April's experience with the Wrocław marathon pleased me, so I was keen in another one, and several of my friends, from different horizons but by some coincidence all Spanish, convinced me to join for the Karpacz Powerade-Suzuki MTB Marathon, which took place on June 12th, named after the most famous mountain-resort of the Sudetes in which the start was (pronounce "Karpatsh").
The date of this event close to home didn't escape the eyes of the Spanish gang of Wrocław; as for Albert who I met on Šerák , since he abundantly described me the Złoty Stok edition the the day before we met, I had the guilty feeling that not having been on that event was kind of abnormal, and his taste for race gave me another source of motivation for joining at least one of these events on the calendar, whose all 2011 editions he had attended so far.
Let's get straight to the point: Karpacz is as damned hard as Wrocław was a carnaval ! The organizers are not the same, the first was "Bike Maraton" (without H), open to a wider range of people, while the Powerade-Suzuki MTB editions, co-organized with the Czech, are followed by a more restricted circle of club members and professionals, including members of the national team. The season works like Formula one, with points gathered for each event, and some folks are attending them all on the four corners of Poland ! Karpacz is the most mountainous of the MTB Powerade-Suzuki events, with 82km (100 initially planned !) and more than 2000m of cumulated ascent, all in the rocky landscape that characterizes Karkonosze (see this TR on SP), the king range of the Sudetes. That was for sure a challenge, full of ruthless physical slopes and technical descents.
But I must say that perhaps even more than the presence of my friends, the lure of proposed itinerary pulled me. I had so far abundantly explored alone the well marked network of the southern Czech side of "Krkonoše", but not the Polish, for the simple reason that bike marking is totally absent, poorly drawn on maps too, and requires first-hand knowledge of the terrain from another person. Karpacz's Giga loop (there were shorter Giga and Mini options) linked the two remote resorts of Karpacz and Szklarska Poręba, not less than that, and the route would certainly be rich in ideas to repeat on other occasions in the future. Which was eventually verified, and the expertise of the terrain carried out by the organizers praised on all MTB-dedicated forums.
After masses of mail exchanges, it turned out that only two of my the Spanish fellows from Wrocław would turn up, the sympathic and very handling-skilled Unai, and another of their friends I knew but with who I hadn't ridden yet, Cesar. Albert also made all the way from Warszawa with his girlfriend, as expected, and I even met Grzegorz, one of the guys with who we had some pints at the the lodge in Złoty Jar where we met in May.
Grzegorz kind of scared me during that first encounter. As Albert described him, he is the kind of person to dedicate his entire life in biking. His shaved legs show a proved musculature, his whole body seems shaped for mountain-biking, and his bold head somehow reminds of Marco Pantani. He owns a customly built carbon hartail that weights less than nine kilos, at great expenses. But more than that, after the marathon of Złoty Stok during which he took one hour to my not-so-unfit friend Albert, thus despite a fall, he didn't find better for "recovering" the day after, than making it to the remote top of Śnieżnik from the door of the guesthouse, some 125 km off the beaten trail in total ! However, I found in Grzegorz a very talkative and friendly guy, and showing a certain level of culture including about Polish geography, which was not the case his other bike-focused friends.
While getting there in the morning, an abundant rain falling on the Kaczawskie forehills scared me, and I thought we would struggle all these hours in the mud on slippery rock. But miraculously the rain stopped over the Jelenia Góra basin, leaving only a greyish sky. It didn't rain, asserted me Unai who spent the night there with his charming girlfriend Kasia in a romantic spa (just like for compensating the forthcoming sufferance that would inevitably occur !). I must say that I truly admired Kasia as well as Albert's girlfriend Joanna, who patiently waited for their heroes under this weather during all the time of the event...
