A Ferrari beat me at the UCI Masters Mountain Bike World Championships!
At least it was not a Trabant
I was overcome by a mix of joy and sheer exhaustion as I crossed the finish line to take second place in the world championships. Just 40 minutes ago, my prospects of winning anything were grim. I'll explain why and tell you how the race went, and explain why I was so delighted to win silver, although my goal for the past several years has always been a laser-focus on winning gold - not silver.
This is the proverbial 'fish that got away' story. Which means there is unfinished business.
Image: at attention while the Italian National Anthem plays
Although a silver medal at the UCI MTB Masters World Championships mean there is some unfinished business, I'm still a very 'Happy Chappy'. Okay, so what happened and how did the race unfold?
Image: I may not have won, but I sure felt like it!
With just ten minutes to go before the gun was to fire, we were herded into what looked like several sheep pens. These were designed to sort us into the right starting order. Alofa, my partner in life and Team Gary Moller Manager, was not happy, she was yelling and gesturing at me from across the barriers with just minutes left to go before the start of what was to be the most important race of my life, "you're supposed to be at the front - not the rear - what are you doing?"
In mountain biking, being at the rear of the riders for the start is as good as a death sentence. The starts for short-course mountain bike races are always frantic and desperate affairs, like a herd of cattle stampeding for the narrow canyon entrance. If you are not one of the first 4-5 riders to enter that first of many bottlenecks, the ensuing mayhem of crushing bikes and bodies at that squeeze-point pretty much guarantees that your chances of ever catching the leaders are bleak.
They're even bleaker when the race is going to be less than 40 minutes long - the most ridiculously shortest race in the history of mountain biking (the standard length of time for this style of racing is around 1 hr 20-40 min). Less than forty minutes was going to be the winning time today.
If the race was to have been three or four laps instead of a measly two, a more conservative start and careful pacing can be a winning strategy; but two laps pretty much dictates that the first few riders to make it into the single track are going to be the winners.
During these 'Olympic-style' races, there is only a finite amount of energy available to each rider. Any energy that is wasted can not be replenished during the race. There is simply no time. At this level of competition, the difference between the winning and losing can be as little as a heartbeat per minute. Getting a clean start is the most crucial way to make the best use of that precious energy of the next hour or so of competition.
Years of details planning, hard physical preparation and thousands of dollars had gone into getting to this point of representing New Zealand at the UCI World Championships. The planning had been meticulous with nothing left to chance. I had learned my lesson from our previous unsuccessful attempt at the UCI Worlds in Norway three years ago:
Leave nothing to chance!
Getting on the grid
I am the undefeated 60 + mountainbiker in New Zealand and Australia and have been for the last four years, I hold the age group records for every race contested and am the current World Masters Games MTB 60+ champion.
This, information was submitted to the UCI, along with supporting documentation from Cycling New Zealand, so as to get that essential placement at the front of the field. In accordance with the UCI rules, I should be on the front grid. So how come I was placed at the back of the field as an unseeded rider?
The best of planning had become lost in translation. Kind of.
It came down to three things:
The actual administration for this huge and complex multi-day, multi-race event was being done by just a handful of people who looked over-stretched when we went down to the race HQ to collect our registration. Mistakes happen when people are being overworked.
The UCI staff communicate mostly in French, Spanish and Italian. English is a less familiar language. My emails, and those of Cycling New Zealand could easily have been misunderstood or simply overlooked. When busy people don't understand something, they naturally say, "Yes, all is in hand".
Coming from New Zealand, the people who I was dealing with from afar would not have known me from a bar of soap. If our emails were not properly interpreted, then I was just another rider, not the NZ or World Masters champion who was eligible for a favourable grid placing.
All was well when we went to complete our registration, other than the fact I had been entered in the downhill race and not the cross-country. This was quickly corrected, but not quite! When we got back to our apartment Alofa noticed that our pit crew tag had a number '70' on it! It turned out that the flustered person on the Help Desk had entered me in the 70+ race! Not a problem - this error was quickly corrected the following day.
Inadvertently hitting the reset button
What nobody realised was my new registration and new race numbers that were issued when correcting these simple errors presumably wiped some of my data, including my seeding!
Worse still, unseeded riders were to be placed on the start line according to their race number which corresponds with their date of registration - I was now on record as the last to have registered, which corresponds with being placed at the rear of the field.
So, that's how I ended up at the rear of the field with 20 or more very fit and aggressive cyclists in front, all of whom were there for one reason: TO WIN!
When it dawned on me what was happening with the start lineup, there were just minutes to go, so there was no point in arguing with the Spanish-speaking officials. I had to just grin and bear it and focus on having a good start and force my way through what would be a hostile moving blockade. Getting past that blockage before entering the narrow single track was going to be quite a challenge.
Competing successfully is always a case of making the most of the hand you have been dealt
I got a good start, but was boxed in from the very beginning, so putting down the power was not on - it was a case of avoiding clashing with other the riders as we left the broad asphalt to squeeze into a narrow gravel road that swept down and to the left,then into a long and difficult climb up a steep, grassy slope. All in the rarified air of high altitude. I was touching the brakes from the very beginning while the riders out front were powering away. Not good!
Once we hit the grass slope, I was pleasantly surprised with how easily I glided past all but several riders before entering the first single track that leads into the treacherous rock garden.
What my race tactics were meant to be
I'll let you in on a secret here: during our two weeks of training on the course, not one rider from any age group passed me in the rock garden, or down any of the steep and rocky single tracks. According to my Strava records I was not the fastest down the steep bits, but I was not far off the best at all.
