My last post was written late at night, having had an unpleasant encounter down a steep icy driveway, with a rather unpleasant local man who eventually towed us out. I wish that had been the end of the adventures for the weekend, but over here the adventures never stop.
Tl;dr version: my car broke down and I raced OK.
Racing: This weekend was the second round of the Alpen Cup, the competition for all of Western Europe which sits one level down from World Cup, and is one of the most competitive Continental Cup series. The races were held at Oberwiesenthal, an 1100m high racecourse on the Fichtelberg, a mountain on the German-Czech border, in Saxony. This place, whilst having reasonably reliable snow, is notorious for its weather. More on that later…
Classic Sprint: as mentioned in a previous post, the classic sprint is my least favourite discipline, combining my least favourite distance, the sprint, with classic skiing, which I like less than skating. I managed to put together one of the better classic sprints I’ve done, and certainly the best I’ve ever done in Europe, on a course which was quite long and didn’t have too many ferocious hills, although the wind was quite strong on the finishing straight. The snow was still quite nice at this stage, despite the somewhat improbable weather conditions of -2 degrees and raining, which is completely normal for this part of the world. Given how competitive the field was, I still finished towards the back, but it was a race which gave me some confidence for the following day.
Skate 15km: unfortunately the reasonable snow conditions didn’t last, and Friday night saw a warm front and rainstorm sweep through, accompanied by storm-force winds of maximum 133.2km/h. Temperatures kept at around 6 degrees, which ripped through the snowpack and left a thin, slushy surface, covered in pine needles, for us to race on the next morning. While the course wasn’t particularly hilly, it was certainly challenging due to the pine needles which slowed everyone down a lot, plus bits of grey snow where the water had soaked all the way through. A couple of years ago I raced in very similar conditions and trenches had to be dug in the snow across the race track to drain the water away; the same was necessary on Saturday.
As for my race, I had a reasonable start, keeping my speed and heart rate under control, all too aware that 15km is a long way and it’s very easy to blow up. Half way through I had lost a little bit of concentration, but was catching and overtaking people on their later laps, which helped with the motivation a lot. I then spied team mate Jackson Bursill up ahead, which gave me yet another boost and I was able to find that sweet spot of pain where everything hurts but it feels good, as you know it’s converting into speed. In the end I was 10 seconds off the time I needed to part-qualify for the World Championships, out of a total time of about 40 minutes, which means I needed to ski only 0.4% faster, but I was still happy to pull out the kind of result I thought I deserved. I will have to lift my game further to get to the Championships, but I’m pleased to be on the right trajectory.
This was meant to be a skiathlon (15km classic, a change of skis, then 15km skate) but the rain meant so much snow was lost that they couldn’t shovel snow onto a long enough course to run separate classic and skate laps. It was therefore changed to an individual start 15km classic, on a pretty flat course. The cold air had finally swept through, allowing the course to freeze to an iceblock in many places, which is still nicer than slush to ski in. In retrospect I should have used skating boots, skating skis, and only my arms to ski the course, as all the best guys were doing, but even on a relatively flat course I didn’t have the confidence only to double pole. I waxed my skis up and headed out into the lightly falling snow and fairly strong wind, somewhat tired but still ready to race well.
It all went wrong about 1.5km in, when an Andorran junior on his last lap overtook me with too little room as we went round a corner, and stepped on my pole, snapping it in two. Classic is very difficult without both poles, and I lost about 45 seconds skiing the 1km it took before I skied past a German coach, who very kindly gave me a replacement pole. Replacement poles don’t have the same strap system for your hand, so they don’t really allow you to put down the same power, plus I had lost a fair bit of motivation by this stage, knowing that even the race of my life from that point in still wouldn’t be enough to give me the result I need. I thought about pulling out, then decided to finish the race anyway. I don’t want to put lipstick on a pig: I was last by a fair way, but it was a field so ridiculously competitive that I could have had my best ever FIS points by quite a way, and I still would have been last. Racing is tough, particularly racing against the select few from some of the best XC ski nations in the world.
I also have to thank my German coach, Michi Bittner, who each day gave me the results of the careful German wax testing, allowing me to simply put on the right wax for the day, without having to worry about whether my skis would be any good. Thanks for the rocket spray on Sunday too!
The bit that made the race weekend epic
Never mind the fact that Germany had its warmest EVER temperature January temperature recorded on Saturday, 20.5 degrees in Piding, Bavaria, which was 16.6 degrees above average, or equivalent to a 30 degree day in Melbourne in early July.
Never mind the fact that we burnt our clutch and only just got out of the crazy hillbilly’s driveway
Never mind the rain
Never mind the insane competition
Most importantly for us, on Saturday morning we got in the car at 9am as planned, and I turned the keys, and nothing happened. Dead battery? Perhaps. We asked Frau Börnert, the owner of our apartment, for some help, and we tried to jumpstart the car. Still no luck. The race was in 90 minutes and we still had to get up to the course, wax our skis, get changed, warm up, get transponders fitted, and start the race. Luckily Frau Börnert agreed to drive us to the race track, and after the race we met some friends from Dresden who we’d met two years before in Klingenthal, and Heike drove us back down. I then became acquainted with German roadside assistance, in this case organised through my insurance company. The guy took one look at the car, and diagnosed our problem: too much motor oil. The yellow oil lamped had come on during our drive on the autobahn two days earlier, we’d put two litres in because it still wasn’t full after one litre, and had overfilled it, such that the oil, including some old and thick oil which needed changing, was getting injected along with the petrol, and in a cold car it’s simply not going to start. The guy returned with a tow-truck, and was amazingly kind, agreeing to fix the car up on Saturday night and Sunday morning, so that after Sunday’s race we could pick the car up and drive it onto our next destination, namely Munich, Salzburg and Ramsau am Dachstein.
Jackson and I extremely grateful to Heike and her husband for driving us down from the racetrack on Saturday and Sunday and cheering us along, to Mike the mechanic for fixing the car, to Frau Börnert for helping us with the car and driving us twice, to Michi and the German team for their in-kind support, and to the Mikhail and Kat Trnka who were there to support me on Sunday. It was a fairly rough and stressful weekend, but we made it, and I also did some OK racing!
Back to the alps
Sunday afternoon we headed back to Munich, in strong winds and with ski bags on the roof that moved around a little, but weren’t in danger of falling off at all. There was lots of traffic on the A9 Autobahn, tearing along as usual, and at one point another driver even did a citizen’s pull-over to tell us our bags looked unsafe, even though they weren’t. We made it to Munich, picked up Xanthea Dewez from the airport, and collapsed into bed, but not before getting lost on the 15 minute drive between the airport and our hotel.
The next morning we headed for Ramsau am Dachstein, a gorgeous town in Styria province of Austria, high up on a plateau and beneath the 3000m high Höhe Dachstein. We had a bit of time, so we decided to stop off in Salzburg on the way, getting lost a few times but having a lovely walk round, plus an amazing Kebab at the end.
I promise the post is almost over: I am here in Ramsau for five nights, will be heading to Lackenhof, Lower Austria for some races on the weekend, then will be back in Ramsau for another 10 days, and will then fly off the Almaty Kazakhstan for the World U23 Chamionships. If I qualify to go to Sweden, I will then fly there, otherwise it will be back to Oberstdorf for more training and racing.
A final thought (warning contains mild sexism)
I asked my mechanic if it was OK to replace just one spark plug instead of all four, and he said (in German): ‘a car is like a woman, she remembers everything and forgives nothing’.