–By Kaitlyn Patterson, OAM NOW cyclist
Last weekend, Alex Vanias and I took our OAM NOW kits across the Atlantic to compete in the Lamia Challenge UCI mountain bike stage race as part of our trip to Greece.
Before we begin the epic tale, I shall first clear up a few points about how this whole thing came to be.
Alex was actually born in Thessaloniki, Greece and lived there for most of the first 12 years of his life. He moved to the U.S. in junior high but still has family and friends there. A trip to Greece has been on the bucket list for quite a while since Alex hasn’t been back to visit in six years and I have never been there despite being his partner in crime for more than four years. One thing on Alex’s bucket list was racing his bike in the motherland, so the planning began.
How did you choose the race?
Race selection involved Alex poring over a list (pages long-who knew?!) of road and mountain races in Greece, and the Lamia UCI Challenge was chosen for the following reasons: 1.) We could hit three races in one weekend 2.) It was a UCI race with the potential for solid competition and UCI points and 3.) Alex’s plans never lack ambition. The early date limited our MTB specific prep though, especially since we had snow in Traverse City until the day we flew out and we made a quick transition from ski season to cycling.
So with about six weeks of committed training on the bike including some trainer intervals, one gravel road race, a week in North Carolina, and a handful of March mountain bike rides, we were off to do our first UCI race. And even with as much research as we could do, we really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece located in the northern part of the country. You can look across the bay of the Aegean Sea to see Mt. Olympus
In the days leading up to the race after arriving in Greece, we decided to sacrifice some freshness to spend some quality time on our mountain bikes and get acquainted with the rocks, mountains, and heat. My brain was overloaded with all the new stimuli that the first ride was a bit surreal but I did learn several things- 1.) My concept of climbing was redefined yet again. Who needs switchbacks when you can go straight up? 2.) The lines that look like roads on the map are literally and figuratively goat trails 3.) The goats will not move out of your way quickly 4.) I’ll take the goat trails over the terrifying drivers on the convoluted, narrow roads. 4=5.) Greece is beautiful but also a bit sad. You can look out from the mountain for views of the Aegean Sea and Mount Olympus but then you look around you and there are houses, buildings, animals and people in various stages of neglect.
The day before the race, we traveled the several hours southwest to the smaller town of Lamia, which based on everyone’s reaction, was a very odd place to hold a race. We wanted to pre-ride at least a portion of the 40km point to point race so we headed towards the race start about 23 km from Lamia after picking up our packets. Soon we were headed up endless switchbacks and Lamia faded below us in some truly amazing mountain scenery. However, the isolation and elevation were definitely making me wonder what I got myself into. Alex’s mom, Terri, was our race support for the weekend and handled the mountain roads in a manual van like a champ. She dropped us off at the start and somewhat reluctantly continued on to the village we hoped to end up. The portions of the course we rode confirmed our thoughts that we just might be in over our heads. The climbs were open, sustained and wonderful but the singletrack sections were like nothing we have in Michigan (understatement). Thankfully, the ratio of mountain roads to singletrack was manageable and it really was an awesome, real mountain bike course.
En route to climbing Mt. Chortiatis. Thessaloniki can be seen in the background.
Just heading to a race start…
Day 1- 40k point to point
I felt like I went back in time 100 years going through these remote mountain villages
The next morning after a restless and anxious night, we headed up the mountain again, thankful we had scoped it out the day before. We joined a small contingent of Greek, Bosnian, German and Belgian riders at the modest start area. Although the race instructions were announced in careful English, Greek was the dominant language (including Terri and Alex), which contributed to the disorienting and surreal experience. Since it was a logistically difficult and new race, the start lists were very small with only four women and eight men lining up. Terri was armed with an official feed zone tag and quickly befriended the other coaches and support crews.
OAM NOW represent!
Although the starting miles were open and downhill, the men gunned it from the line and I watched Alex disappear, hoping for the best. Two minutes later, my small women’s contingent headed off. Although I had been planning on starting conservatively on the downhill start to assess the other riders’ singletrack skills, the switch clicked in my brain that turns me into a different cyclist when I’m racing. The best Greek rider, Varvara Fasoi, attacked off the line and the other girls didn’t respond so I led the chase. I had a fleeting sense of optimism as I kept her in sight but just a couple curves up the road, I saw Alex fixing a flat. I considered that he needs to figure out how to make peace with the bike gods or Greek gods or whoever can help his terrible racing luck, but I tried to shake it off and hoped it was fixable so he could finish and have another chance to race.