A gruelling race
Unprofessionally from some points of view, I decided the rear mudguard could be not odd just in case, but I was indeed more anxious about the tubeless tires playing me a bad joke, as I would ride them only for the second time. Much quicker than before the Wrocław event, the 200 participants who registered for the Giga loop were in position at 10am punctually, sorted by sections: Those with best results in previous events had the privilege to start closer to the front line, which consequently placed us behind. But the traffic jams didn't turn to be an issue like it was in Wrocław, as the pack and all individual strategies quickly took shape, during the couple of kilometers leaving Karpacz on the road.
The first part of the circuit was extremely technical, with no big elevation taken, but series of sharp technical descents. While we all had ridden in line on the road, it quickly turned out I was technically the weakest of the French-Spanish gang when it came about descents. I found myself quickly the last of them and lost their sight. Out of breath after the twenty first kilometers, I started to wonder if my lack of punch didn't have anything to see with the stomach flu I had not later than Monday, or the too small food I had eaten long ago (I had woken up at 6 to be there in time for the registration !).
Nevermind, I told myself, why trying to find an excuse. Let's face it, they are just better on real terrain, Wrocław's event was just a meaningless appetizer and the painful truth was simply bursting to my eyes right now... At one point, I felt I really had to eat something as I really started to feel running on empty, which could quickly be heavy in consequences for the rest of the distance if I didn't remedy to it quickly. Fortunately came the first buffet in which I ate several bananas, despite the additional disappointment to see that none of my fellows was still eating there. ..
But soon we came to a part of the loop profile I had roughly noticed on the website, the hugest ascent occurring at one third of the distance, and reaching the maximum elevation of 1100m (a cul-de-sac track running parallel to the Karkonoszka pass). Then I had the feeling that many people didn't really managed their effort, carried by the mass movement of the departure, and started to drew on their reserves right now. Despite I don't think it was so much the case for Unai and Albert, I passed them quite near from each other at one point of the ascent. Surprisingly, they told me Cesar was still far ahead. Albert and me spotted a guy in white at some point which eventually turned not to be him, but gave me the impulse and motivation to continue climbing at my own tempo.
The ascent went steeper and steeper, and soon all riders were running on the lowest gear ratio, when not walking. Cesar appeared, consciously pedaling on the same regular pace, in the middle of a pack whose most of the guys opted for the walking option. We encouraged ourselves and followed each other for a while, until I saw a man with mustaches from a certain age passing us. I told myself "No, not that !", and decided to get back my pace... Then I kept climbing alone for a long while, starting to suffer myself quite a lot. Only one very thin guy passed me quite quickly; surprisingly the same guy seemed to have a stiff fear of descent which made us pass each other countless time until the arrival, he was perhaps the only rider caricaturing both my strengths and weaknesses I ever saw.
Suddenly, the top of the ascent, or rather a 180° turn that simply interrupted the climb came in sight, and I spotted in the same occasion a yellow shirt with a red camelbak which was not unknown to me, and who stepped off for some painful stretching : It was no one else than Grzegorz, the cycling beast of my friend ! "Hi there ! Are you allright ?" I asked. "I have cramps, holy sh..." he replied, but by some magic, like struck by an adrenaline wave at my sight, he popped back on his steed and rushed to the descent as I reached him ! As for me, I thought it was high time for some water and cookies to recover a bit...
This encounter made me meditate a bit my situation. Thanks to a certain strength and endurance I always had, inherited from years of rowing, and that usually made my asset in such situations, my ranking got lifted to something kind of abnormal. I would now have to defend it well not to be caught back by my my closest prosecutors, even if the advance from the Spanish was now quite significant. During the descent that followed, I could observe the large glaciar corrie of Śnieżne Kotly, one of the most famous features of the Karkonosze mountain range, still keeping small snow remains in its shadow. Partly due to the high elevation (over thousand meters) and the descent being as long as the ascent was, I felt bloody cold.
