What’s it like to race XCO World Champs? Imogen Smith reports on Lenzerheide

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I may not be an XCO racer most of the time, and on paper my result was nothing to write home about, but unless I suddenly become a rockstar, nothing I do in my life will come close to the exhilaration of racing XCO World Championships in Lenzerheide.

So what’s it like racing XCO World Champs in a lit women’s field at the sport’s height in a country that’s in love with it? Well, it’s intense, it’s awe-inspiring, it’s all over very quick. And it’s loud. By all accounts (and I’ll be checking this with Gunn Rita Dahle-Flesja soon) it was the loudest XC race in history. I’ve never raced at this level before, so everything was new to me. I felt 20 years younger discovering it all – the way racers practice the course, the great support from the Aussie team staff (massage!), the aerobatic display as we headed towards the warmup area, VIP treatment wherever I went with a race plate, the protocols around race day (move into the start pen… now!), the umbrella holding, all that stuff. It was a mixture of regimented organisation and love and kindness, really, and once I let the nerves drop away a bit (they were always buzzing in the background), it absolutely blew my mind.

Aussie team staff member Adam Kelsall does some great umbrella holding for our warmup

Race start

I knew all along that the start would be insane, but also that there was no way to simulate or really prepare for a World Championship back-row start that headed straight into a narrow bitumen climb, so I just decided to do what I could once the gun went off. Gridding was intense. Twitchy, nervous girls fighting for every inch. I was in the middle at the back, and unfortunately everyone decided to roll forward about three feet right when the pros’ team support people bearing massive backpacks decided to leave the start pen by squeezing right in front of me, and the three foot gap was swallowed up, leaving me well and truly at the back. What can you do.

I knew things were about to get serious when the UCI playlist switched to that weird heartbeat music and everything else went silent. A crowd of photographers turned on their heels and sprinted away from us. Sprinted. Then the gun. There was a good pause before my row started moving forward, so I was able to clip in easily, then we were sprinting, bar to bar, full gas up the hill. Then whoa! We were stopping! We were swerving. Now go! Go again. Except now in a really hard gear on a 10 per cent hill. Now stop and track stand! Now go again! Repeat. Try to move up. Get chopped. Repeat. I didn’t know it at the time but I was pretty much last into the singletrack.

Race start at Lenzerheide was as intense as expected. And look! There I am at the back!

Race traffic

Yeah. Traffic. I was a bit ready for that. Down the crazy root section off the first descent I ignored the popular line on the left and managed to overtake one or two ladies by riding higher up the off-camber bit, then of course it was time to unclip and run. Everyone was queued up to run down the B-line next to the near-vertical chute and I didn’t hesitate, but dove straight into the A-line without having so much as looked at it. Probably should have looked at it! Wow was it steep. I still count myself lucky not to have broken an ankle but somehow I managed to slide down on the back of my heels on a 45 degree angle, clutching my bike, and survive. And the move paid off. I remounted at the bottom and ploughed into a bumpy grass climb having overtaken a few more women. Phew!

Teamie Holly Harris off and running in the first descent. I’m waaay back behind her somewhere.

Racing

As I made my way around the course I came across a bit more traffic on the first rooty, technical climb and had to dismount early behind girls where were walking. I honestly cannot remember if I passed any of them or not, running up high, remembering to dismount on the right hand side so it was easier to remount on the off-camber trail. I managed to ride roots that had been too wet and slippery for me in practice and overtook another girl having bike issues before diving back into a nice, flattish, middle section of trail with (you guessed it) more roots and lots of line choices. This done it was back through the feedzone, a quick bottle exchange, and the last, really techy section of roots before the start finish. I was in one piece. I was enjoying it, and I was going harder than I’d ever ridden a bike in my entire life.

My face is like this in every photo. I rode near my max heartrate for most of my race! (It was short.)

Noise

Things got really off-tap on the bitumen climb. Somewhere a busy marshal had turned his back, maybe because I was coming fifty-something, and the crowd had begun to ignore the tape. Face-painted people ran along side me shaking their fists, someone gave me a little push. Kids danced out of the way as I approached. And the noise. Was. Unbelievable.

I wish I’d been prepared for the noise. There wasn’t a metre of track that didn’t have spectators on it, and in important sections they were 10, 20 deep.

It got so loud when I headed into the first descent, back over the roots, that I totally lost it, looking up to check out what (ironically) was for me the spectacle – the spectators. I lost my front wheel immediately and went flying sideways under the tape. Literally fifty people jumped to help me, grabbing me, my bike. The whole way around the course was lit up by clapping, yelling, blowing trumpets, vuvuzelas, people whacking bike rims, pots and pans, revving chainsaws, and of course, clanging cowbells. And on and on it went. Some people yelled ‘Aussie hop!’, some people yelled my name. Someone with a familiar accent said ‘keep going love’. Not an ounce of it was negative and all of it pushed me forward, like the sound was going in my ears and being converted to energy that turned the pedals. The third lap went better. Much better. I had clear track, nobody in sight behind me. No-one in sight in front, and I felt my engine really coming good. But suddenly, it was over. UCI officials standing blocking the bridge to the start finish. My heart breaking a bit. A secret, shameful relief that the pain would stop. Pure joy that I’d taken part in such a massive, massive event. 26,000 people outside the tape, and me between it. What an honour. What a memory.

I’ll never forget the exhilaration of riding at that level. There’s that pain face again!

It was fantastic  to see Holly Harris ride a great race and play great cards from the hand she was dealt on the day. Fantastic too to share my experience with a team of dedicated staff and a bunch of impressive juniors with big futures in front of them. Oh to be young again!

Out of 64 women who started the race, I came 52nd. While that maybe doesn’t look great, just moving up from the back row in these races is an achievement, and looking at comparable results from past years, I felt privately, quietly proud. I’m prouder still that I was able to deal with my nerves and expectations to step back and enjoy an experience that came to me unexpectedly, and was mine to make of it what I would. Take opportunities, say yes, test yourself, and don’t be afraid of big things.

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