Finally... Finale...

printed in KHS Company News letter

I am finally writing about the 24H of Finale (Italy). It was absolutely the best race I have ever done next to the Ultra 100. I can barely wait for next year!

We arrived 3 days prior to the race. I wanted to take advantage of my altitude training/living and wanted just enough days prior to the race to sleep off the jet lag. I figured the jet lag would only affect me during the afternoon hours and be an advantage during the night hours. It all fell into place as planned.

Mauro, the race promoter was fantastic and offered any assistance to Steve and me for setting up our tent area in the (huge) expo area, filling out the paperwork and tending to other minor race details.

The expo area was as big as any NORBA National event and included this huge Fro-Free riding area where several well know Canadian riders would ride on ramps and ladders throughout the event keeping the expo area alive and crazy. There was even a huge stage that we would ride through during the race with live bands playing music and a huge one- story ramp for us to ride over just before the start finish area so that all the spectators would see us.

The fans! Oh man the fans. Thousands of them. This was a huge event. They lined the 6-mile course and packed in and around the expo area. They were so enthusiastic it was like being at the Super Bowl.

The day before the race, Steve and I drove up the Italian Riviera mountainside to a small village on the cliffs to the race area to do a few laps on the course. Before the pre-ride we were guessing how many laps I may do during the 24-hour period. We were guessing somewhere in the high 30s with my past 24 hour race experience. The weather was good and no rain in site for the weekend.

The course, which started and finished in the expo area, had two very steep ramp climbs about 4 feet high. Then you ride through the camp areas over to a gravel one-lane road. This climbed for about 5 minutes and then did this fantastic descent with water berms to a single track at the bottom through trees and forest. As soon as you started a climb, you came to this completely vertical climb up this dirt and rock cliff hike-a-bike area, which took about 2 –2.5 minutes. Then back into the single-track woods, and onto a very high overlook of the French and Italian Riviera. Then down a roller coaster set of hills that you had to walk the tops but were very fast and steep. The second roller coaster hill of three was very steep and straight down on this dirt bed of rocks that became so loose at the bottom half you just let yourself fly with no brakes and hope for the best. (Important to remember this part of the race). Next a small uphill and descent back towards the gravel road and back up a double track towards the second half of the loop. At the top of this double track climb, you had a technical descent into this trench of rocks and roots. Once out of this you had this awesome single track through this coastal brush and trees to climb up to another outlook over the water. Another technical descent down the edge of this cliff over rocks and sand and you popped into another single track that headed for the expo area. The course had us wind back and forth through trees, rocks and olive groves and farm areas. It was beautiful! Then you came back to the expo area doing a few technical sections to have the fans go wild, up over the ramp and stage and off you go again.

After two laps during the pre-ride I told Steve maybe 25 or 26 laps was more realistic for this 24 hour race………………hhhmmmmmm.

On race day we set up our tent near the start finish area next to a team from Italy and a tent set up for a solo man, Piepoli (remember Piepoli). Piepoli spoke some English and Steve spoke some Italian. Me, I only learned enough Italian to use on the racecourse.

At 3 PM we were off and running (and riding). The first 4 or so laps were crazy. There were about 350 people on this course at one time, a total of just over 1500 racers. It did not seem crowded, though, and I made my way at a good pace and thought I was doing very well.

At about dark, Steve heard my name being announced on the loud speaker and people were going crazy. He wondered what they were so happy about and wondered if it was the fact that I was the only American. The race promoter came over and was so excited and told Steve that I was in 11th place. Steve thought this was pretty good in the solo field and said he thought so too. No, the promoter told him, 11th place in all the racers, teams and solos. WOW.

As the night continued on I was so excited as many of the spectators now knew my name and were calling out to me. “KHS”. “Michelle Grainger, sola Donna Americana”. It was crazy. This was in the middle of the night! This made me want to go faster and faster and get as many laps as I could. I had a bell on my bike and I would ring it every time I passed a group of fans and they would cheer as loud as they could.

As morning came, I think people were so amazed that I never took time to sleep. Some groups of spectators started to count my laps and yell this out before I would pass by them.

As the 3 PM hour got closer, and closer I became more and more excited to hear the crowds. So many times in a race in the US you get close to the finish and there seem to be less crowds along the course. Not here. There were more and more fans along the course and packed into the expo area.

