Thunder and lightning, very very frightening.
That pretty much summarised the week running up to the promisingly named “Raiffeisen Power Radmarathon”. Austria was catching the tail end of the storms which had only recently caused major flooding in Belgium and Germany.
The weather forecast for the Saturday and Sunday was heavy rain with just a hint of thunder, which of course is not what one immediately associates with a pleasant day out on a bicycle.
The idea for the race came from a chance remark made several weeks before by Martin and David, two fellow members of my cycling club, the VICC Racing Division. They mentioned they would be taking part in the race, a 92 km high-speed jaunt through the picturesque Wachau region, and would I perhaps be interested in joining in?
As a bit of variety before my upcoming Berlin-Munich race, I thought it couldn’t hurt. 2021 being what it is, it might also be one of the few opportunities to get into a proper bike race. So I registered.
On the Saturday I had a few hours to spare, so I took the opportunity to drive over to Mautern an der Donau, the little town which was hosting the event, and pick up my starter pack. This was about a 50 minute drive from Vienna, and then – armed with my numbers, a few flyers and a new branded set of arm and leg warmers – I drove back home to get things ready.
Saturday evening was dedicated to removing my bikepacking kit from my Cannondale, scrubbing the bike clean, adjusting the rear derailleur and pumping up the tyres. Now complete with racing numbers, my CAAD13 looked like a natural thoroughbred and in its element. I spend the rest of my time preparing my kit and making sure I could leave the next morning quickly.
Waking up on Sunday at 6 am, I feasted on a bowl of muesli, headed down to my car, bunged in my bike and kit, and headed off back to Mautern. The weather appeared to hold on the journey, and it seemed that the only other cars out at this ungodly hour had road bikes attached to them in various arrangements.
Faced with the option of parking on a grassy field near the start gate or in a supermarket car park on the other side of town, I felt the latter was the more prudent in light of the risk of rain. The car park was full with cars, bicycles, and hobby cyclists in various stages of undress. I promptly prepared myself and my bike, and – armed with a brioche bun I thankfully had the foresight to take with me – I slowly rode through the bustling town to the start line with one hand on the handlebars, the other on the brioche, and munching happily.
I found my teammates at the line, and after a quick warm-up down the road, we got into position and chatted nervously. After inspiring words from local celebrities and inspiring music over the tannoy, the countdown was announced and with many cheers, and the groups of cyclists for the 160, 92 and 50km rides set off slowly at 9 on the dot.
We decided to ride as a team of four, together with my teammates David, Thomas and Valentin. With David also being new to racing, we were both taken under the wing of Thomas, and we decided to ride together, relying on Thomas’s experience of racing and of the course. There was a hint of rain, but nothing to cause too much worry as yet.
The first 10 km passed over a bridge and West along the Danube river – a flat stretch but not without risk. With about 2000 claimed cyclists taking part, the peloton made its way down the road at a good speed, but did on occasion bunch up to a full stop, either for no clear reason or because of a minor crash. Covering the brakes and keeping an eye out for stray tyres seemed a prudent approach. The three of us kept good tempo, working together, getting used to cycling in a large bunch, and gradually moving up the peloton.
After these first 10 km, the cyclists for the 160km carried on straight, where we turned right. The road started to go slightly uphill, moving through some quaint villages and up into the countryside. The peloton thinned out as the roads threw some punchier climbs into our path.
It was at this stage that I discovered that I’m not half bad at climbing. I accelerated past some members of my group and up the hill, and felt fairly strong doing so. Being built like a rugby prop forward and weighing as much, I certainly don’t feel like a natural climber. That being said, my CAAD13 is a dream uphill and it seems that my general fitness has improved. Definitely a feel good feeling and I’ll have to train my climbing skills more.
At the top of the ascent, we passed the first feed station, where – for some bright reason – I saw fit to pick up a bottle of water. Considering both my bottles on the bike were almost full, this was rather unnecessary, but it feel like the thing to do. Thinking I could neck it down at some opportune moment, I missed the end of the feed zone which meant I couldn’t throw it away. I simply left it it back pocket and carried it there untouched for the next 30 km, which didn’t do my lower back any favours.
The road started to descend and we caught a slight downpour which made the roads slightly damn. A small group of us slithered our way through the forests at about 50 km/h, with some more keen to hug onto others’ back wheels and stay there, which caused tempers to flare on occasion. Eventually we ended up again running on blissfully flat roads along the Danube. We eventually hooked a left over the river and crossed a bridge onto the southern bank. A few kilometres on, the heavens decided to open and fat drops of rain started to pelt down on us.
In our group of about 10, nobody gave any sign of slowing down, nor did anyone make any moves to put on their rain jackets. I toyed with the idea of stopping and quickly donning my jacket, but I would have then lost the group and would have struggled to catch up. Acting as one, we stubbornly put down our heads, positioned ourselves to avoid direct spray from the tyres in front of us, and battled through the deluge.
