Words: Hannah Otto
Photos: @canofotosports

This year I travelled to the Mediterranean Epic to open up the legs and test my training after my first major training block of the year.

In January I logged 105 hours on the bike, and then on February 3rd I jumped on a plane to fly to Spain to compete in the 4-day UCI HC Stage Race. “HC” stands for “Hors Category” or “Above Category” and is the highest level of Stage Racing there is, so the race was bound to be incredibly competitive. The race also offers value UCI points that will be important in the Marathon World Cups this season. All of this to be said, it would be a heck of a season opener.

Photo: Cano Foto Sports

Stage 1:

Stage 1 was a short, prologue time trial stage. That meant all of the athletes would race the stage one at a time, going off approximately 30 seconds apart from each other. The stage was only about 12 miles long and would take less than an hour.

I stood a-top the start ramp and listened as the UCI official counted down, “Cinco, Cuatro, Tres, Dos, Uno.” I rolled down the ramp, and just like that the 2024 season was underway.

I caught the women who started ahead of me less than 2 miles into the time trial, meaning that I had made up 30 seconds in less than 2 miles. By the end of the time trial, I had caught 7 women and crossing the line I felt like that had to have meant I put down a decent enough time.

As the athletes rolled in after me, I moved into the 4th position. Competing against some of the best women in the World, every one reassured me that this was indeed an impressive result, but I knew I had more. I had blown one turn and had to back track and all-in-all I knew I was just shaking out the cobwebs. The next stages would tell all.

Photo: Cano Foto Sports

Stage 2:

Stage 2 would be a serious mountain bike race. It featured 47 miles and 7,000 feet of climbing, with some of the most technical trails I’ve ever done in competition. The entire race would last approximately 4 hours.

My plan was to sit back in the group and watch how people rode. I wanted to learn my competition and see where each athlete was strongest. I followed wheels for the first hour or so and as I observed, I began to notice the laboring of breathing becoming more and more apparent with every passing climb.

When it was my turn to lead the group, I set my own tempo up the climb and quickly noticed that the group was splitting apart. The group of 5 we had established was stringing out and now only one other woman was clinging to my wheel. I put in a small dig over the top to establish our lead and the two of us were off the front.

For the next 30 miles we rode together. We exchanged pulls and attacks. We played some tactics and we forced each other to pull some sections and then tried to sprint around for control in others. The technical trails were extremely demanding. I had one crash but was able to recover her wheel within minutes. One trail was so demanding, in fact, that we congratulated each other for making it out together and with such speed.

Photo: Cano Foto Sports

At mile 38, only one decent remained and then a flat section to the finish. We had been riding, just the two of us for more than 2 hours, then all of a sudden, a group of men engulfed us, and another woman caught us at the exact same time.

The other woman was also the teammate of the woman I had been riding with for all of those hours. It was now 2 against one, and I knew I might be in trouble. The woman who just caught us, immediately attacked. I stood to follow, but I was boxed in with the group of men. I hollered and tried to go around, but I was stuck behind a man who crashed going into the singletrack and then finally got to enter third wheel (behind the two teammates).

Throughout the extremely technical descent, we were all cooked. Each of us took turns making mistakes and the group yo-yo’d, coming together and then spreading apart. When we exited the singletrack, I was just 12 seconds behind.

The two teammates looked back, saw the small gap and immediately accelerated together. They worked together across the flats and I hung out in the wind on alone. I did was I could to mitigate time loss, and I crossed the line 3rd. Honestly, I was thrilled with a podium position and an improvement from the day before, but I knew with smarter tactics, I could win.

Photo: Cano Foto Sports

Stage 3:

Stage 3 was the queen stage, meaning it would be the longest of all of the Stages. It featured 67 miles, 7,000 feet of climbing, and would take approximately 5 hours.

This time I had a plan.

I needed to make the race hard and keep it hard. I had to separate the teammates so that the race remained 1 against 1. I looked at the elevation profile and picked one climb that I would attack to separate the teammates, and another climb that I would attack to solo off the front.

Just as expected, the race quickly came down to the 3 of us, and I waited for my chance to make my move. When the time came, I ratcheted the pace and remained confident that my endurance would prevail.

One of the women fall off. Perfect, exactly according to plan.

Then, just a few miles later, the other woman fell off. This was earlier than expected. It was now or never, I had to make the move.

Photo: Cano Foto Sport

I dug dig, upped the pace, solidified the lead and I had 35 miles to go. For the next 35 miles I rode entirely alone. It is not allowed for women to ride with the men in UCI competitions so I truly had to ride my own race. I had no idea how much of a lead I had, I just had to be brave and keep fighting.

With 20 miles to go, I felt like it was way too far, but I ticked them off one at a time. I counted climbs to go, miles to go and eventually even found myself counting the miles to landmarks just to keep giving myself small victories.

I didn’t believe I had won the stage until I saw the finish line ahead of me, and still no women in sight. This was a massive victory, not just winning the race, but believing in myself. I won the Stage by 1.5 minutes and moved up into 2nd place in the General Classification.

Photo: Cano Foto Sports

Stage 4:

Stage 4 would be 30 miles and would last about 2.5 hours. It would be a very fast and explosive stage on exhausted legs. I knew everyone still wanted their chance to win a stage, and to secure their spot in the GC. This would be a hard one.

Up the first climb, my legs were cramping. I felt like I could feel the individual muscle fibers tearing as I asked them to keep pushing. I was sweating from pure pain and effort, and there was still 4 of us in the group.

The attacks on Stage 4 were big. The riders wouldn’t just ratchet up the pace, they would launch attacks from the back of the group and send us all into a sprint to catch the wheel. The teammates cleverly worked together on their attacks and were clearly working for the GC leader.

At one point halfway through the Stage, I cracked, my legs buckled and I had just a couple seconds where my body didn’t respond. The group rode away. As I watched the daylight open up between our wheels I remember thinking, “What have I done?”

Photo: Cano Foto Sports

I promised myself that if I could catch back on, I would not give in again.

And when I did catch back on, I held that promise. The attacks only got harder, and my legs only hurt more, but I promised myself I wouldn’t give in no matter what.

The miles ticked down and our group was still 3. We were in a full-blown manic sprint through the final singletracks and along the beach and then as we hit the pavement with 2 miles to go, we all sat up. This would be a sprint.

I hadn’t had a chance to see the finish, so I quickly pulled up the map on my Stages Dash and zoomed out. There would be a left turn, a left turn, and then a right turn immediately before the finish. I knew what I had to do.

With 2 turns to go, I launched my all or nothing sprint and I crossed the line the Stage Winner!

It felt amazing to win 2 out of 4 Stages and to win 1 in a long solo effort off of the front, and the other in a sprint finish!

Photo: Cano Foto Sport

I also secured 2nd in the GC!

I’m absolutely thrilled with these results and what this indicates for where my training is at this time of year. I’m now flying home and dreaming about what this next huge training block will bring!

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