Shall we do it ?
- "Shall we do it ?". After all, holidays have begun, I am a free man. I cancelled too many bike events during the previous weeks due to lack of time.
- "I probably found a transportation to Wisła. Eric, please confirm as soon as you can."
There was also the opportunity to join for cheap, following the withdrawal of a member from "Daleko Jeszcze ?" who had bought a package.
Despite the sequels of Karpacz less than a week ago, and a bad cold that lasted the few following days, I confirmed. Let's be fool !
The gem of the Beskids
Unlike Karpacz, Wisła belongs to Bike Maraton, Poland's most attended bike events. A chance for the financial income of "Grabek Promotion", the organizers, but a misfortune for confirmed bikers who fear the dreaded traffic-jams that inevitably form at the start of each event. Last year's Wrocław edition (also part of Bike Maraton) was a perfect illustration of this (rainy Wrocław'12 hadn't been so succesful).
Wisła isn't an anonymous place on MBPost. It's a popular mountain resort in the heart of the magnificent mountainbiking terrain of the Beskids. Barania Góra and Stożek Wielki were ridden from there last August, and there are also Sebasn's superb photos from the area too.
A glance at the race's map revealed that despite being from Bike Maraton, Wisła would be far to be a pleasure, and even seemed to be 2012's toughest edition in their calendar: 40km only, but in which not less than 2000m to overcome ! The fact that so much climb was "compressed" in such a short distance meant that it was for sure full of slopes with crazy gradients.
The elevation profile was easy to remember: four "hills" equally dispatched along the route (5,15,25,35km), each of them introducing its 500m of "wall" to swallow in one go... Under such a temperature, a genuine showdown in which endurance will play a major role, and in which the ones who run out of fuel will prematurely be out...
Posing with MTB pixies
Wojtek, Robert, and I arrived early in the morning in Wisła, where we met the other lads of "Daleko Jeszcze ?": Mariusz, Sebastian and Rafal. The evening before, Wojtek who had already implemented successfuly the "ghetto tubeless" technology on his bike thanks to the MBpost link I sent him, did so for a couple of other riders in our team !
My attention was elsewhere: away from the registration desk, few reporters were interviewing a charming female competitor wearing the famous orange "CCC" jersey: I recognized Anna Szafraniec, teammate of the worldchampion Maja Włoszczowska, going with her to the London olympic games. Anna is as amazingly pretty as Maja, and I am still under shock that such a slender creature can suddenly transform into such unmerciful riding machine, insolently flying over obstacles on her 29er ! She finished 7th over 400 participants, leaving far behind a good number of proved male bikers... Anna is cool: we exchanged couple of words about her attendance to France's Roc d'Azur the year before, and I asked her for a picture, which she accepted in all simplicity.
I placed myself in the same starting sector than Wojtek and Robert, despite their warning: "Eric, perhaps you should have asked the registration office, just in case". But no officer on the lane was checking. "Come on, I don't want to struggle behind fat asses like Karpacz !". Mariusz, Sebastian and Rafal were in the sector before.
The start is given. Robert and me start slowly, but Wojtek fly like a spark. Eventually, he justified his strategy by avoiding the jams as much as possible, but I am impressed how he could afford such agressive start, while the first climbs, with gradients neighbouring 20%, came less than couple of kilometers away out from Wisła. The sun is shining full power, the temperature is unbearable. I had drunk abundantly before the start, but sweat is dropping from me like rain, and I already feel thirsty. I have a kind of feeling that the cold during the middle of the week had affected my condition, and getting my heartbeat into the right tempo takes me unusually longer. "Everything OK Eric ?" asks Robert, who caught me back. Wojtek isn't in sight as we reach a significantly long meadow with open views.
Lots of people disturb me during the climb of the first mountain. In particular those shouting "left please !", and stepping down immediately after they passed me, forcing me to do so. Or, walking as I overtake them on my bike, and complaining about being obliged to walk aside. The centre of the track, offering the best traction, is fiercely disputed, and some manly contacts occur, elbow to elbow, handlebar to handlebar. First arrived first served !
Four endless hills
The top of the first hill, Kopce, arrives. The most I ride the most I see people walking aside, or just sitting to recover. There is an ambulance on top, someone must have had a disease ! A short portion of track on the ridge offers a bit of respite, but a sharp downhills quickly follows. The track is large, there is no difficulty. I had feared that the rains during the week would make the terrain wet, but it is absolutely dry, even too much, dusty in places. I am taking a turn slightly too sharp, and prefer ending in the high grass than falling... Some guys who were pitifully walking up are passing me again, all schuss, evidently with more technic. The descent ends on an asphalted road, which lasts significantly long.
The second climb reveals itself very suddenly, as sharp as the initial one, at the upper end of the asphalted road. It leads to the first refreshment, and the highest point of the race, "Kotarz". Something tells me that if I manage to ride all, even extra low speed, my result can't be bad, so it's what I am trying. I'm breathing as much as I can, gathering energy for each next steep portion: some of them are so steep that the bike almost falls backwards ! Traffic jams are less an issue, but some people still disturb me, in particular those alterning walking and pedaling, located in the same fragment of peloton than me. Kotarz farewells us with a superb downhill, as sudden as the climb was endless. People that I bravely overtook in the pain regain their advantage during the descent. It ends as we reach another asphalted road, but there is a sharp turn left, secured by police officers. Some lads who rode too fast didn't anticipate it and turned back after having gone too far !
