Saturday, May 26, 2012

Riding Onto The Podium At World Champs

I'm sure it still hasn't sunk in yet. For years, I have gazed, starry-eyed and tired after 24 hour solo world champs races at those climbing onto the podium and wished I had a better race, that I was a better rider. The podium no longer eludes me now. I thought it would be a relief, but far from it. Climbing onto that third step of the podium at 24 Hour Solo World Champs last weekend has served only as a carrot, dangling above that top step, daring me to step up and take a bite.

Saturday morning was a nervous affair for me. The race didn't start until 1pm so I slept as late as I could manage, then stuffed down a huge breakfast sitting in the breakfast room with my headphones in so as not to be distracted or aggitated by the going-ons around me. Rene picked me up at 10am to deliver me to the race village for our 11.30am breifing. My local support crew was lined up and ready to rock... Matteo was in charge, Rene was our team photographer, Vojtek as mechanic and Mike and Bobby along to help out with all the other bits and pieces. I would like to take the opportunity right now to say what a fantastic job these guys did. Especially comnsidering they hadn't done support for a 24 hour solo rider before. They were right on top of it. It takes a special person to put that much faith in a stranger, but to find a group of these people... Well, I got pretty damn lucky... I sat in the pit area that had been constructed by Matteo and my crew and populated with tools, spare clothes, lights and copius amounts of food and drink. I felt nervous... And when I saw the photos later, I looked nervous, too. One of the difficult things about 24 hour racing is that you can arrive at world champs having not raced against any of your competitors for a year. It's not like a world cup series where you have the opportunity to test yourself against your rivals before the main event... You generally go into a 24 hour world champs a bit blind, so it's hard to know exactly how your own form stacks up against that of your competitors... Yet here I was backing myself for a podium finish, which seemed a bit crazy.

We stood on the start line, the gun went off, and we were running our le mans start. My original plan had been to try and stick with Jessica Douglas, current world champ, for as long as I could and roll with it from there. I'm not a strong runner, though, and the le mans start saw me stuck in trail congestion behind slower riders with nowhere to pass once I got on my bike. It drove me nuts. I could imagine Jess and the other girls gaining precious second upon precious second on me with a clearer run of the track. So from the start, I was chasing. That's one of the other things with 24 hour racing. You generally start with good intentions of following a pre-determined plan, but the dynamic nature of such a long race requires a degree of flexibility to stay on track if things don't go exactly as planned... Maybe that's why I like it, too... You have to remain alert and think on your feet. So I kept pushing on as best I could, picking off riders as the trail opened up and allowed space to do so. I would give it a few laps and see where I was sitting to decide how I would tackle the next 22 hours after that. It was raining for the race start, something I hadn't really counted on. I had been riding in 30 degree heat for the last two months and I was actually hoping for a scorcher of a weekend. As it turned out, we had some short downpours throughout the weekend, but it was otherwise pretty good weather for riding, and the rain probably kept the dust down a bit, too.

The course was a figure 8 format which allowed feeding twice a lap. The thing that was confusing was that we started the race on the second half of the course (essentially doing a half lap for our start loop) but for the whole race, as far as feeding and timing for our team was concerned, it felt like the start of the course (my head really struggled to comprehend this in the later stages of the race as I was trying to figure out how many more laps I could squeeze in). That first loop (or was it the second loop?) of the course was the part that I enjoyed least. There were some nasty, nasty climbs (one which I didn't ride in the entire race, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one!) and apart from the one lovely view we saw over the marina, there wasn't much to look at. The other half of the course felt like it had more flow, the climbs were more interesting, the trail was fun and the views were stunning (so you can imagine how I felt at the end of the race when I realised I had to finish on the loop that we had started on, essentially doing the nasty loop an extra time!)

As the trail became less congested, I was able to settle into a rhythm. My feeding was working really well... Bottle one half and food the second half. This meant I could ride straight past and grab one thing as opposed to having to fumble my way through grabbing numerous things. It allowed me to carry my speed through the feedzone, which in turn, conserved a lot of energy. I was polishing off a full bottle per lap (a little over an hour), which was perfect. We had a system worked out with my food where Matteo would put the food in a plastic cup and I would tip into my mouth whatever would fit and chew it through the feedzone, then put the rest in my back pocket. Drinking would happen on the longer fire trail sections for me, and eating would happen on hill crests, where I could shove some food in my mouth and then worry about chewing it on the descents where I could have both hands on the bars and I wasn't breathing so hard so I could swallow. It was perfect. I was an eating and drinking machine on the bike and I had a really good schedule going. Later in the race, I knew I would begin to feel less inclined to do these things so well, so I made a point to get it right early in the race. You get sick of eating and drinking late in the race. Functional eating is hard work when your stomach is shrinking, you feel sick and you don't feel like eating anything that is handed to you. The thing I got wrong, which was a mistake that I was really mad at myself for, was that the portion sizes I had directed my crew to put in the cups were a bit small (it's difficult to know when you are working with foods you are unfamiliar with), so as we rode on further into the race, I slowly moved into carbohydrate deficit, a mistake that I reckon cost me a good 30minutes later on.

The first 13 hours of my race went really well. I was clocking some very consistent laps and the gap between me and second place wasn't really getting much bigger. Even better was that first and second place were riding together, so I wasn't far off the pace. Late in the afternoon, I passed another female rider just before entering the feedzone. I was pretty excited, thinking I had maybe caught second, but on my next pass through, my crew informed me that she wasn't riding my category (elite). To her credit, she was riding a great race for an age-grouper, but I made a conscious decision that I was chasing second elite girl and trying to stay away from fourth elite girl. I essentially disregarded this rider from my results. She wasn't in my category and I wasn't racing her, so when she passed me again, I wasn't concerned by it and didn't chase her. After the race, though, she launched a protest to try and change her category (which is quite specifically strictly forbidden in the rules), which would have stripped me of my podium spot. It was a very stressful affair and, to be honest, very unpleasant. Obviously, had she been racing against me at the time, my tactical plan would have changed to accommodate that fact. I was very lucky the race director ruled against her request, but it could easily had gone the other way. It taught me a very important lesson... Regardless of who you are or are not racing against, if they are in front of you, chase them down and beat them...

Lights on was at 8pm. Up until then, I had only done one other very short stop for a chain lube, so I was pleased with that. My plan had been a five minute break for lights on and a five minute break for lights off. I shoved down some pasta and changed my shorts while my crew sorted out my lights and gave the bike a quick check over and lube (I was being very careful to look after my bottom after my saddle-sore incident last world champs). The stop was nine minutes long, but was necessary to do everything we needed to get done. Next year, I will definately use a two-bike setup. The amount of time I could save by having the lights ready to go on a helmet and spare bike is far too precious, not to mention that subsequent battery changes could also occur the same way, meaning I could just get off one bike and on the next and keep riding without stopping. The sunset was spectacular and provided some minor respite for the pain I was in. Those first few night laps went very well for me. The temperature was cool but not cold and I was able to find a very comfortable clothing combination in knee warmers and a vest with no arms. In hindsight, I should have attacked here and tried to punch out a couple of quick laps. I felt relatively good, all things considered.

My crew was doing an amazing job (and we were having fun, more importantly) and I was looking quite comfortably set for an elite World Champs podium as long as I kept moving. I kept telling myself that (out loud) and I liked the sound of it. The other thing I found really helpful when I was riding was telling myself "relax and focus"... It was like a mantra that I developed after a couple of sketchy moments when I nearly crashed. It's funny that relaxing and focusing seems like such a simple thing to remember, but after you have been riding for 12 hours, nothing is easy to remember! One thing I do remember quite vividly was riding through a dead silent timing tent and feedzone at about 1am singing "bicycle race" by Queen at the top of my lungs then recieving a round of applause... Awesome! We also had a collection of fantastic "quotes of the day", especially from Matteo... "I know you are feeling pain right now, but that is what you came to Italy for" and when I mentioned a knocking noise in my headset, "no, it's not there... Doesn't exist", and his trademark comment "would you like some candy?!" (this one generally followed a moment when he had pissed me off, like giving flowers to your girlfriend and asking for her forgiveness). We also had our fair share of language mishaps... Bobby thought I had asked for "ice cream" not "ass cream" (glad someone set that straight... Could have been a bit awkward) and peanut butter is now officially "penis butter" (best not to think about it).