So, my original race strategy was to get in front at the earliest possible moment, then extend my lead by bombing the downhills and rocky bits, pace my way up the brutal uphills in the thin air before hitting the next downhill, and continue that strategy through to the finish line. In addition, I knew my stamina was as good as anyone else's. I had put in the huge miles and was tireless. If anybody wanted to challenge me on the hill climbs I was ready for them.
There was just one problem with this strategy - I had to be in front in order to execute it. You can't bomb a narrow, rocky downhill at high speed if there are slow riders in front of you, some walking! There are no passing lines down those narrow, rocky chutes.
So, here I was entering the rock garden for the first time and being held up by slower riders while the leaders were getting away from me! Talk about feeling frustrated!
Image: The first lap of the women's race which was as exciting as any race could be! This shot of them negotiating the treacherous 'Rock Garden' is an indication of the the mayhem you can get caught up in, if not in the lead. Normally, having practiced this 50 times, I can fly through this section.
Image: meanwhile, ahead of the chaos, the leader, a real 'Pro', has a clean and unimpeded run through the 'Rock Garden'!
Once out of the rock garden I managed to politely shove my way past a few more riders to find myself in 3rd position, just behind the very fit-looking Portuguese age group champion. I was delighted and feeling very encouraged. By that time, just five minutes into the race, I was soaked with sweat and gasping for air. Despite the scorching heat (mid-30's), my Portuguese opponent looked fresh as a daisy and had not a bead of sweat on him! But, as they say, "looks can be deceiving". He was hurting.
Image by Colin Henwood: Gary crossing the bridge for the last time. The bridge was actually one of the most challenging obstacles to master. There was a 'chicken route', but going the direct route amounted to a 10-20 meter gain.
We sprinted for the entry into what is the longest and most gnarly of the downhills. He just beat me to it. I would have normally smashed this downhill section, but had to drag on the brakes while my Portuguese opponent tentatively ambled his way down. I managed to pass him at the very end which gave me about 10 meters head start on what is the steepest and most brutal climb that lasts about two minutes. He caught me at the summit and it was again a desperate sprint for the next section of single track. He beat me to it yet again. Darn, darn, darn!
Image: Gary desperately looking for another chance to get past the Spanish champion
If it was a longer race, being held up in this way would not have been such a problem. I would have conserved my energy before picking the time to crush a tiring opponent. I am fit enough to go all day with this kind of game. But this race was different: there was absolutely no time to play with.
Three quarters of the way through the first lap I managed to get past him, but he sprinted me again into the drop-off that followed. He beat me to it again! He knew that the only way to hold his position was to block me on the downhills. This was the same thing that happened during the World Masters Games in April. The difference was that I had more time to play with - none this time.
It was at about this point that I reminded myself of sage advice from my Olympian sister Lorraine:
"If you are really hurting, those about you are probably hurting just as much, if not more"
Despite his fresh looks, it turned out that those sprints for the narrow chutes were hurting him more than me. I passed him yet again, as we entered the next section of wide track and this time he had no response, he was a broken man, and faded away to finish in fourth place.
So, I entered the single and final lap with the lead rider, Francesco Ferrari, just 50 meters ahead! The crowd were yelling and screaming. Meanwhile, my heart was trying to burst out of my chest and my lungs were flopping about in my mouth. Despite the weeks of acclimatisation to the heat and altitude, the sheer intensity of a forty minute race and a handicap start seemed to negate any benefits. I felt like a lone swimmer flailing about in stormy seas, surfacing every now and then for a desperate gasp of air! It was breathlessness that is best described as near-drowning.
Image by Colin Henwood: Gary hammering his unimpeded way through the 'Rock Garden' for the second and final time
Now with 'clear air', I bombed the rock garden. Mr Ferrari was looking over his shoulder now and then. He had good cause to worry. A win for him was not yet in the bag. He sure looked strong from where I was, but I was reeling him in on the downhills and the next section to come was the longest and most technical descent. This is where I had to catch him, if I was to have any chance of winning. Catch him, then hope that he was hurting as much as I, if not more. Who would break first? Who would make the first mistake?
Hopelessly out of breath, I entered the first off-camber hairpin corner of the downhill too fast and washed out. It was nothing at all, really, but the tubeless tyre partially rolled off the front wheel rim, air hissing out like a big burp!
It is hard to describe how I felt at this moment, but I suddenly felt more deflated than the tyre itself. A flat front tyre at the furthest distance away from the Technical Zone where my mechanic, Liam, was waiting with spare tubes and air means the race is over.
This was exactly what happened to me during my last world champs race in Norway three years ago. A flat tyre means a 'did not finish' on the results page! Horror! Doom! Humiliation. Go find a rock to crawl under. Some powerful emotions to deal with and a few words were uttered that will never be repeated.
Fortunately, by some miracle, the tyre reseated and sealed, but I now had a partially deflated front tyre. So, I took it quite easy for the rest of the descent, being careful not to further deflate the tyre, or to lose traction and crash.
For the 'Techy Types' among you, I first trained over the course with Maxxis Ardent Race Tyres on front and rear. I used these for about a week, going over and over sections of the course, including the infamous 'Rock Garden' which was claiming many riders through flat tyres and falls.
My trusty pressure monitor was busy. I worked out that around 20 PSI with a tubeless setup was perfect for the 'Rock Garden'. At altitude, this worked out to be about 14 PSI on my digital device.