As my European season draws to an early close, I once again headed off to a race weekend, this time to Lienz in Austria, to race the 42km Dolomitenlauf and the 700m Dolomitensprint. Both of them involved impact with barriers on the side of the course…
The Dolomitenlauf is a founding member the Worldloppet series, the same one that the Kangaroo Hoppet belongs to, and was first held in 1971. The original course is a 60km loop in the valley below the town of Lienz (650m elevation), the biggest city in Osttirol, but for most of the past decade it has been held in nearby Obertilliach (1400m elevation) as a pretty clear consequence of a changing climate. Just like in the Jizerská 50 two weeks previously, I was the Kangaroo Hoppet representative in the Worldloppet delegation, which entails exceptionally good treatment and getting to meet interesting people from around the world.
The First Wall Collision
The crowds are cheering, I’ve selected my starting lane, the start barrier is up, and the countdown is on. The barrier drops flat just as a large cannon fires, and we’re off. It only takes a couple of double pole strokes before we’re flying along the very slick front straight in the Lienz Town Square. My skis are rockets but it’s also extremely icy meaning a few missed pushes. I slip into third place, we charge up a short but very steep ramp, cross over a bridge, then take a very step left hand drop which takes us into a berm and under the bridge we just crossed. There is one more corner before a 1m drop onto a very hard and flat landing, followed shortly after by a sharp and icy U-turn. I’m still in third place and the race is only 40 seconds in, but we’re half way already. The next lap I take the steep left turn a bit more aggressively and slide right out to the edge of the berm, giving the padded barrier a bit of a punch and a nudge along the way, to cheers from the crowd. I hold onto third place into the finish, but don’t get through to the next round. I breathe a sigh of relief that my carbon-fibre poles have survived.
Welcome to the Dolomitensprint, a 700m long race around the beautiful Lienz Town Square, known as the oldest sprint race in the world, and also one of the most famous. The course of trucked-in snow and man-made features draws over 1000 spectators to watch skiers slip and slide their way to glory, and €2500. I had nervously accepted my invitation, not expecting anything from the results but still feeling under pressure from the technical course. Thankfully years of racing Alan Eason’s courses at the Lake Mountain SprintX had prepared me for the drops and berms, and I got out of there without disgracing myself.
The final was probably the most interesting race of the lot: favourite Andy Newell (USA) broke both his poles and fell on his face going down the starting ramp, while leader and local favourite Tobias Habenicht managed to fall on the last jump of the night, despite having gone over it 7 times during that night’s races already.
I went back to my hotel, conveniently situated 2m (yes, not a typo!) from the edge of the race course, then joined the effervescent and multilingual (German, Italian, English, Spanish, French) Astrid Trojer-Pirker, and the rest of the Worldloppet delegation, for a lovely meal in a converted brewery.
The Second Wall Collision
Let’s fast forward to Sunday and the 42nd edition of the Dolomitenlauf. Once again I lined up nervously on the start line, mainly because I had been given bib number 5 and thus was in the second row. The main problem with this is that I have very low sprint capabilities and a slow start, which means others had to go around me, even those I would eventually catch up. To prove my statement, have a look at these two screenshots from Austrian National TV:
I of course lost a few places after the start, but settled into a reasonably comfortable spot in the field as we made our way up the valley on a fairly narrow trail. The Southern Alps have had almost no fresh snow this year and the course was four laps of a man-made and sometimes narrow track. The first lap was skied mostly in level 3 (threshold) while the front of the pack waited for someone to take the lead, and those of us in behind had to double pole and shout at each other to prevent falling off the edge of the course, snapping poles, or stepping on skis. This also meant that we had to stop at the bottom of hills while the ‘concertina effect’ did its thing, then sprint off the top of the hill to try to catch the pack again. On the second lap I could see the main pack just ahead and ended up having to ski with those only doing the 21km, who turned off (almost taking me the wrong way with them) to go to the finish, leaving me unable to see any of my competitors and stranded by myself.