As I approached the 13 hour mark, I started struggling. I was so sore. The course was brutal. When you weren't climbing, you needed to pay attention to the descents if you didn't want to join the fish in the ocean 400m down the cliff. This is my standard "struggle zone" at this time. You realise you are half way there, but that it is still such along way to go, and that's a hard realisation to come to when you are alone, tired, sore and hungry in the middle of the night out in the forest on a bike. You would think after years of riding 24 hour races, I would have a plan for this time and I would be prepared for it, but I must admit, I still don't have it sussed out. It's hard to explain why because it seems such a simple thing to prepare for, but even with a plan, to execute a plan when you are in your darkest moment presents challenges in itself. My plan on this occasion was flat Coca Cola in my drink bottle and it worked a treat for a couple of laps until I started getting really bad acid reflux, which made it so hard to eat or drink anything at all (next time I need to carry some quick-eze!). I grovelled around a couple of laps and I remember very little of that time. I don't remember how I felt. My mind was numb and my legs just kept turning. This was the point when my carbohydrate deficit caught up with me. I remember I kept looking to the horizon just praying for a hint of dawn.

Finally, I saw the new day begin to dawn with a faint line across the horizon, but I still felt like crap. I arrived in the feedzone in a bad way. I'd had two or three terrible laps, then I vomited... It's never a good sign when you are sick during a race like this. It generally makes it very difficult to start feeding your body carbs again. My crew removed my lights and lubed my bike while I tried to manage some pasta. This was my longest stop of the whole race. I don't know how long it was. It didn't feel all that long, but I suspect it was longer than I thought. I watch the video of it now and see my eyes roll back in my head before I sit down and ask Matteo if I can close my eyes for five minutes and then he needs to wake me up. Five minutes later, he taps me on the leg and I jump up and say "i have to go", take my bike and roll off out of the feedzone. It never ceases to amaze me how much of a thrashing your body will let you give it if you really want to. Our body really is just a means of accomplishing what our mind sets out to achieve. Out on that lap, I saw possibly the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen. The sun stretched out across the ocean below me, throwing shades of pink and orange across the sky, scattered through a smattering of clouds. It made me smile for the first time in hours. I often felt drops of water run down my face and I didn't know if it was sweat or tears. I was completely shattered.

My next pass through the feedzone, I was better... Not good, but better, and the lap after that, better still. My lap times were back up to a time nearly comparable with what I was riding the afternoon before! I couldn't help but wonder afterwards if I had forced myself to keep riding instead of stopping, or if I had forced myself to ride harder earlier if I may have moved into second place, but hypotheticals don't work in these situations. There are too many variables and those same actions may have produced other consequences. The race I rode was the race I rode and it got a good result for me as it was. Those last 6 hours for me were strong. I don't remember thinking about much. Fourth place had come dangerously close and was within 15 minutes of me at one stage (after I had been nearly a whole lap up the previous evening). I remember trying to work out how many laps I would have left to go, but I struggled to work it out, especially with the "half lap" equation thrown in there. It may sound funny, but a lot of the time when I am riding these long races, I do maths in my head to occupy my mind and keep myself alert, and I know that when I can't work out something as simple as how many laps to go that I must be really smashed. My knees had been giving me grief for the last three laps, especially my right knee. I forced my pedal strokes through the pain, promising myself "just this little pinch, then the pain will go". I had to bargain with myself to keep my legs turning (I wondered on a couple of occasions if I was potentially doing long term damage the pain was that intense). It eventually became evident to me that I may arrive back from my "last lap" in time for another. The finishing rule at 24 hour solo world champs is that you may start a lap before the 24 hour mark and it will count as long as it is completed within 26 hours.

I arrived at the end of my lap four minutes before the course was closed. I heard Jess Douglas yelling at me "do another lap Megs!"... "Der" I thought to myself "of course I'm doing another lap!"... I rode through the timing tent, which was packed with the media and riders who had finished. I hollered and made some ridiculous gesture with my hand like a cowboy, then set out on my last lap... Guess I was a bit caught up in the moment... That lap was really lonely... I had definately been the last rider out on course before it closed (although I was chuffed that the sweep rider never caught me). And whilst it wasn't really a slow lap, it certainly felt like it would never end. I would be lying if I didn't say there were moments that I was wondering if it was really a good idea. I was also a little worried I would arrive back and they would had done presentations without me and everyone would be gone (the stupid things that enter your head when you are that tired!). Finally, I entered the feedzone for the last time, and rolled around into the timezone in 25 hours and 34 minutes (because 24 hours wasn't enough... What a bloody nutter!). My crew, Matteo, Vojtek, Mike, Rene and Bobby were waiting to celebrate and the first thing I said when someone stuck a mic in my face was "I want a burger" (nice one Megan, really inspiring stuff!)... Then I was off to the race office for my drug test (actually the first drug test I havee ever done!). Third place elite female... I was stoked, but so, so tired. It was an amazing feeling to stand on my first world champs podium next to riders I really admired and had a lot of respect for. It was an honor... I could get used to this!

Jess Douglas took her second world champs, and certainly deserved it. She told me after that going out on that last lap as I did was a real reflection of the sort of person I am... Never give up... It meant a lot to me coming from her, and I'd like to think that what she said is so true. I can confidently say that the positive attitude I carried into the race was 90% of the result, and my support crew the rest... My body was simply doing what my head told it to do. I get asked so often why I like 24 hour racing and to be honest, it's hard to give a response. I really like riding my bike, as every other rider does, but I suppose it is the dynamic nature of the sport that draws me in. No two races are ever the same. The combination of physical ability, mental toughness and tactics swings sharply towards the "top four inches" compared to a great deal of other sports. I'm still in search of that elusive "perfect race" and I think that's what keeps me coming back. Or maybe I just like being a hard woman. Whatever it is, I have no doubt I will be lining up at WEMBO world champs again next year in Canberra, much wiser from this years experience and ready to battle for that top step. I also like the fact that what I do seems to inspire people. I hope my result this year has made my supporters proud (it has made me proud!), I hope it inspires people and I really (REALLY) hope it can be leveraged and put to good use to raise the profile of 24 hour racing (and endurance biking in general) in New Zealand. Currently, we don't have a WEMBO qualifier in our country and I sincerely believe that if we did, and Kiwis had the opportunity to experience 24 hour racing at it's best, then that would help the sport grow, and that would be something very special for me to watch and be a part of.

For now, though, I am on my way back to New Zealand and back to work. Winter will be spent having fun on the bike, whilst enjoying some other outdoor pursuits and I will certainly jump into a few local races before ramping up my training again in Summer for next years world champs (so for those of you who have been enjoying my blog, stay tuned because there are still some cool adventures to be had!). I'm coming back a very different person from the one who left. The experiences I have had, the things I have seen and the people I have met (you know who you are) have had a very profound influence on me over the last two months. I feel so very lucky for the opportunity, and certainly, it would be remiss of me to not mention Mitre 10 MEGA, Yeti Cycles NZ, Adidas Eyewear, Ayup Lights, Oli at Roadworks, Camelbak, Pedal Pushers Bike Shop and Blox Apparel who have helped make this trip a reality for me, not to mention my sadistic coach Sadie! People say that there is no such thing as luck... That if you want something, then you make it happen... It is so true, but it sure helps to have the input of some willing parties! Thanks for your support everyone! What an amazing adventure we have all had together!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Final Blog Before World Champs

So it's finally here. WEMBO 24 Hour Solo World Champs is tomorrow. Registration completed this afternoon, support crew on the ball with our pit area, and the Ninja is all dressed up with her race number, words of inspiration, and a few phrases from songs I wouldn't mind having stuck in my head for the 24 hours (anything is better than the Lady Gaga that usually mysteriously makes it's way into my head).

This isn't a long post... It's just me checking in to say that I feel good (albeit rather nervous). I feel positive, and I'm going to give it my best shot. This trip has changed me in ways I could never have imagined. People have come into my life and had an influence that will stay with me forever and I have experienced things I will never forget. This race... Well, I have a really good feeling it is going to be another experience I will never forget with people who have changed my life in their own way.

Live race updates should be getting uploaded to and the rae starts at 1pm tomorrow (11pm Saturday NZ time). I feel ready, and prepared... Now it's time to go and rip it up!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

24 Hour Solo World Champs - Trail Talk

So I have been here in Finale Ligure for a week now. 24 Hour Solo World Champs is this Saturday and I have had the pleasure of the company of a number of local riders over the last week. The cool thing about this is that they were able to show me the course nice and early, before it was marked (except for the additional solo loop, which made itself known yesterday). Thanks to Matteo, Bobby, Ambro and Marco for their "local knowledge". It has been so convenient for my preparation to be able to pre-ride the course nice and early... It means that now, I can relax and give my legs some time to chill before the main event!

