SKS Marathon, the biggest mountain bike ‘spring classic’ according to the organisation, gives more than 1600 bikers the opportunity to enjoy Sauerland and ride 30, 55 or 100 kilometres.
The level of activity in the centre of Sundern wouldn’t suggest that 1600 cyclists are going to participate in the SKS Marathon tomorrow. Apart from a few cyclists in the Italian ice café, the city appears devoid of tourists or people who come for the race next day. During a stroll through the main street only locals seem to be out on this sunny Friday afternoon. The place where tomorrow’s start takes place is also quite desolated. Everyone asked knows that the marathon is being ridden though: the people on the street do and the girl at the tourist info does. When the girl is asked for a short interview she is rather scared and tries to keep the conversation short while she gives away three tourist books, hoping that no further questions will be asked.
On the race day it is a lot busier on the parking lot of SKS Germany. All the signs of disinterest in this big event from yesterday are completely gone. Those who did not yet get their bib numbers yesterday are busy getting everything prepared for their personal challenge. The riders with ambition can be easily distinguished from those who take the SKS Marathon as a recreational ride. They are concentrating on the upcoming race and look grim.. Approximately 50 minutes before the start the first pros already go to their starting positions to make sure they will be starting up front. With the small drops of rain and the temperature just above zero, it is probably quite cold for them. Although it is April, today is a mountain bike spring classic under winter conditions.
There is one guy who does a different kind of preparation. It is Stefan Danowski. Instead of waiting behind the starting line he rides small rounds on the parking lot of SKS Germany to keep warm. Danowski talks about his ambitions: “I don’t know whether I am the favourite but my number might suggest so. Last year I ended fifth and that’s why I got the same number this year. The SKS Marathon was very hard last year. This time it seems to become hard as well so I will be fighting for the podium again.” The extremely cold circumstances and the possible snow on top of the mountains are, according the Danowski, in his favour. “In the winter I do cyclocross so I think this weather is good for me.”
“I don’t think I am the main favourite for victory this year as Sören Nissen from Denmark has the biggest chance of winning. Also that German guy Peter Hermann might take the victory. They are extremely fast and really strong. Those guys both won a different marathon last weekend as well. I think I cannot beat them but I hope to fight for the last place on the podium.” In the end, Danowski finishes as eighth. Sören Nissen takes home 800 euros to Denmark with his victory and Peter Hermann finishes as third, just behind another German guy called Robert Mennen.
The SKS Marathon attracts lots of Dutch participants as well. The Sauerland is rather close to the Dutch border and the hills are very attractive too. Eltjo Biemond is one of the Dutch participants. “In my region there are no hills. If I want to ride climbs which are a little bit longer than the Dutch ones in Limburg or the mountains in the Ardennes, I need to go abroad. Sauerland is the closest place where I can get to mountainous areas with climbs of a decent length. In addition, the forest is very nice here as well. I hope for a race on cold but dry conditions. I did a recon on the route yesterday. It seems to be quite dry. I hope the rain of last night did not make the ground too wet.”
Five minutes later than planned the race starts. Hundreds of mountain bikers enter the 100 kilometres at the same moment. The first few hundred meters are over the SKS-Germany industrial park. Approximately one hundred people shout and clap to support the riders. The first kilometre is neutralized. Unlike the neutralizations in most road cycling races, the first kilometres of the SKS Marathon are friendly. Nevertheless, some riders take the opportunity to get to the front.
The first five kilometres are uphill and over asphalt. Some of the more ambitious cyclists ride over de grass to gain some positions. Apart from one curious moment, no real crashes take place. Upon nearing the unpaved roads the peloton accelerates heavily. Riders get more nervous as they battle for position up front. With the first unpaved descent coming up, followed by a very sharp left turn, it is extremely important to be in the first group. In the downhill of the first unpaved section, the fastest mountain bikers reach speeds over 60 kilometres per hour. What follows is a long climb to the two laps in the woods north of Hagen.
Most of the route is not technical. There are only two downhills where the experienced mountain bikers are at an advantage. Apart from those two challenging descents, everyone can ride the SKS Marathon. Most of the route is, of course, unpaved but the tracks are not that bad at all. Participants do need to care for flat tires as there are sometimes sharp stones hiding in tiny corners.
The race may not be technical but they are not many parts that are flat either. Riding the SKS Marathon is going up and down, sometimes with slopes of more than 20%. Take for example the climb known as the ‘bergsprint’. This climb is only 400 metres in length but makes everyone gasp for air. The good thing is that the organisation has put some people that make music on the top. In addition, there is a man acting as a red devil and screaming one to the top. The bad thing is the climb is not over when one reaches the top. It continues into a false flat grass road before hitting another steep section. Although the intermediate sprint uphill is over, the legs get sore on this particular stretch as well (see the Raw Footage video). But, at the end of this torture there are enthusiastic girls motivating one to push harder on the pedals.
As these steep hills are still part of the 55 kilometres race, the riders who take on the 100km have to do them twice. After passing the finishing area another rough climb follows. This climb, with some technical uphill sections, brings the mountain bikers back to the main route and although most of the riders seem not to enjoy the beautiful woods through which they ride, the nature is pretty amazing. At some points along the route it is tempting to take a little rest and enjoy some of the amazing scenery. But there is no time for that.
The finish of the Marathon is designed such that it can cause the final difference between the racers. It is a downhill of grass, leading to a steeper section descending into the woods. After a tiny corner to the right it is only 100 metres sprinting to the finish line. Most pros will have made the difference earlier in the race though and will not have waited for the last straight stretch to win. A finisher’s t-shirt and a bottle of isotonic drink are the well-deserved prices that every rider gets when passing the finish line. What follows is a visit to the sport park of Mega Sports in Hagen. Drinking German beers with fellow competitors is what most mountain bikers do after having given their personal best.
Article by: Sjors Beukeboom