Esztergom. One of the oldest towns in Hungary and its capital from the 10th to the mid-13th century. And I just happened upon it because it was near somewhere that looked like it might be nice for cycling. Superb.
The town, as I have already mentioned, is home to the largest building in Hungary – the Primatial Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary Assumed Into Heaven and St Adalbert. Now, that’s a name! I can also attest to its size. It is huge. The most awesome building I’ve seen ever I think. It took my breath away more than St Peters in Rome, or the Colosseum or even Stonehenge (which for a prehistory keen-bean like me is saying something).
I got there late and decided for ease to just check into the campsite, which was very reasonable and had a lovely looking pool. After a great night’s kip (I will say again how well I’m sleeping in Victor – a home from home) I got going on the bike to tackle a 90km circular route towards Budapest and back. First impressions of Hungary? The tarmac wasn’t as good as Slovakia, nor the driver’s attitude towards cyclists, but I had a testing little ride and followed it up with a brick run around the town to take in the sights, including the aforementioned church. On my return towards the campsite I stopped in via the swimming pool which I had spied from the rocky outcrop upon which the basilica stands. An open air 50m pool. In my best non-existent Hungarian, which manifested itself as me miming and doodling my requirements for a swim without children in the lane, or floating play-things, or similar, I ascertained the lane-swimming times and prices and thought I’d return the following day for a dip.
Come the evening, and it was a lovely balmy one, I decided to take a walk back up to the basilica where I enjoyed a gorgeous view of the Danube and the lilting sounds of an organ recital coming from the church.
As half ironman race day in Walchsee is fast approaching I thought I better try my hand at a ‘proper’ run the next morning, just to prove I still could. I’d hardly run anywhere since the ironman in Poznań so it was high time I put in at least a 10km.
My early start didn’t really happen (anyone surprised?!) but I did manage a 12km out and back along the Danube in the midday heat and as the pool at the campsite was so nice, a half-decent size at about 18m and devoid of any obstacles, be they children or inflatables, I decided to swim there instead.
It has dawned on me that I’d have an awful lot more time on my hands on this trip if I wasn’t training, and I’ve wondered what I might do with that instead? Obviously I’d visit more places properly – actually buying entry into museums or castles for example rather than just riding past. I expect I would read and relax a bit more too. But to be honest, having the bikes and the need to train means I’ve got an agenda of sorts that is driving my activity. After Walchsee things will no doubt become a touch more relaxed, for a few weeks at least, and I’m looking forward to devouring some of the mini library I’ve come with, which is currently residing in my passenger door cubby-holes.
With nothing at all against Hungary, and with every intention of returning eastwards at some point in the near future on this journey, I headed west to Austria and a place called Podersdorf am See, chosen as it is, as the name suggests, by a lake. What luck. Again. Arriving in time for sunset I ensconced myself in a little bar and enjoyed a glass of the locally produced dry white wine and thought to myself how very lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing.
[Geography nerd alert….] The Neusiedler See, alongside which Podersdorf sits, is an endorheic basin – a closed drainage basin with no outflow. It is surrounded by reed beds and swampy areas which are a haven for birds and, it seems, men with guns making the haven perhaps not so haven-like for our feathered friends! Incorporating the Nationalpark Neusiedler See – Seewinkel, the area is pretty flat and mostly treeless.
I had a great idea to cycle around the lake. It would be about 120km taking in Austria and Hungary and, in comparison to the hills I’d been climbing in Slovakia, an easy ride I thought. Wrong. What is worse than hills to a cyclist? Wind. And it came aplenty on that ride. With no one else to hide behind I had to slog around the See, half the ride with a head wind (and a strong one at the that) and half without. Can you guess which half I preferred? I should have noted it would be windy when, on the previous days’ drive in I’d gone past dozens of wind turbines. No matter, I thought. It was good for my strength on the bike, both physical and mental.
Now, on the previous ride I’d done from Esztergom I’d noted a slight rattling from the bike as I was being shaken to pieces on the rough tarmac descent back into the town. I’d intended to check the bike over on my return to the van but had promptly forgotten to because I’d gone out immediately for a short run. Anyway, just when I didn’t need it, at the furthest point from the van I could be, 180° the other side of the lake, this rattling (which had been happening all morning) became a shuddering stop. My cranks would not move. My gears would not change. My rear cassette had come loose. Fabulous.
This is not the sort of thing you ride prepared for. I don’t know any cyclist who’d ride on the road with a cassette spanner. Shout if you are one. I could have done with you with me on this ride. With no one to come and pick me up, and no bike shop for miles (and typically I was in the Hungarian part of the ride rather than the Austrian so couldn’t speak the language) I had to make do with my own hands to tighten the cassette. This would last about 10km (tarmac smoothness dependent) before coming loose again whereupon I would be required to upturn the bike, remove the back wheel and retighten the cogs. A few ‘sit-up-and-beg’ leisure riders tried to help out but funnily enough also didn’t have the right tools for the job, so it was in this state that I limped ‘home’ in a fierce headwind not changing gear for fear of the cassette jamming. My easy ride had turned out to be a great muscular strength session! No post-bike run for me today. I went to the bike shop in Podersdorf for a spanner, got the thing fixed (and was told by the guy in the shop that round here the wind is their hills…. you don’t say!) and enjoyed another glass of wine by the lake watching the sunset to recover my energy.
Feeling pretty knackered from the previous day’s effort I thought a morning swim in the lake would revive me, but after wandering about trying to find a suitable place to get in (it was ‘nicht erlaubt’ to swim off the pier) I gave up and drove a few hours north to Sankt Pölten, a town in which Ironman hold a 70.3 race (a half ironman triathlon). I’d downloaded the 90km bike course to my Garmin before leaving England so thought I’d go and ride it but after about 40km I thought better of it, stopped in a lovely little town called Traismauer and sated my enormous hunger with a lunch that included the very best gluten free rolls I’ve ever had – and the first of which I’ve ever come across in Austria or Germany. I was delighted. To reduce my guilty feeling of having not ridden the whole route I followed up with a 1,500m swim in the really lovely swim complex in the town which also enabled me to shower!
On a roll with the training, and being by some superb swim facilities, I got up the next morning and ran before breakfast, then swam. The run was an odd affair to be honest, as I picked my way along the river past kilometer upon kilometer of festival-goers camping out. Sankt Pölten was hosting the Frequency Festival it turns out, and thousands of music fans were waking up in their disposable tents as I jogged by. They were drinking too, already. Nice.
Not wishing all this training to go to waste and feeling like it would be good to practice my transitions before Walchsee I thought I’d search for a race to do somewhere in Austria. I came up trumps with an Olympic distance triathlon in a town called Fürstenfeld. I emailed the organisers and was reliably informed late entries were available so off I trotted southwards towards the venue, stopping a night in Reichenau an der Rax.
The drive to Reichenau was glorious, through mountains and alpine valleys and when I got there I thought it would be rude not to partake in a cup of tea and slice of cake. On the gluten free front I’ve now decided that if you don’t ask you don’t get so even in the most unlikely looking places, such as a bakery or cake shop, I ask if there is anything I can eat. I came up trumps and was served with a delicious chocolate torte. After devouring this I took a wander through the town and hadn’t gone far before I came across the Schloss which seemed to be holding some kind of music event. In my mind, before this adventure had begun, I had the desire to see more live music and hoped I might chance upon the opportunity whilst I was away. I’d obviously completely missed the fact that there was a festival in Sankt Pölten but here was my chance to attend a free concert of chamber music as part of the ISA festival.
It started in twenty minutes, so I popped back to the van, changed into something more suitable (my little black dress, which my friend Jane insisted I put in, in place of a pair of jeans, because “you never know when you might need one”) and was seated in time for a remarkable show of talent by students from the Vienna university of music and art.
A quick dip in the absolutely freezing River Rax the next morning and I was on my way to Fürstenfeld to register for Sunday’s triathlon. I was keen to find somewhere to watch the Olympic women’s triathlon in Rio and after another lucky cake find
(a piece of esterhazyschnitte, a Hungarian speciality made with almond flour and buttercream) I ensconced myself at the swimming lake – which was to be the venue for Sunday’s race – and watched Britain get their first ever female Olympic triathlon medal. Well done Vicky Holland.
Saturday had been boiling. A real scorcher of a day. Sunday, race day, was anything but. How does that happen? It’s just not fair. I woke to rain, and plenty of it. I’d sneakily slept in the van in the car park of the swim lake and was therefore well positioned to get my kit to the start – never have I been so close to a triathlon transition. After the usual shenanigans pre-race I was ready to go at my 10.40am start time – a nice sensible start time for a race I felt and certainly better than the more normal 7am gun!
My plan for this race was threefold:
- Swim strong. After Poznań I wanted to prove I could be further up the field in the swim.
- Practice transitions.
- Test my post-bike running. I’ve been suffering with a sore right glute and hamstring so this would be an interesting test for it.
The gun went. The water was lovely and warm at about 22° and so it was a non-wetsuit swim. It was a four lap swim, 1500m in total. I was aggressive and edged my way to the front of the pack tucking in behind a girl who had clear water in front of her. I assumed she was in the lead and therefore drafted behind her for two laps. We were not hanging about it felt. The pace was good and we overtook men from the back of the previous wave of swimmers. I stayed on her toes and had someone else on mine, touching my feet every stroke which was annoying. I kicked hard, she backed off momentarily, but came back again and again. After two laps of this I felt I had more in me and made my move. I overtook the girl in front and led the pack for a while, then was joined alongside by the girl I’d been following. At this point there was one lap to go and I decided I could probably give it my all for a sprint to shake her off enough to get first lady out of the water. This I did, with a little bit more aggression on the final swim to the exit and transition.
Except, as it turns out, I wasn’t first! In front, by two minutes, there’d been another girl who I’d just not seen. Still, I was pleased with second girl out of the water.
Transition was a mud-fest. It was still raining and had been all night. On top of the earlier sprint race that had been held, the grass was water logged, muddy and slippery. Cue filthy kit post-race to sort I thought. I was out on the bike as quick as I could and immediately got passed by the two girls I’d been sparring with in the water.
They edged away and I felt the tiredness in my legs from lots of riding recently. I did my best though and whilst I didn’t catch them I didn’t get overtaken by anyone else.
The course was an out and back, undulating route with a short but unpleasant 14% drop and climb. It was very wet too so I took the corners and roundabouts very gingerly.
By the time I reached the end of the ride the rain had stopped and as I approached the dismount line I was told I was fourth woman. This didn’t compute as I could have sworn I was in third place (not knowing of course that there’d been another girl out in front of me on the swim). Still, assuming they must be right I transitioned as quick as I could but was overtaken by a girl in pewag racing team kit who looked fast (her name was Melanie as I found out later). 5th, I thought, as I exited Transition Two for the 10km, two lap run. I wondered what I could do now, as my running hasn’t been on form.
It was a mixed terrain run. The muddy bits were really muddy. The tarmac fast and flat. I started well, felt strong and took Melanie after maybe 500m. I kept my pace even and by the end of lap one I could see another girl ahead. I managed to overtake her too, and with the out and back nature of the run I could tell I was now in third place. Just had to hold the pace to the finish and I’d be on the podium 🙂 This I managed and I actually enjoyed the run which, although not hugely speedy, has given me some confidence for the upcoming race on the 4th Sept.
I was delighted with the race, and achieved everything I set out to. I even won a super hamper full of lovely local Austrian fare. Everyone was so friendly too. Finishing within minutes of each other, at the end Melanie and I chatted. She is from Klagenfurt as it turns out, the town that hosts Ironman Austria which I am entered to race in 2017. I didn’t really have a plan for after the race, but as things seem to keep working out for me like this, I decided I’d head to Klagenfurt to ride the course and hopefully do some training with Melanie and her sister Lisa, who’d also raced the sprint tri that day. After the usual kit sort and bike clean I was on my way west in a huge storm that proceeded to thunder and lightning all night.
Yesterday saw me ride one lap of the Ironman Austria bike route – a beautiful, and quite fast (if I’d not been tired from the race!) course around the lake and through the nearby hills. I’d planned to meet up with Melanie at 5pm for a lake swim with her tri group but I was back too late so instead caught up with her after her swim. We’ll hopefully get a chance to run and swim together tomorrow but in the meantime, today, I am resting in the sunshine and feeling content 🙂