— by Loreen Pindera
This past summer was one of the hottest and driest ever recorded in Europe. As I packed for the Ironman 70.3 race in Zell am See, Austria, in August, I read about cows keeling over from heat exhaustion in Switzerland, forest fires blackening Scandinavian skies and glaciers melting in the Austrian Alps.
No wonder it never occurred to me to find space in the bike bag for cycling tights, toe warmers and winter gloves.
Fast forward to 24 hours before the swim start: my husband, David, and I, along with scores of other triathletes, are combing the bargain bins of last winter’s stock at the ski resort’s sports shops, snapping up ski gloves and hats to slip under our bike helmets.
Just in time for the race, the temperature had plummeted to 20 C, while torrential rains soaked the valley. Just wait. It gets worse. By race day, it would dip to below zero.
We’d arrived in Europe two weeks earlier, determined to avoid race- day jet lag. We’d packed as lightly as possible. Everything — street clothes, gifts of maple syrup and all our race gear — was stuffed into our bike bags, which we made sure weighed in at precisely 23 kilograms apiece (the limit set by most airlines before you have to pay excess baggage fees).
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The bags are soft-sided and practical, because, with a bit of gymnastics, you can fit two dismantled bikes, padded and protected, into almost any decent-sized vehicle. Once, in Rome, we fit one bag hanging out of the trunk of a micro-sized Fiat, the other in the back seat across my lap.
But a 23-kilogram bike bag is still the weight of a small sack of cement. European rail systems are cool with bikes, but don’t let anyone fool you into believing that German trains always run on time. We set out from Paris with a stop at Karlsruhe, with what seemed like a generous 13 minutes to change trains. Our train was four minutes, then seven minutes, then 11 minutes late. With two minutes to spare before our connection left for Munich, we hauled those bike bags off the Paris train, sprinted along the platform, down one set of stairs, along a tunnel and up another set of stairs, heaving our bikes aboard the outbound train just as it began pulling out of the station.
You remember Ross Edgely, that crazy Brit who did an Olympic triathlon while carrying a tree? Well, I now know what Ross felt like. Our Ironman had begun before we had even arrived in Austria.
In Munich, a desperate late-night Google hunt turned up a couple of ultra-lightweight folding trolleys that made hauling the bike bags a breeze. Fun was back.
Finally, we arrived in Zell. It was 30 C, butterflies flitted among the wildflowers in the meadows and the only snow in sight was the glacial peak of Kitzsteinhorn way off in the distance. From our rented ski chalet halfway up the Schmittenhöhe mountain, we looked down on the lake where the swim was to be held and then beyond it to a range called the Hochkönig massif, where a 13-kilometre climb awaited us, guaranteed to turn even the strongest legs to mush.
With the bikes reassembled, we set out on one of our most glorious rides of the summer, finding our cycling form again and managing 800 m of climbing over 55 km of smooth asphalt, through picture-perfect villages and past mountain pastures where the famous Pinzgauer cattle happily roam. We were pedalling our way through the Sound of Music.
That was Wednesday. On Friday, the fog moved in. On Saturday, there was a steady downpour. When we awoke on Sunday, we could see our breath. Our host, Maria, knocked on our door, looking forlorn and apologetic: we’d be biking through sleet.
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At the race start an hour later, we learned the sleet had turned to snow, and some parts of the course were flooded completely. Then came word that the authorities had cancelled the bike leg. The steep switchbacks were ice-covered and simply too dangerous.
In the 70-plus races I’ve done, I’ve seen the power of nature: in 2014 in Pescara, Italy, the swim was cut in half due to waves so high they were knocking over the kayakers who were supposed to protect us. In 2012, at the Mooseman 70.3 in New Hampshire, it rained so hard organizers dumped bales of hay in the transition zone to help athletes slog through the knee-deep slop to get to their bikes. In the 2007 Chicago Marathon, I made it to the finish line in the hottest run on record, while, just behind me, thousands were ordered to stop because water supplies had run out.
After the announcement that the bike leg had been cancelled at Zell am See, dozens of disappointed athletes dropped out, collecting their bikes in the rain and walking them out of transition.
I didn’t get why. I was still raring to go. It was the first time I had ever hauled my bike across the ocean, not to ride it. But what the heck? The rain meant the lake was flat and, at a balmy 21 C, the water was the warmest place we could be. A couple of thousand of us mingled at the shore, socializing for a couple of hours in our wetsuits as we waited for the gun to go off.
I had a great run, on fresh legs, exhilarated by the sight of snow-covered mountains all around us as I charged around the lake.
The next day dawned without a cloud in the sky. I was in pretty good spirits, all considered. I had not met my goal of conquering 90 km of mountain roads, but I’d had a blast. The thermometer had climbed to 22 C by the time we packed up our bikes and said goodbye to Zell am See late that morning. The triathlon gods were laughing. I felt let in on the joke.
Loreen Pindera is a journalist and editor for CBC News and an avid triathlete.