My first day out riding was last Thursday, and after some intel from my newly-found buddies at The Ultimate Bike Shop (who are doing the large majority of the trail work for the race), I managed to find my way around about a third of the race course. I remember my initial impressions had little to do with the course and more to do with the stunning views. On a number of occasions now, I have said to people "sunset and sunrise are going to be very special times on this course". Further exploration and a group ride the following day with Bobby gave me the full "classic" loop. When the Aussies arrived for the race, I took great pleasure in giving them a tour of the course, including the wicked trail that took us back to Finale. Travelling by myself, it was so nice to share the love and the experience with some other people. They've nicknamed me "the local" (and I secretly love it!). I feel like a local... I speak Italian whenever we go out, cars stop in the middle of the road to have a conversation when I see someone I know in town, I cruise around town on my bike in jandals with no helmet, quite happily allowing the traffic to buzz around me without being abused (I will get myself killed riding on the road like that back in NZ!), riding on the left side of the road feels weird and completely wrong to me now, and I just feel so welcome and comfortable here in general. Finale is a very special place.

The "classic" loop, which is used for the teams edition of 24 hours of Finale is about 12km long and the additional "solo" loop is approximately another 6km long. Apart from the stunning views, the course it great fun. It is technical enough to be interesting, but not too technical to slow the course down. The tracks are super fast, but definately demand a level of concentration and respect. A wrong move at speed when you are tired could have some pretty dire consequences. There is a lot of the loose rock I have been riding over Europe for the last month or so, laid over a bed of (sometimes quite sharp) bed rock, and I feel pretty comfortable with that. It is easy to see that it is going to get very dusty if it stays dry. The forecast rain for Friday could be a blessing if we get it.

There isn't a great deal of climbing in the course... Maybe about 550m per lap. The climbs are pretty steep, but generally short, and have very little traction... I will need to get my running legs on for a couple of these towards the end of the race, I reckon! Having said that, in comparison to the monster climbs I have been faced with in Cape Epic and in my riding over the last month, they are absolutely nothing to worry about... Short bursts of pain rewarded with some delightful descents on which the legs can recover (i say legs because the arms are going to be doing quite a bit of work down these descents!).

I must say that any hopes we had of the additional solo loop being a little more forgiving than the classic loop were dashed pretty quickly once I started to make my way around yesterday. The climbs in this section are decidedly more brutal (I think I measured about 200m of climbing over the 6km!) And a couple of the descents really require you to be on your game. I must say that probably the most memorable view I have seen on the course is from this loop... You ascend up a nice little rocky plateau, and as you crest the climb, the horizon greets you and lays the sea out in front of you where you were totally not expecting it. I think it will be one of my favorite parts of the course over the race.

The course is in a figure of 8 format, which means we pass through the pits twice each lap and can feed twice each lap, which is very convenient. Seeing your crew twice each lap can be very uplifting, too. Overall, I really like the course. There is nothing on it that makes me nervous or that I am concerned about, which is a load off my mind. I must say, I do like Jess' thoughts on it though. It is what it is and we all have to ride the same course. Very true. I'm pretty pumped for Saturday and really keen to just get into it. I will try for one or two more posts before the race and then you can follow live updates at We start at 1pm on Saturday (11pm NZ time) and finish at the same time Sunday.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Finding a Support Crew in a Foreign Place... A Very Cool Story...

I feel like I have been away from home for so long now. It's been an amazing experience, and I have felt humbled by the actions and kindness of so many people I have met along the way. I arrived in Finale with little clue of anything to do with the race, but to be honest, I can find that stuff out... What was kinda nagging at me in the back of my head was that I didn't have a support crew lined up... One of my biggest races of the year in a week and I was missing half my team. I had a lot of people who had offered solutions that would get me out of trouble... Shared support and the like, but nothing stood out as a golden opportunity to put together a campaign that was really going to put some marks in the dirt, so to speak. I would have to say that this goes down as one of the most humbling travel stories I have ever had the pleasure of telling, and I hope that one day, I get the opportunity to do the same for someone.

Before I arrived in Finale, I had been in touch with a guy named Matteo from one of the local bike shops (The Ultimate Bike Shop). We had been emailing back and forth and I had sent him a huge list of stuff I needed done to my bike and parts I needed (parts that he didn't even keep in stock). To be honest, it was one of these situations where I chilled myself out by thinking of worst-case scenario... "So, if I can't get my bike serviced, can I deal with riding it as it is?"... Yes, I could... "So if I don't get a support crew, can I deal with putting my stuff on a table and supporting myself?"... Yep, if I had to, I could... Neither of these were ideal, so it was amazing to arrive in Finale and find that Matteo had ordered and now had in stock everything we needed for my bike service...

But I still didn't have a support crew... Maybe I was being too fussy, or maybe I wasn't committing to any of the other offers of help because I was hedging my bets that a better offer would come up, or maybe I just had a hunch that something would materialise. I think the first problem was that a lot of people don't understand what is involved in supporting a rider through a 24 hour solo race. Most people wouldn't understand that for that 24 hours, it can be a thankless, full-time job for at least one person (although everything is what you make it!)... And once they did know that, chances were they would politely decline. My original tact was to ask people and see if I could get them interested before going into too much detail, but in all fairness, I needed to give people more credit for their intelligence than to expect a resounding "yes" doing it this way. I had been speaking to Matteo about the support, and eventually, I told him I would send him a list of what I would need someone to do for the 24 hours and if he could find someone (anyone!) who could help, that would be great.

The list I emailed him was pretty exhaustive. It covered everything from food, to water, to monitoring performance and position to chamois cream. I wrote in there about five times that no stopping was allowed and that I would expect someone to be there for me each and every lap. I didn't paint a pretty picture. I thought it would be unfair for someone to read it and think it was going to be a night out on the town. So I was surprised when I arrived at the shop the next day to find Matteo with my list printed out, asking me questions about it. It took me a few minutes to click that he planned on helping me out himself... And when he said he would, I knew he meant it because he had made such a point previously of not promising anything he couldn't be one hundred percent sure he could deliver. As we scoured over my list, he said, "and one more thing... What is chamois cream?"... Oookaay, well this is a little awkward (they obviously don't call it that here). I tried my best to describe it's use delicately, and made a point that I didn't expect him to help me put it on, he just needed to know where it was if I needed it... He then replied "oh, so you mean ass cream!? Why didn't you just call it ass cream?"... Yes, that's exactly what it is Matteo... Ass cream... We also have this running joke of whose language learning experience was more cringeworthy... Me asking a waiter for penis instead of bread, or him asking a customer to pay for a hand job instead of handy work. Gold... This weekend is going to be awesome!

That evening, I still had my doubts. I knew Matteo was also helping out the organisers during the race, and I wondered how he would fill in the gaps when he was needed elsewhere. I rocked up at the shop the next day to discover he had enlisted the help of one of his team at the shop, then another one bowled in the door and started speaking about sleeping in their tent at Le Manie and would be cheering me on. Matteo had seemingly pulled together a small, local army as my support crew. Two other guys in the shop who I didn't even remember meeting walked out the door and said "good luck for the weekend Megan!" as they left. How cool is that?? Matteo had translated my list into Italian for himself and was excitedly discussing the details... How we would set up the tent and what we would discuss each lap. Then he insisted that I come by Tuesday evening with my lights so he could practice putting them on the bike and taking them off, and that we would also do some practice feeds where I ride past and he hands me my bottle and puts my food in my pocket. He is totally into it, and I am so excited to have him on my side!

Tuesday evening team meeting was awesome... We now have a plan of how we will approach the race and how we will utilise the figure of eight format lap to our advantage. Matteo practised putting the Ayups on the bike, we spoke about what food and how much (I basically told him I have to eat what I am given) and we broached the potentially awkward topic of clothing changes. I'm feeling very positive and very excited about it.

I've been asked by a number of people how I feel about having a support crew that I don't know very well (and who don't know me very well, either!), and I guess there are arguments for and against. To be honest, I feel really positive about it. Matteo and the boys know the area, the track, they have contacts and resources at their fingertips. Apart from those obvious advantages, there are also some quirky things about it that I like. I have no doubt that the 24 hours is going to be painful, but also full of hilarious language errors (of which we have already experienced many... Far too inappropriate to tell on a public forum, but funny nonetheless) and potentially rowdy locals and that in itself should keep my mind occupied. Furthermore, there's a part of me that says "hey, these people you don't know are doing this amazing thing for you, Megan, and you owe it to them, if not to yourself, to go out there and give 150%". I think it is very fitting for the trip I have had, and I am really looking forward to it. I think it is going to turn quite a daunting event into something wacky and fun, and I reckon this is just crazy enough, from my perspective, to translate into a good performance and a good result... Yup, racing is serious... I have things I want to achieve and expectations both from myself and from other people, but why bother racing my bike for 24 hours if I'm not going to enjoy it or get something out of it? I am looking forward to the randomness of having a crew I don't know.

