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On your knees!!!

Sudety MTB Challenge 2012 - a few words of reflection. So, the title is a little bit pawky, but as soon as you read to the very last line, you will understand its origin. But first things first - about two weeks before the start of the Sudety MTB Challenge, we had made a decision with Mateusz Kokowski (aka 'Matys') to start together again in this event. Since we already had some experience from the previous year, this time could only be better (quick reminder - we started Challenge 2011 with broken rear derailleur and two flat tires, and all of this happend within 30 km, before we even reached the second feed zone of the very first stage! So that Challenge was somehow a test for us of how much you can make up in the overall Team classification - finally we managed to get to the 9th place).

The decision to start again as a Team was dictated by two reasons - firstly, our results on the marathons organized by Grzegorz Golonko Team (aka GG Team ;) and therefore our physical condition, this year are really close! Secondly, it would be our second common start so it means the experience, the knowledge of our partner's strengths and weaknesses, the ability to understand each other sometimes entirely without words, the mastery of the nerves in a crisis situations, etc. Things like these cannot be learned in any other way, but only by the common starts!
Just like last year, so this time, the event began with a prologue. Slightly more than 8km of quite demanding uphill with a strong, intense asphalt finish. At the start, as always very unique emotions because it is "the" day - the whole, year-round expectations, 3, 2, 1 GO!

After about 34min we pass the finish line - frankly, I do not remember when I last had the opportunity to literally go to the 101% (perhaps a year ago on the same prologue, at the same uphill ;) Hr avg. 186, max. 197 speak for themselves. That day I could not go any faster and Matys? It is possible that he could break off a few seconds, but at what cost!! Anyway, it was nice to stand on the podium next to the BMC Team with 2nd place in Team Man (then, the only time we managed to defeat the "Okular Oakley MTB Team", so Darek Zasada and Piotr Bereźnicki).

But we all knew very well that the real racing starts from the next day. And so it was - a strong pace from the start, the first observations of the rivals, the first shufflings on the climbs/descents. Overall, despite a fairly long distance, this stage quickly ended in Kraliky (CZ).
And it would be a stage without bigger emotions, if not the fact that in about 5km to the finish, on the asphalt road leading to the finish line, we noticed our rivals - two teams, the Danes and the Spaniards!
The plan was simple - get them, pass them with the full speed so they cannot stick to our rear wheel, stay ahead of them and then, as fast as the power in the legs let you, sprint to the Kraliky and to the finish line! The plan in its simplicity was a genius one! We got to the finish as the third team (after BMC and Oakley guys).
In the casual conversation at the finish line with the Danes, they admitted that their plan was slightly different - they wanted to play a little with the Spaniards almost to the finish line and then sprint! However, our appearance effectively thwarted their plan - "where the two fight, the third wins" - this time we were the "third" ones.

Strongly encouraged by this rather unexpected victory, we took off for the second stage with the finish line in the Stronie Śląskie. That stage could be divided into two parts - uphill/descent from the Śnieżnik and the rest.
From the first meters we were trying to impose very strong pace (knowledge of the route really helps!). We knew exactly when the first long climb ends and turns to descent, to which we got as the first out of the group, leaving behind both - a team from Spain and Danes and several other riders.


Soon after, the longest climb of that stage (to the shelter at Śnieżnik) began - also very well known to us! I felt fantastic that day. I was riding with a strong, steady pace (I think it was my - as we call it - "Day of horse" in my performance).

Near the end of this uphill, I noticed that my teammate began to slightly drop off my rear wheel, so I slowed down a little just to let us got together to the upcomming downhill on red trail. This section is known to be extreamly technical and demanding, with some tricky, steep parts covered with whole variety of rocks, roots, etc. Did I mention that later on, trail becomes really fast one? In general you or your bike can get hurt badly, if no special attention is preserved on this downroad section.
So, we managed to start downhill before our rivals, and because we know this one really good, i felt like we can break off another few seconds. Two teams with whom we have been struggling since the first kilometers, fared very well on the technical descents, but our knowledge of this stage, and especially this particular descent, again gave us a noticable advantage - we had to use it! 

