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Climbing back to the top: The Gunn-Rita Dahle FlesjŚ diary 2008

Gunn-Rita Dahle FlesjŚ
Photo ©: Gunn Rita Dahle FlesjŚ & Kenneth FlesjŚ
(Click for larger image)

Norwegian cross-country mountain bike racer Gunn-Rita Dahle FlesjŚ is probably the best female rider this relatively young branch of the sport has ever seen. World champion in 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006, plus Olympic champion in 2004, and rarely beaten in her reign as World Cup champion from 2003 - 2006, she has a breathtaking palmares.

Unfortunately, Dahle FlesjŚ was sidelined for most of the 2007 season with a virus that left her with little strength and on a program of complete rest and recovery. With the constant support of husband and coach Kenneth FlesjŚ, she has been working her way steadily back to health - just in time to pursue her goals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Follow her exploits on Cyclingnews as she works to regain her form and position at the top of women's mountain biking in 2008. Or, for more Gunn-Rita, see her personal website:

Index to all entries

July 10, 2008

Winning worlds

The women's peleton rolls out
Photo ©: Kenneth and Gunn-Rita Dahle FlesjŚ
(Click for larger image)

It was absolutely indescribable to put on the rainbow jersey once again. This World Championship title will foever stand as one of the very greatest victories for Kenneth and me, and it is guaranteed to give us renewed strength and energy for many more years on my bike.

Two days have passed since I became World Champion in marathon cycling, and it still seems unreal to me. Tears of sheer joy flowed freely a long time before I reached the finish line and I was a little dizzy as I got off my bike surrounded by a deafening racket around me. At the same time last year, I was at home and could only barely manage to take a short stroll to the grocery store. Uncountable hours of intense hard work lie behind what we performed on Saturday, and that's the very reason the World Champion title tasted so utterly fantastic.

The first days after the cross country World Championship, two weeks before the marathon World Championship, my body and legs were pretty worn out, so we had to take a few really slow days to recover fully. We left straight from Commezzadura (site of the cross country World Championship) for Villabassa, the town where the marathon World Championship was to start and finish. This was in order to have enough time to cycle around the track without wearing ourselves out beforehand. This enabled us to divide the track up into sections, do the flatter sections on slower paced days, and the tougher climbs on more intense days.

Nail-biting World Championship race

Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa
Photo ©: Kenneth and Gunn-Rita Dahle FlesjŚ
(Click for larger image)

The women did a large lap of 89 kilometres, with a total of about 3,000 metres of climbing, while the men had to cycle 119 kilometres. As expected, the cyclists were still in a group towards the first climb after 10 kilometres on undemanding undulating terrain, consisting of asphalt, gravel and singletrack. Sabine Spitz immediately took the lead and controlled the tempo right to the top, and by that time, only Finnish Pia [Sundstedt] and I were still hanging on. An ascent with a gradient of a whopping 14 percent usually separates the best from the second best.

On the next flat section approaching the first mountain there were four girls alternating in the lead without too much effort. I took the lead and set my own tempo when the climb began again. By this time we were a group of seven girls. I had done this climb while training the weekend before and knew that it would take close to 40 minutes to reach the top. I was cycling right at the edge of my capacity and managed to create a gap back to Sabine and Pia. At the top I was leading by 35 seconds. I descended the other side right on the limit of my capabilities too, and increased my lead down towards the next flat section.

After that came a section of more varying terrain. I hoped that the girls racing to catch up from behind were riding one by one, but that wasn't the case. Sabine had slowed down so Pia could catch up so they could ride together to catch up with me. By the third flat section I had a good three minutes' lead on them. We had practised the descent down to this feed zone many times and it paid off.

Crisis on the final mountain top

Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa finishes
Photo ©: Kenneth and Gunn-Rita Dahle FlesjŚ
(Click for larger image)

Approaching the final mountain, I had a lead of three minutes and 15 seconds. My offensive riding and aggressive climb up the first mountain were beginning to make themselves felt in my legs by this time. I knew it was going to be struggle with myself to get to the top without the others catching up. After a good 45 minutes of climbing I started to feel a pricking sensation in my legs and arms, and that's usually a bad sign.

