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The Garda Enduro
Mary Moncorgé is a former professional enduro race. She's competed in events as prestigious as the Enduro World Series, but now she works as a teacher and racing has taken a less serious role in her life. She and her husband, photographer Matt Wragg, set off to the Lake Garda Enduro one of Europe's most exciting mountain bike festivals.
My race prep begins Wednesday. With enduro there is always something to race on the weekend, a galaxy of slightly different takes on the discipline, each one unique in its own way. Last Sunday was no different: there was a fun, little race near our home, but the drive home was long so the race kit still lies dirty, unwashed. So does the bike. Monday morning brings work, as does Tuesday. Long days teaching leave little time to think about racing, but Wednesday is different. Across France it is the free afternoon for school kids, so the bonds are cut and you can start to think about the next weekend. Stripping off the race plate, my bike just needs a quick check to make sure everything is still working as it should, then a thorough clean and re-oil.
Thursday is a travel day. Lake Garda is a good five hours away from us, and holiday traffic means it takes more like seven. Crawling along the endless lakeside traffic jam at just over walking pace gives you a chance to take in the stunning views of the mountains plunging down to the water. After what seems like forever we reach our lodgings for the weekend, a small apartment in the mountainside village of Cologna, high above the frantic pace of the festival and the twin temptations of gelato and beer.
It feels like my feet barely touch the ground as Friday and Saturday disappear in a blur of sponsor commitments and catching up with industry friends. Racing begins for me on Sunday - open practice. Riding with a friend we take in a shuttle-assisted loop of the race stages to get a feel for the trails, the lines and the pace to do well here. The course is a bit of a monster and I quickly realize that it is not going to suit me - although there are only 1,400m of climbing to tackle, they are spread over 50km. The German race organizers have brought their own take on the discipline with them to Lake Garda - the race is far more physical than most of the Italian and French races that I am used to, both in terms of length and the amount of pedaling during the timed stages. With that there are fewer technical challenges on the stages, the parts where I know I can make up time...
I struggle to sleep that night. Knowing that the profile of the racing is going against you always weighs on your mind the night before. So far this year I have struggled on the pedals at the races, the most frustrating part is that I don’t know exactly why; my work hours have been pretty good for fitting in the training sessions I wanted, which makes it all the more infuriating. It is going to hurt and all that pain only means time slipping away from me. As dawn breaks there is no more time to dwell on this, it is time to load the car and head for the start.
Enduro racing emerged from downhill - you are only timed on the (mostly) downhill stages, which means body armour is mandatory. Knowing the course profile, it is hard to pull on the back protector and big helmet. I feel comfortable on this course and compared to our home trails there is nothing scary enough to make me feel like I need the extra protection. With a sunny forecast, they are just going to make a long day even hotter and heavier. As soon as I reach the start, all the worries, nerves and stress just fade away as I get the chance to catch up with friends, pull my timing transponder on and get everything set for a big day.
As soon as I reach the start, all the worries, nerves and stress just fade away as I get the chance to catch up with friends, pull my timing transponder on and get everything set for a big day.
Heading out from the start is a monster of a transition - 20km. To put that in context, most of the races around our home are just 25-30km long. Our first 8km are on the flat valley floor to get us to the mountain. Setting off in waves, we tackle the flats in mini-pelotons, spread out in chain gangs - fast, efficient, but not very social. It is only when the gradient starts going up that things become more relaxed. Normally at enduro races you have a set start time for each stage, which adds pressure as you chase that deadline. Here in Garda there are no set start times, so we can take our own pace and really enjoy the quaint villages and the beautiful vineyards that cover these valleys.
Overnight rain has left the start of the first timed stage treacherous. It looks dry, but if you push even a little too hard the front will wash out in an instant. None of the girls I know are there at the line, so there is just time for a quick hit of water, a bar and into the real racing. The first three stages use the same hillside, so you finish one and are spat directly into the next. Number three is my favourite, with higher speeds and some tricky corners where I know I can do well. I have my biggest grin of the day as I cross the finish line.
They may look like a pair of trestle tables in a forest to you, but after that climb I can assure you they looked like heaven.
The climb to stage four doesn't let you keep that smile for too long though, it is another 10km beast. The lower slopes are slow and hot, but after the climb in the morning it feels like I am being boiled like a lobster in my body armour and big helmet. Then comes the sting. With 5km to go the surface changes, gone is the smooth tarmac of the roads, replaced by deep, loose gravel and harsher gradients. The final ramp is the hardest, after 9km of climbing it feels like a wall, but at the top is salvation - the feed zone. They may look like a pair of trestle tables in a forest to you, but after that climb I can assure you they looked like heaven.
Stage four is a high-speed toboggan run through the foliage. It is more technical again, and I start to feel like the race is going my way. Then comes the climb. After 40km, with 1,400m and three stages in my legs, it put me straight to the redline, lungs burning, heart pounding and it felt neverending. It didn’t feel anywhere near this long when I rode it in practice, but you just have to keep pushing. Mercifully the finish line arrives at last and I can pull my helmet off to let the sweet, fresh air refill my lungs.
Smelling the Barn
There are another flat, 8km on the valley floor to consider my lost time as I head for stage 5. Traversing the cycle paths that criss-cross the fields, the groups are smaller this time, there are no chaingangs, just splinters of one or two fatigued riders grinding out the last kilometres as we head to the finale - a sprint through the streets to the finish line. Mercifully, the final climb is an easy spin up to the botanical gardens that flank the citadel of the medieval town. By now, the race mentality is lost and I feel like a horse anxious to bolt back to its stable. I’m hot, tired and ready for this to be over. The unforgiving walls and cement of the final, urban stage spell high consequences for any mistakes and I need to be back at work all too soon...
And it's over. That final stage feels like it passed in a blur, even if the timing sheets says otherwise. As soon as they register my chip I dive off into the backstreets to find water, food and friends. A slice of pizza and a can of Fanta are the perfect tonic to kickstart my recovery. Fourth on the day is not bad. It is hard to say I'm happy with it, but when are you ever entirely happy with a race if you're not standing on the top of the podium? That has been the hardest part of stepping back from racing to work outside the bike industry, letting go of the drive to win. I’m still not there yet, I can’t tell you I’m not angry with myself to be off the podium. But… I’m getting better at it, slowly, and this weekend was a great reminder of why I love enduro racing so much. It was the perfect way for me to discover the mountains around Lake Garda, to try some fun trails and meet some great new people.
Check out Mary's ride from the Garda Enduro and give her some kudos! Mary's husband Matt also rode most of the course on his e-mtb while taking photographs. He deserves some kudos too!