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An interview with Sabine Spitz, May 10, 2008

On the trail with Sabine Spitz

Catch her if you can

Sabine Spitz returned to the World Cup course in Offenburg, Germany, one week after the race to demonstrate how to ride descents that are virtually vertical. Cyclingnews' Bjorn Haake mingled with other invitees to find out how a professional blasts around a technical course without fear.

Spitz in full concentration going down the 'Dual Speed'
Photo ©: Bjorn Haake
(Click for larger image)
Sabine Spitz and husband and manager Ralf Schäuble invited media members to a two-day event in Offenburg to get a feel for the skills required to ride a World Cup course. While the first day was focusing on a Q&A session, the duo had organised enough bikes so that everyone who wanted to try out the course (in perfect, sunny conditions!) was able to do so.

The course started innocently enough, with a paved uphill before heading onto an easy singletrack in the forest. But soon riders would have to make a decision on the "Dual Speed" section, with two options to get down a very steep part of the course, with several stair-step-like drops. Fortunately for the non-professionals, the lack of spectators offered a "Triple Speed" variant, with a wide switchback offering a safer alternative for the unskilled.

Spitz then demonstrated the section twice, both times in perfect control of her 7.5-kilogram machine. Part of the reason for the event was to give everyone a different perspective. At the races, everybody waits at the bottom of the sections to take pictures or cheer the riders on. "I want you to see the course from the reverse angle," Spitz explained the purpose of the shock that most felt when they arrived at the top, with no bottom in sight until they were almost already on the descent.

Still dazed by the demonstration, everybody headed on to the "Wolfsdrop". The group took a little shortcut to get there, as this one was technically not the next difficulty of the course (it is tackled after the North Shore and the World Class drop). Time for another round of "ahs", as most stopped before the really steep part. Not only was it steep, but full of roots, too. So a patient Spitz pointed out that "Here, I would approach it from the right hand side. There aren't any roots, so the bike doesn't bounce all over the place in the beginning of the section." This one is arguably the most difficult descent of the parcours.

Another important factor the German pointed out is speed. But it's not that a fast approach under the guideline of "Get it done and over with quickly" that will do the trick. "You have to enter the section slowly, get your heart rate down a bit, so you can fully concentrate on the technical section." Riding slower also means having more control over the bike and again, Spitz rode the section, with lots of cameras flashing.

The Wolfsdrop is arguably one of the biggest difficulties in Offenburg
Photo ©: Bjorn Haake
(Click for larger image)

The group headed back up, to get to the "World Class" drop. You really have to be world class, as this was the steepest section, a three-metre drop that is as close to vertical as it can get. Calmly approaching the top of it, Spitz had to make a 90 degree right turn on the gravel singletrack, before finding her line, which has changed over the years, due to the erosion created by the racers.

The "North Shore" was only glanced at from the top. During the World Cup race, this is the second of five very technical parts. It is not the most difficult, but it winds from the highest point of the course down, and Schäuble said, "It takes about a minute to get down." The racers use their momentum and skills to head down the very curvy part to descend as quickly as possible, while trying to minimize pedaling and recover a little bit.

From there, it was a short ride to the "Snake Pit". If there were actually soft snakes, it probably would be easier to ride down, but the solid roots across made it a tricky manoeuvre.

When a top-level athlete demonstrates those sections, they look easy enough, yet most of the group opted for the "chicken run," as Spitz smilingly called it. One brave soul tackled the bumpy part, and with both Spitz and Schäuble shouting instructions – "You are too far back, shift your weight further up front!" – the lone rider made it down on one of the five difficulties of the day, more or less in one piece.

Rolling back to the start-finish area there was a sense of admiration for a parcours that doesn't look nearly as technical on TV. Even Spitz admitted that she had to swallow the very first time she encountered the "Wolfsdrop" on the warm-up loop in her first appearance in Offenburg, but went on to overcome the initial fear by winning the race in 2004. She added, "It is a matter of practice. If you only ride easy stuff, you will not improve on those technical sections. You will have to do them over and over again, then you will be able to tackle them."

Too many season highlights

Logistics manager Geri Schrempf is part of the team, driving equipment through the world
Photo ©: Bjorn Haake
(Click for larger image)
There is a German expression "to ask someone holes into the belly" – meaning to ask a lot of questions – and not surprisingly the media – invited to a nice setting with in-season, local asparagus for dinner – took advantage. Spitz gave elaborate answers until everyone was satisfied and she didn't shy away from unpopular subjects, either – the most obvious being doping in sports and the Tibet question. Of equal interest was her season planning for this important year in her career.

Spitz usually sets two season highlights, which is challenging for 2008, with the European Championships (May 18), the World Championships (June 22) and the Olympics (August 22) offering three major events. "It is difficult to peak for three events. Usually, I have two season highlights. The Olympics can be treated as one peak, but the European and World Championships – it is difficult to perform well in both. They are a little too far apart. You can keep your form at a 100% for roughly three weeks."