The asphalt lasts again quite long, giving some regrets about the quality of the marathon's route, and giving increasing fears about the steepness of the next climb, as the flat lasts. Stary Gron, 3rd hill, appears as scary as expected. Endless people are standing aside the track, hugging the handlebar of their bike, breathing deeply of despair. I am passing Mariusz and Sebastian from our team "Daleko Jeszcze". I am still trying to pedal slow, with the easiest gear ratio, breathing as much as I can. Some people are just so exhausted that they don't even move when I ask for space ! May I also mention the countless times I noticed the ambulance rover on the way: The sun also made his lot of victims... just like the stones: I don't remember how many folks I saw fixing tires at the end of the descents... The effort starts paying. I see less and less people, and when I ride the top of Stary Gron, another nice ridge with open views, I find myself almost alone. However, I am running out of power too, and I hardly manage to gather my thoughts to perform the following downhill properly.
Unlike the previous, the fouth hill, Orlowa, starts with a gentle gradient of a large track, allowing to pedal with the middle plateau and large sprocket. I'm praying for it to last as long as possible ! But Orlowa presents its real face after the next buffet. Again and again, it seems that we are reaching some ridge, some pass, and that there is finally some rest. But, again and again, the next hillet reveals more steep climb ! All people I see are walking, and all signals in my brain are yelling me to do so, to sit, to have a rest... But I keep going, extenuated... A gentler portion makes me change to a slightly harder sprocket. But suddenly, my legs refuse to move any further. Cramps, holy shit ! I switch back immediately to the large one... The last moments of the climb on Orlowa are hell.
By some random coincidence, images from the soccer game Italy vs Germany come to my mind. I see Giancarlo Buffon singing the Italian anthem, and the Italians defending like heroes till the final victorious whistle. The Italian anthem resonates in my head until the top of Orlowa. In other circumstances I would have forced myself to think about something else, but right now the orchestra plays full power and I can't get it out of my mind, like repeating me "don't give up". Find it funny or not, this finally helps me to overcome Orlowa without stepping down !
The Watergate scandal
My water level is close to zero, in my bottles as well as in my own body. There were three buffets on the map and I counted them all behind me, but well, now it's going to be mostly downhill and I will survive. That's what I tell myself for a while.
By some miracle, as I pass a house near a nice meadow during the ridge portion, the gardener is spraying all willing competitors with fresh water, and some young girls are distributing water from large cans. This buffet doesn't look like the others and seem totally improvised. I'm swallowing couple of these unexpected glasses and go under the shower drops with the greatest pleasure.
I will eventually read on forums that the organisers, Bike Maraton, sticking to the quantities of all previously organized marathons, had not anticipated this particular weather and ran out of water on most buffets, failed to supply them in time, and some people late in the rankings had to cycle not less than 26km over the 40 of the race without being able to get any glass and only relying on their own bottle !
The providential buffet wasn't there thanks to the organizers, but thanks to one of the local teams (Gomola Trans Airco), whose headquarters are in Wisła, and who promptly set up this improvised water supply as soon as someone warned by mobile phone about the water issue... If anyone from Gomola Trans Airco reads this text, I would like to express them my deepest gratefulness.
More than probably, the presence of so many ambulances getting to people having diseases could be due to the water issue. But even afterwhile, Bike Maraton remains totally silent about this scandal, and there isn't a single word of apologies on their main page, neither of gratitude towards the "water volunteers"...
There is still a bit of ridge before the final ride down to Wisła, for the next few hundred meters I am riding like a turtle, despite I would have flought over it in other circumstances.
Suddenly, over the final bump, the valley appears: Wisła and the finish line are in in sight, at the bottom ! The last downhill is the most difficult of the whole race, however far from impossible. I am so exhausted that I let myself go, without any fear of crashing myself.. I soon find myself in the streets of Wisła, and am sitting on the ground as soon as the finish line is passed.
Only Wojtek is already there: "Come here Eric, they're already displaying the results !". We're heading to a panel behind the registrations office, on the Wisła square market. Wojtek is somewhere in the middle, but I find my name only ... at the very bottom ! "You can't be one hour behind me, it's impossible, I finished the race less than one hour ago !", my friend immediately commented, before we noticed I was fined some extra 45mn, in small letters near my ranking.
Furious, I head to the registration office, and ask with my best french accent for the reason of such a fine. The girl, embarassed, first ensures I understand Polish well, and explains with confusion that I didn't start in the right sector. "Did you know at all about starting sectors ?".
Seeming to be more ignorant than I was, I vaguely reply "you know, look at my ranking. I'm not the best, I'm not the worse. I just started somewhere in the middle and that's all. Where was I supposed to start ?". The girl, visibly worried about the image of the event towards foreigners, immediately nodded "OK, next time please inform about your previous rankings so you do not start at the queue".
The other lads of "Daleko Jeszcze" arrive one after one, and soon, we're all lying in the frech grass soaked with water, surrounded by our freshly washed bikes, discussing the epics of the race. We deplored a bit the monotony of some bits of the route. These four hills after each other were kind of monotonous, and we would have prefered something more varied. But after all, lots of roads are asphalted in the Beskids, for local agriculture purposes, and designing a proper marathon perhaps wasn't so simple. Over 500 people started, and a hundred did not finish. Wisła was a genuine trial of strength and completing it was a genuine victory for each of us.