When I was a nipper, and my Dad would take us out on a bike ride, we would sometimes get caught out in a downpour. If it was wet enough for long enough, and you were chronically cold and miserable, Dad would give the ride the moniker 'an epic', in a fruitless attempt to cheer us up. Of course, back in those days there were no mountain bikes, so we never had an MTB epic, and I have no yardstick with which to define one. If 'epic' means feeling miserable and knackered, then surely all marathons count, but in the spirit of those early biking memories, I believe you need to at least be soaking wet and muddy. In which case, the 2000 Odenwald marathon was my first MTB epic.
The final marathon of the season (at least in my calendar!), Odenwald is held in the MadMiler's backyard, in Hirschberg near Heidelberg. Last year had been a dust bowl - this year the sublime changed to the ridiculous, with fine airborne dirt replaced with deep, slippery, wet, mud. To say it was muddy would be a monumental understatement. I think I carried about 2 or 3 kilos of Odenwald real-estate home with me, and that was just what was dried on at the end. In a juvenile error of judgement, I elected not to change my worn-out Mythos XC tyre ("its all gravel roads and can't be too bad"). Not that it would have made much difference anyway, but I found myself fishtailing along great long sections of singletrail. I wasn't alone, and on a couple of occasions laughed out loud at others' attempts to ride using the whole width of the path whilst trying to keep a straight line. Although my bike computer recorded only 75kms for the ride, I'm sure the rear wheel travelled the full 81kms advertised.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The usual choice of two courses in this case added up to either 27km and 600m vertical (girls!), or the long run at 81km and 2000m. Andy, Jens and I opted for the long version and met in the start bucket in Hirshberg at 9:00 a.m. under grey September skies. To their disgust, I was proudly wearing my newly laundered arm warmers. The gun sounded, and we rode off for the first three or four clicks of flat asphalt before the fun started. One thing I've always noticed in marathons but always forgot to mention in the post-race analysis is why so many riders feel the need to shoot out of the start gate and hammer down the first few kilometres making stupid overtaking manoeuvres. Have they misunderstood that they have 4 or 5 hours out on the road to find a way around me? At one point, I was riding at around 35kph about a foot from the right-hand side of the asphalt road. Some idiot tried to overtake on the right, and rode over the muddied edge of the road. As he started fishtailing, I rode on giggling, spotting him in the corner of my eye toppling over into the adjacent field. One down, 499 to go.
The first climb leads a circuitous, 18km route to the Weißer Stein, which is a regular destination for us Heidelbergers. I rode up too quick, but was still overtaken after about 500m of climbing by Jens, who tapped me on my back as he swept by and wished me luck. An hour or so of climbing in really wet conditions led to our favourite singletrails just below the summit. At the top, Petra was waiting to cheer us on - she informed me that Jens was just two minutes ahead. Again, on the first downhill I was reminded of how crap the average biker is at downhill. The well-known 'Roots Descent' from the Weißer Stein is one of our favourites, but you just couldn't enjoy it waiting behind a long line of duffers worried by each rock or tree root. Luckily, the road soon widened to let the overtaking start. I zipped down the gravel roads, riding the thin racing line which had been cleared by the other riders. By the end of the first downhill, I couldn't see a thing through my glasses, so stowed them away for the rest of the ride. I realised on the next downhill that all that mud and water which was stuck to my glasses was now flying into my eyes and I couldn't see a thing. Riding blind at 50kph down fast gravel roads is not a clever way to spend a wet Sunday morning. At the bottom of the second downhill, the route crossed a small stream. As all the riders were queuing to use the small wooden bridge to cross it, I followed the rider ahead of me, and in true Cristalp style, forded the brook. Until he ran into the opposite bank and stopped dead, leaving me stranded in mid-stream. My feet might have been soaked through but they were a little cleaner.
The remainder of the ride seemed to go endlessly up and down in short bursts. To paraphrase Andy, "I don't like X-country". If you have to ride a few hundred meters of vertical, I'd rather do it in one long climb and not 36 little 50m climbs where you have to pump like hell after each downhill to try to maintain as much momentum as possible. The first one is OK, but after a handful, it hurts. And you soon loose any idea of where you might be on the route plan. Another thing that hurts is when all the soft mud has been washed away leaving a rocky, washed out and bumpy ride. Especially if your shorts are filled with finely grained mud which acts like a kind of natural sandpaper. A bit like a facial for your arse, I guess. Which reminds me, one thing I totally recommend if you ride a hardtail is a suspension seatpost - get one, they work.