Pointing out that many other sports don't have any other highlight in an Olympic year, she wasn't too thrilled with her options. However, with the European Cycling Union (UEC) rather than the UCI setting the dates, little can be done. In her opinion, all riders will tackle the World Championships full throttle. While she would love to defend her title in the European Championships as the event is held in her own country (in St. Wendel), she wasn't sure if it would be possible.

Spitz revealed the secrets of tackling the technical sections
Photo ©: Bjorn Haake
(Click for larger image)

"There is a big question mark," she sighed of the difficulty to target three major events. While the folks in St. Wendel will obviously hope for Spitz to race well on home soil, the German evaluated the importance of European Championships. She pointed out that the UCI requires that if a rider is current European Champion and National Champion, they will have to wear the National Championship jersey.

There is no question, however, about the biggest event for her in 2008. The Olympics cast a shadow already. "It's in the media every day, so yes, I do think about it a lot." And, unforeseen circumstances not withstanding, Spitz makes her ambitions clear. "I have been on the podium before, so anything worse than that would be a disappointment."

After the Worlds in Italy, she will start with the final phase of her preparation, with endurance work at first. A training camp in Switzerland will get her the necessary vertical metres in training. "After that it will shift towards specific power training, with the course in Beijing in mind. The last block will be training with high intensity, to prepare for the race. Intervals and short efforts will be done then." By the time the riders get to go onto the course, the Monday before the Olympic cross-country race, the preparation will have to be all but concluded already. Only the Chinese riders will have the home court advantage, having been able to train on the Olympic course since its inception.

The Olympics – a politikum

The final intensive training will be done in Japan, where the national team will stop over to get used to the different time zone and the climate. The idea of heading to China earlier was abandoned, and Spitz reasoned, "Japan is a little bit more European. I really don't want to spend too much time in China. Human rights are not discussed there and a human life is not really valued."

Every bodypart has to be concentrated at the task at hand
Photo ©: Bjorn Haake
(Click for larger image)

But a boycott is not the right thing to do in her opinion, either. She was frustrated that athletes now have to give their opinions about the whole situation. "First and foremost I am a sports person. Politicians travel over to China all the time, with their economics experts in tow. They are never asked to give their opinion on [issues like] human rights or Tibet." She added that the Tibet problems "exist since 50 years."

Spitz had the same steadfast opinion when asked about doping in sports. Her standpoint is clear. She was angry with the Fumic brothers, Lado and Manuel, who had been suspended by the German Federation for not providing their whereabouts information. She countered the brothers' arguments that it is impossible to know where you are going to be three months in advance. "This is incorrect. Yes, we do have the send out whereabouts information in advance quarterly. But you can easily change it online when your programme changes or when you do some travel that you didn't know in advance," she said.

In fact, the whereabouts paperwork could be sent in blank – signifying that the athlete would be at home for the three-month period. If a rider is gone from home for more than 24 hours, they will have to notify the UCI. This can be done on a short notice and Spitz said that she had provided the whereabouts information for the two-day event in Offenburg the morning of the event. But this system could be made even better. Spitz said she wouldn't have a problem with a more automated monitoring approach. If "I could be tracked via my cell phone, then they [would] always know where I am."

She is suspicious of the sudden appearance of the Chinese riders. "It takes a long time in an endurance sport to get to the top, so if all of a sudden riders come up within three years, it is raising some flag." She did think it was possible that they would only target the Olympics and then vanish again. Fair controls for all the athletes are tricky. "You can't get to China easily, so you can't really do an unannounced control."

One thing that has been changing with the Chinese riders are their riding skills which have improved over the beginning of last season. Spitz explained that all season, they travelled from race to race and then trained the entire week on the race course. Still, their style has been geared towards power and Spitz recalled that last year "in Houffalize, I was entering one of the asphalt uphills together with one of the Chinese riders and at the top she had eight or 10 seconds on me. They just put their head down. It was impossible to keep up."

Ralf Schäuble puts together the bikes for the journos
Photo ©: Bjorn Haake
(Click for larger image)

Spitz thinks the public perception of mountain biking since its early days has changed for the better, but the sport is still not represented as much as, for example, skiing. "They [skiing] have a strong federation. Biathlon is very popular on TV [in Germany], but not many do the sport themselves. But many have a mountain bike at home and use it. They could identify with the sport, but there is no push from the TV channels to broadcast mountain biking." In her mind the sport needs some brainstorming among riders, the federation and the TV stations to see what the requirements are for broadcasting mountain biking events.

Another reason why mountain biking isn't popular yet with the public is the lack of knowledge about the challenges in the sport in the general public. "If people hear that a road biker rides 250 kilometres, they are in awe. Then they hear that we may ride 40 kilometres, and think 'I can do that.' But they don't have a feel for what is really required to compete at those levels."

Not that Spitz isn't capable of riding long distances herself. A lot of her training is on the road, and when the event in Offenburg was over, she exchanged her mountain bike for a road bike, hopped on it and headed home. Some 160 kilometres were ahead of her, including some unknown territory – but she refused the electronic map that her husband wanted to give her. "I am alright," she smiled as she set off, knowing that any detour would just provide additional training.


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Images by Bjorn Haake/Cyclingnews.com

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