At about 1 hour to the finish, I came in and told Steve that I was going for one more lap. I had told so many of the spectators along the course that I would be around one more time. I talked our tent neighbor, Piepoli, into doing my last lap with me. He agreed and I told him it would be a “fun” lap and at an easy pace. It was a great last lap. There had been a helicopter filming the race and it had been following me for some of the last lap.

Off we go and it was as if we were doing a victory lap. It was awesome. As we got to the middle roller coaster hill, I dropped into the rocks as I had 30 times before. Oh oh. It wasn’t the same. Very messy and my line was gone. I figured with the steepness of where I was the only way out would be to gain speed and sit back off the saddle. Wrong move. I had gained far too much speed and my bike went wild. I couldn’t control it and I was all over the place until finally about half way down my front wheel hit a rock and stopped the bike. Well, we all know about physics! Yup, the bike stayed and I kept going. The first body part to hit the ground/rocks was my face. I thought to myself that this wasn’t going to be good. Then the rest of my body hit. I sat up, looked for Pieploi and the first words out of my mouth were “ Tell the paramedics I’m finishing this lap!” Then I had to put my hand over my face to stop the bleeding. All I could think about was getting back on the bike and doing that last 31st lap. I did not intend to have my race finish being carted off and not riding my bike. So here are 4 or 5 paramedics, a helicopter overhead, Piepoli translating as much as he can for this crazy American who is bleeding and all she keeps saying is that she wants to be fixed up to finish the race. Then the helicopter swoops down above us and dirt and debris are flying all about. Pretty comical. These great guys wash me up, stick bandages up my nose, wash off other bleeding body parts and allow me to take off on my bike. I omitted to tell them that I knew I had broken my foot but they had been so dear to fix me up as it was; I thought maybe it was best to keep this a secret until the finish.

So off Piepoli and I go. It was the lap of a lifetime. Piepoli yelling to the spectators that I was the women’s winner and I had crashed and cheer as loud as they could. I could not have felt prouder to be a mountain bike racer and represent the US and my sponsors.

At the finish line it was wild. After finishing and receiving attention from more paramedics, we had the awards ceremony on the stage. All of this was in Italian and I couldn’t tell you everything that was said but it was definitely good. I was called up with the men’s solo racers. As it turned out I placed 3rd in the men’s category and have now become a legend in Finale, Italy. I finished 31 laps. The 1st place male solo did 38 laps and 2nd place did 36 laps. The 4th place solo man did 31 laps but was 1:56 just behind me.

I have been invited back to this race next year and have been asked to have a riding clinic the week prior. I found out yesterday that I was on national TV. Not sure if that was Italy or all of Europe. I will be in Bike UK, Le Cycle, Bici Da Montagna, and possibly Bicycling Magazine here in the US. I will work on getting all of you copies of any media coverage of the event. Not sure what I can get a hold of but will do my best.

The injury report is better than it should have been. I have been racing long enough to know that my crash was the worst crash of my career. I definitely had someone watching over me. It’s good to have it out of the way now. I’ll be as good as new by December. Just in time for training season to begin for 2003.

Oh yes, a word about my sponsors. My KHS bike made it through this one and the Europeans could not believe that my full suspension bike was as light as their hard tails. My wheels from DT Swiss worked like a charm on terrain many people could only dream of. I changed my clothing 5 times to stay warm, thanks to SmartWool tops and my other Pear Izumi clothes and great gloves. It was very cold and wet due to the Mediterranean coastal climate. Those Euros love their Time pedals but seemed quite interested in my Crank Brother’s Egg Beaters and how light they are. Thank goodness I was drinking from my Deuter packs. Convenient way to stay hydrated and it protected my back. GU helped energize me along with the home cooked pasta meals from our neighbors. My Gripshift shifting worked every single lap as if it was the first. I think I owe a special thanks to Rudy Project (Technically Cool Eyewear) for my brain and eyes. I will preach helmet and eyewear safety until I’m too old to speak (fat chance of that). My head and eyes are just fine.

I know I say this all of the time but I want to say thank you to you for your support of my racing and let you know that this type of victory is only made possible with the help of you and your sponsorship and your encouragement. You just can’t race and train this hard and on this type of terrain with bad equipment. It was the race of a lifetime.