Wiping water from the screen of my GPS, and contorting my face to keep the water and road debris out of my eyes and mouth, I kept an eye on the directions whilst keeping my position in the group. All around us it was a normal Sunday – what a sight we must have made for the various other road users who waited for us to splash past, their windscreen wipers flicking vigorously.
We eventually turned left at a junction and back up into the hills. Despite the downpour, it was touching to still see a regular groups of spectators standing beside the road and enthusiastically cheering us on. It was hardly the Tour de France, but it was really a morale boost and we couldn’t help waving back our thanks.
The road went uphill and I managed to keep 2nd or 3rd wheel as the group slowed down and thinned out. Each time when someone overtook another, we offered cheerful and sarcastic comments, generally relating to the weather, the gradient of the hill, and that there was clearly nothing better to do on a Sunday morning. I struggled to work out what cadence I wanted, but unfortunately managed to leave behind Thomas and David. Keeping a constant pace was key though, and on the next downhill I kept an eye out for them as I gingerly splashed through the picturesque valley roads.
Then came the big one. A long climb of about 5km at 8-10% where everything slowed down to walking pace and we ground our pedals to propel ourselves uphill. It wasn’t pretty, but it was just a case of keeping moving. Easier said than done, and the climb took a lot out of me especially now that the rain had stopped and the air was warm and humid.
A sign for the second feed station promised that the summit was near, and once there I just had to stop for a bottle of fizzy apple juice. On unclipping my feed from the pedals, I discovered that both my legs had cramped and locked me in a standing position. I busied myself with all manner of stretches and dramatic facial expressions to get over the discomfort. A moment later, Thomas and David breezily rode past, stopped in front of me, and cheerfully asked how I was.
Mounting again with my legs still cramping, we tottered off through the now misty forest up the final ascent, and then rocketed down the blissfully steep downhill. Thomas previously warned us of a tricky corner which gradually got tighter, and that we needed to take this carefully.
We were then greeted with the ominous sight of a police motorbike coming in our direction and flagging us to slow down. Various stewards did the same, and eventually we were faced with the unpleasant sight of several bikes lying on a bank at the side of the road, an ambulance, and cyclists covered in space blankets. On a closer look, the situation thankfully didn’t seem too bad, but the message was clear.
My new found caution meant that I eventually lost Thomas and David, who were quite a bit faster on the descents. Eventually the forest opened up, there was a hard right out into the open, and I ended up back on the long and straight main road along the river to Mautern.
I saw both Thomas and David about 300 metres in the distance, but it would be a challenge to catch up. There was a female cyclist in front of me who I thought of working along with, but unfortunately her tempo wasn’t quite fast enough. Time to put down the power and get aero.
With about 3 km to go, my team mates were a bit closer but still far enough away. All of a sudden I was surprised by a cyclist overtaking me at about 40 km/h. He was followed by another, and another and another. A train! Spotting my opportunity, I cheekily slid in as fourth or fifth wheel and my speed increased by about 7-10 km/h.
We were barrelling along, reeling in Thomas and David, and when we finally overtook them I waved for them to join in. Not needing to be told twice, they slotted in and we excitedly called out words of encouragement to one another.
With about 1 km to go, the finish line was finally in sight. With a cry of “let’s sprint!” from one of them, we peeled off left from the larger group, got into our own train, and put the hammer down. The others caught on quickly and there was an impassioned if not slightly chaotic attempt by everyone to outsprint our VICC train.
We put in a good effort, but clearly started a bit too early and with about 100 m to go, we eased back off the throttle, fell into position side by side, and rolled over the finish line together in a state of tired bliss.
As a team, we didn’t win any prizes for speed, each of us covering the 92 km in about 3 hours 6 minutes. We later found out that our team of four made 7th out of 11, boosted by Valentin’s cracking time of about 2 hours 30 minutes. Personally I was in 246th place of about 494 male and female cyclists who finished the race, which was good enough for me.
We all disappeared to our respective cars, and after changing I headed back to the starter village. The lightning storm finally arrived, and everyone ran for cover from the rain. Drenched in water, with still no sign of the results, I decided to head back home after a good morning’s work.
I later discovered that the 160 km race was abandoned due to the thunderstorm, heavy rain and flooding. From various comments on Facebook and Instagram, the organisers seemed to have done a great job in rescuing all the riders from their various places of shelter and bringing them back to the starter village.
Despite the distinctly iffy weather, it was a great day and I learnt a lot more about myself – my resilience in crappy weather, my surprising enjoyment of cycling uphill, and my new found love of bicycle racing. What a day.
I’d definitely recommend anyone to give this race a try!
Organser’s website: https://wachauer-radtage.at
Event photos: https://www.sportograf.com/en/event/6163
Below is the official video for inspiration!
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