While we are talking about support crews, it would be remiss of me to not make mention of my "crew" back home. It's been a very popular topic of discussion how I came to have ten weeks off to ride my bike all over Africa and Europe, and I have to say that my employer, Mitre 10 MEGA, have been very supportive of my cycling endeavours. It's such a rare thing nowadays for employers to recognise that happy, fulfilled staff are also productive employees, and I am truly grateful for being given the opportunity to chase a dream for ten weeks and come back to my job (which I love very much!). In particular, my bosses, Gary, David and Richard, and also Vanessa, Stefan and Scotty for looking after the shop, but also the rest of the crew for behaving themselves while I am gone (I hope!). Kashi at Yeti NZ has been an amazing resource and has hooked me up with unarguably the most amazing rig I have ever ridden... My ASR5C (The Ninja) is gobbling up the terrain here at Finale. Jack at Camelbak, who also supply Shotz nutrition. I have actually hauled my Shotz nutrition around with me the whole trip because they are the only gels I like using (the mango passion is delicious!). Adidas Eyewear have supported me for a number of years now, and I love the fact that their eyewear is so adaptable for something like a 24 hour race. Ayup lights, another long-term supporter, still make the best and most lightweight lights I have ever used. Oli at Roadworks and Garry at Pedal Pushers for helping me out with bits and pieces for my bike back home. Manawatu Mountain Bike Club have given me some amazing support (I think you guys are my biggest fans!). And last, but certainly not least, coach Sadie for dishing out the pain and providing a rational perspective for me on many occasions.

So as I switch my head into race mode for the coming weekend, I feel very on top of everything, I feel positive, I still love riding my bike, I feel fit and regardless of the outcome of the race (although I certainly have placed some expectations on myself), I am confident I am hitting this thing with everything I've got... I must say it feels bloody good to be going into a race like this. Bring it on!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Useful Italian For Foreign Cyclists Who Don't Know Any Better

So, I thought that seeing as I have been in Italy for such a large portion of my trip, and have been enjoying learning the language so much, I figured it may be a fun change of pace to blog some useful Italian terms for mountain bikers. It will also help me distract myself from the task ahead in a weeks time. Be warned that I take no responsibility for your own use of these expressions (or for their accuracy) and will not be held to blame if you are punched in the nose by an offended Euro when you use them... It is also worth noting that many words in the Italian language have either an "o" or an "a" on the end depending on whether you are male or female, so I also take no responsibility if you are a man and get laughed at for using female words.

Ciao... Means both "hello" and "goodbye". In the interests of being respectful, this should not be used with older people, or people who you do not know. In these instances, you can use "buongiorno" and "arrivederci".

Per favore and grazie... Means "please" and "thank you"

Pane... Means "bread"

Pene... Means a certain part of a man's anatomy. I only learned this word by accident when my pronounciation of the above word for "bread" was incorrect. I can imagine it was rather amusing for the waiter that I was asking for penis for my table.

Gara... Means "race"

Percorso... Means "the course". Combine it with the above to create the term "Gara percorso", meaning " the race course".

Cervello... Is not just the name of a bicycle brand. It actually means "brain".

Montagne... "Mountain". Where we ride our bikes.

Peluche... "Soft". This is a word you don't ever want to hear directed at you.

Dura... "Hard", as in "hard woman" (dura donna)

Bicyclette... Obvious right? This means "bicycle", or you can use "bici" for short.

Bambina or Famiglia... "Baby" or "Family". Used to describe the relationship of one's bicycle to it's rider.

SINISTRA and DESTRA!... LEFT and RIGHT! Used to warn slower riders that you are about to bowl past them "Veloce" (fast)


Freddo... "Cold" (not a chocolate frog)

Calda... "Hot" (hmmm... confusing)

Dove` Grande Bagaglio... "Where is Large bag" (terrible grammar, but it helped me at the airport when I was trying to locate my oversize bike bag)

Gamba... "Leg".

Macchina... "Machine". Used to describe riders of immense strength or awesomeness.

Dove` la toiletta... Where is the toilet (most useful when you have pre-race nerves)

Scalare... Climb

Scendere... Descend. Take note that before doing this, you should have also completed the above scalare. The Italians don't have their own word for shuttle, and for good reason. If you must shuttle, you can ask for it in English. The look of disdain you will recieve is not because they didn't understand what you said, but is because they think you are peluche.

Irto... steep/difficult. Should be used to refer to climbs and descents.

Sgommata... Skid, as in "fare la sgommata!" (Do a skid!)

Sentiero... Trail

Figa... Slang, as in "figa sentiero" meaning "sick trail!". I am told this word in it's own right is actually quite offensive, but am yet to test just how offensive it is.

Bella... Means "beautiful". Can be combined with nouns such as "bicyclette" or "gamba" or "sentiero".

Acqua... Means "water".

Il Legge... Means "The Rules" which still have relevance regardless of which country you are in. Actually, the direct translation of this phrase is "the law", and let's face it, they may as well be the law anyway.

Chuidi la bocca... Means "shut the mouth". Handy for screaming children on planes if you are not concerned with offending anyone.

Venti Quattro... The number 24

Ore... Means "hour". Combine with above words for "Venti quattro ore solo gara" and see the expression on people's faces when they think you must have just messed up your translation (no, I actually did mean to say "24 hour solo race")

Bugiardo... Liar. Said to someone who claims to have done a 30min lap of the 18km course.

Cazzo!... Means "shit". The use for this one is obvious.

Fanculo... It starts with "F", just like it's English equivalent.

Maniaco... Crazy. Used to describe most riders.

Capo... Boss, as in "scendere la sentiero simile la capo" (descending the trail like the boss)

Ruota... Wheel

Brioche... The most amazing race food ever invented.

Caffe and Birra... Coffee and Beer (not necessarily at the same time)

Dolorosa... Painful

Areha!... Go!

Squadra... "Crew" or team... The most important component of a 24 hour race.

Carta Geographica... Means "map"... This is your ticket to heavenly trails.

Sudare... Sweating. If you aren't doing this, you aren't working hard enough.

Poco solo parla Italiano... I speak only a little Italian

Parla Inglese?... Do you speak English? Take note that this is the lazy person's way out of actually learning the language, as you should when you visit another country. Make sure you have a plan B if the person you are talking to says "no". This may involve playing charades until the person understands what you want or kicks you out for wasting their time.

And so concludes our lesson in "Italian for foreign cyclists 101". Maybe I will try and occupy my mind with using them for the 24 hours of the race next weekend. Or maybe use some subliminal tapes (I could be a fluent speaker by the end of the race!). Many thanks to my numerous Italian friends who have (unknowingly) helped me compile this list and probably now understand why I was asking them strange questions like "how do you say "do a skid" in Italian?"... SGOMMATA!!!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Arriving in Finale Ligure, Home of the WEMBO 24 Hour Solo MTB World Championships.

After a looong day of travel and excess baggage charges, I was pretty happy to plonk myself down in a train for three hours from Milan to Finale and relax. First up in the morning, after bidding farewell to my awesome new buddies on the Bike Greece tour, I trained it to the airport. Despite my extensive experience in travelling with a bike and avoiding baggage charges, Easy Jet's misleading baggage requirements, which differ from every other airline in the world, saw me potentially faced with a 126 Euro charge (that's nearly $250NZD!). I had no other option but to do something I have never tried before at a check-in counter... I cried... My waterworks display successfully reduced the fee to 35 euro, which didn't seem too bad in comparison, but still hit the pocket hard. I have no doubt that this is where they make their money. Something else that Easy Jet do that is weird is that they don't have allocated seating on their flights, so I sat down, only to have some sweaty, smelly, greasy guy sit next to me. The smell was so unbearable that I requested to move, and did so with little consideration for the guy's feelings, only to then get off the plane and have to stand on the airport bus next to him with his arm pit in my face as we made our way to the arrival gate... Lovely... I then collected my bike and walked out into the airport to discover that Easy Jet fly into the terminal at Milan that is not connected to the train network. I could either catch a shuttle to the train, then a train into Stazione Centrale, or I could just catch a bus straight there... It made sense to catch the bus straight there, but my bike box apparently counted as an extra person on the bus, so I had to buy the Ninja her own ticket... In general, my recommendation would be to anyone travelling with a bike in Europe, don't fly with Easy Jet... I found Edreams a much better site which uses standard carriers who don't have confusing baggage policies.