It ended at the second buffet, which Grzegorz just left as I came: I guess his hardtail prevented him to descend too fast due to the transversal water-ruts I had jumped. I don't know if it was the presence of sweet drinks and fruits, but small insects that resembled a lot the Scottish midges (I was eventually covered of midges-like spots) made it unbearable, so I rushed too. We had reached what was I think the most generous portion of the loop, in the neighborhood of Szklarska Poręba, and I suddenly felt boosted by the gentle portions of steady gradients. Grzegorz's red camelback came back in sight during one ascent, and this doubled my motivation. If I manage to follow him now, I should try to do so for the rest of the ride, I told myself. And if I keep going the same way until the arrival, that would certainly be an achievement.
My position merged again with the small group into which Grzegorz was, and seemed again as surprised as the first moment. As an unexpectedly steep descent appeared, I noticed he very easily stepped off, like scared of falling, which was also my weakness, and comforted me in my choice choosing him as my "hare". I'm scared of descents, he owed me, I'm more a cross country rider, you know... I had to reply that having a hard-tail he had an excuse at least, while I don't ! As the third buffet came, as well as the feeling of starving again, I decided it was time to refill the tank with bananas and cookies in order to gather enough fuel for my mission. But Grzegorz only seized one glass, splashing it into his face and rushing on the trail. Again, I pushed as hard as I could, and I kept him in crosshairs at a steady distance for a couple of buffets more, which he always left at the moment I started to eat.
The two third of the distance were approaching, with some new steep challenging climbs to pass. The first few of them were quite steep and technical. For some reason, perhaps the accumulated mud, my derailleur started to jump regularly away from the largest sprocket, which broke my rhythm countless times. I found myself riding alone for a quite long while, only following the direction signs. A small rain had started to fall. However, the ground was still fairly dry, and the drought of the previous days was absorbing the humidity, making it a sound terrain with ideal grip. The forests of Karkonosze were exhaling a delicious coniferous smell. Raindrops were smoothly cooling down by body that was in fire, and I realized how happy I was feeling. I was in my element, not worrying of getting lost, just savoring delicious pieces of singletracks one after one, like a child would eat a whole pack of sweeties at once.
As I feared, Grzegorz had already left at the next buffet. His non-eating strategy had paid, but more seriously he probably better managed the few bits of slope. However, while reaching the last large "mountain" to pass, as a random guy called it questioning me, I spotted him far ahead. Again, hoping that he would weaken, I pushed as hard as I could, but did not manage to catch him in time before the following descent, and that was the last time I saw him. "Thirty to go", said the previous buffet guy, and I hoped we would have done at least half of them by now. "Twenty !", asserted me the next refreshment men. "Still a lot of you coming behind ?" he questioned. This sentence killed me a bit, but I replied to save their drinks and bananas as a fair number were still coming. Partly because we had merged back with smaller loops, refreshments were more and more numerous as the end got nearer, I had to overtake a lot of retarded riders from the Mega and Mini, and was passed few times too, without really knowing if these were folks from the Giga or not.
"Fifteen to go !", I heard, while I was hoping ten. Now, despite cookies and fruits of all sorts, I felt really knackered. The machine was not responding anymore when strong impulses were needed in steep parts, and moreover, by back was getting painful. Worse, weakness in my sweaty hands combined with slippery revoshifts, thus with the sprocket issue, made the derailleur feel more and more annoying to move, which wasn't really the moment for that. Signs showing the nearing arrival appeared when five were still to go. The organizers had drawn the itinerary to really make the most of the smallest hills, until the very last moment. This was really never-ending.
"2km" appeared in the same time as a red triangle, occasionally announcing dangerous sections. They had made it go over the last hillet that overlooks Karpacz ! A serie of laces in a sharp descent, in which I was overtaken by many, concluded a very sudden arrival in the stadium of Karpacz and the arrival gate. A crowd already sparse applauded while I was simultaneously photographed, questioned by a medical guy to ensure I'm alright, given a ticket for a free hot meal and ads for the next editions !
