It started off a surprisingly cold October morning. Things kicked off with a carbohydrate rich breakfast at my hotel in Mörbisch am See in Burgenland, Austria, where for some reason the breakfast tables were outside. After kitting up, I had a quick warm-up on the bike and then headed down to the start line, full of anticipation for a tough day in the saddle.
Early in 2021, in the midst of the COVID lockdown, I booked a place for my first ever bike race, the Neusiedlersee Radmarathon. This is a well known 125 km loop around the Neusiedler (New Settler) lake, which sits between Austria’s province of Burgenland province and Hungary. Whilst this was no longer my first race (that honour going the Wachauer Radmarathon), it was to be my last race of the 2021 season.
The atmosphere at the start line was good. I found a few team members, had a nervous quick chat, basked in the thumping music and joined in on the countdown to the start. I was in the first starting block, and I delicately and deliberately weaved my way forward through other riders, trying to avoid any early crashes. After a few corners, the peloton made its way up a long steep hill out of the village and I managed to gain a few places. Over the first 20 km, the riders and groups were quite nervous, pushing at a high pace until things would eventually settle down, but I kept up in what I assumed was the fourth group from the front.
Our group of 15 riders passed across the border south into Hungary, however I slowly realised with frustration that my seat post was slipping down. Things felt increasingly uncomfortable and I just couldn’t extend my legs fully and put down the power. Decision time – do I carry on until the first feed station in 40 km and then adjust it, or do I stop now and get dropped from my group? Either way, a good result was no longer possible. Cursing silently, I dropped out of my group, stopped at the side of the road, and sincerely wished I didn’t have my multitool hidden in my saddle bag. Digging out my multitool and raising the saddle cost me precious time, with one group passing me, and I joined into the sixth group.
The pace was good and we delicately picked our way around the cracked and potholed roads. I had heard before that cycling in Hungary wasn’t for the faint hearted, and we actually got warnings from the race organisers – the roads certainly lived up to their reputation. That being said, I was very impressed and touched that the Hungarian drivers on the opposite side of the road kept pulling over to the side of the road and stopping to let us pass. This was a pleasant surprise compared to drivers in Austria and some other countries, where cyclists and even races are a mere inconvenience to be overcome.
Driven by a desire to see what I could do with my race, as well as irritation about my seatpost, spotting the fifth group about a kilometre ahead of our group sparked a desire in me to bridge the gap. Wordlessly and together with several racers at the front of the group, we pushed the pace a little, taking turns and rotating. On one occasion, there was confusion due to roadworks with the group splitting and stopping. Nevertheless, spotting the fifth group in the distance, I threw caution to the wind, put my head down and time-trialled to see if I could bridge the gap myself. The distance was too great however, so I fell back. We kept the pace up and finally the fifth and sixth groups merged. Sadly I burned too many matches and couldn’t make the final 20 metres to get into the middle of the group, nor could I keep their pace for long. The group eventually split and I ended up back in a newly formed sixth group.
Things finally settled down into a comfortable and sustainable pace. On occasion we saw a rather dismayed looking cyclist at the side of the road with some mechanical problem. Thinking back, when we first rode into Hungary, the racers around me were diligent in pointing out potholes, however now they seemed to have given up, preferring instead to hold on for dear life. Not being at the front of the group was clearly a risk, as you only have a limited view of road damage – needless to say I was not at the front. Then it happened. A violent thud. My drivechain skipped as I hit the pothole at 40 km/h. The bike started to grind and I panicked, looking for any damage. Had I broken something in that pothole? Was it my frame?
Trying to keep control of the bike at speed in the group, I looked down and noticed that my chain had bounced from the outer chainring to the inner one. Not so bad after all, was that it? No, I lost all pressure in my back tyre and it was squirreling underneath me. Cursing loudly this time, I shouted “Achtung” (watch out!) and pulled over and out of the group. I got off, flipped the bike upside down beside the road, whipped out my tools and a spare inner tube (no, I still won’t go tubeless) and got to work.