Up 'til now I had been careful at filling up with liquid and food, but apparently not careful enough. It's not easy to swallow either liquid or food when one is as tired as I was only a few kilometres from the top of the mountain, but I managed to swallow one more PowerBar gel, plus half an EnergyBar, and this decided the end result for me.

I had no idea of how far Sabine and Pia were behind me when I started the descent. A few kilometres down the hill I received a horrifying update. During a long bend in an open section I saw the girls behind me, and they couldn't be more than 10-15 seconds behind. In other words, I had cycled a full three minutes slower than my two pursuers, even though I had been giving absolutely everything my body and legs were capable of. I simply needed more time in order to keep them away from me as I approached the final asphalt hill, so my only possibility was to do the descent at a greater pace than advisable.

Yes, I did it!
Photo ©: Kenneth and Gunn-Rita Dahle FlesjŚ
(Click for larger image)

I received a bottle of Coke at the bottom and downed it. Kenneth ran next to me for a few hundred metres and gave me instructions, telling me to keep a clear focus on which jobs needed doing in the situation I was in, and I tried to think as little as possible about how stiff and painful my legs felt. I also learned that Ole Einar Bjoerndalen was standing further up the hill waiting for me.

Ole Einar ran along next to me up the steepest part and that gave me supernatural strength up the final kilometres to the top. I got a glimpse of Sabine as I rounded the top, and I knew at that moment that I would be able to win if I gave everything for the last 30 minutes. The final glimpse I got of Sabine was on a small rise before the last down-hills to the finish line. The steep downhills which I had practiced riding previously were a pure joy to descend this day. I caught up with both motorbikes and had to really brake hard and practically yell them out of my way.

Good preparations resulted in gold

Women's marathon World Championship podium:
Photo ©: Kenneth and Gunn-Rita Dahle FlesjŚ
(Click for larger image)

I didn't dare to look over my shoulder again before the final ascent, only a few hundred metres before the finish. At that point tears started to flow and my worn out body suddenly started feeling really good and happy again. Our countless fans in Italy ensured a fantastic chorus of cheering and welcome as I arrived at the finish. I got hugs from both familiar and unfamiliar people during the first minutes after crossing the line, without Kenneth turning up.

Kenneth hadn't made it back to the last flat section, and he had more or less accepted that it would be a bronze medal today. Up the last asphalt hill where he had been standing, he had seen a Gunn-Rita who didn't respond to what he said and whose pedalling was slow and ineffective. But he never got to see the energy kick in from the gel, the Coke and the PowerBar, nor the sheer mental energy which came from having a multiple Olympic medal winner running next to me and goading me on up the last climb.

Comment of the day

Marathon World Champions:
Photo ©: Kenneth and Gunn-Rita Dahle FlesjŚ
(Click for larger image)

Kenneth got to hear the final result on the phone from our personal manager, Roar, who had already wept his tears of joy at the finish line. Kenneth's first comment was "Dammit, Roar, are you kidding around with me? You need to make sure of the results."

Kenneth managed to make his way to the finish line a few minutes later and we were able to give each other a shocked victory hug of sorts. I must have cycled incredibly fast down the last hills, as I won the race by one minute and 40 seconds. Sabine got the silver medal, and Pia got the bronze.

We would never have won our eighth World Championship gold medal if we hadn't done the preparations we did through the final ten days before the championship. Training just the correct amount on the track, doing some extra on the parts of the track we felt would be most important, and laying a detailed tactical plan which we felt would be effective.

Thank you

So it ended up being a fantastic and unforgettable day in many ways, with a significance that we can hardly manage to grasp two days after. Maybe we can write more about it after the end of the season! All I know is that we really needed this victory. The Multivan Merida team needed it, the sponsors and support team deserved this gold, our personal sponsors own a part of the medal, Olympiatoppen and NCF, our supporters and family have all contributed in their own ways to this becoming a reality. THANK YOU TO EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU.

In one week we're leaving for Canada where we'll be doing two World Cup races as a final preparation before Beijing. You'll be hearing from us again a few days into next week when we're settled and accustomed to a new time zone. I wish you all a wonderful bike ride, both today and tomorrow.

Cyclist's greetings from Gunn-Rita + Kenneth
Multivan Merida Biking Team

[Translation: Crispen T.P. de Lange]


For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Kenneth and Gunn-Rita Dahle FlesjŚ