At the stage in the season I’ve learned to expect a challenge when turning up to an EWS race and Finale certainly didn’t disappoint. The format was a 95km loop with 2300m of climbing/descending, no uplifts and 6 timed stages. Luckily shuttles were allowed for the two days of practice, it was tiring enough riding just the descents so by the time race day came around everyone was feeling a bit daunted about the distance.
Day 1 – 4 Stages, 50km, lots of rocks
The first day was definitely the more technical, beginning with stage one being one of the hardest to ride smoothly. There was nothing particularly scary but the trail was full of really tight, steep and rocky corners that were really hard to ride let alone race at high speed. It was a fun track though, some high speed sections through the trees full of rocky drops and layers of thick dust which had built up with hundreds of riders training on the course. I felt I rode ok, got cleanly down one tricky steep section where I’d headbutted a tree the day before and had plenty of ragged wheel drifting moments that I managed to hold on to. I messed up an easy corner though and lost a good 10 seconds getting going again.
Normally at the bottom of the stage there is time to exchange stories with other riders, have a drink or a bit to eat etc but this time we charged out of the stage gasping for breath and it was straight into a nasty hot hairpin road climb up to stage 2. I normally have no problem with transitions even when others struggle but this time I arrived with 7 minutes to spare, just time to catch my breath, change helmets, neck a gel. Stage 2 was more flowy, fast and rocky up the top with a couple of short climbs before dropping into some fun swoopy switchbacks.
From there it was another hot road climb followed by a technical singletrack up to stage 3, my favourite of the day. The start was fast, full of jumps and drops before the trail turned up with a short cyclocross style running section and a small amount of pedaling. After that it was extremely physical with nothing but rocks. Some tricky tight switchbacks, some big rock gardens and at the end a high speed blast down a very rough ancient cobbled path to the finish at an old farmhouse where the owner was busy decanting his wine and cutting the grass, ignoring the chaos that was going on around him.
The climb to stage 4 was a killer. Luckily i’d done it before so had an idea of how far I had to go but the time we had was very tight and the blazing sun made it even harder. I had to stop part of the way up as my legs started to cramp and once again had only a few minutes to recover at the top. This felt like marathon racing and enduro bikes are not made for that stuff!
I was somewhat apprehensive about stage 4, it began flowy, fast and fun before dropping into the loosest trail I’ve ever ridden. It was steep and full of lines, ruts and loose corners, which required full commitment and concentration to ride and got scarier the faster you went. The views of the sea were stunning but I hadn’t managed to ride the steep section in one go in practice and was hoping that adrenaline would get me down on the day. It did but only just! Halfway down the most sketchy part my legs started to cramp up and unable to control the bike properly I had to slow down. That was easier said than down, my arms where so tired I could barely hold the bars and arm pump made breaking painful. I started shouting at myself “look ahead, stay loose, ride it you bender” to try and stay focused. I was an absolute mess and the noisy supporters lining the track must have thought I was nuts but I got to the bottom in one piece and without any crashes. Delighted!
It wasn’t over though, there was a flat 10km pedal back into town. One the way the cramps came back and I literally couldn’t pedal, couldn’t get off the bike and was screaming with pain. I stopped to stretch it out but could only afford two minutes or I’d have missed the cut off time. I managed to get going and ride along screaming with pain and fighting tears as every so often my legs went into further spasms. I just made it back where there was finally chance to chat to the other girls and it turns out half of us were suffering similar problems. Hot weather, hard fast riding and not enough salts were the problem so I spent the evening necking electrolytes and eating bananas to try and recover for the next day.
Day 2 – 2 Stages, 45km, 20km/1200m wakeup climb
Today started with a 20km road climb with the poor enduro bikes protesting all the way up. Luckily the times were more generous today so there was time for a chat and a laugh on the way up and a break at the top where it was a lot cooler. Stage 5 was a short one full of wide open swoopy corners through the beach forest. Somehow my brain had forgotten about the many short leg snapping climbs in between though and there seemed to be a lack of connection between my brain which was saying go fast and my legs which refused to respond. The whole thing felt sluggish but it turned out to be one of my fastest stages.
After another climb and hikeabike there was only stage 6 to go but it was a monster. Almost 20 minutes of absolute flat out trails that at times felt more like xc than enduro. The top section was open and fast and lower down became rocky at times but nowhere near as much as yesterday. It seemed as if the climbs had doubled in length since practice, after every fun section of descent there was an eyeballs out pedal before you dropped straight into more switchbacking corners that required full composure. Luckily my legs woke up a bit after the first stage and I rediscovered some xc style enjoyment of self punishment to get my best stage time. It was high 5s and whoops of delight all around at the bottom as everyone was visibly delighted to survive the weekend’s challenge and we blasted back to Finale for sea swimming, pasta and gelato.
Overall a brilliant experience and a challenge I’m happy to have got through in one piece, finishing 26th on the day and 27th in the EWS overall (results here). The trails were amazing fun and at times very difficult to race, the transition times on day one were a bit too much but I guess it is the World Series and the top riders have to be challenged. With hot sun, warm sea, good food and amazing coffee, Finale is the ultimate place for an end of season race.
Now time for a break, I don’t want to look at a bike for a while but motivation will be easy to find this winter – the next time the EWS is in Europe it will be in Ireland!!! wahoooo.