Once I was at Stazione Centrale, I lined up to get my train ticket to Finale. I felt really pissed off at the mornings events and the extra money I had wasted from choosing the wrong air carrier, but there was nothing I could do about it... The queue for tickets was pretty long and I used the time wisely to relax a bit and practise some friendly Italian phrases in my head so I could be nice to the guy at the counter and turn my not-so-great day into a goodie. I knew there was a train to Finale that left at 9pm... If there were no seats, I would have to hunker down in Milan for the night. Luckily, that wasn't the case, and the guy at the counter was lovely, and even found me a cheaper train to catch. It left earlier and took a bit longer, but I figured I had nothing else to do, so I may as well sit on the train and chill out for a few hours... The train was actually nearly empty by the time it reached the outskirts of Milan, so I had the whole carriage to myself, which was nice. I sat back with my feet up and stuck my headphones in to listen to some tunes. It only occurred to me at this point that pretty much my whole trip, I hadn't really listened to any music... I found it really soothing. It blocked out all the outside noise and the landscape and happenings around me became a video clip for whatever song was making it's way into my head at the time. Whenever I catch a train in an unfamiliar place, I am always paranoid of missing my stop. Each stop, I would stick my head out the window to see which station it was. I knew we were meant to arrive at Finale at 11.50pm, so I hung around the door with my gear twenty minutes early, anxiously checking each stop as the train pulled in. Finally, I stuck my head out the door to see a sign on the platform "Finale L"... YES! I hauled my bike off the train and then watched the train disappear from the station, sucking every bit of sound into a void with it as it went... I stood on the platform for a moment and enjoyed the silence... What a day! It was after midnight and I had to find my hotel. A single taxi sat outside the station, and I walked straight past it, determined to walk to the hotel and recoup some of my excess baggage charges from the day... The taxi driver chased me around the corner and asked where I was going. I told him I was walking and he insisted he drive me there. I asked him "quanto costa" (how much?), to which he replied "sette euro" (seven euro)... For the hassle it was going to save me at the end of a very long day, I took him up on the offer. When we arrived at the hotel, the meter said thirteen euro, but he refused to let me pay the full fare. Welcome to Finale Ligure, Megan, home of the 2012 24 hour solo world champs!

I always find it exciting to arrive somewhere late at night and then wake up in the morning to actually see where I am. I woke up pretty bleary-eyed after my late night arrival, but the sun was out and I couldn't stand the thought of sleeping in when there was exploring and riding to be had. One thing I noticed about Finale in comparison to Garda is that not everyone speaks English, so I have been pretty grateful for my basic grasp on the Italian language, but it hasn't been without some frustrating moments. My first mission for the morning was to find my way to "The Ultimate Bike Shop", which I did via this amazing little town called Finalborgo, which is a labyrinth of alleys and cobbled streets winding through the confines of the walls of an old castle... Castles are cool anyway, but a town inside a castle is even more awesome! I had been emailing back and forth with Matteo, who was going to have all the bits and pieces I needed for my bike to give it a good workover and service before the race. Not only did he have everything lined up for my bike service the following day, but he totally took me under his wing. It's always so good to have locals on your side. One of the other dudes who works at the shop, Michali, took me for a short tour around town to find some nutrition requirements, even translating for me and showing me the best places to eat, then we arrived back at the bike shop to jump in a van and head up to the race course. Sweet! Matteo and the guys from the shop have been pretty active in trail building and maintenance for the race course and were heading up there anyway to do some trail building... Saved me the 300m climb!

I was given some loose instructions of how to find part of the course. The original 24 hours of Finale course is about 12km long and work was still in progress on the additional 6km solo loop. As it stands now, the solo loop still hasn't been opened, but will be ready by the Wednesday before the race apparently. The part of the course that I rode took my breath away. The trails were very similar to what I had been riding over the last month, which was a bonus, and there were these wicked views of the Mediterranean over Finale and Sportono... Sunset and sunrise are going to be very very special times during the race! I did the loop a couple of times and then bumped into the guys working on the trail as I was exploring. Matteo showed me a trail back down to Finale so I didn't have to waste elevation descending a road and off I went to find my way "home" for the day. The trail he had sent me down was so much fun. Slick, off camber, technical slick rock snaked it's way down the hill. It was like riding down a gnarly riverbed... Great fun! I had an offer on the cards for the next day of a guided tour around the full original race course, so was looking forward to that.

I spent the afternoon chilling out, organising some of my gear, and doing some supermarket shopping... Without a car, I couldn't do my full shop for the race, so I figured if I got bits and pieces each day, I would have it all ready for next weekend. It also gave me the chance to try things out and check they agreed with my stomach. I still don't have a confirmed support crew for the race, which makes me a little nervous, but not as stressed as I would expect. I have had several separate locals assure me they will have something organised for me, and I figure from all that support, something will materialise. One of the mantras I have employed on this trip for the last month or so is my "worst case scenario" school of thought... What is the worst that can happen and can I deal with that if it happens? And in most cases, yep, I can. After reading Bear Grylls book, Mud, Sweat and Tears, as well, I really liked the SAS mantra that he shared in his story... "You fail yourself"... Noone else fails you. In the end, it all colmes down to me. I won't be blaming anyone else for my performance or shortcomings during the race. My circumstances are a product of my own decisions and actions, and I like it that way.

Upon the recommendation of one of the hotel staff, for my evening meal, I found my way to a small spaghetteria along the waterfront which made amazing pasta dishes. The thing that made it even more charming was that the staff didn't speak any English at all. After explaining in my best Italian that I only speak a little Italian, I fumbled my way through ordering my meal and paying for my meal. The waitress was sweet enough to hand me a translation dictionary with the menu, which was only in Italian (although I probably read Italian better than I understand spoken words), and then also took great pleasure in teaching me Italian words associated with my meal, which I need to make sure I remember when I go back to eat there again!

My second day in Finale, I met Bobby in the morning for a guided tour of the race course (excluding the solo loop still under construction). It was very gracious of him to offer to do this without me paying for his services, so I was really grateful... Another fine example of how amazing the locals here have been! His English wasn't very good, but through our broken understanding of each other's languages, he managed to explain to me that seeing as he was taking a guided group, he would tell them I was his friend. I mearly died when he told them I was his friend and an English teacher (shit, I don't know enough Italian to be teaching anyone here how to speak English! Haha!). I took great pride in the fact that I actually upheld the charade pretty well! There were bits of the course I had got wrong the day before, so it was good to get shown the course by someone who knew it. Having said that, I will be much happier once I can ride the full marked course, but for the time being, getting familiar with sections of it is wonderful and is helping abate the nerves a little.

I dropped my bike off at Matteo's workshop in the afternoon and picked up a loan bike to get around on... A little ghetto, singlespeed dirt jump bike... picture this, Megan straight off her race bike in her lycra, SPD shoes and matching kit ghettoing around the streets on a dirt jump bike riding the seat real low... It was a truly ridiculous sight, although when I took a photo of it, I don't think I looked quite as stupid as I felt.

Somehow in my travels, dragging my luggage and bike box around, I had managed to hurt my neck and shoulder. It's actually really difficult to find massage therapists here and after asking around, found out that the lady who works at reception, who is a 24 hour runner, has a husband who is a masseuer and runs ultra marathons for Team Salomon (this weekend he is doing a 71km running race before doing 24 hour world solo MTB champs next weekend! And you guys think I am nuts!!!). Anyway, I was relieved that my pain felt much better after he got stuck into it. Then after changing into something more casually fitting for the rig I was riding, and after raising the seat a little, I felt respectable enough to cruise along the waterfront and check out the views and get myself some dinner. Finale is a truly spectacular place, although very touristy, especially along the waterfront, and for this reason, I have tended to spend my time off the bike chillin at Cafes around Finalborgo.

