KOTL – an hour of pain

Picture: Launch time at King of the Lake 2021. Thomas, Valentin, Attila and myself (left to right) roll down the start ramp.
Credit: Sportograf.com

I’m climbing up the steps onto the start ramp. The crowd surrounds me, the loudspeakers pumping out dance music. Thankfully I’m not alone. My team mates Thomas, Valentin and Attila are beside me, also mounting their bikes. A man stands behind me, takes my saddle, and offers to hold me up as I clip in.

The announcer calls our names, but all I can think of is not falling off. I am now suspended in mid air, nervously watching the digital clock in front as it counts down the last 15 seconds.

Concentrate. Make sure I push off on zero. I can’t fall over. I can’t slide. What order did we agree to ride in? I’m starting in 4th position, just behind Atilla. Just 5 more seconds. My stomach feels tight. The excitement of the crowd becomes electrical. Come on…

A beep rings out and we roll out slowly and down the steep ramp, onto the asphalt. Everyone else has made it, good – just get into position and just keep up. Don’t let your wheel get further than 20 centimeters from the tyre in front.

Close ranks in our 4 man team. Credit: Unknown

We agreed that we’ll aim for about 40 km/h average. Don’t push too much in the first few kilometres, you’ll tire quickly. Our road captain Thomas is at the front of our four man team, in a tight aerodynamic position and keeping the pace for the first 60 seconds. We roll past my team’s tent and our supporters, but I blend them out, I have to keep up.

Thomas peels off to the left, letting Valentin into first place, who is now in an aero position. We roll past and Thomas slides back in behind me to rest in my wake. After 60 seconds, Valentin peels off, Atilla is next.

I’ll be at the front next, so I hunch down my shoulders and try to hide in Attila’s slipstream. The closer you get to the front, the more you need to lower your body to punch through the air, otherwise your body acts as a sail and will slow you down. To do this, you have to hold up your upper body with your arms and core. If you can actually see the road in front of you, you’re not aero. Aero is however agony after a while, so bite and bullet and suffer.

Atilla flicks his elbow, peels to the left and I’m now at the front. Don’t accelerate, keep the same speed. My bike computer says 40 km/h. Good. Keep your head down. Peek up every few seconds, after all, I’m still riding on a public road with kerbs and potholes. Everyone is relying on me, they can’t see without me. They trust me. Keep going, ignore the pain in your arms, pick a smooth line, keep your head down, damn it. How long am I at the front again?

The King of the Lake (KOTL) course is 47.2 kilometres long. One hour of riding, hopefully less. The road around the beautiful Attersee lake is relatively flat, a ribbon of asphalt running through a string of villages. There is however a gradual uphill at about 17 kilometres and a steep short uphill at about 35 kilometres. These are two points we have all marked down on our profile maps, where the biggest gains – and losses – can be made.

After counting 30 seconds and seeing clear road, I flick my elbow, and pull left. I sit upright, stretching my aching arms and spinning my legs. I watch the guys roll past, speed up a little when Attila passes, and pull back in behind.

Each junction is cordoned off by police, and groups of spectators stand at the sides of the road, cheering us on and keeping our spirits up. The lake glistens on our right, and to our left green forests and fields flash by. No time to look though, keep your head down. Keep pedalling. Keep rotating.

After about 15 minutes of riding, we are suddenly overtaken by a group of four riders. Damn. Each team leaves at 30 second intervals – if they are this fast, how do we stand? I’m clearly not the only one who was surprised, and our pace goes up noticeably, spurred on by the competition.

At this speed, the rush of wind is deafening, so we can only shout to each other – even that is difficult. Because we can’t communicate properly, our order starts to fall apart and we bellow at each other to work out a new system. We need to keep 40 km/h though, otherwise we’ll burn our energy too quickly.

Maintaining the aero position for an hour is easier said than done. Credit: Unknown.