After endless ups and downs, we eventually hit two technical downhills leading into Hirschberg. On both, it was really demanding just to stay on the bike. They would not normally be difficult runs, but both had been churned into five inches of thick slippery mud, down which your bike took a path of its own choosing. You know its getting interesting when both wheels are sliding simultaneously in different directions. Riding back into Hirschberg, I stopped for two minutes to refuel and chow some power gel. In the meantime the guy manning the refuelling point used a bottle of mineral water to try to clean up my drive train. He may as well have used chocolate sauce: two inches of mud clung onto each chainstay, and my derailleur looked like it had been badly moulded out of clay. Still, it's the thought that counts. The expensive cleanup served little purpose: for the final lap, my small chain ring acted temperamentally, only working in bursts. I opted to ride some of the downhills in the small ring to avoid getting stuck without it. I found out after the race that Andy's had packed in half way up the first hill and he had to ride everything in the middle ring. Ouch.
From Hirschberg, we rode the small 24km route, half of which we had already covered. It was more of the same, an arse pounding, X-Country mud bath. Of course, after fighting up the uphill slog, we had the same final downhills to contemplate. Because several hundred more riders had passed through, the last downhill was even more of a mud bath. Loads of little V's had been cut into the muddy singletrail, sometime diverging and sometimes converging, but all with one thing in common: you couldn't choose which one your bike was going to ride down. It was just too slippery. Several times, my front wheel and back wheel chose different routes - I just hung on for the ride and was spat out in one piece at the other end.
I crossed the finish line in 4 hours 22 minutes, in 145 place from 460. The winner had taken 3 hours 11, whilst Jens, who had been waiting for me for 10 minutes, finished impressively inside the first 100. We expected to have a long wait for Andy, but were surprised about ten minutes later when he walked up to us, already showered and changed. He had, of course, pulled out after the first lap, the victim of a puncture, and, with no small chain ring, cramps. However, given that he hadn't even started the last two races, this should be considered an improvement for him. I rode the 10kms back home, slowly drying out in the sunshine which appeared after I crossed the finish. When I got home, Petra laughed out loud and then took photos of my muddied corpse. It took me about half an hour to get my bike, and me, clean again. When I hosed down my bike, golf divot sized clumps of Odenwald mud dropped off it. I actually had to stand under the hose as Petra, still giggling, hosed down my clothes and legs. Obviously, with that much crap wearing away at your gears I really do need a new bike. One note of criticism - the usually efficient German organisation was a real let-down for this race - about as ruthless as a litter of sleepy kittens. It took an hour to get our start numbers because one person was collecting cash for your transponder whilst 5 or 6 others hung around, and then to rub it in, the transponder didn't work for either Jens or I and we didn't get a finish time. They only had one hosepipe for 500 riders and no bike repair en route. Also, despite the transponder, they had an unannounced arrangement with some guy marking your number with red pen at the top of the first hill. He almost knocked me off my bike. Still, the official website was pretty cool.
As the season-closing marathon in Heidelberg's backyard, Simon and Andy had already trained for (and attempted) the Cristalp before the Odenwald marathon. So the 80kms and 2100 m of climbing were small beer for them and they were raring to go at the start. I was too, having survived the tandem parachute jump the day before that Petra bought me as a birthday present, which by coincidence was held above the Odenwald. I was relieve to be at the start, as opposed to being a large pancake somewhere on the course.
Simon stayed with Suzanne at the start, and Andy and I set off ahead of him. The course was a fast, rolling run mainly on fire roads but a few interesting downhills were thrown in to sort the men from the boys. The over-riding memory for me was of dust: the weather had been hot and dry for weeks, so several hundred riders passing over the same baked ground soon churned up the route and turned the air into a dust bowl of hot, sticky, choking fog. For the first lap, I chased Andy for 40 kms. This caused him some concern after 1 ½ hours, when I caught him up and cheerily rode with him for the final few kilometers of the lap. He needn't have been concerned, because I had started too fast and faded fast about half way through the second lap.
I finished in about 4 hours 50', about 15 minutes behind Andy, and, curiously, Simon. Somehow he had overtaken both of us without anyone realising: we're still debating how long his short cut really was.