So my last few days have been spent checking out the course, preparing gear, chilling and eating. Each time I ride the course, I feel more comfortable pushing the pace just a little bit more. There is only one reasonably tough climb, which I have nicknamed "the bastard" but it's really only bad enough to gain that status... It's not too bad (although ask me again after I have ridden it 15 times!). Matteo is helping me work on my suspension setup to suit the course a little better, so that all feels under control. I feel happy on my bike while I am riding, which is a good sign. I think one of the things I have found in previous years is that by the time I get to world champs, I am sick of the bike and sick of riding and training... This year, it just feels different. I still love riding and I still love my bike, and whilst I know the race is going to be hard work, I'm really looking forward to it... Only a week to go and I am doing my best to keep myself occupied to distract me from my nerves! I can hardly believe I have been away for eight weeks already! Best I polish off my trip on a good note!

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Week of Wicked Riding in Greece

I arrived in Athens quite early on Wednesday. The bike tour wasn't starting until the following day, so I nearly had a full day at my disposal to check out Athens. I negotiated my way out of the airport, onto a train and into central Athens, very grateful that most signs around the place are in Greek AND English, the Greek script being rather difficult to read and all. I had brushed up on a couple of Greek phrases... The usual "hello, goodbye, thank you, is it ok if I speak English" sort of thing and people seemed to appreciate it. When I got off the crowded train in the city, I was swamped by people at the station rushing off to their next appointment before being left standing on the platform by myself wondering where the elevator was for me and my bike box. As if he read my mind, an older gentleman came up to me and directed me to the elevator, then came along to help me, then walked me out of the station and pointed me in the direction of where I was staying... "Great", I thought, "another porter who wants an exorbitant tip"... But he wasn't. He was just a lovely guy helping out a stranger in a strange city. It was a really inviting welcome to Athens, and in general I have found the locals to be such pleasant people. What wasn't inviting was dragging my bike box two blocks along a footpath that was barely a foot wide. I wrestled with it the whole way to the hostel. The city was a bit of a surprise after getting out of the modern train station. Athens was an old city with rubbish in the streets and my initial impression was that it was actually a bit dank. As the day wore on through my travels, my mind changed on the matter... Athens has it's own, aging beauty.

In the interests of trying to save a bit of money, I had checked into a hostel in a 4 bed dorm. When I arrived, my two "roomies" were there in the room and after some pleasantries, and seeing as we were all travelling alone, we set off in search of some lunch together. After finding our way to one of the local districts for lunch, Kiko and I parted ways with Sonia for the day and headed up to the Acropolis. It was a hot afternoon and after making our way past numerous buskers and street stalls, we paid our 12 euro entry fee and headed up the mountain to check out the ruins. The Acropolis still has a great deal of restorative work being undertaken and there was a lot of scaffolding in front of the Parthenon. For those of you who don't know, I have Greek heritage in me. My father's parents were from Greece. Not long before my overseas trip, a photo surfaced of my Grandmother (Yia Yia), her two brothers and my great Grandmother in front of the Parthenon in the 1960s. I recognised the spot immediately as I approached the Parthenon (albeit a little more scaffolding than in the 1960s) and Kiko's patience meant I was able to get a photo taken in the same spot as my Grandma all those years ago without a bunch of tourists in the background.

The site was spectacular, and the views over Athens were stunning, too. I liked hanging out with Kiko for the day. It was nice to have some company and she was a really cruisy gal. She really liked her photography so we were never rushed to go anywhere and she didn't mind helping out with my requests for stupid looking poses in photos (it was nice to not have to set up the tripod and self timer!).

After a stroll around the local Flea Market (aka back alleys), it was nap time then dinner time. It was my first meal here in Greece and it made me feel a bit nostalgic... The chicken soup, moussaka and baklava reminded me of the feasts Yia Yia used to cook us when we visited as kids. I actually found I felt more familiar with the food and the customs and the people in Greece than I had expected... I suppose that comes from growing up with half of my family Greek. I felt really connected to everything, which has been really nice, but a little sad at the same time.

We had been told the rooftop bar at the hostel had spectacular night time views of the Acropolis and so headed up to the rooftop after dinner. I wasn't sure what to expect but was so stoked when I walked out into an intimate little balcony with a bar, some mood lighting and the Acropolis lit up right in front of us... What a cool place to chill for the evening! I also met another couple of Aussies, including two that were sharing the same mountain biking trip as me! We all made noise and spied on the naked neighbours through their windows until midnight then hit the hay.

The following day we were being transferred to our base for the mountain bike tour at 2pm so I had the morning to check out Ancient Agora and the museum with Kiko and Christina (another traveller we met the evening before), which was really interesting. It amazes me how well-preserved a lot of the artifacts are, especially some of the smaller stonework pieces with intricate carving on them. It was a good way to spend my last morning in Athens.

One thing I found highly amusing at Ancient Agora were the many people employed to watch over the ruins and make sure noone damaged them. The moment someone went to touch, stand on, or lean against a part of the ruins, these guys would blow their whistle and point at these tourists posing for photos and tell them not to touch... Like naughty school children in the playground. Hilarious... Anyway, one of these "whistleblowers" took a liking to us (as three young foreign females) and pulled a few olive tree branches off for us to stick on our heads and pose for a photo. He also picked us each a flower... Best we don't touch the ancient rocks, but go ahead and destroy the trees! We all found it a little bit ironic.

The afternoon saw Noel, Jess and myself loaded onto a train to Kifisi, where we met our Bike Greece mountain bike guide, James Brown (yes, this is actually his name, and maybe part of the reason I booked the tour!). James loaded us into his land rover and we headed back to Villa Patricia, where we would base ourselves for most of the week we were riding in Greece. James is an Brit who has lived in Greece for the last 17 years (or something close to... He has lived here for a long time, anyway). He knew a lot about Greek history and politics, which made for some interesting conversation. We were also to learn in the following week that James was a bit of loose unit... A hilariously funny dude who had the skill of "making it up as we go" down to a fine art (very important to be able to think on your feet when you are guiding a bunch of smart-arse Aussies, Brits and Americans around) and was more than happy to put up with my crap... Excellent! We arrived at Villa Patricia (named after James' mother) and settled in after the grand tour. The place was amazing. In a lovely serene spot, with a pool surrounded in marble tiles and a bar. It was a pretty cool place to spend a week chilling and riding.

We were introduced to our other guide, Steve, our lovely cook/hostess and general caterer for the week, Ismini, and one of our other companions on the trip, Dina, who is an American living in Germany. Dina was also my room mate for the trip, and, as we would discover over the coming days, the pesron I would end up spending the most time riding with. After some bike construction, Dina, Noel, Jess and I headed off on a little exploratory mission on the bikes, only to find ourselves a little bit geographically misplaced. Dina and I were a bit faster than the other two, so we continued on our way to look for a cafe, and in the process, found ourselves even more lost, quite conveniently in a forest with trails, where we became more voluntarily lost before continuing on our mission for coffee and hot chocolate. The trails through the forest were just a taste of what was to come over the next week. Loose, rocky and shaley... Very similar to Garda, but the rocks were a lot sharper. We also came across our first tortoise, which was pretty novel at the time. Finally, a couple of hours later, we found a cafe in a small town centre and spent an hour or so chilling and chatting over a warm beverage before heading back to the Villa.

Back at the Villa, I hit the pool for a bit of a skinny dip (hey, I was in Greece!) then we were fed a hearty BBQ meal with delicious salads topped off with Halva (a type of Greek sesame cake)... We definately wouldn't go hungry this week... Ismini was an amazing cook! The rest of our group arrived late that evening and were all Brits. Dave and Sue were doing the trip on their way to their Summer job as kayak tour guides and Phil was a physicist with a delightful dry wit. I must admit that after speaking to everyone in the group, I was a little concerned that I may find myself a little bored with the pace of the group if we were riding together. Dina, who was also a pretty competent rider, echoed my thoughts. I suppose it was more a matter of how James would manage the differences in skill levels.

It was lovely to wake up in the morning to a huge breakfast spread... Cereals, fruit, Greek yoghurt, and something I would grow to love over the week, Greek Mountain Tea (yum!). I was relieved to hear James say that we would be splitting into two groups to cater for the differences in abilities, and I must say that for the most part, he managed the differences in pace really well, sending us fast bunnies ahead to the next junction while we waited for the more casual riders to catch up. It actually worked pretty well as a bit of an interval workout... I could smash my way up a climb and then wait for everyone to catch up, then continue on again. Our group consisted of Dina, Noel and I and we headed straight out from the Villa with James onto the nearby mountain in search of singletrack. As we headed down the first piece of singletrack, I sat behind James for a bit until he stopped to wait for the crew and said to me "you go ahead and meet us at the next junction"... I was like a dog let off it's leash at the park and I needed no further encouragement. I blasted off down the trail and arrived at the end in time to whip out my camera to get photos of the others... From this point on, I became designated trip photographer, and I kinda liked it. It was nice to have riders to take photos of on trails as opposed to having to set up the tripod, or take a photo of just a trail.