I started to go down first, yelling every few seconds just to check whether Matys is riding behind me or not - in about half-way our communication broke and unfortunately I got carried away by adrenaline rush! Instead of slowing down and waiting for my teammate, I decided to go on till the end of the downhill (ca. 5-7minutes)
I believe that we all who love mountain biking probably know that feeling during fast downhill - that "flow" when everything is happening instinctively, in the blink of an eye, when the perception is sharpened to the extreme edge and you feel that your bike reacts to the smallest correction... and then it feels so terribly bad when you have to slow down!

Unfortunately I was painfully awaken from my downhill amok as soon as another climb began and then it hit me, that there is literally no one on my rear wheel! So I had to turn back, and after about 2 minutes one of the Spaniards who were passing me in the opposite direction, have confirmed my fears yelling at me in mixed english/spanish that - "your teammate puntato in half descent!" I knew exactly what that meant! After another few really long minutes, Matys finally appeared on the downtrail and we could start to chase our rivals again. It took us a little bit before we jumped back to our proper rhythm of ride - say what you want, but any defect really distracts, kicks you out of the race focus, calms your body and emotions down and then it is really difficult to start racing again with that stubborn thought in mind, that your rivals are a few minutes ahead - minutes that are somehow lost for you.

Talking to Matys at the finish of that stage, he admitted that in his flat tire there was some of mine fault. I simply ran that downhill section too fast and he wanted to keep my pace by all means - anyway, it was a really good lesson for us for the next stages! We decided that starting from the next stage, Matys would be the leading one on the downhills and I would follow him keeping safe distance (that enables some communication between riders - in case of any problems, we both stop and help each other).
On the other hand, while climbing, at the front there should be one of us feeling weaker that day, so it helps not to stay behind or even break off the wheel. You all know that frustrating feeling when you are just a few meters behind the another rider, who keeps really strong pace, and you cannot weld to his/her rear wheel - it literally kills you!  To sum up, riding as a team is not about breaking off your teammate, but breaking off another team.

But lets go back to the second stage for a while - after about 30 minutes since Matys had a flat tire, it became clear for us that it was not the end of our troubles that day. In a few words - it was devastating to discover that replaced tube is not keeping the air pressure... Maybe another puncture, maybe the tube itself was a problem? We did not know. Quickly, we decided to change the unlucky tube to the next one which took us another few precious minutes. This stage was not the luckiest one and so there was no question of any podium that day.
In 2011 edition, third stage was the one "to catch the breath" - the easiest and the fastest one. It took us then just over 3 hours to make it to the finish line, so we remembered that stage quite well. 
Well... here it comes! Another valuable piece of advice - in this stage race do not put too much trust in such an experience from the previous editions, since there are plenty of great ride trials, GG Team can always serve somethig special for us! One, should always read and analyze really accurately all the maps and profiles before the start. Why am I mentioning this issue at all? As you probably already presumed, before the start to the third stage, we skipped that part with reading and analizing. We just blindly believed that the track has not been changed since last year... and so we were wrong!

All in all, the track of that stage was a complete surprise for us! But, please - GG Team - I am begging for more of such a great surprises! From the perspective of the couple of weeks, I can honestly admit that it was probably the best stage I have ever ridden on the race. The whole distance of that third stage was about 56km out of which about 30 km was this awesome singletrack!


Yes, this is not a mistake - 30 km of technical, great rocky sections, some not too forgiving, but great if you like challenge! This is a true EPIC trail, no doubt. It leads on the border line between Poland and Czech Republic. It is fast, flowy with fair amount of sweet obstacles and a few short climbs as well. In one word -  killer single track for every pure MTB extremist ;)

This year, it took us about 5 hours to get to the finish line. Imagine, 56km in 5 hours! And we were keeping quite a good pace trying to stay away from any problems. So, I am far away from complaining, because as brilliant as the third stage was, I do not remember having so much fun in a really, really long time. One thing I know for sure -  I will definately be comming back for more! I want to ride this again, this time not at the race pace, but in the "sightseeing mode" just to be able to once again experience this emotinal swings (although, if it is not in the race, is it possible at all? Probably not...
So once, a smile from ear to ear on the sensational, narrow downhill section, where every second you need to seek for a new path and be careful not to break off the rear derailleur, and within next couple of seconds, cursing under own breath, with the nose in the ground, leaning on my bike, climbing the next "hump" - though these moments were essentially the only ones when you could safely eat or drink! But there comes a vision of upcomming another great downhill, so your legs hurts no more, and so on, and so on!  This is what makes a truely fantastic track!

