Cyprus Sunshine Cup, Afxentia Stage Race & Voroklini XCO

Compressed to run over two weeks rather than three as previous years, and with the Afxentia Stage Race once again UCI Hors Class for 2014, the Cyprus Sunshine Cup was always going to attract a strong field of riders from across Europe at the start of the season. We were coming off the back of our best winters training in Stellenbosch and decided to hedge our bets on missing the snow that plagued the beginning of the previous season and took to the start line along with 132 other Elite men.

The stage race, held over four days in the eastern end of the spectacular Troodos Mountains began on 27th February in the hillside village of Lefkara, with the format; time trail,  back to back marathons and finishing with an XCO.

The opening 5.7km TT made up of two tempo climbs, one loose tight technical descent and a final rapid downhill through the narrow streets in the village to the finish line in the square. Hamish paced the course well catching and overtaking his minute man on the second climb, and coming in in 28th with myself close behind time wise in 36th for the stage. It certainly felt good to work the lungs to maximum capacity for the first time since last season.

 Day two incorporated a 49.5km loop, once again starting and finishing in Lefkara. A predictably nervous and twitchy neutralised start on the asphalt road got things under way up the valley to the village of Vavatsinia, before picking up the dirt and gravel roads. Winding through pine forests up the climbs at break neck speed to the ridge at Kionia at just under 1400m, I found myself slightly poorly position in the bunch, race sharpness slightly lacking, when it split and dangled tantalisingly close to Hamish and the group ahead for the entire stage. After a hard day in the saddle we were both still in a solid position on the GC.

For Day 3 the stage started in the town of Lythrodontas which lies to the east of Lefkara, and a 39.4km point to point a straight up and down lay in wait. Towards the top of almost an hours climbing on gravel roads the course linked up with the downhill section (ridden in reverse) from Stage 2 to take us back up to the ridge at Kionia. Having stuck with the early pace much better than the previous day I rode strongly over the top of the climb and down the single track descent in to the finish in a group for 20th with Hamish just behind having been slightly tailed off by his own exceedingly hot pace at the top of the climb.

A long start loop plus five laps of the 5.6km XCO course at Mantra tou Kampiou made up the final day. Hamish moved through the field early on up in to the top 25 before parking up a few places in the last lap to finish just outside the top 30. I was well placed at the back of the lead group, but was unluckily taken down by another rider just after the start of the first lap and was unable to get back into contention which was disappointing given the momentum I had gained from the previous day. Having not had an opportunity to pre ride the course the steep technical descents added some interest the first time down!

We took a lot of positives coming away with 35th and 36th in the GC, in the points and with some fast racing in the legs to kick start the season, especially so for me with it being my first race after recovering from an injury in practice before the Norway World Cup last year. It was also a perfectly harsh environment to put all the new kit through its paces in a race situation. The terrain in Cyprus is baron, rough, loose, and rocky, we weren’t riding through the lush meadows or dense forests of central Europe. Everything handled without fault, no mechanicals or punctures which is a massive testament to the equipment.

If you look on Google Maps you will see that Cyprus is a long way east, and it was interesting for us when out training before the second leg of the Sunshine Cup to compare it to other European countries we have raced in. In a lot of ways it was typical southern Europe with little villages perched on the side of hills with tight, twisting streets not designed with cars in mind. Certainly far away from the heart land of mountain biking in central and northern Europe. An interesting property development fact of Cyprus is that every development has to be accompanied by a ‘green area’ so they throw up a slide and a couple of swings on every corner in order to meet the requirement.

The UCI C1 XCO at Voroklini the following weekend was unsurprisingly on very similar terrain to the previous weeks racing. The track was a straight forward two climb, two descent affair, and the race would tackle a super fast start loop followed by six laps of the 6.0km course with just under 200m of climbing per lap.
A short burst of heavy rain two hours before the start did little but dampen the dust, and the threatening loud bursts of thunder and lightening thankfully didn’t come to anything except a light drizzle during warm up. Once again there was a very strong 86 man field on the start line. I got off to a fast start and was quickly joined by Hamish on the first lap. Playing to our strengths and attacking the climbs and letting go on the technical descents we moved in to the top 20, and for a couple of laps forming an all Merida bike train with Jose Hermida and Julien Schelb. With one to go and not quite the last lap strength in the legs yet we slipped a few positions by the finish to 25th and 26th.
It was good to ride a sustained XCO race pace again, something that is impossible to fully replicate in training. With our first major goal being round one of the World Cup in Pietermaritzburg (South Africa) our training and form is at the right level to be in peak condition then. Everything is on track.