7 Lessons Learned From My First Race on Another Continent

It occurred to me as I was working on my last post, that I owe everyone a story from Italy.  I guess I was sort of sick of giving the play by play of all my races at the time, so rather than thinking of a more creative way to tell the story, I just didn’t.  Oops.

So I’ll try to make up for that now.  I still don’t want to give you a straight up boring race recap, so I thought I’d to take a look back on that trip and make a list. A list of lessons learned.  Everyone loves lists right?

But first, some preamble about Finale. Try to stay with me, the list at the end is your reward.


As you’ve likely read in countless online articles if you follow the mountain bike race scene, there is something special about Finale Ligure, Italy.  There is something about the romantic language, about the cobblestone alleys and the medieval architecture, about the winding streets, and the hills dropping abruptly into the Mediterranean Sea.  Gelato, coffee, and fresh pasta tug at your senses from every corner, and everyone seems to be smiling and relaxed. It’s impossible not to be seduced by it’s charms.


And then there are the trails….

There are some places, that no matter how accomplished you feel as a mountain biker, you will be humbled.  I think of Sedona as being one of these places, and Whistler, especially once you start venturing outside of the bike park.  Interestingly, these are also the places that pull me back into their grasp year after year.  They are the places I return to;  the ones that leave you with a sense of accomplishment, and at the same time a feeling of wanting more.  They bring forward conversations with phrases like “next time, I’ll get that one root section” or “next year, I’ll get up and over that ledge”.  The trails you ride in these places challenge your body and your spirit, but are nothing short of spectacular.

Finale is another one of these places.

Just when I thought I’d ridden on almost every type of terrain, and could handle myself on just about anything: Surprise! Finale throws me down a slick, steep cobblestone path that makes my bike feel like a plinko chip underneath my body, and then requests that I maneuver around countless rocky,awkward switchbacks that at first glance appear all but impossible.  Oh and by the way, Finale says with a smile, you’re not just riding these trails, you have to race them, AND you have to climb almost 9000 feet to get to them.  OK Finale! I get it! it’s going to be one of those weeks!

IMG_3311Insert emotions of shock, sadness, anger, confusion, denial and finally excitement as I finish my first trail ride in Italy.  I believe my quote to Russell was: “Holy Shit, that was hard, that can’t be what we’re racing.” And then Russell shrugged, and we laughed.  I’d been through it before; in Sedona, in Whistler, in all those places I’ve been humbled by the terrain.  So instead of having a breakdown, as I’m prone to do in such situations, I embraced the insanity.  That’s what I was here for.  I wanted technical, I got it.  Time to learn some new skills.

That particular trail didn’t end up being in the race, but the tracks that were did not disappoint.  It was a damn hard race, and the riding was unreal.  Each track had it’s own flavor. Some were tricky techy, requiring finesse, some steep and gnarly, requiring a bit (a lot?) of courage, and some fast, flowing and physical. All requiring complete focus and a well trained body and mind.  The transitions were tighter than I’d become accustomed to in North America, as were the switchbacks.  Four ridiculous days of riding ensued.  I have rarely been so tired.  I have rarely felt so alive.  I have rarely met so many strong, smiling women.photo (59)

Here’s where I start to feel myself falling back into my boring race play by play… So… Without further ado, on to my list.  Here are 7 lessons I learned from the Finale Ligure EWS:

1.  See above.  Learn to embrace the insanity.  Push your limits, and learn new skills, but be patient when you don’t master something as quickly as you’d like.  If you fail (and you will), smile at your mistake, and go back and get it next time. I was mostly successful at this in Finale, but I faltered a few times on race day, and still have some work to do in this space.

2.  If you’re racing in a drastically different time zone without adequate time to adjust, invest in sleep aids.  The night before the race, I was up almost all night, just not even tired.  Whether this was a little bit the 8 hour time difference and a lot of nervous energy, or vice versa, I don’t know, but either way, next time pass me the Ambien please!  Racing on no sleep is sure to have an affect both your mental and physical game.

photo (61)

3.  If you’re traveling across the world, spend more time there.  I spent the whole time in Italy wishing I could stay longer.  Don’t rush the experience.  I know, I know, especially for those of us in the US with “real jobs”, vacation time is precious and you have lots you want to do.  Call in sick.  Nothing is worse than having to rush around after you’re done racing to pack up your bike and get on a train/plane/automobile and leave the most incredible place you’ve ever been.

4.  On protective Equipment: a) bring a spare helmet – if you smash your head in a foreign country, your sponsors/friends with spares are far far away b) invest in back protection that won’t add 15 pounds to your weight and turn your torso into a sweaty, achy mess come race day.

5. Find out what the shuttle situation is early and make shuttle plans if necessary!  Thankfully, the Gehrig sisters helped Russell and I get shuttle practice in. If it hadn’t been for their kindness, their van, and the fearless driver they recruited to drive us around on the teeny tiny winding mountain roads, our other options had included riding the 9000 ft of climbing needed to practice without shuttles, or renting a scooter for Russell to tow me up the hill with.photo (62)

6.  Eat more Gelato.  Drink more coffee.  Drink more wine. Enough said.

photo (60)

7.  Smile like Nina.  I rode most of the transition stages with Nina Rupnik from Slovenia.  She was very fit, very fast, very humble, and had an infectious smile.  Her positive attitude was what got me through the last transition of the first day, and likely a major reason (in addition to her skill and fitness) she was able to keep her shit together and finish the 4th stage with a fast time, while my grumpy face rolled around on the ground in front of her.  It’s just riding bikes. Smile, relax, remember how rad the experience is, and what a fantastic place your bike has brought you to.

photo (63)

Nina, if you’re out there, I’m sorry I snapped at you in a moment of panic, and I’m sorry I got in your way on that 4th stage.  Thank you for being so nice to me, and for reminding me it was about the experience.  I learned a lot from you that I will take on to other places and races and it was an absolute pleasure finishing the weekend with you.  Hopefully our paths will cross again.


So that’s my story, and my list.  The knowledge that I only scratched the surface of what this place has to offer, has made this one of the only races I’ve signed up for again this year – just in case.  We’ll see where I’m at by the fall and if the stars align to make it happen.

And next time I’ll get that switchback!!






One thought on “7 Lessons Learned From My First Race on Another Continent

  1. Hi Margaret 😀 i accidantaly found your picture and your post 😀 greetings from Slovenia!! 😀 your post brought so much nice memories and also memories on 4th stage 😀 and you know what, i don’t even remember that you snap at me or anything 😀 booo, yes it was all experience and enjoyment and fun and perfect place for meeting great people like you 😀 i was really happy and honored by your words, so thank you for that and i really hope that we can see eachother some day again somewhere 🙂 have a great day 🙂 Nina

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