Most of this singletrack we were riding 'on the whells' of the Danes Team, who were really fast on that stage. I remember like today, riding with them on one of the longest downhills, where the four of us caught the perfect rhythm of the ride, when none of us were slowing down the others, when every corner, every drop, was giving more and more joy every time! I know, my descriptions might be funny,  but it was a really exceptional feeling - this was "downhill flow", but more like "a group downhill flow".
After a few minutes of this pure MTB orgy, one of the Danes looked at us, his face was shining with a huge smile, and the only thing he could say was something like, "It was awesome! I want more!".
So every one of us was gratefully rewarded  with "much, much more", because - as I said before - for most of us, stage lasted more than 5 hours!

The icing on the cake was the last climb of the day - the one just after the downhill section from famous Borówkowa Hill. Why was it so good for us? So, first of all Matys set an incredibly strong pace while we were climbing on the Borówkowa - certainly, I must have set some personal record time on that uphill and I was only trying not to break off his rear wheel! Because we were able to keep this insanely strong pace on the uphill, we also managed to catch a team from Spain at the end of the next downhill! As the last climb began, we have literally glued to them - it was really steep and rocky trail and they were very determined to break away somehow! They must have been riding on the maxium but we felt strong that day as well - after a few moments Spaniards were not able to keep their own pace so they started to walk! Seeing that gave me some extra power - the existance of which I had no idea until that time.

So the Spaniards are walking up the hill, my teammate is also walking, or I should say "running", since his tempo compared to theirs was like comparing Usain Bolt with other runners. We were fighting there as strong as we possibly could! It was one of those moments, when you can win everything or lose everything and we were very aware that on that very climb we are fighting for the podium with them! So finally I managed to get to the top of that last climb in the saddle with HR Max 190 (!), and really I do not know where I could find so much energy to do this. Of course all of this was possible only because of the adrenaline and the will to figth to the very last kilometeres of that stage!


The only thing we had to do was to keep that almost suicidal pace on the climb, break off another few seconds over the rivals then try safely ride on the last downhill and get to the finish line as the third team on that day.
Carried by the emotions we wanted to go downhill on the 100%, or even faster only to keep that third place, but common sense tells you to go on the 80% just to avoid unneccessary failure at the last kilometers.
And we did it! It worked! The 3rd place, the podium was ours that day! Once again, knowledge of the length of that last steep climb helped us a lot.

Now, when some time have passed, I can admit that this moment, this battle with the team from Spain, is among the best memories from the Challenge, that I keep in my mind. Thank you guys for that! To get the whole picture I have to go a little bit ahead of the facts - only for a moment we are going to the last day, to the Kudowa Zdrój. That day I had the pleasure of a long conversation with the wife of one of our Spanish rivals (unfortunately I forgot to ask for her name...). When I asked her about Wednesday's stage (the one that I have just described above), about the guys's mood at the finish, what do they think about the trails, etc. as she said, they were very confused with one extra-buffet (in the pre-started rush they just didn't hear the speaker announcing that).

They also did not like the 30km singletrack (!), because they could not find their own rhytm of ride - how is that possibly at all? I will come back to this conversation again at the end - in the summary. Anyway, for me it was the most beautiful, most technical, fully packed with the most interesting downhills and giving the most fun to ride, stage of the event - and was it the same to Matys? This is what you have to ask him personally.
Stage four was supposed to be an opportunity for us to attack - again, the knowledge of the route, the length of each ascent and descent, each and every technical section was no diffuculty to us at all! This is what we had thought before the stage! But was this  stage so good and fortunate for us? Lets keep reading to find out! But first, let me just say that for us, all these racing days began to draw in a very characteristic "sine wave" - every second day was lucky, so every other ones were not so good. And unfortunately on that day (the fourth stage) we were on the bottom of that "sine wave"...

