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Alps Bike Festival UCI Marathon Series

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BY: Nick Corlett

Published: 18th June, 2018

Sat in Geneva airport waiting to board my flight back to the UK, gave me plenty of time to reflect on how my first ever UCI Marathon Series race had gone.

Since I started racing when I was just eleven back home on the Isle of Man, I have only ever raced the cross country format of the sport, other than the annual run out in the islands End 2 End race which still only came in just over three hours of racing. My decision to change to the longer format came after getting fed up of racing the UK XC scene riding on average courses against small fields of riders and having to pay a lot of money to do so. At the start of 2017 I competed in the Commonwealth Games riding for the Isle of Man and decided that this would be a good way to end my XC racing career. So since that point I have been putting in the extra miles doing the longer efforts to get prepared for marathon racing and I chose to make my debut at the Alps Bike Festival in La Clusaz.

My goal for the race was to finish inside the top twenty riders which then qualifies me for the World Championships in Italy in mid September. I felt this was an achievable goal but I really had no clue as to what the completion would be like or if I would be up to the task of racing over the extra distance and time. The race was held over an 80km course with around 3000m of climbing, so by no means was it going to be an easy introduction into the marathon world for me.

On Friday morning at just before eight I took my place on the start along side the other guys who had traveled from the UK to race. I wasn’t a seeded rider never having done one before so I was in bedded within the main group of riders at the start, with the seeded guys at the front, then the seeded women and then the guys who were doing the trophy race which was a combination of the marathon and then two other races across the weekend and then the rest of us.

When the gun went and the race got underway I was in no rush to get to the front, the first part of the race went straight up a thirty minute climb so my plan was to pick people off up to the top. Just after the start line however the road thinned to send us across the timing mat and I had to come to a stop as did everyone in front of me, I looked up to see the lead car with the front group of riders were already off through the round about and heading up the climb a good thirty seconds ahead already. I panicked and the game plan was out of the window, I got my head down and started pressing on passing riders all the way up the first stretch of tarmac.

As we turned off the main road to go onto the gravel climb I continued to press on I was trying to ride as conservatively as I could whilst at the same time trying to make inroads into the front group. Half way up the climb and the gap was down to around ten seconds but every time I got close to getting on the back someone would loose the wheel and the gap would stay the same. At the top I was still just off the back, I hit the descent and a couple of guys came flying past I hopped onto their wheel and by the feed zone at the top of the Col de Arrivas we where back on. Four guys including Ben Thomas from the UK had clipped off the front but I was essential in the main group of riders.

This was when my inexperience at the distance and level of racing showed. After the feed I moved straight to the front, pushing the pace to try and bridge across to the leaders, once again I was in touching distance but couldn’t close that last bit to get onto the wheel. When we hit the longest climb of the day which took us from around 1000m up to just over 1700m in altitude I still felt good, I was hydrating and feeding well and the legs still felt strong especially when the trail went uphill.

By this point our group had thinned down to about six or seven riders with the four guys ahead I was just inside the top ten and well within my goal. Towards the top our group split in two with four guys getting a small gap over the top, once again I made the mistake of chasing and chasing hard down the descent, pushing the pace out of every switch back to close the gap. At the second time through the feed at Arrivas we were back together but I was about to pay the price for my efforts.

After the feed zone there was a shorter climb of around fifteen minutes but it was the steepest we would encounter on the course. A couple of guys pushed the pace from the bottom and I couldn’t respond I slipped off the back with two other guys by the time I had reached the next feed zone in Le Grand Bournarde I was in twelfth place still within my goal but annoyed that I had lost the main group.

At the base of the final climb I was feeling pretty strong still, I had rode this one the day before so had a good idea of what it was like and how long it was. As it turned out this probably didn’t help! I was with one guy with a rider just ahead of us I had done most of the work through the valley as the other guy with me said he was ruined, an other rookie mistake on my part I listened too him. Half way up the final climb he dropped me as I could only ride at my pace by this point the efforts of earlier in the day had caught up with me.

All of a sudden riders started appearing behind me, where I thought I had a big gap before, now my top twenty was in jeopardy. I kept just turning the pedals over and riding to the pace I could sustain as I got over the top of the climb I was unaware of what place I was in so had to just keep pushing to the finish. A guy who passed me just before the top had asked if I was carrying a pump all I had on me were Co2’s and I wasn’t planning on stopping to help him out. Just as we started to head downhill he stopped at the side of the trail and borrowed one off a spectator, another position I thought to myself as I passed him.

I hit the tarmac of the Col de Coffins which was the last short climb before the descent back into town and the finish at La Clusaz, I took a look over my shoulder to see a rider chasing me down. He caught me just before the top of the climb and I asked what position we where in, he informed me that we where sixteenth and seventeenth. I breathed a sigh of relief as I knew I had all but achieved the top twenty finish. My mind was still doubting it though, so on the last part of the climb I pressed on to try and drop him, I got a small gap when my legs locked solid with cramp. I couldn’t stop because if I did getting going again would be nigh on impossible, so I pushed through it something I have never managed to do before, my legs were still cramping I could feel the muscles contracting as I stomped on the pedals but the pain had gone something I never thought could happen and in some strange way it almost felt nice.

I got over the top of the climb and I had a small gap. I started the descent and thought I have to keep peddling in case my leg locks solid and I can’t get it to move again, so I was pedalling round the switchbacks letting the bike drift in the gravel. I gave a look over my shoulder and couldn’t see the guy I had dropped, at the bottom it went from open fire road track to single track and a slight uphill. The guy caught me and straight away went on the attack, I tried to respond but this time the legs said no. I pressed on all the way to the finish but couldn’t close the gap.

In the end I crossed the line in sixteenth place. Inside the top twenty achieving my goal and qualifying for the World Champs not bad I thought for my first attempt at a marathon.

To anyone who is thinking about heading to the Alps Bike Festival next year, I would highly recommend it. Only an hour and a bit drive from Geneva airport and with plenty of hotels in the town centre you’re just a walk away from the start line in the main street and with a great party atmosphere to the whole event I am glad I chose this to be my first race. 

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Nick Corlett

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