Shortly afterwards we get back into order. Through our rotations however, I notice that we are now three. Breaking cover, I look behind and see Thomas about 30 meters behind us. I shout to the others – what do we do? Is he ok? Did he have a mechanical? A cramp? Do we wait and risk losing our progress, or keep going as three? We slow down, looking over our shoulders, but he’s not getting closer. Struggling with our consciouses, we silently agree – we need to go on. After all, the group’s time is measured by the fastest three.

I keep an eye out for Thomas behind us, but he’s long out of sight. As Valentin, Attila and I slowly rotate, we agree that now all of us are doing full 60 second turns – our original plans are out the window. Without our road captain, the pace gradually goes up and we edge towards 45 km/h average. This is still manageable, but for how long? The 60 second long turns at the front are getting tiring, and since there are only three of us, our rest time is cut short.

We reach the halfway point, and the trees slowly swallow us up and smother us in shade. The first ascent is not as bad as I thought. We keep going up, each shouting encouragement at one another as we rotate. “Nice pull, keep it up!” I now struggle to hold an aero position at the front, which means I use more power to keep up speed. I now tire more quickly.

We reach the top of the hill and the tree line finally opens up. For a brief moment, I enjoy the downhill and loosen up my legs and arms. My reverie is interrupted when we pass a cyclist sitting at the side of the road – his head is in his hands, several bikes are lying on the ground, and an ambulance is nearby. The risks in this race are real.

The second half of the race took us through road which twisted and turned through picturesque villages. The pace started to get spicy, and suddenly it really hit me how much fitter Valentin and Attila were than me. At the back I struggled to hold the wheel – they slowly pulled away from me, leaving me exposed to the wind. I tried to pull back but I had to bellow our agreed command for them to slow down to a less uncomfortable pace.

Gradually I regained my energy as we swept down the rolling and curving roads. I started to take longer pulls at higher power, now helping Valentin and Attila who could finally shelter behind me. The pace was back on. However, after glancing down at my profile sheet on my stem, I realised the town of Buchberg was coming up.

Buchberg is famous in KOTL as home to “the” punchy hill, kicking up a gradient of 16% over about 50 metres. After about 30 km of riding at sweetspot power, this hill knocks the steam out of any time triallist and can cause a team to break up. In anticipation, I shifted down and got ready to put down the power.

Oddly enough the hill wasn’t as bad as promised, but each of us slowed down and we had to avoid hitting one another. At the top we regrouped and spun our way through the crowd of spectators, cheering and playing drums to give us a well needed morale boost.

We raced the last 10 kilometres smoothly, with a final obstacle lying ahead – a tight 90 degree corner several hundred metres before the finish. Rumours had it that some racers take this corner too quickly and crashed out. Forewarned is however forearmed, and the three of us placed ourselves wide, took this corner on rails, and we were now channelled into the last 300 metres towards the finish line, surrounded by spectators.

Motivated by this last stretch, I tried a last ditch effort to help my team and did all out sprint across the line. With all the flags, banners and colours everywhere however, I couldn’t see the actual finish line. Topping out at 50 km/h, I charged onwards until I realised that about 20 metres ahead of me was a solid barrier, so I slammed on the anchors and came to a prompt halt. Thanks to my disc brakes!

Last sprint to the finish line. Every second counts. Credit: Sportograf.com

Exhausted and on shaking legs, we unclipped and were welcomed by a grumpy steward who handed us clippers and fiercely told us to cut off our timing chips before we disappeared off for snacks and drinks. We wandered through the crowds of tired racers to get to the tables of bananas, cake and odd coloured energy drinks.

A few minutes later Thomas rolled in, slightly annoyed. Later on we discussed what happened – it seems that indeed the other team overtaking us had disrupted our pacing. After having taken a pull at the front, Thomas struggled to catch up with our increasing speed as the next pair of fresh legs took the front and tried to chase down the other group. He then lost momentum and that was it.

My first team time trial at King of the Lake was an amazing experience. An hour of pain, full gas racing, where team spirit matters like never before. I’ll be back for more next time.

– MT


Official race video:

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