Tortoises became a part of everyday life on the trail for us, as did me whipping ahead and hanging around the corner ready to take a photo of anyone who dared round the corner next after me. James had us attach a sprig of thyme to our bikes and told us it would bring us good luck if it lasted to the end of the trip... Noel lost his within the next hour... The trails were great fun, and I was really enjoying the climbing, as well. The loose, sharp rocks were what I was used to riding in Garda for the last couple of weeks, so I was pretty happy to just let loose down it. I had a couple of close calls on some loose corners, which made for even more fun, and, as has been a pretty general theme on this trip of mine, the views were great, too.

Now, you'll remember me saying before that James was a bit of a loose unit, and I loved it. He was taking us off on all these bush-bashing, random trails.. He obviously knew his way around pretty well! The thing I liked about the Bike Greece tour when I booked it (apart from the fact that the price was pretty good, and that the guide's name was James Brown) was that they base their tours around a "lesser known Greece" and our first stop that morning was in a small town where we sat in a cafe with a bunch of local Greek men, conversing very passionately amongst themselves. It reminded me of Christmas lunch at my grandparents house as a kid!

Our trail shredding continued into the early afternoon and all was going well until Noel emerged from the bushes after riding one of our less-maintained trails with a snapped derallier hanger. No spares with us, we made our way up to the lunch spot at walking pace whilst it began raining, all the while cursing Noel for losing his sprig of thyme!!!

Lunch was a gourmet affair. Ismini and Steve met up with us armed with a huge feast and an assortment of spare hangers and we sheltered from the rain under a tree on a picnic rug eating mini cheese pies and Greek salad and drinking beer and wine. Whilst Steve mended the broken hanger on Noel's bike, the sun reappeared and the afternoon was looking up for some more amazing riding, which Steve joined us for, after dismounting his bike very ungracefully at the bottom of the water fountain. James was set on convincing us that the water we took from said fountain apparently had special qualities and kept referring to it as the "fountain of youth".

We set off up a monster climb after lunch, towards a 1000m peak from which we could see all of Athens and it's surrounds. Steve and I made the summit first, followed by the rest of the crew, and after a short history lesson, we blasted back down the way we came up, spitting loose rocks behind us in our wake, checking out the stunning views and frothing at the mouth whenever we saw bits of trail off to the side of the main track.

A quick visit to the Kings Land and then some more singletrack and we arrived back at the villa for a dip in the pool and another amazing meal (albeit rather late!). I also took great amusement from James' attempt to chlorinate the pool after we were done. Instead of tipping in the right amount of chlorine, he forgot to take it out of the sealed plastic bag and accidentally dumped the entire bag, sealed, in the deep end of the pool! It was quite a sight watching him chase it around the bottom of the pool with the end of the skimmer...

The following morning, we made our way nice and early to the ferry, bikes aboard the Bike Greece trailer, to make our way over to Evia, one of the Greek Islands. As we drove along, James explained to us (there is always something to be learnt from James) the meaning of the Greeks' use of hazard lights on a vehicle... "Oh, that just means that anything might happen"... We would find out over the week just how incredibly accurate this explanation was. We sat aboard the ferry watching islands appear out of the haze on the horizon until Evia was right in front of us. The water was a stunning blue colour and clear enough to see to the bottom of the ocean. I had the feeling I was going to enjoy a few days of riding here. Evia doesn't see a lot of tourism, so it was nice to, once again, be taking the road less travelled. After checking into our rather modest hotel, I was crammed into the back of the land rover with the rest of the group to fight with my own personal demons at the fact we were about to be "transferred" to the top of the 1400m peak instead of riding up it (yes, that's right, a shuttle). I had to settle for the fact that my rather vocal protest to this absurd behaviour at least meant I had tried to make it known that I disagreed with this sort of carry-on. The other problem with being "transferred" (sorry, I just can't bring myself to admit I took a shuttle) is that you are driving past all this fantastic scenery that would have been much better enjoyed on a bicycle.

So we arrived at the top of this mountain right next to a chestnut forest. It was an unusually green sight on a landscape that was otherwise scorched from the sun's heat. We split into our groups again and James took Dina and I up into the chestnut forest to look for a rather vague trail that he knew of (I think by this point, Noel had decided that Dina and I were a bit nuts and decided to stick with the other group for the day). After waiting a while for James to search and rediscover this track, we set out to descend towards the horizon on this lovely trail which consisted of loose shale and a limestone base. The rock was sharp and there were some really fun lines to rip up. By the end of the day, my tyres had certainly seen better days, and the deep cuts around the sidewalls had me grateful that I was currently running a UST specific tyre with thicker sidewalls.

I was buzzing once we exited the trail. We then had an undulating gravel road to smash out to catch the other group for lunch in Antia. Even though it was a road, there were some interesting lines you could pick off, and Dina and I had a blast popping jumps off water bars and rocks in the middle of the road. I was also feeling particularly strong on the small, pinchy climbs. It didn't take us long to catch the other group before we were descending the switchback road that lead into Antia for our lunch break.

Antia is a very small village, known for it's rapidly fading whistling language. There are only three or four "whistlers" left before the language is extinct, and they all live in Antia. We were treated to a traditional lunch by the locals of chips and egg (delicious, but hard to climb on a stomach full of it!) and then were lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit one of the last remaining whistlers in the village.

It was amazing listening to her communicate by whistling. Other whistlers in the village could hear her and would respond, and they had a conversation in whistle language. She would interpret what she had whistled into Greek for James to interpret into English for us. It was bizarre to think that we would potentially be some of the last people from outside this village to ever hear this beautiful language. It was very humbling. For some reason, I also found it strangely emotional. Sitting around on the balcony of her house with her laughing and talking reminded me of my Yia Yia, and when I went to thank her, she held my hands. Her hands were soft and warm like I remember Yia Yia's hands were and admittedly, it brought some tears to my eyes. It was strange because it has been so many years since Grandma passed away and it seemed like a random moment for me to remember her, but it was nice. It was nice to be reminded of her and to remember her.

We left the whistling village and climbed up towards Evia's wind farms (not unlike Palmy's, but with an ocean view backdrop!) before descending towards the coast. I haven't seen a lot of wildlife here in Europe so far, but I was really taken by how cool the mountain goats were here, and was lucky to snap a herd of them chilling on some rocks.

We split into groups again for an on-road or off-road option (of course, I took the off-road option) and we descended like maniacs down towards the beach, then up over another climb, then down towards the next beach, all the way along the coast... There were what seemed like hundreds of beaches sprawled along the coast, and we climbed and descended into each one. It was actually a pretty long ride. I think we tired James out! Plus he was keen to get back to watch the football, so after briefly stopping at a beach, we kept moving at a pretty good pace so he could get back in time! I quite enjoyed the ride, and the views were amazing, but it wasn't everyone's cup of tea. I suppose the thing with being part of a group is that there will be parts of the trip that some people really like and others don't like, and vice versa. I was pretty happy as long as I was on two wheels!

Once we got back on sealed road on the home stretch, we backed off the pace a bit and I chilled out riding along and having a bit of a chat. The company was really nice and it was such a stunning day to be out on the bike. After a shower and a nap, we were off to dinner (where there was a TV on the wall for James to watch the soccer!) The restaurant we went to had some lovely traditional cuisine and was located down a cosy alleyway in Karistof, the town we were staying in. I enjoyed the goat and home made pasta and then ventured out for a night time stroll along the local wharf with Dina for some creative night photography. It was nearly a full moon and such a spectacular night! I could get used to this!!

Our second day on Evia involved a shuttle start again, although I didn't feel so bad when the shuttle dropped us off at the bottom of a 650m climb on the other side of the island (which I enjoyed very much!). James assured us the climb would take about "45 minutes for the fast ones, an hour for the slow ones". When it took me 47 minutes to reach the top, I knew it wasn't going to take the others an hour (Greek time usually involves doubling the original estimated time or distance). I waited nearly an hour at the top for the rest of the group before James sent Dina, Dave and I on our way down the other side, past an old church, and down to another remote beach situated one beach over from the stunning Agios Demetrios beach. It was amazing how stunningly green this side of the island was in stark contrast to the barrenness on side we had come from. Apparently the island gets a great deal more rain on the west as opposed to the east.