Before the start I made a strong warm-up, my heart rate very quickly and eagerly jumped into high values  and that was a good sign for me that I'm rested, my legs were also ok and I wanted to attack hard - general mood before the start was strong 5 (when 6 is max value). So again, from the first meters of that stage we tried to keep strong pace, and as soon as the first uphill began we have immediately noticed that the Spaniards literally sticked to us - one of them to my rear wheel, the second one to my teammate's! As the kilometers were passing by they were still like our shadows following us on each meter - I must admit that I felt a little weird because on one side I was highly motivated to attack and on the other side, their's obstinacy somewhat efficiently calmed my enthusiasm - I knew it would not be easy to break them off our's wheels!

Finally, we started to climb up to the famous big cross that is situated high above the Bardo - we knew that as soon as the climb ends, the very fast and technical descent starts and leads all the way down to the Bardo. It was there, where we wanted to get away from our rivals and gain a few valuable seconds over them! We reached the very top of that hill together with the Spaniards and probably some other riders too, but I do not remeber their numbers or teams. As we agreed two days earlier, Matys was the leader on that downhill, I followed him and after me, you all know who were chasing us.

After a few seconds of the furious and crazy ride, where at times the thought ran through my head that probably we are going slightly too fast, that this is really dangerous and insane, we got to the second part - the more rocky, rinsed with water, everywhere bristled wet stones, where it is soo easy to make a mistake! At this point - still do not know why - I started to overtake (!!) Matys, and even touched him lightly on his right arm! I should not have done it in these conditions - though two days earlier, we agreed that Matys is the one who goes first on the downhill keeping his own pace, without need to chase after me!

I admit I was a bit dazed - I fell into that bloody amok, which so often catches us on the technical sections (about which I wrote a few sentences earlier). Before the last section, I looked behind and noticed that unfortunately Matys was not there, only really scared Spaniard, who started shouting at me "your comapaniero crashed badly"!

Legs buckled under me - I threw my bike into the bushes and started to run uphill, trying to  slow down all the riders that were passing me. So, I saw him sitting in the middle of the path, with his head between knees, drenched with blood (thigh, shoulder, right hand), shattered helmet at right side and the front wheel completely smashed! Honestly, I was scared to death at the time - I was afraid of some serious contusion, broken limbs, concussion, etc. Czech rider - Michał Demjanović, stopped and said that about 300 meters down, at the feed zone there is an ambulance so they can help us. We began to go down very slowly but luckily in the meantime, the medicals notified by the other riders managed to run up to us, together with Grzegorz and so they took care of him. While the paramedics were busy with Matys trying to decide whether he is able to continue the race or not, our collegue (Arek Suś) ran up to us and with him I was trying to repair my teammates bike. It turned out that Arek had in his car spare helmet and the front wheel!

Finally, as soon as Matys was ready to go, we started our stage again, this time very slowly and carefully, with high hopes of getting luckily to the finish line situated in the Walim. I must admit that after what had happened, what I saw, I did not want to go any further - I was on the verge of withdrawing from the race. No one was 100% sure whether Matys suffered a concussion or not, and in front of us there were still  three quarters of the stage to go, with a very specific technical climbs and descents that require both focus and concentration and after all, Matys had problems with all of it. I was also feared that somewhere in the woods he would faint, collapse, etc. But we had to take that risk and Matys was very determined to continue the race! To make a long story short - somehow we made it to the finish line!

After about 30 minutes of very slow ride, Matys switched to a higher gear - at times I was not able to keep up with his insanely strong pace. All the uphills he rode very strongly, very forcefully (you could see the sports anger on his face!) and very carefully on the descents, without taking unneccessary risk. At the finish line, it turned out that it was a very unlucky stage for almost all of our rivals - maybe not as much as for us, but badluck did not take any captives on that day. The guys from Oakley Team had five flat tires (guys - if more, then please correct me) ,the Spaniards also had some problems, the Swiss team two flats, etc.

