ITU Cross World Champs – Sarah Backler

Races seem like a pretty good excuse to travel. So with the Cross Tri World Champs being held in Sardinia it was an good opportunity to qualify for a national team, instill motivation for winter training, explore a new place and see how the competition stacks up on that side of the world. With fellow competitor/compulsory travel buddy/“team mechanic”/pit crew/husband along for the ride it was set to be a good trip.
Our location and race venue was a small coastal settlement on the eastern coast of Sardinia. Crystal clear waters, good coffee, amazing bread, gelato and ancient streets made for a brilliant week of exploring the area and relaxing between training sessions. We were able to get a good idea of the course and conditions in the week leading up to race day. The end of their summer meant temperatures in the high 20’s that were occasionally cooled of with a breeze and the odd shower.
Unfortunately the crystal clear waters didn’t quite make it to the swim course, but still nice enough to swim in, warm enough for a ‘no wetsuit’ swim and generally sheltered from the wind.
The mountain bike course was a 2 lap affair with a few short and grunty hills, rocky and rutted descents, hike a bike sections that had lungs burning, fast flowing 4×4 tracks and a final steep, technical pinch whose roots were waiting to claim a split second of inattention. It was a super satisfying section to finally get up after a few failed practice runs. While maybe not a mountain bikers dream course there was enough technical sections to make it difficult if you weren’t.
Soft sand, firm sand, wet sand and more sand made up about half of the run. The sections on solid ground were just enough to allow the odd bit of speed and recovery or demand attention through rocky paths. 3 laps was a positive as mentally a good way to break down the 10km.
A bit of bike drama always seems to appear in the lead up to a race and this year it was my turn. The rear triangle to my bike had a somewhat alarming wobble to it and was unfortunately outside what the ‘team mechanic’ could deal to. The role was relinquished a local Italian, and with much gesturing the problem was discovered and fixed with a few bits of a red bull can wedged between frame and bearing. To the dislike of some and the enjoyment of others racing took place over a weekend. The elites started off the racing on the Saturday with probably had the hottest conditions of the weekend. Sunday morning the under 50 men got to battle it out and in the afternoon the women’s AG race was given a headstart on the remainder of the men. With a bit of strategic supporting to avoid the heat and keep legs fresh i enjoyed being able watch the action and yell encouragement to Matt and the rest of the NZ team.
I couldn’t have asked for better conditions for my race. With the sun succumbing to cloud and a couple of passing showers the heat was brought into check. The wind stayed out of the way for a smooth swim where I was pleased to find feet in the chase pack.
Making the most of T1 to pass a few in front it was onto the bike, settle down for the first couple of km on the flat before the climbs began. I spotted a rider up ahead with my age group on her leg and wearing german colours. From a bit of pre-race competitor scoping I recognised her as my likely competition for the day. Following her up the first climb there didn’t seem to be any other riders in front of her. Game on. We traded places on the first lap where she had the upper hand on the climbs and flats, while I had the downhill, narrow or technical sections. I had my game plan for lap 2.
I gave her the majority of the lead on the first half of the second lap that was predominately flat, smooth and hilly. With a few strategic recovery sections I was able to catch up with the help of gravity and technical trails. Knowing the second half played to my strengths I attacked and took the lead during a climb to the top of a rough descent that lead into a narrow and curly bit of single track. The break was made, but she was still close enough to have me biking scared. A final buzz to finish the bike was the technical climb lined with cheering crowds shouting ‘Allez allez’. A double grin experience from the support and for conquering the climb.
First into T2, with the German entering as I was leaving and a Canadian quickly closing the gap in third. A gap big enough to not hear footsteps but not enough to gain any comfort from. Straight onto the sand the run course was always going to be a challenge to find good running legs. Never wanting to look back in fear of giving the chasers any hint of desperation or fatigue, the course gave the occasional glimpse of behind and a stable gap to my chasers. By the second lap more competitors on the course provided targets to catch, however it was the fresh set of legs that passed me on the third that provided the kick I needed to hang on to, pass and keep momentum to the end. With a NZ flag to take down the finishing shoot, a big bit of tape to run through, gracious competitors who followed close behind and support from my travel companion of many talents it was a pretty awesome way to finish.