By the third lap my race was looking really good: I had had a drink and a gel on the downhill and was preparing myself for the main hill of the lap. I could see two of the guys behind me had almost caught up, so decided to take a fairly icy corner into a bridge with a bit of a more aggressive line. Unfortunately this did not pay off: I got shot out to the edge of the course, where I managed to clip my ski on a fence post. This spun me around 90 degrees, I hopped and tried to jump out of the way, but to no avail: I slammed into the wooden fence at probably 25km/h. The others went past me as I tried to get over the shock; I thought I must have broken a ski, a pole, a rib, or any combination of the three. Miraculously it was only my pole strap that had broken, so I continued on and tried to find another pole because this one was difficult to hold onto. With no pole apparently available, I skied the next downhill about 15 seconds slower than the previous lack (according to my GPS), and worked on fixing my pole strap on the go. I managed to strap it up in a fashion, but had to fix it probably ten times during the rest of the race.
The hardest thing about a fall like that is not the shock but the loss of motivation that gets into you: when you’ve just been overtaken because of something stupid like that it’s easy to think the race is over. My motivational flat lasted a few minutes before I managed to talk myself into getting back into the race. I could see the guy who’d just passed me, and made it my goal to catch him again and beat him. On the fourth lap I did catch and overtake him on the last big hill but he had a bit more power and weight on the downhill and got away from me.
On crossing the finish line I surprised the guy with the microphone by giving a post-race interview in German, then I was made aware of the large rip in my brand-new Aussie race suit and 2XU tights…
I finished 23rd (of 240) , which was better than my top-30 goal, but it was only that evening when I checked the results on FIS that I saw I’d skied 122 FIS points, my best result outside of Australia so far. I was happy but also disappointed as I was 10 seconds off the sub-120 I needed to move up one grade on the National Team. If only I hadn’t fallen I probably would have been 30 seconds ahead!
The best surprise came two mornings after, when I got a message from Victorian Team Manager Ronice Goebel, congratulating me on 118 points. Sure enough, the points had for some reason been revised down, and I had reached my goal! It was a great and rare feeling to have pulled out a good result.
The 5-Star Hotel
The night before the race I joined the ‘honoured guests’, including the family that runs the Ushuaia Loppet in Argentina, the mayor of Lienz (who made a fantastic joke I can’t write in a public space, send me a message to find out), the race director, the founder of the race, someone from state broadcaster ORF, FIS reps and more, for an amazing dinner in the Grand Hotel Lienz. There we were treated to an amazing meal, where I was required to translate the menu from German into English and Italian for the others; apparently Wolfsbarsch is sea bass in English and branzino in Italian. We were also treated to a series of speeches, each more emotional than the last, extolling the virtues of community and the importance of keeping on fighting against the challenge of climate change, despite the normal course basically being unviable now.
The Organising Committee in truth did a great job getting a relatively long lap up and running in such a lean snow year, and I wish them a snowy next few years. I also hope to be back at the Dolomitenlauf in future years because I found it a great race with a relaxed atmosphere.
I set off after the race back to the Inn Valley in the main part of Tirol, treating myself to a pizza at the famous Pizzeria Hans in Toblach/Dobbiacco, Italy, along the way. I was going to stay the night with some family friends, and was keen to buy a bottle of wine as a gift, but doubted I would find something open on a Sunday. While driving through Sudtirol, Italy, the German-speaking province taken from Austria after WWI, I found the impossible: a supermarket, open on a Sunday, which is a rarity in Europe; in the middle of the day, which is a rarity in Italy. We take some things for granted in Australia, and when I get back home in a week I will take the opportunity to visit supermarkets at oh-so-inconvenient hours, just as an exercise of my consumer freedom.
Monday morning saw me spontaneously turn up to the Australian Junior Team training session in Leutasch, I made a cake for my German group to say thanks for the year, as it was my last session with them, and spring seems to have come 5 weeks early, that after winter came 6 weeks late.