Coming back for a moment to the Matys accident - as he later explained to me, the direct cause of his crash was not me passing him by, but his front wheel just slipped on a wet stone, so at a high speed he crashed straightly at one of the shrines located on that section. There was no time for any reaction and  directly hit a concrete wall, unfortunately, most of the impetus was at the helmet and his right  shoulder. If you want to know more details ask Matys - maybe he will tell you something more, if he remembers antyhing at all. A blessing in disguise that I live about 15km from the Walim (Burkatów - a small village picturesquely situated on the foothills of Sudety), so a phone call to my parents and 30minutes later we had new front wheel and new helmet for Matys as well. At this point, we wanted to thank you guys again (Arek Suś and Tomek Hoppe) for your help!! We could finish the stage and the whole event only because of you! Big Thanks!

The last stage, on friday, was supposed to be the so-called 'stage of friendship', because the Spaniards had 33 minutes lead in front of us, and the next team behind us had about 30 minutes loss. In the theory, there was no point of fighting with anyone! No one is chasing, no one is running away - almost 'win-win' situation...
However, the theory is only the theory, but until all the teams have not crossed the finish line in the Kudowa everything yet could still happen (which clearly showed us the previous day - accidents, flats, etc). Thus, despite the fact that everyone was tired, exhausted, and despite the fact that there was over 30 degrees Celsius on that day, again we started off very strongly (Matys surprisingly was in very good shape, polish and czech paramedics made an astounding job with his wounds the previous day! Thanks for that as well!

So the last day started to look very similar to the previous days - we were trying to keep very strong pace, the Spaniards were 'dying' on our wheels, almost sticked to them. After about an hour we finally managed to break away from the rivals and began our mad ride, having hope that we can somehow manage to make up that 33 missing minutes.

Border trail, roots, then asphalt, another kilometers run away, and we still kept strong pace! After about 3 hours, Matys clearly slowed down a little and began to have troubles with concentration - for me it was a clear sign to keep a decent pace ride, drink and eat often, and in that way safely get to the finish line in the Kudowa Zdrój. After 4h30m we crossed the finish line - martyred, but soooooo happy! The result is of secondary importance - most importantly, we were at the finish line at all!

The Sum-Up
Ultimately, we missed third place by 23 minutes - we have managed to make up a bit (10 minutes or so), but the losses from the previous days proved to be too large. 4th place in the Team of Man category, 5th in the Open Team classification - I think it's our huge success! Indeed, the fight lasted from the start to the finish line, and the only moment when we had to slow down were those few kilometers after my teammate's accident.  Such victory tastes exceptionally, and trophy from the podium gains an exceptional value.

In short, I wanted to thank you Matys (Mateusz Kokowski) for a great adventure and an exquisite drive to the finish line! Thanks a lot for you Grzegorz (Grzegorz Golonko) and all your Crew for doing such a fantastic event! We begin to wait for the next edition as soon as we cross the finish line of the current one! I am not going to write again about the exceptional trails, the food, the organization because I did it two years ago and still have not changed my opinion! (link - PL version only) ->
Thank you!
ps 1.
Just for a moment I will go back to the conversation with the wife of one of our Spanish rivals. It turned out that the guys have already finished a couple of mountain bike stage races, but they have never met with such a good organization and care. They are generally very positively surprised by both the route (very difficult, technical) and positive race atmosphere - they are planning also to come back next year if date of the event will not interfere in their calendar with any other event they plan to start.

ps 2.
And what about the title "On your knees!"
So, this thought (idea of that title) came to my mind at the time of reflection, when I analyzed the accident of my teammate - after all, we know very well that stage, that downhill section especially and yet, that's where we almost ended our race this year! We have to bend down on the knees because we have just overestimated our skills - more humility!
Matys has already somehow knelt before the shrine! But why he forgot to inform me about his plans of stopping at the shrine in Bardo, pounding his head against the concrete wall and sacrifying his front whell?  Well, surely I would wait for him only if I knew! Unfortunately, he wanted to do quickly a few things at the same time, so he shattered the helmet, smashed the front wheel and left on that section some skin from the arm, hip, thigh and hell knows where else...

I think it would have been enough to give the "fiver" on the mass, and the result would have been pretty much the same ;)
And now it's over!
Maciek Bałazy 004