In those three or so minutes, I was passed by two small groups, several stragglers, a few cars and motorbike, a large group and more stragglers. Working as quickly as I could, I got the tube in and got the tyre back up to pressure with my handy Fumpa compressor (thanks Norbert!). Stuffing the old inner tube into my overflowing pockets, I got back rubber side down, and back into the race.
One kilometre later I was back in Austria and on blissfully smooth asphalt roads. Whilst this was going to be a 40 km a sector with glorious tailwind, I knew that the final 40 km would be south and with a strong headwind. Getting into a group was vital, but these were mostly in front of me. Time to put down my head, get aero and time trial. I passed a few stragglers, keeping an eye out for small groups who were going at a similar pace. I eventually saw a group of 6 or 7 riders going at a good pace, and decided to take a break and evaluate the situation.
I had a quick and pleasant chat with a cyclist call Martin, discussing where they were positioned in relation to the faster groups ahead, and how the other group members were. All of a sudden, we were overtaken by three riders who must have been trailing behind me. I jumped at the opportunity, latched onto their wheels and we pushed on forward. We worked silently together, taking long turns but rotating well. This carried on for about 25 km, during which time I noticed we had lost one of the three somewhere. The pace was good but over time relentless, and whilst I felt strong, eventually my right leg cramped up. I had to drop out, standing at the side of the road gasping in pain.
After a minute or two, I started up again and eventually found the second (and from my recollection, the only) feed station. I tanked up on water, coca-cola and a gel, and got moving again fairly quickly – the head wind wasn’t going to attack itself now, was it?
The last 30 km was relentless, with wide open areas and headwinds mixed with crosswinds, both of which knocked around my front wheel something rotten. Bizarrely, I overtook Martin again, who must have overtook me at the feed station, so I said hello again and due to our different paces, I carried on past him. Eventually I found a rider who seemed happy to share the effort and we rotated a few times. We overtook a few more stragglers who joined us, and eventually I looked behind me to realise that I was leading a group of about 10! Getting tired, I eventually flicked my elbow to signal someone else to take a pull, but this was met with blank stares. Further gesticulation didn’t help, and slowing down to 20 km/h eventually drove one stronger rider to take up the front. Taking second wheel, we carried on again merrily.
Finishing his pull, he pulled left and I took my role at the front again, getting into an aero position to punch through the wind for the next kilometre or so. Lost in concentration, I eventually turned around and discovered with a surprise that the whole group had disappeared, and only my original friend was behind me. Despite his initial enthusiasm, he stubbornly refused to take another pull. I tried to encourage him to take the lead several times without success, however we kept overtaking stragglers, who joined us before realising the pace was too hot for them. Eventually we merged into a group of six, turned around a corner and we dragged ourselves up the final steep hill and downhill into Rust, the village before the finish line in Mörbisch.
The last 6 km was a tough time trial effort, however I could take shade in third wheel. I would have been happy to take a pull, but the first two cyclists were stubborn and didn’t want to rotate. This was fine with me, and eventually we pushed through the last two corners and over the line.
The finish line was surrounded by a small cheering crowd, photographers and marshals who shepherded us towards the large finishers tent. Well, what a race. My lower back and right calf muscle both hurt like mad, and after leaving my bike in a paddock, I shuffled into the tent, and had a chicken sandwich, three isotonic drinks and a bottle of wine shoved into my hands. I was happy to finally sit down with my team mates and chat whilst Paris-Roubaix played in the background.
The results? I had a total time of 3 hours, 58 minutes and 55.5 seconds, meaning I made 493th position overall (of 725 finishers), and 103th in my age category. Not great, but not bad considering.
What did I learn from this epitome of Type 2 fun? I enjoyed developing tactics in the dynamic surroundings of the race, and I don’t think I did too badly. I have heard racers using the term “burning matches” in managing energy, and it was valuable to learn how to manage these over a 125 km race. I’m certainly going to do it again – the idea of finishing in the top 100 would be rather exciting.
Organiser’s website: https://www.neusiedlersee-radmarathon.com/
Below is the streamed video from the organisers: