It was almost like off season again after the Rotorua EWS. Being back at home and training away, days were getting shorter and the change in temperature was turning towards winter. Seeing regular race coverage starting to pop up on the all the social media feeds got me excited to leave New Zealand and get back to the racing. With an eye on the climate in Ireland I was starting to prepare myself for what could be a muddy race, in similar conditions to the New Zealand autumn I was about to leave. This year is a bit of a special one for the Leov family; when we leave New Zealand we'll be gone as a family until October.
Usually with Tory and now Luca left at home we have made plans to set up base in Finale Ligure, Italy, and be able to enjoy our down time in an Italian summer instead of a New Zealand winter. Packing for six months is always a challenge but once you're on the plane, that's that. Landing into Ireland just over a week early was my plan. I wanted to be able to chill out and get over the jet lag before practice kicked off. Leaving New Zealand, Luca and Tory had been sick with colds and mine came as soon as I boarded my first flight. I thought I would try and blow it out with a good ride with the locals but all I did was make it worse. Bed for a few days was the smartest call after that.
With time up my sleeve I was able to recover and I was feeling back on track come the first practice day. First impressions of the courses showed a mixture of fast, flowy and technical, importance to carry speed and blind rollovers you needed to learn. Elevation was clearly a lot lower than our European locations but nonetheless the courses looked good. The event quickly got named the "social enduro" due to the liaison climbs being between 5-7 percent grades and easier transition times. Practice was a bit like dusting out the cobwebs but my speed was there and it didn't take more than a couple of stages and my speed and comfort were back where they needed to be. I decided to ride every stage twice in training and although it would be big days I hoped the extra course knowledge would help more than the extra fatigue. This meant for a 2000m vertical day on Friday and 54km of off road goodness, and on Saturday 1600m and 45km. You can imagine my meals have been extra large after those days!
Race day was forecast for perfect weather. The weather obviously influences the whole way you deal with the race, starting from choosing the right lenses for your goggles. Stage 1 was a mixture of wide open, hold the handlebars tight and don't brake type of riding and carrying speed the best you can over tyre-grabbing rocks. It woke the body up and had potential to really bite if you got it wrong. I started the day with a clean, fast run and finished 2nd behind Barel.
Stage 2 was the most physical and longest of the stages. Big rock slabs at the top and then fast pedalling straights. This was crazy with the crowd presence, and there was even a helicopter filming us from the start, so it felt very "rock star" for an enduro event. I put down great power through this stage but could only manage 4th this time around.
Stage 3 was again on the rock slab start but this time a headwind and the flattest stage of the weekend. Lots of cut of stumps were reaching for your pedals and sharp rocks to cut the tyres. I was hurting in this stage but held it together to get my first stage victory of the weekend. With Stage 4 coming up and then a quick lunch break I must have been in a hurry to get back to eat because I backed up my stage 3 win with another win and started to have a small lead going into the remaining three stages. On entering the pits I found out I was leading but knew it wasn't going to be an easy afternoon. Plenty of tough terrain to come. I've been in this situation before and you can't count on anything until you cross the finish line!
Stage 5 and I pushed a bit too hard off the start into the first woods. I nearly crashed on a root and needed to gather myself losing some valuable seconds steering off course. I told myself to calm down and the rest of the run was good. With that moment I dropped down a little to finish 8th for the stage. Up to stage 6 and this was my favourite for the weekend: fast and rocky, and with the crowd it felt like my DH days again! My start was almost a mirror from Stage 5, this time nearly crashing on the upper rock section and losing my flow. This time a little bit better into 7th but not the perfect run.
We were now on the final stage of the weekend. Energy levels were good, bike was holding together and I was happy with my riding all day. I decided a smart clean run was what I should do for the final. I had no idea where I was sitting in the overall at this point but a crash or puncture would be devastating (I've also been-there-done-that!). It was an enjoyable run, I hit my lines and rode smooth, so it was a great finish to a fun day racing bikes!
The finish line atmosphere was out of this world! Local boy Greg Callaghan had outridden me in the last three stages to take the win but my consistency had landed me in 2nd overall and jumped me from 4th overall in the series points to 2nd, right behind Jerome. An awesome experience and an awesome crowd! Another big race for my teammates as well, Tracy taking out the women's category and Rene back from injury to ride into 7th saw us the fastest team of the weekend.
I now head to Scotland where it all begins again on Wednesday with the first day of practice! Got to rest these legs... See you later Ireland!