all met and all the worries "my bike is safe, isn't it?" and "it isn't too heavy?" were washed away as we passed through security hassle-free. No turning back now, next step was jumping onto the plane heading for Munich. We simply couldn't wait to escape the dreariness and rain of Scotland. Finally, the gates opened and we stepped onto the plane, not the first people on but we still enthusiastically grabbed seats and settled down. Now we could finally focus on the days of racing ahead of us. The plane flight was short, two hours or so. When we got to Munich, I was amazed how such a short journey brought such a big difference in weather and atmosphere; the sun was splitting the sky and I was roasting with only a tee-shirt on but I wasn't complaining. The airport was massive with lots to see, which came in handy when receiving our hire car as the process took much longer than expected. Eventually we were on the road and within no time at all, the magnificent limestone structures of the Alps came into sight and I truly felt inspired even when hours behind schedule with darkness looming. We had dinner in a "Little Chef" style restaurant, carbing up for the next day with amazing lasagne. That was the last stop until we reached Stattegg, the home of the European Youth Mountain Bike Championships 2012. We passed through tunnels, taking in the amazing scenery although at night. At around ten, we arrived at our destination after a long drive. I had been awake since 5 o'clock British time and was well and truly shattered. Only a team briefing stood in the way of me and bed, and it just couldn't pass quick enough! When the time came to climbing into bed, I felt relieved yet still buzzing to do well the next day.
Day 2: When I woke up, I was made fully aware of the conditions that I would be racing in: heat more intense than I had ever raced in before. The sun beamed through the windows and the room was like a sauna. Still, we had to move on and get down to breakfast as soon as possible. The coffee machine was a godsend, for coffee was just about the only thing that I could stomach out of the Euro-style breakfast that was laid before us! A bowl of muesli and UHT milk was forced down my neck anyway and thoughts were aimed towards the fiddly process of bike building. Luckily, the bikes were undamaged and building them up again proved hassle-free. Now we had to ride to the venue. Normally, this would be moaned at, but the view and weather was inviting and so we hopped on the bikes with good spirits. Ten seconds into the journey, we were reminded that we were in Europe as we set off on the left hand side and cars were heading straight for us! It was a short ride and bikes were everywhere leading up to the race venue. There was no time to take in the atmosphere however as this day was probably the most important of all the days. First thing on the agenda was to recce the short course. The short hill was a classic up-down course; a course that headed upwards and back down again with no undulations and in this case, it headed upwards! The hill was super steep and rough and there was little grip. We thought that the descent would be super steep and technical with a hill like this but it was actually like the sort of descent you would find at a trail centre! It was fun nonetheless, suffering only a puncture on the way down. It exited the trees and into the fields where the time trial took place and we all finished choking as the dust clogged our lungs. Next event was Calum's time trial: a short 950m flat all-out-effort. We expected a top 30 but when we ended up at 52nd we realised how high the standard here actually was. Anyway, we refused to be put off and remained focused on the next event where we would all be involved: the team relay. Here, we each completed a lap of the course we rode in the morning. Calum was up first, with a good start and the long climbs suiting his lightweight build, he moved up ten places. Next up it was me. My leg involved lots of overtaking as most teams chose their female racer for the second leg. I felt confident and when I arrived back in the changeover area, I was another ten places up. The final racer was Isla. She managed to hold off a lot of racers, being only overtaken by male riders. We finished in 39th, giving us a boost of confidence. We hung around for the opening ceremony, a walk followed by a presentation where "Welcome" and a passage was said in every language spoken by competitors at the championships. It really gave us a sense of how big this competition actually was. We headed back to the accommodation for some rest and food before getting an early night.
