In mountain bike racing, it sometimes happens. There are a bunch of slower riders in front, but you bide your time and find a safe place to pass. Ten minutes into this race and I was contemplating more extreme options as I viewed an endless mass of riders snaking into the distance. About 3,000 riders compete in the annual Finnmarks Turen endurance race in Ludvika, Sweden... and I started dead last. This was not an intentional strategy - two days earlier at Calais I had neglected to reset my watch to local time, causing me to almost miss the start altogether.
The first consequence of this tactic was to be caught amongst the "fluoro crush" that reduced even the downhill sections to a walk. After the first 10km, I'd hardly been on my bike. In time, the congestion eased. I'd clean the outside line down a rocky slope - passing 50 riders with rear view mirrors and kickstands, then another 20 on the next climb. I felt like a real pro for a while. Eventually I caught up with riders travelling nearer to my own pace. About this time we arrived at the first of five "water stops". What a party... live music (count a string quartet, a blues band, folk group, and a solo violinist wearing nothing but a leaf skirt - in the drizzle at about 10(C), thronging spectators, massage therapists, free energy bars, sports drink on tap with special Camelback filling option. The trick was not to be lulled into staying too long.
The 112km loop was through pine forest - mostly on singletrack and 4WD. I presume these tracks were initially in good repair, but about 2,000 mad Swedes had ventured ahead of me. The bottomless mud was less a problem than the technical challenge posed by fields of rocks and tree roots polished to an evil silver sheen by countless knobblies. The recommended technique is to hang loose and carry speed through these sections - but with the perpetual traffic jam it was often quicker to leap off and carry the bike instead.
So far I was feeling good, avoiding the vicious cramp that usually afflicts my legs in endurance races. However, at the entrance to the sports field used for the 80km drink station, there was a ramp to perform jumps for the spectators. Time to show off my new suspension, but as I hit the ramp both of my calves cramped, involuntarily bending my legs and leaving the tackle resting on the top tube mid air. The landing hurt but the gallery were suitably appreciative.
Before the race, I had assumed the terrain would be quite gentle. Wrong! The climbs quickly added up - I reckoned the total height gain was similar to the Mt Peel marathon back home. While the first half of the race was a speedy blur, each kilometre closer to the finish became exponentially longer - particularly those cruel hill climbs in the final 10km.
The spectator numbers blew me away - it's impossible to imagine ever experiencing the like of it in New Zealand. Deep in the woods, family groups would enthusiastically clap and chant encouragement. I felt like I was riding "Le Tour" (or perhaps that was the non-performance enhancing drugs kicking in). But it was difficult to reciprocate their support. While struggling up a greasy, root infested, near vertical climb in the heavy rain... the rear derailleur jamming and my SPD's choked with mud, the body screaming and the mind is saying "why bother"... a three deep gallery of smiling Swedes were chanting something that sounded like "yuk, yuk, yuk". A muddy grimace was all I could manage in return.
I finished in just over 7 hours. A medal was placed over my head at the finish. The organiser recognised me and switched to English. "Ah, New Zealander. Welcome. Did you enjoy this race?" "No, it was too hard." "But you must have had some fun, the music?" "Well, I enjoyed finishing!" But then I regained my sense of humour and added - "next year, I'll try to get a better start." I have no idea who won - couldn't understand a word at the prize giving.
Sweden is a long way away when an endurance mountain bike race is essentially the same evil beast wherever it's held. But the Finnmarks Turen is an exotic and memorable experience. The joy of being a tourist is all about choosing how you get your kicks. I felt like I'd been well kicked, and that's what I like.