We waited on the beach quite some time before the whole group was there, after which we were told that we would transfer to the top of the next hill again as it was getting quite late. Originally, the tour would have stayed at this beach and made a full day of the climb up and over back into Karistos, but since new tax laws came into effect in Greece, a lot of the smaller hostels can no longer afford to remain open, which left James with no accommodation option for groups. As we drove along the west coast of the island, past Agios Demetrios and up the gorge, I was yearning to be on my bike. The views were amazing along the coast... Rugged cliffsides with stunning greenery plunged into the turquoise blue ocean, and then as we turned inland, the amazing greenery surrounded the rough, gravelly, technical climb up the 4WD track to our final drop point. Apparently this road is sometimes impassable to vehicles, and whilst today wasn't one of those days, the land rover still had some hard work to do in 4WD mode to get there. I must admit that I was pretty annoyed at having sat on the beach for so long and then having to get in a car and miss out on such a spectacular ride and the opportunity to take photos of such a magical coast line. It was the only day of the trip that I felt James really should have had a second guide with him and didn't, or in the least, could have sent a couple of us on our way up the gorge ahead of the group that hadn't arrived yet. I was disappointed to miss out on that ride when I easily could have made the it to the top before the rest of the group transferred up there in the vehicle, had I been sent on my way as soon as we made it to the beach... But, it just didn't work out that way, and once again, was one of those things I didn't like on that particular day. There were probably other members of the group who were happy to be shuttled up that road (in fact, probably everyone but me)!

For the descent back into Karistos, we separated into two groups again, Roger following the other group down the road in the car, and James taking Dina and I down some more technically challenging trails down the side of the mountain. I reckon this descent was some of the best riding of the trip. It was rough and fast if you picked your lines well, but could be brutal if you picked the wrong line. The whole way, we overlooked the town of Karistos, the old castle, a shimmering blue ocean and a blue sky.

As we picked our way down the mountain at speeds probably a little too quick for the trails we were riding, we would pull up rather suddenly for landslides, or trails that had been rutted out by deluges of rain. One landslide had completely collapsed the track we were riding along, leaving a gaping void in the middle of the trail. We negotiated our way across the landslide, edging our way over the precarious cliffside carrying our bikes until we arrived at the trail on the other side... This was real adventure biking, and I was loving it!

Apart from one huge water rut that appeared to have no ridable line through it, the rest of them had tricky little lines that would drop you into the rut up to your shoulders, then pop you back up out of the rut onto the trail again. It was great fun working all the lines through each obstacle, and I was rather stoked when we came across our second landslide and I managed to nail the sketchy line across it (with one small toe dab), through a chunky rock garden created by the fall. I couldn't wipe the grin off my face, and the bike was lapping up the terrain!

After another short history lesson on the ancient columns that are mysteriously stuck up the hillside above where we rode, we dropped back in to Karistos, overtaking and avoiding cars and scooters as we went. We arrived back at the hotel just in time to catch the other group and I spoke very excitedly about our ride for the day (I am unsure if anyone else quite shared the same enthusiasm for the wickedly daring terrain I was describing to them). We then headed out for dinner at the same restaurant as the evening before and publicly berated James for showing up with his top on inside out and back to front (how does that happen???). The Greek elections had taken place that day and were (still are) of monumental importance for the people of Greece in their current economic and political state. I found the whole thing really interesting and it was great to have James there to explain the bits and pieces about the election and the Greek politics, too.

The next day was a "free day" for us and we had the option of either staying on the island until the end of the day or catching the early ferry back with James and spending the day in Athens. I had originally planned to spend the day riding other tracks on the island, but decided to use it as an actual rest day, taking into consideration my race in just under two weeks. So instead, I decided to stay on at the island and head out on a gentle kayak with Sue and Dave. When we arrived at the kayaks, it appeared they weren't open, but after using my best Greek, we found a lovely gentleman who not only spoke English, but was the owner of the kayak company (bonus)! We came back an hour later to find three freshly cleaned kayaks awaiting our return and off we went.

The tables were turned a little now. Sue and Dave paddled off looking like they were having a leisurely time of it whilst I paddled my little heart out to keep up. They pointed out a beach that was a speck on the other side of the bay to head towards. I remember thinking "Shit, really? That looks like a long way away". Regardless, I shut my mouth and sucked it up and eventually, we arrived at the beach (apparently about 5km away) for a dip in the Mediterranean and to hang out on the beach before heading back.

It was really nice being out on the water with Sue and Dave. I hadn't seen much of them out and about during the day on our rides and it was great to get to know them a bit better and hang out with them. They are on their way to Mylos after this bike trip to run kayak expeditions all Summer, so the mountain biking was a small side trip for them before heading off to "work". As we made our way back, we stuck close to the shoreline. The water was so clear we could see the bottom of the ocean ten metres below us, and schools of small fish swimming about. It was a very relaxing way to spend our free day, although my poor application on suncream meant I got burnt, which I was pretty annoyed with. What a stupid thing to do to risk sun stroke the week before a race!

The trip home to Villa Patricia was a long one. Because we had decided to stay on the island for the day, we didn't have James with us, so the plan was to catch a bus to the ferry, ferry to the port, bus to the metro, change metro half way through and then ride it to Kifisi, where James would pick us up... That took us three and a half hours! The most bizarre part of the trip back would have to have been when we arrived back at the mainland on the ferry. The scenes of chaos as people ran from the ferry and cars came streaming off the ferry in this mad flurry of activity were almost comical. The drama at the "orange bus" we had to catch to the metro were even more bizarre. People were fighting their way onto the bus, yelling at each other, throwing luggage on the bus, then taking it off when it didn't look like they would get a seat, then throwing it on again... We decided it was in the best interests of our safety to wait for the next bus and just stood back and watched. The icing on the cake was when the bus doors closed and it was about to pull away and these two kids came running up to the door screaming "mama! mama!"... Their mother had somehow gotten on the bus and left them off in all the kufuffle... Crazy! We arrived back at the Villa very late in the evening and collapsed into bed exhausted.

Our final day of riding saw us split into two groups again. James promised us some amazing singletrack today, and didn't disappoint. Once again, we "transferred" to the top (shudder), but we still got a couple of decent climbs in for the day. The ongoing saga of James' misbehaving crank, which had been falling off at random points along the way for the last four days, finally came to a head and left James off the bike and on foot for the day. He would send us down a section of trail, then scoot down the road to meet us at the trail head before sending us on another piece of trail. The waiting was a little bit frustrating, and it was confusing not having someone to follow so we could be sure we were going the right way, but I suppose it is part of the adventure to have mechanical mishaps! I wonder if he still had his sprig of thyme from the first day?!

The trails we rode that last day really tested me. I found myself picking my way through testing pieces of trail rather than bombing down with reckless abandon. It made me pay attention, which I liked. I enjoy riding down singletrack that scares the crap out of me. My caution was also my undoing on a couple of occasions on that day... Sometimes you just go too slow, and I am all too familiar with the irony of crashing because you are being careful. Recklessness seems to pay off more often than not on a bike! My worn out rear tyre didn't help the situation, either. After playing the part of front tyre for the Cape Epic, then being rotated out to the rear for the month after, there was little chance of this sorry-looking tread hooking up on anything, let alone the pea gravel and dusty rocks we were descending. It was a fun day out, and trophies were won (the best one down the side of my right leg).

We polished the day off with a ride on the Olympic mountain bike track from the recent Athens Olympics, which was a bit of a treat before riding back to the Villa for dinner, massage and some amazing halva that Ismini had made especially for me for our last night.

My week riding in Greece was a week I will never forget. I met some great people, carved up some wicked trails and had the opportunity to immerse myself in a culture from which I am really not all that far removed. I got the impression when James dropped me off at the train station Wednesday morning that he had really enjoyed guiding our group, regardless of how much crap we had given him (or maybe it was because of that!). It's awesome how such a diverse group of people with such a diverse level of skill can spend a week riding together and still have a blast, and I think that, whilst there were moments where we appeared to just be flying by the seat of our pants (and let's face it, that's what travelling is all about), it's probably a lot to do with how the guide manages that group and their skill levels, too. Isn't it funny that it seems to come back to my "collective strengths and weaknesses" theory from the Cape Epic... Managing the strengths and weaknesses in the team to ensure a great time is had by all. Now it's off to Finale Ligure... 24 Hour Solo World Champs is not even a fortnight away now... I am very thankful that I have had something to keep my mind otherwise occupied... Now it is time to start focusing and letting the nerves kick in and do their work!