Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Xterra Japan 1st

Xterra Japan 2008 was my first Global Tour win and a fantastic experience. I had promised at the time to return and try to defend my title this year.

Even though I love the course (which is known as the most technical bike course on the Xterra circuit), the venue (which is a tranquil and stunning spa report in the Mountains, with no phone reception or email access) and the people, I was very tired after back to back races in Germany and Austria the previous 2 weeks. Flying in on Thursday morning, with an 8 hour time difference for a Saturday race was a little close for comfort too.

The organisers did a fantastic job as ever of making us feel welcome and collecting us from Tokyo airport, transferring us up to the Onsen resort and checking us into our authentic Ryokan rooms, before a traditional Japanese dinner. The memories of last year came back as we were presented with 15 different dishes per person, each immaculately presented in its’ own bowl and we generally had no idea what any of them were. Every meal time is an amazing and somewhat educational experience.

With no time for sight-seeing afterwards, Susan (my girl friend) and I spent Friday afternoon going to a nearby town called Nikko which is a world heritage site and packed with temples and shrines and a 100m waterfall .Not ideal pre race preparation, but heah, you’re not in Japan every day.

On race day the jetlag was still there as I woke at 4am. When the gun went at midday, it was Australian pro Matt Murphy (an ex ITU racer) that led us round the first lap. Matt had been ill leading up to the race and it was touch and go whether he’d start or not. The effects of his illness certainly didn’t seem obvious yet, I exited the water almost 2 minutes down, in a pack in 6th place, with Japanese pros Oga and Yu, both well known Xterra athletes. Deciding to err on the side of caution (with blisters still from Austria) and put socks on, I missed starting the bike with these guys.

Oga (who finished 2nd last year) dropped Yu and caught Matt after about 5km of the bike and they worked hard together. My race was not going quite to plan however, as I eventually caught Yu, then promptly crashed and he rode away again. Halfway round the bike I was in 4th, with no one in sight, why did we do that last temple yesterday, or arrive in Japan so late....

Hitting the main climb I put in a do or die effort for at least a podium spot. Catching Yu again, I was spurred on and managed to catch a glimpse of Matt, who had been dropped by the flying Oga. When I got up to him, halfway up the climb, he told me Oga was about 40 seconds ahead and riding well. I eventually bridged the gap just as we started the descent, but Oga’s world cup Mountain bike skills (from racing as a pro on the Gary Fisher team) helped him get away from me yet again. I was going to have to work very hard to win this one.

Passing the lake, with a short 2km bike loop before T2 I caught Oga again and immediately attacked, knowing that he outran me a year ago. I started the 2 lap run with only a 30 second lead and didn’t look back, would it be enough? After 2km the run went up a very steep muddy bank where competitors needed to use a rope to haul themselves up. Soon after I started up it I felt the rope go tight from behind as Oga, it certainly seemed like less than 30 seconds. The whole lap went like this. I was running scared and fading fast. Luckily, Oga wasn’t making much inroads and starting lap 2 the gap was still 30 seconds. Only 1km from the end did I know I had the race won, and I virtually collapsed over the line, relieved more than elated with the victory.

That night was relaxed at the banquet dinner serenaded by a traditional Japanese drumming and dancing troupe. The victory sunk in and I was reminded what a fantastic event on the Xterra calendar this is.