A few weeks after returning from Europe, Georgia Skelton reports on the Junior World MTBO in Austria.
After her 4th place in the middle distance, Georgia followed up with 6th place in the sprint race, 77s behind the Czech winner and less than 30 seconds from the bronze medal. Georgia is only the second junior, after Tim Robertson, to make the podium at the Junior MTBO Championships, and to do it twice at her first such event is an exceptional performance.
On the 25th of July I was staring out the window of a giant Airbus 380 willing the time to go a bit faster so the moment we touched down in Austria would arrive a bit quicker. My trip to Europe for the Junior World MTBO Champs has been the pinnacle of this year in regards to orienteering and I put a significant amount of time and effort into the 5 months of training leading up to it. As it was my first time racing internationally (Aussie doesn’t count because it’s basically home haha) I didn’t know how I would compare to the extremely experienced girls in my W20 age group. I was nervous but excited for the maps, the terrain and the people. Now that I’m back home in the temperamental Auckland weather, I have had a lot of time to reflect on my week of racing so thought I would share my thoughts with anyone willing to read them!
After only a day of accustomization, we were straight into it, using the Austrian MTBO Champs in Villach as the first training. The goal for this was to get used to the different terrain, the mapping and the giant track network. Racing in NZ and also Aussie the track network isn’t anywhere near as complex, and this was something I was anxious about coming over. The long event was first, followed by the middle the next day. It was awesome to ride on such new maps and terrain, they were so different to NZ which excited me. There were indistinct tracks everywhere, and going to no. 1 during the first event I realised how much attention I would have to pay to correctly tick off the tracks and not miss the ones I wanted to take. Mentally I wasn’t really in race mode but still pushed myself while riding the courses and felt physically strong. Even though I knew that these events weren’t the money ones, I was still disappointed in my 6th place out of 8 girls in the long, and an MP in the middle. It wasn’t necessarily that I was going slow, or made any huge mistakes (apart from the MP), it seemed I just wasn’t on the same level as these European girls. It was a bit of a reality check for me. Of course the heat and my seemingly non-existent jet lag would have to be taken into account, but even so, I started the trip off on a bit of a low, doubting the optimism I had coming over.
Following the weekend racing the Austrian Champs, the team ‘down under’ as we were now nicknamed, trained on various maps around Villach before heading to Bad Vöslau for more trainings set by local M20 rider Tobias Micko. In Villach the trainings were close to a lake which was great for a dip after riding in 30 degree heat. The first training we had I focused on the navigation rather than the speed, to improve my map reading for the following week. Our Aussie coach Kay then organised a mass start training for us the next day which was very beneficial considering the first race at Worlds was a mass start and some of us had never done one before. In Bad Vöslau Tobi had prepared a sprint and long training for us as well as the Japanese and the Hong Kong riders. My favourite training of the week though had to be the mass start sprint in the outskirts of Vienna. It was pretty hectic, with Kiwi, Aussie, Japanese and Austrian riders all hooning through the streets, especially with us just getting used to the idea of riding on the right-hand side. We managed to all survive reasonably unscathed, bar a few bruises and broken wheels.
Arriving at the Official accommodation on the 4th of August was very exciting, even though only a few countries had arrived. We then spent the next two days training again, this time on maps that were a lot similar to what we would be racing on. Again I focused more on navigation and terrain familiarity than speed, even though I did not feel at all prepared for the week ahead. However at model event, I rode both mentally and physically well and it gave me a lot more confidence for the first race the next day. Couldn’t have come at a better time! We also used frozen towels around our neck while we warmed up to keep cool in the intense heat, and this was a little trick which I think helped a lot. I used the towels before all of the races and they definitely made me ride faster straight out of the gate.
