Riding the X-Bionic Cup - Mud. Sweat. Not Enough Gears...

Mud. Sweat. Not enough gears. The reality of racing a mountain bike in 'proper' mountains, was quite a revelation. The X-Bionic Cup, was certainly an Xperience...

Within moments of leaving the quiet town of Borno, perched high up in the western Dolomites, we hit our first gradient. I'm not talking a short 500 metre 'drag'; more a 3 kilometre gut buster, of 15-20%; off-road. The 500 strong field strung itself out like a giant conga line; weaving its way up the mountain. I clicked down into my 32x40; trying to settle into some sort of rhythm. The realisation that the next 80 kilometres were going to be a real challenge, hadn't taken long to materialise.

Then came the mud. The weather over the last few days had featured an abundance of thunderstorms, and it had left its mark on the Dolomite trails. Dust was not a problem; a thick slop coated the path ahead. I was thankful I'd opted for the Hutchinson Toro tyres, with their purposeful all-weather grip; rather than sticking with my normal 'summer' tyres for this trip.

As the trail went up, so did my position within the field; gradually picking up places, as I found a 'comfortable' grind on my lowest gear. Thank goodness I had fitted a 40 tooth cassette expander, just two weeks ago.

Summit one. I grab a banana and some strange Italian energy bar from the feed station, and hit the first descent. It should have been a time to recoup some energy. It wasn't. Wet rocks, loose gravel, and mud; it was about as technical as they come. I hung off the back of my saddle, and tried to ignore the nutty locals who came flying past me. 'Huh, roadie!'; I could almost hear them saying, in Italian.

I was grateful when we finally turned skyward again, and began the second ascent of the day. Within seconds, I was back in the 32x40 though; and looking lustfully at the big ratio cassettes and tiny chainrings, of the well informed locals. The track went up; on surfaces and gradients that I didn't think possible. Certainly a Land Rover wouldn't have been enough; you'd need Caterpillar tracks on your all-terrain vehicle, to even consider these paths. I became quite adept at popping my big 29er wheels over slippery rocks, and swerving round patches of particularly broken and moss covered concrete slabs.

Descent two was equally as daunting. Boulder covered tracks merged into forest undergrowth; with mud, and switchbacks so rutted you had to peg-leg your way round them. 40 kilometeres down, 41 to go.

The 'Classic' route turned left, our 'Marathon' route turned right. Then we hit it...

Imagine the steepest road climb you've done in the UK; something like 20-25% grade. Imagine that, strewn with slippery cobbles, rocks and concrete. Then, multiply that to cover a 10 kilometre distance. I have never spent 90 minutes in my lowest gear before; pushing a cadence no higher than 60RPM; with no let-up. Masochism at its highest.

As we climbed higher, we got further into the cloud; but every now and again, you'd catch a glimpse of the jagged Dolomite peaks; surrounding you like a walled fortress. Beauty and The Beast, came to mind.

The path headed out of the forest, leaving the mud-clogged trail behind. It was replaced by the most incredible bit of singletrack; weaving along the ridgeline, as we finally approached the summit feed stop.

Cake and Cola consumed, sugar levels heightened; I was well ready for the descent. It was another butt clenching, arm shaking roller coaster; but I was grateful to see my Garmin registering speeds above 6Kph; the figure it seemed to have been stuck on, for almost the entire ascent of 'The Wall'.

Dropping downwards, I could see Borno coming back into sight. All that was left, was a series of river crossings, and small single-track ascents; then the final sprint into town. 5 hours and 39 minutes. Finished. 4th in category, and 20th overall.

The Xperience Cup was an eye-opener. I've never ridden paths so steep, for so long, that my Garmin was dropping out frequently with the lack of forward progress. I've never descended for so long on off-road trails, that my hands and arms have developed cramp. I've never ridden off-road in mountains like the Dolomites.

I'm looking forward to doing a hell of a lot more riding in the mountain range this week, from my base in Val Gardena. My trip finales in the HERO Dolomites (a.k.a. Sellaronda HERO) next Saturday; which sees a distance of 6km added to that of the X-Bionic Cup; as well as an extra 1,300 meters of ascent (87km 4,500m total)! It's little wonder it is branded as 'The Toughest (single day) MTB Race in the World'. *Gulp*.

Rain and thunderstorms were in abundance from our arrival, it made for some slippery trails!

The Pivot Les 29, ready to race

A slightly damp pre-race spin

The small town of Borno certainly played great hosts to the X-Bionic Cup

Race Day. #neverloseyourgrip

A bag of bread, pasta and wine for coming 4th in category. Yum!

A great race, I'm looking forward to the week ahead


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