The first extended road climb further shattered the women’s field and I held second but had lost sight of Varvara on the singletrack. To my relief, Alex caught me at the top and disappeared into the mystery of the portion of the course we did not pre-ride.
The tiny womens field takes off for a brutal 40k cross country race
Although I usually wish for climbs, the backside of the course was undeniably more than I bargained for. The loose road climbs were relentless and steep enough that I ran out of gears and seriously contemplated getting off my bike and walking (and I thought I was a climber).
And to make matters worse, I came upon Alex again waiting for me so he could use my tube and pump after another flat. (The Greek racers use tougher tires, the whole country is comprised of sharp rocks).
Considering the circumstances, I still felt pretty good and was pleasantly surprised I was holding a reasonable gap to Varvara and had not been caught from behind over halfway through the race. However, I should have known that it couldn’t be that easy. With about four miles to go I also got a flat that wasn’t sealing. Without my own tube, I didn’t have many options since everyone else was racing 29ers. I knew I had to make it work to stay in the hunt and I resigned to hiking my bike the final four miles, conceding a lot of time and ultimately finishing last. Major bummer for both of us but I was pleased with how I was riding before disaster struck and we both lived to race another day.
Elevation profile of the first 20 miles
It was a slight consolation that I was essentially hiking through an enchanted forest. It definitely could have been worse.
Even though it was only 25 miles, that race ripped me to shreds. Although I was previously a bit bummed that the individual time trial on the second day was only 4.55km, after the first race, I felt that would be about all I could manage. However, because it was a short TT, pre-riding the course would be very important. And since it was a UCI race, the course was only open to train on at certain times, which meant we had to summon the mental and physical energy after the race to fix our tires and check out our next challenge.
I don’t think I’ve ever had so many moments in such a condensed time period that I didn’t think there was any way I could do something but then somehow managed to pull it off. Well, riding that course after the race was one of those times. Even though this race was held in a park in town, this did not save us from a punishing elevation profile with 750 feet of climbing per lap and quite a few technical features. When I hit a certain threshold of fatigue, my bravery level drops precipitously, which made for an interesting pre-ride on the rock gardens, drops, and bridges.
However, I realized I simply did not have a choice besides getting off my bike at anything difficult when I am supposed to be in the “pro” mtb race with everyone watching. So we made it happen feature by feature and major kudos to coach Alex.
Day 2- Individual TT
The second race was held as part of a day of racing including citizen and junior classes. I was really impressed with the number of junior racers (especially girls!) and the technical trails they were riding. The UCI race was the last of the day (so it warmed up nicely to nearly 90 degrees) and we headed off in one minute intervals for one hot lap.
No, we did not have to cross that bridge although we did race across a couple just as questionable.
Since the race format and course did not play to our strengths and with some definite fatigue and jetlag going on, neither of us had especially high expectations. It went about as smoothly as we could have hoped, considering the circumstances and the best part was it was less than 20 minutes of suffering and the day was done. When the results were posted later, to my surprise “the American girl” ended up second! I was pleased but knew I was benefiting from a relatively weak field and a scarcity of female cyclists around the world.
Alex and I seeking shade as we waited for our TT start time
The results from the men’s race were the first direct comparison for Alex since it was hard to extrapolate how his performance would have compared without the mechanicals the previous day. However, the TT confirmed that he really was racing Greek ninjas as they absolutely blazed the course. Although he was a bit incredulous with the reality check, it was soon turned into resolve for the mass start circuit race the last day.
Day 3- Short Track Circuit Race
The circuit race was held on the same course as the TT- four laps for the women and five for the men. This was possibly the most mentally challenging race going in because of the fatigue level and the technical and physical demands of the course, this time repeated over and over. I felt pretty terrible the morning of the race and was off the back immediately on the downhill start. I managed to rally and catch two of my competitors but I couldn’t match Lejla (Bosnia) on the downhills and settled for third.
On the podium! Redemption from flatting the first day
Almost perfect timing- the men and women raced together and Alex crossed my path 7ft above!
With the mission of holding on to the field as long as possible, Alex battled Theodoros Petridis, the whole race, only dropping back after an endo from a rear brake issue (only flesh wound souvenirs).
The final showdown- men’s race lining up
Added bonus. Prize Euros!
Overall it was the coolest, most epic experience ever. Although the results might show the Americans tailing at the bottom of the G.C. results, there is something to be said about jumping into a deep pool without a life vest and making it work. Our perspective of what is difficult has been shifted which can be applied to racing this season and beyond. And if nothing else, U.S. mountain bike racing here we come!
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Making friends with the Greek National coaches