And so the racing began. The concept for the mass start was this: everyone is given three maps with three loops that all came back through the village. There are splits, where riders will have different controls to their competition, so you can’t follow. However, everyone will end up riding the exact same splits, just in a different order on different loops. This way you have no idea where you are placed when you ride through each lap and when you finish. It’s quite a cool event but confusing to understand! I was extremely nervous before as it was the first race and I just wanted to get it over with so I knew where I stood. The 30 girls in my race were seeded based on previous results, and since I didn’t have any I was behind all the pros in row two, but in a good position on the inside. The starter yelled map with 15 seconds to go at which we all flipped our maps over and locked them into the mapboard, then a countdown of 5 seconds before we were off. It was a pretty slow start compared to my cross country mtb days and I managed to stay around the top 5 as we entered the forest. It was then every girl for themselves, and the race really began, with riders shooting off in all directions. I raced loop 1 well (bar one bad mistake) and came through the village thinking I was in a pretty good position. Loop 2 was the best, and I nailed every control. Loop 3 I made another silly mistake, at which multiple girls suddenly appeared from behind. I was then on the attack trying to get away again but stuck with a group of about 3. When we exited the forest it was a full sprint along the sealed road to the finish, but you had to remember to get the last control on the road. As we came flying along to it at 50 kmph the Elite men were merging from the right and I had to reach over one guy’s back wheel and pray I was close enough to the control for my SI Air to register it. Luckily it beeped and I didn’t have to stop in the stampede of riders and go back! I finished in 11th place, beating a lot of the girls that I had raced at the Austrian Champs. I was pretty happy with being just outside the top 10 in my first world championship race, and my confidence for the next few days was boosted once again.
The middle was held at a ski field and was the most physical, with the same amount of climb as the long event but half the distance. It was basically hill after hill after hill under the boiling sun. My race was pretty clean and I chose good routes. Uliana, the W20 winner from the mass start, started 3 minutes behind me and caught me at no. 3, but I passed her at no. 6 and we played tag for a bit before I decided that I needed to put some time between us if I wanted to beat her. I was the most focused I have ever been in a race I think, attacking the whole time and keeping my navigation on track while still riding fast. In the last half of the course I rode as hard as I could, basically killing myself on each hill and resting the downs. I managed to pull away from Uliana and a couple of other girls we had caught. It was a downhill finish to the last 4 controls down the ski field and it was here that I put myself into 4th position, finishing 90 seconds behind bronze. We had to wait in finish quarantine for around half an hour after the race which was a new experience, but it was a good time to make some friends! Getting on the podium and an IOF diploma at my first JWMTBO was an amazing feeling and the hard months of training had finally paid off. I felt like I had already achieved so much but with two races left I still wanted to race even harder to see if I could improve my placing.
The long was a bit of a killer to be honest. They started us in an area of complex track network and I had a bad first control which had me flustered from the start. There were about 5 long route choice legs, with short loops between them. You really had to choose the right route to make up time but then concentrate and slow down for the intricate stuff. I was nearly at the end when I messed up no. 11 and was caught by a French girl, and in my haste to drop her I completely missed no. 12. I didn’t realise until after but with the race not going smoothly anyway it wasn’t a huge disappointment. The real disappointment for me was having such a bad race after such a good one the day before. But I knew I needed to put it behind me and focus on the last race, the sprint.
The sprint was held at a military base which was really cool, with tanks and helicopters scattered over the grounds. We knew it would be fast, but I think I overestimated the difficulty of it. It was all about speed, and how how fast you could go without losing contact with the map. Apart from one hiccup where I went to an adjacent control, it was a pretty smooth race and I came into the finish in 2nd, before being bumped down to 6th by later riders. Still, I was extremely happy with another podium and it proved my result in the middle wasn’t a fluke. With all the racing over it was time for the party to begin and we celebrated an awesome trip with our new European friends!
After such an amazing time overseas, it was a bit sad coming home and having to go straight back to school and exams and normal life. But racing in Europe was an experience I will never forget and one which has taught me many lessons about myself and MTBO. I have gained so much experience and knowledge from the maps, the terrain and the people and am already excited at the prospect of heading to Denmark next year! Of course, I couldn’t have gained the results I did without the help of many amazing people and even though I can’t name everyone I would like to say thank you to all of you. Most importantly my mum and dad, who have supported me every step of the way and believed in me even when I haven’t. They have made me who I am and given me so many amazing opportunities in my life so far. Also my club, Counties Manukau who have supported my MTBO endeavours from day 1. Thank you to Kay Harsma and Rob Garden and Marquita Gelderman for teaching me all there is to know about MTBO and helping me achieve my goals. And to my new friends I miss you all and thank you for making the trip such a good time!