The last 18 months have been a surprise. In April 2020 we went into lockdown in Scotland. I had just left my job as a coach at Scottish Cycling to set up Wardell Cycle Coaching. With the enforced downtime, and new flexibility of schedule, I began consistently riding my bike for fitness for the first time in around 7 years.
Later in the year I set my sights on reclaiming the West Highland Way record, and since then I've tried to maintain the consistency of training. I've gone from 75kg to 65kg, and I've added around 55 watts to my FTP. I challenged myself in real races, against professional riders, placing 23rd in the UCI Marathon World Series in Andalucia, 8th in the British Cross Country Championships and 6th in the British MTB Marathon Championships too. I then set my sights on competing in the UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships on the Isle of Elba in Italy, and I was selected to represent the Great Britain Cycling Team for my first ever World Championships. You couldn't make it up!
It's been 18 years since I had a realistic chance of competing in a World Championships. I'd started mountain biking in the year 2000 aged 15. 3 years later, as a relatively inexperienced Junior, I missed out on selection for the 2003 World Championships by one place. The next 3 years I raced in the Elite Category World Cups and in UCI races in Europe. At the time there wasn't a U23 category. I hoped to compete in the U23 World Championships, but as a younger, weaker rider in the category I wasn't selected.
I quit racing aged 21. I'd just competed in the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games for Scotland, which I had hoped and imagined to be a springboard to a professional career. By the end of that season, 6 months later, it was clear that there was no way for me to earn a living as a mountain bike racer.
After a short spell pushing a trolley selling sandwiches around offices in the west end of Edinburgh, I was offered a job as a development coach for Scottish Cycling. If I didn't get that job I don't actually know if I'd still be involved in the sport at all.
Back on track to the Marathon World Championships. I found out that I had a place to represent GBCT at the beginning of September. It felt like a last minute panic getting everything organised to compete. As MTB Marathon is not an Olympic discipline, British riders have to manage their own travel and race logistics. This is the norm for most riders in most nations, and it is the way for British riders in disciplines like downhill, cyclocross, bike trials and other non-Olympic events.
The trip was entirely self funded, and I joined forces with my old friend Hans Becking, a Dutch rider also competing at the Marathon Worlds. We shared the support of Belgian suspension expert and Lotto-Soudal team mechanic Dave Van Der Pol, who would look after us during the race and take care of our bikes before and after.
I was anxious about travelling to Italy as it would be the first time I had flown since the covid-19 pandemic hit us. I'd also contracted covid-19 in May while driving home from the Andalucia Bike Race in Spain. I didn't want to get my hopes up about competing in the Worlds until I was actually in Italy and on the island. Thankfully my travel was faultless and I arrived safely and on time.
I settled into the small self-catering apartment I'd booked. On the first day I sampled the local coffee shops in the morning before me and Hans rode the start and finish of the race course, as well as the main loop we would race 3 times. The Elba World Championships course was severe, and the race would be decided over 118km and 4900m of climbing and descending.
After practising the course I made the call to lower my gearing to a 34t chainring, and add a 52t cassette to my bike. For the race I fitted new tyres, CushCore and sealant, and degreased and re-greased everything. I felt like my bike was perfect and I felt prepared and ready to go.
My race strategy was to start steady and finish strong. I'd predicted that the race would take me between 6 and a half and 7 hours. I only had Dave helping me with bottle and technical support in one of the feeding stations on the course, so each time I made sure to take enough fluids and carbs to last the 2 hours+ I would be away from the feed.
I was seeded 82nd of 120 entrants from 26 Nations. The start of the race was guaranteed to be fast as riders fought for position on the opening 1.8km, 10% gradient climb, which included 500m at 18.5%. In the first 2km of the race, I climbed 191m in 9 minutes and 1 second, averaging 168bpm/403 watts and maxing at 177bpm/715 watts. This was my attempt at starting conservatively too, knowing that there was still 116km, 4700m, and 6 hours+ of racing still to come. What's also worth noting is at the first time split after 1.5km I had only moved up 2 places to 80th position.
This fast start set the tone for the first half of the opening lap, and the first hour was hard. I was conscious to try and settle down to a more sustainable pace, and I did so after and hour of racing. My mindset then switched to riding in control of my effort, being conservative, riding smoothly and taking on 500ml of fluids and 90g of carbs every hour.
I had to be calm and actually stopped in the feed and technical zones to make sure I took on enough fluids and nutrition. Although it seemed to be wasting time to stop, the reality was that it was taking 10-15 seconds once a lap. If I ran out of energy during the race it would be catastrophic, and I wouldn't be able to finish. The course was that hard.
After 4 hours of racing, I made it onto the final lap in 65th place. I knew there was only 45km and about 2 and a half hours of racing remaining. This lap was when I planned to begin to lift my pace and push through. I felt like I was executing this plan well and I was moving through the field, catching and passing riders. By 95km into the race, I had moved up to 51st place when disaster struck. Something broke on the inside of the pedal and the pedal body came away from the axel. I stopped and tried to fix it for about 4 minutes, before realising that I couldn't. I was able to slot the pedal body back onto the axel and ride with it, although I had to be really cautious as the pedal was grinding and slipping all the time. It was incredibly frustrating. My head dropped and all urgency in my riding was lost.
Recently I've thought back on some of the races I've done in the past. Way back in 2006 in the Commonwealth Games mountain bike race I punctured. I totally blew the tyre off the wheel. I had to run with my bike to a technical assistance zone to get a spare wheel, losing a load of time, before resuming the race.
I ended up racing the remaining laps with Chris Froome, who was representing Kenya at the time. Before the final lap we were caught and lapped by the leading riders. When we crossed the finish line for the final lap, I pulled out of the race to save some energy for the road race in the following days, while Chris Froome continued.
In my mind I was 20 years old and I had my whole career ahead of me. I imagined that I would race 3 more Commonwealth Games in my career, and I dreamt of riding in the Olympics one day. However, if you look at the results for the race, Chris Froome is listed as 24th place, and I'm listed as a DNF. I never did race another Commonwealth Games.
The final hour and a half of the Marathon World Champs was a frustrating experience. I really didn't enjoy it. I could only think about what might have been. What was really upsetting is that I had gone from the incredible high of executing my race plan to perfection, riding the final stages of the race fast to catch and pass other racers. Following my mechanical, as I rode past spectators I felt embarrassed. I wanted to stop and explain to everyone why I was riding so slowly and awkwardly.
However, what I did manage to do was whenever I felt that embarrassment, I'd remind myself that I wasn't going to give up. I was still racing in my first ever World Championships, and I didn't know if I would ever get that chance again. I was going to finish the race.
23 km later, I'd ridden for 1 hour and 34 minutes with one broken pedal to cross the line and finish my first ever World Championships. I finished in 55th place having raced for 7 hours, 12 minutes and 26 seconds. The race has gone down as the hardest ever UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships. 41 riders never made it to the finish line, including the greatest mountain bike racer of all time. It's fair to say that I had different ambitions from some of the other riders, but I'm really proud to have finished that race. And I hope that I get another chance to line up and compete in the Worlds again.
As always, you can check out my ride on Strava.
'til next time,
Rab Wardell (World Mountain Bike Marathon Championships finisher)