OK, I agree it’s a rubbish name for a bike race, however, what used to be the Trans Germany has now become the Four Peaks and is rapidly becoming the best-known European mountain bike stage race. One thousand participants ride more than 270 kilometers and climb more than 8,860 altitude in meters. The event is estimated to attract more than 10,000 spectators at the stage locations.
I was one of those 1000 competitors, and over the preceding 9 months had prepared myself for the challenges to come. Or so I thought. Preparing to race across the Alps and training for it in the flat lands of Norfolk is far from ideal and being accident prone didn’t help either, six weeks before the start I hit the deck on a wet slippery road in Macedonia and broke my little finger in two places. Big deal I hear you say, but would I really be able to hold onto the handlebars tight enough with a broken finger on descents? to cap it all, on a rainy ride to Beccles three days before the start, I once again hit the deck, and now had road rash all down the right side of my body and left, with big bruises across my left thigh, and a broken finger.
Excuses over then, I flew out to Salzburg on Monday 15th June 2015 where I met my long time friends Mursel and Kathleen Rexhepi who had just completed three weeks training in the Swiss Alps. We drove to the starting location of the race, a beautiful town called Bad Kleinkirchheim. I couldn’t pronounce it either so it became “Bad Clench and Climb” which amused my friends.
The Tuesday was spent preparing the bikes and familiarising ourselves with the routines, locations and arrangements for race day.
That night was a sleepless night, I was very nervous about what was to come. I had so many doubts. Had I trained hard enough? Had I trained long enough? Would I be able to cope with all the climbing? Would I be able to manage the descents? What if I fell off and bashed my broken finger again? the questions were endless.
Billed as the “Hardest day” this was the one that scared me the most it was over 49.36 km and up two major climbs, giving a total elevation of 2349 m. Each day included an enduro challenge, ranking riders in terms of their speed down the most technical sections.
The first climb went well and I rode within myself to reach the first summit “Wollaner Nock” in good time. It was at least 4 years since I had ridden down a steep ski slope so had to get off an walk on occasions. Into the woods half way down and we were onto the enduro section.
In the rain it was very difficult to manoeuvre across the wet roots, sharp rocks, drops and ledges without coming off and I did so on several occasions. Finding out later that I was roughly three times slower than the leading rider Juri Ragnoli (ITA) over the same section.
Soon enough we came to the second climb up to “Kolmnock Gipfeltrail”, at 10 – 12% for most of the way, until the top which was 31% and required the rider to carry their bike, in most cases it was too steep even to push. It seemed to take forever to climb this last few hundred meters. Shortly after this I punctured, and with tubeless tires this really was a pain, the tire wall had a sharp cut which was too big to be sealed by the sealant, it took about twenty minutes of messing around to put an inner tube in and get going again.
Once over the top we were on the Franz Klammer World Cup Downhill Ski slope, which varied between -20 and -27% , the track was wet and slippery and with fingers and forearms aching from braking I was relieved to finish Stage 1.
Although stage 2 was the longest stage at 91 km, it was one I was looking forward to as I knew I’d be able to take advantage of my flat speed, one of my only strengths. Our opening descent out of Bad Kleinkircheim was neutralised, thankfully traffic police had stopped traffic and the 1000 strong peloton snaked it’s way down the winding road to the riverside in Radentheim. My favourite part of this stage was drafting in large groups through the flat sections, I especially enjoyed leading some of the small groups although really I knew I should be saving my energy. Riding in a group was proving to be highly effective as we sped past lone riders and small groups who didn’t have enough energy or motivation to jump on the back.
The stage ended fairly uneventfully in Hermagor, a pretty alpine town. After washing my bike I decided to ride to my hotel rather than catching the bus, a distance of about 8 km. The hotel (Strasswirt) was beautiful and the owners friendly and helpful.
Next morning at 8 am I had an 8 km ride to the start, my friends and most of the other riders were on the bus. It was a good opportunity to warm up and get rid of some stiffness in my legs.
Whilst waiting for the start I sat in an archway talking to some German riders who told me they were from Dortmund, I told them my dad (Now deceased) had been stationed there in the 50’s, they told me the camps were no longer there and we had a little joke, but I was thinking of my father, his life, his death and wondering whether his spirit was with me. I had his Royal Artillery lapel badge in my bag, I touched it for good luck and swallowed to avoid being seen with tears in my eyes.
Stage 3 had the biggest single climb of 1300 m, I felt strong up it and went past many of the riders I’d been riding with or near for the last few days, it took me about 2 hrs, which meant I witnessed the two lead riders Christoph Sauser and Juri Ragnoli on their final descent, coming back down (they had completed the climb in about 1 hr roughly twice as quick as me). Before you judge, bear in mind they averaged 380 watts for the whole climb of 1 hr, I averaged about 208 watts for 2 hrs which was absolutely on my limit.
The second part of the stage became a real challenge for me having burnt too much energy on the first climb. With another very tricky technical section just before the second feed station, I was relieved to make it to the finish relatively unscathed. When I say that, I actually had bruises all down my chest and stomach where the seat had hit me on steep descents, bruises all down the inside of my thighs where I had tried to grip the seat on rocky descents with my thighs, bruises down the front of both thighs and shins from previous crashes and a broken finger. I realised at this point I was going to have work on my descending technique, as I felt many of the injuries were down to poor technique.
Noticing ten minutes before the start that yesterday’s crashes had caused my seat to be broken and was angled at a 45 degree angle to the side wasn’t an ideal start to the stage, but luckily the neutral service team were able to replace it before the gun went off.
The stage started in Tropolach and although it was raining, it was one I was looking forward to as once again it was flatter and longer, I was feeling stronger with the past three days riding now firmly in my legs. Going into the mountains I rested long enough at the back of each group on the road to save enough energy to go past to the next group on the road, I did this about six times and was feeling good working my way through the field. On some of the long climbs off road, I worked with other riders and on occasions took advantage of shelter behind stronger riders, leaving them when they ran out of energy.
The enduro on stage 4 was a pleasure and more like the trails I was used to in Thetford, unfortunately due to poor signing and marshaling I and a half dozen other riders went the wrong way, about 2 miles out of our way half way down.
As I approached 60 km in the pouring rain and mist I dared to think I was going to finish, each climb seemed to become longer, the skies became darker, I became colder but I knew I was getting closer to the end. Eventually in the distance I could see a peak and I could see the sun shining through, this must be the final climb I kept saying to myself. As I went over the top, the sun did indeed shine on me, a feeling of warmth came over me and I looked at the sky and said “Dad I’m going to finish”, somehow I felt he was with me. I remembered his final bike ride to the post office before collapsing with a heart attack and it brought tears to my eyes. I wondered what he would have thought about me on this Austrian mountain, would he have been proud, maybe, maybe not, but what I did know is that I was proud to be his son.
The final descent was truly exhilarating and so close to the finish I was letting the bike run longer and longer between braking. As I came across the finish line, an enormous sense of achievement, relief and excitement came over me.
I didn’t have to wait too long before my team mates Kathy and Mursel came in holding hands across the finish line, it was group hugs all round and an emotional visit to the podium for photos, it was going to take some time for it to sink in what we had all done and overcome.
Before the race I had designed some team jerseys, the motto on them was “Vincit qui se vincit” which translates as “He who conquers himself, conquers” we all conquered ourselves and I personally will treasure the memories and camaraderie from my team mates and other riders for many years to come.
I finished 208 in the masters category which was won by Udo Bolts (GER) a twelve-time finisher of the Tour de France. The overall race was won by Juri Ragnoli (ITA) who narrowly beat former world champion Christoph Sauser (SWI).