Sandra Walter: Open Season in Bonelli

This article was originally published on Sandra Walter's website.

This past weekend was my XC season kick-off in sweltering California. For March, even the Californians were out of their element in the 30+ C heat. I started the week in lovely Laguna Beach with my even lovelier cousins, Ulrike and Bernd, who treated me like royalty and once again risked never getting rid of me with their delicious meals and daily gelato tasting. Their “backyard” is a huge open greenspace of parkland that includes some great mountain biking terrain with very steep grades. I even saw some wildlife, various birds and three snakes, one of which was definitely a rattler. Yikes!

In action at Bonelli Park. Photo: Ulrike Scheuchl

In action at Bonelli Park. Photo: Ulrike Scheuchl

Saturday was game day and I was eager to dust off the cobwebs and get going, yet also a bit nervous. For the first race of the year, I always seem to forget what I’m supposed to do pre-race, but once the gun goes off, my body clicks into autopilot.

I got a front-row call-up, which was sweet! I also felt pretty pro, because Bernd was with me in the box, holding an umbrella over me for shade. I was actually shivering on the line, because I had continually doused my jersey and head with cold water and put an ice pack on the back of my neck, as well as ice cubes in my gloves… anything I could do to hold off the imminent rise of my core temperature into the red zone.

My start was great and I was with the front few after the start loop. The pace felt pretty high, but manageable as we entered the first full lap and I went into the initial downhill among the top-10 and in contact with the leaders. Unfortunately, as I geared down on the approach of another steep climb, my chain dropped off and I stopped dead, had to scramble a bit to get the chain back on, and then remounted and continued the climb. Meanwhile, as the field was still so tight together and the pace fast, a lot of women had blown past me. I stayed calm, knowing the race was long (7 laps!) and I had lots of time to gain back the positions. I was obviously a bit frustrated about the mishap and again by being held up on the ensuing descent, but I kept my cool and made smart passes when opportunities opened up. Soon I had more breathing room and I continued to hunt down my competitors one by one.

It was smokin’ out there and everything became a bit of a blur on the short 15ish-minute lap as everything – the loops, landscape, obstacles, and climbs – melded together. On a side note, I don’t know how they managed to fit so much climbing into such a short (4.2km) lap!

On lap four, I hit a low, my head and feet were just so hot, I could barely think. I was extremely grateful to the people out on course handing me water to dump on myself, namely Adam (saved me from spontaneous combustion!) and the race volunteers. Thanks also to Mike and Tara from Team BC, who were there for me in the feed/tech zone and everyone who encouraged me to continue digging deeper.

After those first four laps, fatigue was taking hold of my legs and I just didn’t know whether I would be able to complete three more. I was having an entertaining battle with Lea Davison, who also seemed to be suffering, and we did some passing back and forth. I remember giggling with her as she took a sketchy line around one of the many loose off-camber corners. Good to know we were still having fun!

Somehow, miraculously, my body started coming around again and I was able to resume pushing harder. Slowly, the riders in front of me got closer and I picked off Lea and Evelyn Dong on the final lap. Erin Huck was not too much farther up the trail. I was happy to cross the line in a solid ninth place. I was especially ecstatic that I could stop killing myself and take a breather. My throat was raw and all of us were hoarse, sounding like we’d been out all night at a concert. Kind of felt that way too.

Short track. Photo: Ulrike Scheuchl

Short track. Photo: Ulrike Scheuchl

The next day, I arrived early at the venue to fit in a long warm up. It was another scorcher of a day and it did not take me long to heat up. I was trying to squeeze in some extra training miles, so I did some fun roads and trails with Evan Guthrie, who had already been cruising around for a few hours that morning. I got another front row call-up for the short track, but that didn’t help me too much as I lost ground pretty quickly and I found myself struggling to stay with the lead group. I managed to maintain contact for most of the race, but finally got dislodged with three laps to go. My legs just didn’t have the extra gear that was needed in the super-high-speed event, and I finished just outside the top-10. Chalk it up to another solid bit of intensity training, I guess! Ulrike and Bernd were out again, cheering for me, and I was grateful for their support.

Loading up the Team Canada van

Loading up the Team Canada van

After an hour-long warm down, I found the Team Canada van and we started loading up our bikes and gear to make the trek to our new home for this week up in Big Bear Lake for some altitude acclimation in preparation for the Pan Am Championships in Colombia in a couple of weeks.

Haley getting ready to dig into her pie.

Haley getting ready to dig into her pie.

Before heading to Big Bear, we stopped for a delicious post-race pizza dinner at The Pizza Artist in Covina. Boy, the made-to-order-right-in-front-of-your-eyes concept was awesome and oh-so yummy. Then we drove for a bit and made the requisite Trader Joe’s grocery stop before ascending into the mountains to Big Bear.

Next up: US Cup #2 in Fontana next weekend!

Thanks to my friends, family, coach, Team Canada, and sponsors for the support, including Liv Canada, Shimano Canada, Cycles Lambert, Catlike, Q Energy, Katana Sports, Pearl Izumi, Golden Ears Physio, Kicking Horse Coffee, Giant Vancouver, and a special thanks to Liv/Giant Co-Factory Team for the primo post-race hangout and unexpected (but very welcome!) swag!

Subaru! Thanks for letting me borrow your sweet wheels, U&B!

Subaru! Thanks for letting me borrow your sweet wheels, U&B!

Extra-special thanks to Ulrike and Bernd for being so awesome and letting me stay with them all week, use their brand new Subaru, feeding me, and entertaining me.

PS I will add more race photos soon… I’ve been doing this post on my phone, so it’s been a bit cumbersome. – S