One of the main differences in racing in Australia is the ‘home-course’ advantage, where we race every year on the same race courses, learning how to approach particular parts of the course both mentally and physically. For most of us when we come overseas, the season is a series of unknown or vaguely familiar racecourses, with all their attendant stresses and uncertainties. Some of us have courses we know pretty well, but it doesn’t quite come close to racing at ‘home’.
This weekend, I got to do one of those races. The German Cup was rescheduled from nearby Isny in Allgäu to Balderschwang, known as the ‘German Siberia’ due to its extremely high snowfall amounts, for its 1050m altitude. This also means that in lean seasons, like this one until about 2 weeks ago, it was close to the only place in Germany where XC skiing was possible. What started promisingly in late November, with 40km of trails open, had shrunk to about 5km of very icy, somewhat crowded, and too flat trails by early January. After more than 500km of skiing on the same loop, it’s fair to say I was hoping not to ski there again this year. On the other hand, knowing the trails like the back of your hand (actually probably better, I couldn’t describe my hands that well) does have certain advantages…
This was meant to be a nordic-X kind of event with berms and jumps, but with the change of location it was changed to a 3km skate individual start. We arrived to very wintry conditions, with temperatures under -5 and snow falling heavily. Snow chains were most definitely required to get over the steep Riedbergpass, in order to reach the tracks, and for those without it were apparent where they had tried to snake their way up the hill, wheels spinning.
I hadn’t been up to test skis the day before or view the course, due to inclement weather. Not viewing the course wasn’t a problem as I could probably ski the loop blindfolded, but the skis required guesswork, so I chose the skis I knew were fast in soft snow. Unfortunately, when I went out of the start gate, it became apparent that the skis weren’t quite themselves. The reason was a structure that had been put into my skis in Hochfilzen, which were to adapt the skis for the deep slush there. Normally a structure is pressed into a ski and disappears when the ski is ironed again, but this one was cut in, and the extra grooves in the ski grabbed onto the sharp crystals of fresh snow on the track. This meant that despite well-waxed skis (thanks Allgäu Skiverband), I really wasn’t able to pull out a respectable time, despite skiing pretty well and managing to get my lungs to burn from the effort. I finished 23rd out of 26 which was kind of disappointing, but when the guy starting behind me passed me on the last downhill it was pretty apparent why: I felt like I had glue on my skis! Needless to say the skis are now in the shop getting a new stone grind. I guess the lesson is that having the right equipment, properly prepared, is a crucial element of ski racing. There were no FIS points for the race, but a theoretical calculation would have given 168, which is better than my last result but still not what I wanted.
Classic mass start 15km
After another fitting of chains to the Bavarian Ski Association van, we arrived to more heavy snow and even colder temperatures, to the point where we struggled to keep warm before the race, even in the food tent. Nevertheless, I had some new skis suited to cold snow, and was excited to see how they performed.
The race with U20 juniors and seniors mixed in together, started off both hectically, as lots of people broke poles when the race course suddenly narrowed, yet also at a pretty relaxed pace, which it kept up for the first two of five laps. Having started towards the back of the pack, this meant occasionally having to stop for traffic jams on the steep hills, then sprinting over the top of the hills as the concertina effect spread the field out dramatically as the first people hit the downhill. This is a significant disadvantage for those behind, like me, and after two laps and few others and I just lost contact with the front pack. I felt good, my skis were good, and my classic technique seemed not to be letting me down. The loop was hilly but not too steep; it also was slow because the snow was so cold, with sharp snow crystals hindering glide.
After catching a few people up in laps 4 and 5, it was a battle with one of the local athletes to the end, which I lost. I hit the finish exceptionally tired, and looked at my GPS watch… 17.1km! I don’t know if I should be happy that my €6 entry fee got me an even longer race, or to ask for my money back for false advertising, but it definitely explained my 57 minute time. I ended up 20th of 28, in a field mostly comprised of German Team (Kader) athletes. It’s a real shame this didn’t have FIS points attached, because at 5.5% back I would have had 134 points, which would have been my best classic race. In any case I got back home cold and tired but satisfied at finally doing a decent race.
One last thing: from the U14s all the way to seniors there were over 400 entries on each day: if only Australia could manage those kind of numbers! It shows how large their talent pool is, just one of the many advantages they have over Australian XC skiing.
My blogs this year have been almost all about racing, but a quick note on training. With the recent snowfall the XC network is now almost fully groomed, which means 1000km of trails within one hour’s drive of my place. Unfortunately I only have two weeks left in Germany before I go back to Australia, and I still have a few races to go, so I do have to keep myself under control and not attempt to ski all 1000km, however much I’d love to.
Today was only the third day this season I’ve skied twice in a day; one other was in November and the other when I was staying in Davos and was right on the trails. I definitely got carried away and racked up 39km in the morning, following it with 11km on a rarely-groomed trail in the afternoon.
I also took advantage of the huge snowfall to go downhill skiing in knee-deep and sometimes deeper powder. I’ll let the photos do the talking.
I have a total of three races left in my last 12 days in Europe, which are a sprint around a town square (Dolomitensprint), a 42km skate (Dolomitenlauf), and a 60km skate (Ski-Trail Tannheimer Tal). More posts will be forthcoming, I promise.