What’s in a 2nd Place? A Rider Reflects After Racing WEMBO 2017

Nicola Kirkham during one of her many laps at the 24 Hours of Finale Ligure

It’s taken me the last three weeks to fully comprehend the scale and difficulty of WEMBO 2017 in Finale Ligure. It is definitely the hardest race I have ever done and despite wanting desperately to defend my 2016 World Age Group Title, after 24 hours of heat, dust and rocks finishing alone was reward enough and even better to place 2nd only 30 minutes behind the winner.

The trip started with 24 hours on a plane and a few days in the mountains before driving down to Finale Ligure in Italy. Then came the challenge of navigating the hopelessly small Italian streets and finding carparks with a large Mercedes van; but that’s another story all together. After a few days getting used to the 27 degree heat – compared to the sub-zero Rotorua mornings I left behind – and finding the course, it was race day.

A LeMans-type start was the order of the day and off we ran for 1 km (Godzone training being put to good use!) onto the bikes and off into the sunshine. That sunshine would continue throughout the day and the temperatures of 27-28 degrees made hydration and staying cool vital. The views from the track down to the coast were pretty spectacular. (This almost made up for the scorcher of a day). Honestly I don’t remember much of the next 6 hours or so apart from the fact it was very hot and the views off the cliffs were quite pretty as I tried to remain focus and not ride off any of them.

The Italians don’t mess around when it comes to signage.

At around 4 p.m., my dropper post turned into a pogo stick and refused to pop up which made for a fun lap on a clown bike and some very sore quads! A quick pit stop and lap on the hardtail AIR 9 while they put in my usual post sorted that problem. This was my only mechanical in 24 hours which just goes to show the quality of the Niner RKT9 RDO, Eagle XO1 componentry, Fox shocks and Maxxis tyres. I also have to thank James, who, as pit crew took meticulous care whenever possible to clean, lube and otherwise keep everything running smoothly.

The course was a mixture of rocky descents, steep rocky climbs and rock spattered false flats which made for an exhausting yet fairly short lap of 10.3 km and 260 meters in elevation. At the end just before the pits there was a section called the “Taboga” which consisted of a few chicanes of trail where drunk Italians were having a party with confetti, horns and a live band all night long.

However along with the Italians the night did also bring with it some welcome relief from the sun. But after 12 hours of 300+ riders circulating on course, the dust from the day made it almost like riding through fog with lights on high beam. It was very hard to see!

Riding through the fog-like dust.

Dehydration from the day was taking its toll and by 3 am the track was feeling very empty of riders. My lap times were slowing and I couldn’t take in any food and only sips of fluids. I took a few longer breaks between laps as I knew I would also not be able to continue otherwise. This tactic proved wise as by daybreak I was back, lapping in the dust (no pun intended).

Still not able to take in much nutrition other than the odd sip of water, I pushed on knowing there were only a few hours left and that I was catching the speedy Italian lady who was ahead. I rolled out for my last lap at 9:45 a.m. and had some good chats with riders around me sharing in the hurt but also the relief that this was the final lap and it would be over.

Across the line and into 2nd place, only 30 minutes behind the Italian Evi Garbolino who I had slowly been catching up on but I was just not quick enough.

After a few weeks to reflect on the race I’ve taken a lot away. Winning in Rotorua in 2016 was challenging and I thought that was as hard as I could push myself but Finale taught me more. I learned how heat impacts my body over time, how much rocks (rocks and more rocks) take a toll, not only physically but mentally too, and how hard I can push myself until there comes a point where pushing further just isn’t smart.

After 24 Hours, 2nd Ain’t So Bad.

I also learned:

  • There are large green running geckos in Finale Ligure.
  • Riding blinded by dust downhill makes you ride faster.
  • Dust is very dusty. (I’m still coughing up Finale dirt 3 weeks later.)
  • Italians know how to party.
  • Announcements in Italian don’t mean much to me.
  • Someone yelling ‘sinistra’ means a fast Italian is passing on the left.
  • Iceblocks are great recovery food.

Despite not defending the world title, I am content with how I raced and satisfied that it is the best I could have done in the conditions and the heat.

Huge congrats to all the other competitors, support crews and volunteers. It was an amazing event and I would love to return to Finale sometime.
2nd place at WEMBO 2017 just means that I will have to be back for more someday!

A huge thanks to everyone who has supported and helped me to get this far, I couldn’t have done it without you guys! Niner Bikes, Niner Bikes NZ, SMITH NZ, OSM, NZOridecentral, James for being the best pit crew out and all the friends and family for your continued encouragement – and for telling me I’m crazy most of the time! #pedaldamnit

Race recap by Nicola Kirkham of Kirkham Racing. Nicola and her brother James are based out of New Zealand and enjoy racing. You can see video and additional WEMBO details on their Facebook page.