Passed the crowd, I found myself alone, with the sudden feeling I would never sit on my bike again anymore until the evening. I suddenly noticed Unai's girlfriend, Kasia, waving her hand at me, visibly worried about our long absences. Oh my god, she said, peering at me from the face to the feet. That must have been damned hard ! Is Unai far ? I felt embarrassed, and replied he should be in a short while. The next person I found heading to the hot meals was Grzegorz. The competitor had now given place to the usual gentleman, and he congratulated me for finishing so near. "Just couple of minutes before", he asserted as we ate together. "I'm thinking about buying a sussie", he added thoughtfully , as we made a retrospective of the race. "But we don't have much mountains overthere in Warszawa..."
The next finisher was Cesar, some twenty minutes later. He had obviously enjoyed a lot the ride too, despite similar signs of huge fatigue. Kasia and Joanna were now getting worried as their men were the last not to show up. But Unai soon appeared, joyful as possible; he had ridden most of the race together with Albert with who had chatted in Spanish. Pity it's Sunday, he said to Kasia: "the spa would would have been better tonight, not the day before !!". Albert finally appeared much later, explaining he felt, but Joanna explained he had probably been chatting all this time with various acquaintances at the arrival ! Let's mention he had his Go-Pro camera on the helmet all way long and probably made some great reportage. As we all were freezing, wet in the cold wind, we quickly greeted each other and returned to our respective homes.
The final rankings are quite severe: I am "only" 126th of 160 competitors who finished, to which 15 abandons are added. The winner took me more than two hours ! Cesar is 20mn behind, Unai 30 and Albert 40. But what cheers me up is that I am only 6mn behind Grzegorz, which isn't much for a race that almost lasted seven hours. After all, Monday's stomach flu was perhaps the bit of punch I missed for that. One other detail drew my attention, the first woman took me 50mn ! She didn't take only to me, but a mass of other proved competitors. When I used to row in competition, my best ergometer tests were only few seconds away from women of the national team. Assuming that similarly these biking girls shouldn't have a so much higher strength than I do, there must be a huge margin due to technique. Which I had perfectly seen indeed: I lost many positions each time a steep descent was to negotiate. This is perhaps because I don't often compete, and tend to ride carefully when I'm alone most of the time...
I'm thinking now about taking part into a couple of such other events. One in the calendar caught my attention in particular: the Międzygórze edition in September, as mountainous as can be, a bit like Karpacz. The perspective of exploring more terrain in the Śnieżnik area, while challenging another huge accumulated ascent, seduces me. But on the other hand, I don't feel like being a part of these MTB-editions addicts. I didn't see it so much for the Giga participants, which represent the elite and therefore have a good reason to compete at the cutting-edge level, but I have the feeling that many folks of the Mega and Mini circuit are this kind of people who ignore almost everything about the terrain they ride, focusing only on their shiny machines, bike-related purchasing, colorful jerseys, fluorescent vitamin drinks madness and so on. I am convinced that many of them attend the MTB editions because they have no idea where else to ride, and only find their motivation in following others. I just don't feel being one more of them.
This Karpacz Marathon made me meditate about my recent passion for mountain-biking, the way it provides me pleasure, and my expectations in it. Some biker once told me "you know, high competition mountain-biking is all about descending. They all climb the same speed, only the craziest or most skilled ones can dig the gap when descending". This sounds more like skiing, and I'm not really sure this is the sport I'm running after. I started to ride the Polish mountains few years ago, for the simple reason and from the moment I realized I love them. Karpacz perfectly fulfilled my taste of wild, as well as the race fun I was looking for. I am not an unsociable riding fellow, but I am who I am, above all the same crazy mountain guy, always looking for a remote virgin target to ride up the rough way and ride down timidly. And that's the kind of cycler I will probably always be :)
VideosStart them simultaneously if your connection can cope with it, it's even more fun to watch !
Albert's video. I appear at 6'10''
Handlebar video from random rider #55
Official video reportage