Wildflicken, Germany ‘93 and '94
The Wildflicken races were the most insane races I've ever done. Insane enough that the '94 race had the worst crash I'd ever seen. Which is saying a fair piece, my own record crash ('82) having broke my back.
European races aren't like races in the US. Here we have 3 flavors of athletes: The fanatic and awesome 10% that are frequently on sponsored teams, the 70% group of pretty good guys that train quite a bit and dabble in races, and the 20% joyrider group that are just there for the hell of it.
In Europe only the fanatics show up. They don't have a lot of dabblers. I got the impression that to most European males, to have a hobby is to be a fanatic. Never saw a lot of folks there that just casually participated in a hobby. My kinda guys.
It was always a little intimidating to pull up to a Mtn. bike race and see the area crowded with team jersey'd, lean fanatics crowded around their team buses and equipment trailers. Heck, although dues had been paid year 'round on the roadbike, 'bout the only time I ever bothered to ride the "Mountain Warrior" was the day before a race...just to see if the brakes still worked a little.
As a result I had decent legs but was lean on the critical Mtn. bike handling skills. So I might do ok on race courses that rewarded the hard. But on "technical" courses that rewarded the competent....... Well, it'd be a long day.
At right is L-R, our hero, Andrew Smith and Noel Bishop.
The Wildflicken races started Le Mans style. That is to say we had to run to our bikes. It wasn't some little cheese-eating 10m lunge either. It was 300m up the side of a long slick grass hill. Having a running background I did ok in the '93 race. But, knowing what I was getting into in '94, I pulled off the cool clipless pedals and put on old-style toeclips with straps. That allowed me to wear light running shoes for the race. And I ran for a warm up instead of taking the bike for a spin.
Running shoes make lousy cycling shoes. They aren't stiff enough and you can't really "pull" hard. Pull too hard and the shoe pulls out of the clip/strap. But the much lighter running shoes would be an advantage during the start, and that could mean the race. In most Mtn. bike races you have to go all out at the start to make sure that you get out with the leaders. No trying to carefully meter out your resources, just go full blast into oxygen debt and then hope for an opportunity to recover a little, later. Because invariably, soon after the start, there would be some choke point on the course. The leaders would zoom thru it, but everyone else would have to come to a virtual halt as the large pack threaded thru the chokepoint, one or two at a time. Meanwhile the leaders would be escaping over the horizon.
At the gun of the '94 race, ~400 of us raced for the bikes and started pushing them up the slick wet grass that made up a 700m very steep ski slope. The few that tried to ride up it got about 3'. It was so damn exhausting pushing the bikes up the grass slope that running soon turned into jogging baby-steps and then into walking. Bent over double gasping for air while pushing my bike up, I stayed near the leaders. I figured that if it was killing me, they felt worse. I was 3rd to the top, lost a couple places struggling, clumsily, to put running shoes into clips, and then pointed the Mtn. Warrior down. Straight down the hellaciously steep and wet-grass slick ski-hill.
I ain't gonna kid ya. It was goddamn terrifying. Within a couple seconds not only was I going too damn fast, but it felt like I was screaming down a slope of ice. I made a slight attempt to alter my course and the wheels started sliding out from under me. I was desperate to bring my insane and uncontrolled speed down before I was badly killed. Touching the front brakes would have been suicide, so I touched the rear brakes so gently that it might've been more intent then action. And with a reaction about a thousand times faster then human thought, the bike started to fly out from under me. God only knows what miracle saved me. Then 2 kamikazes zoomed right by me. WTF, over?
7th place now. The incline flattened out and I started, with desperate care, to try to slow my speed down. At the base of the hill was a 90deg turn on to a trail. Missing the turn would be bad. The other side was all trees.
What I didn't learn until after the race (it was on an incredible video) was at this moment, 2 people behind me, someone didn't share my miracle. He and his bike cartwheeled a full 100m down the hill. He broke his neck, and spent the next 9 weeks in the hospital.
But doom on me too. Turned out that testing my brakes yesterday on a sunny afternoon wasn't quite testing my brakes full of wet grass. With deathgrips on my brakes, I still wasn't slowing down a hellova lot. I hit the trail with way too much speed to make the turn and overshot into the trees. A couple lucky tree impacts later I was pointed in the right direction and, back to 10th place now, headed up the trail after the truly insane leaders that had come down faster than I.
Figured it was going to be a hellova pile-up when the other 400 guys all hit that turn at the same time. Heehee.
The trail led up to a cliff of soft dirt and heavy vegetation. Throwing Mountain Warrior over a shoulder I started climbing, pulling myself up with fingernails, toes, and on a few occasions, teeth. The others, not having grown up in the mighty forests of the United States of America, were kinda floundering around as everything we grabbed seemed to pull out of the dirt. In a comfortable element I turned into a madman and charged up that cliff with a rooster tail of dirt to mark my passing. I picked a couple guys that had passed me while I was bouncing off trees.
Having moved up to 8th place, we were making our way down a steep tricky path. I noted just up ahead that a crowd had gathered down at the grassy switchback next. Wondered why they'd chosen that particular place to spectate. WHAM! Bounced off of the ground and back on to the bike, suddenly understanding the presence of the crowd. Damn that turn was slippery.
Next were the rope-bridges. During the approach I could see two guys hanging off of the top rope of one of the bridges, their feet flailing around on this very mild military challenge. Headed to a free bridge, vaulted off of Mtn. Warrior just short, leaped up and ran across. Got a little cocky and bellowed RANGERS! at the dismount. Picked up two more places.
Raced off in 6th place with #5 in sight. We were zooming down on the same line thru some high grass towards the wood-line. Suddenly his front end disappeared and his double-summersault ended with him in a heap. Changed my line a tad to avoid the unseen anti-personnel trap. Was thinking grateful thoughts towards him for marking the hazard, as I raced by his dazed and surprised face. In 5th place I raced after #4, somewhere up ahead.
The next 10 miles were, fortunately, just a contest of legs. I figured I'd pretty much used up all my luck. Ended up 3rd.
Honorable mention goes to old buddy Andrew Smith, Captain, LAPD. Had picked him up at Frankfurt International the night before the race. I'd brought him a spare Mtn. bike. He took the horrifying surprise with the typical good-natured aplomb.