Day 3: We woke up to cool showers and the daunting thought of breakfast. However, the coaches brought down Weetabix and fresh milk and I was happy that I would be fuelled properly! The ride to the venue was beautiful as usual and we arrived to the sight of people hopping about the place on their bikes. It was a strange sight at a "cross-country race" but today was the XC Combined, a format of race where a trials style competition is followed by an XC race gridded by how many points you scored in the trials. 20 seconds were added per one mistake. The first obstacle was the three boxes of four bottles, where you had to get your front wheel around the bottles without knocking them over with each box getting smaller. I cleared the first one easily, along with the second however the come the third, I turned too far and clipped out. I didn't even get full marks for the first obstacle, I'm going to fail! I thought. The next was picking up objects and placing them down again. The water bottle was easy but the Red Bull shot wasn't! I dropped even more points and felt truly demoralised. The next was hopping over logs which I managed to clear, picking up three points. I didn't think any of the other obstacles would be cleareable, especially as I dropped quite a few points on only two obstacles. To my amazement, I cleared all three skinnies, something I hadn't done in practice, and I cleared the side hopping over the mat obstacle too. Next was the steep, slippy climb. I thought I would clear this as I had done it without fail in practise however I came to a halt half way up and was furious. I had to keep my composure and continue to the penultimate challenge, the undulating, twisty course. I somehow got round the steep, sharp corner which so many people had failed to get past and it spurred me on to clean the rest of the course. I never thought that I would clear this one so was really happy when I did. The final challenge was my last chance to gain a decent gridding for the race. It was a really tight course with a pallet in the middle and involved lots of hopping. I got further than I had hoped, only unclipping on the pallet. Ended up with 19 points, only dropping five points. I thought this was fairly good, until the time for gridding came. There were probably at least ten people who cleared the whole thing. I suddenly felt very aware of the standard I was competing at. By this point, the sun was high in the sky and was absolutely boiling. The start was fast and furious with one mistake costing you lots of places. The first hill was brutal; everyone was struggling for grip and the speed that some riders climbed at was phenomenal. The race was short and fast, there was no time to rest and you had to fight for every single place but I still finished in 93rd. I wasn't happy. I had lost places rather than gaining and I simply didn't feel that good. The day passed quickly and we yet again prepared for the next day, the XC X-Large.
Day 4: All the food was sorted and we ate a lot, we needed to because 20km in plus thirty degree heat would definitely use up some energy. We had lots of time to spare for our race was in the afternoon. We arrived at the venue just in time to see the U15 boys set off and we thought it would be a slower pace but we couldn't have been more wrong: as they turned out onto the road, it was like watching the peloton coming down the Champs-Elysee's. Anyway, we sat back and tried to keep out of the heat and the burning rays of the sun. Eventually, it was time to be gridded but this time we were all starting at the same time. The start was fast as usual, except when the gun fired it took around 3 seconds before we started moving due to the enormity of the field. We screamed along the road at the same if not faster tempo than we would in a road race and people began to get dropped, including myself. Luckily, someone messed up on the fire road and whilst everyone was running to get past, I could stay on and ride past a lot of people. I overtook lots on the first climb and you could tell the previous days of racing were starting to take their toll on some racers. When we crested the top of the hill at some 900m above sea level, water was poured on my back and a bottle was handed to me and I swear, I have never had anything more welcome. The descent was rough and lined with bottles which had jumped out of peoples' cages. It was surprisingly fun and definitely worth the humongous climb. Unfortunately the fun was not to last as we reached the bottom and began the jaunt along the road once again. I just happened to be on my own on the road section so had to battle against the wind with no shelter. The fire road could be seen snaking up the hill and it didn't look inviting. Fortunately this time, we only went half way up before cutting right down a road and back onto the descent. The road was downhill and we must have reached speeds of thirty plus miles an hour, cruising through scenic countryside. It seemed strange to be going so fast on a mountain bike that you ran out of gears. We rejoined the trail and soon we were at the bottom once again sprinting for the finish line. I ended up in the seventies which I was happy about and felt a sense of pleasure, I really enjoyed that race. Hardly any time after we had finished we were back in the foodhall, guzzling as much food as possible. All we could think was "One day left, one day left!"
Day 5: Today was the final day, one last chance to move up in the general classification. Compared to the previous day, this race was like a sprint eliminator! This race was the XC Olympic which meant that it was a short XC race on the course we had used for the other races and the 80% rule applied. I had a good start and instantly gained places however I lost them as quickly as I had gained them when a dog ran across the course and I was forced to skid and stop. We were soon racing again though and the first lap felt as tough as it was two days before. I thought I would be pulled out. The descent really took its toll on your arms for it was simply so rough and it was hard to keep momentum going through the feed zone at the bottom. When I began the dreaded ascent for the second lap, I suddenly felt a burst of energy; it might have been the gel but from somewhere I found enough energy to sprint up the steep singletrack climb and over take many riders. I was going faster up here than I had the previous lap and felt really strong, spurred on by the amazing European supporters shouting "Go go go!" in many different languages. The lap seemed super short and before I knew it I was yet again on the climb but for the third lap. I was still going really strong and overtaking people every couple of seconds. When we reached the top and my coach screamed that my team mate was only seconds in front, I summoned all my energy and charged into the descent feeling stronger than ever. Then, when the current overall leader was just infront due to a mechanical, I knew I was doing well. I really enjoyed the descent; the twisty, loose, flat-out nature was great to ride. The fields came into view and I used the rest of my energy to gain even more places before crossing the finish line, shattered but happy that I had got through the mighty challenge that is the European Championships. I finished in 66th, my best result yet but kept reminding myself that I was only fourteen and I was beating sixteen year olds. There was no need to preparing for more races for it was all over and done with, we could just relax and properly soak up the atmosphere. I had to enjoy this moment, not too much longer would I be back on a plane heading for the grey skies of Scotland.
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