It was the end of May and the Iron Giant wasn’t in the mood. On a freezing, stormy day, 1800 riders gathered at his feet to try their luck. Among them, 34 fun and fearless women in muddy boots were waiting for the Iron Road Prologue to start. The toughest girl in motorsport was feeling like a rookie again. As a Dakarian, she knows only too well the thrill of the unknown, yet nothing compares to the Erzbergrodeo.
To Laia Sanz, the gnarliest, one day hard enduro race in the world was not only a new race but also a new discipline to get to grips with. She was way out of her comfort zone, for the first time in her life, saddling a 2-stroke bike, tackling a brand-new adventure.
We are sitting under the Iron Giant, chatting about the madness she was about to endure. “I don’t know what I was thinking! I should have competed here last year, it was sunny, and the track was shorter. This is quite a challenge for a hard enduro rookie,” she said, and I thought: “This is what you always do, lady. You love challenges. You never shy away from anything. You are not afraid to stare fear in the face. You even know how to lose. That’s why you always win.”
And this is more or less how Laia Sanz’s first Erzbergrodeo affair went.
Her goal was to become the first woman in the event’s 25-year history to finish the infamous Red Bull Hare Scramble. Her time ran out at the moment she passed the CP 20, or in other words: She didn’t finish the race, but she placed herself among the 30 best competitors.
Speaking of the race with 500 contenders, but only 16 finishers, no extra comment is needed. Anyway, the best thing Laia took out of it is the knowledge that the hard enduro is too much fun to put away into a box of memories. 18-times world champion in trials and enduro, as well as the most successful female in the cross-country world is already planning a comeback to the Erzbergrodeo.
30 days before the storm
It was only a month before the toughest single hard enduro race in the world, when she finally felt good enough to start with hard enduro training. First, she called her good friends from trials Alfredo Gomez and Pol Tarres, 4th and 9th place in the Red Bull Hare Scramble 2019 respectively, and said to them: “Guys, I need some help. I have enrolled for the Erzbergrodeo.” The two were happy to assist her in pursuing the newest challenge, threw her into deep water and she needed to pick it up fast. For the first time she also ride a 2-stroke KTM 300 EXC TPI, specially prepared for the event.
“I wanted to train with the best, this is the only way you can push your limits. Though those first days training were a nightmare. The guys were taking on impossible uphills, it completely freaked me out. But I had no choice, it was take it or forget Erzberg. At first, I was rolling down the hills, but in the end I pulled it off. And it just felt amazing! Luckily the team also made an amazing bike. The tires have fantastic grip, the suspension is perfect and it’s simply incredible to see what the bike can do. Each day of preparation I learned something new. My confidence was growing, but I was also becoming aware of the fact I couldn’t be physically ready in time,” she confessed right before the Iron Road Prologue. “I wish I could have started to prepare straight after the Dakar. Unfortunately, I picked up an injury in the last stage and it was more serious than it originally seemed. I knew from the beginning of my preparation that I could run out of steam before the finish line,” she added.
Partners in crime
Jaume Betriu, her boyfriend as well as one of the most skilled enduro and motocross riders, was with her most of the time. “I consider myself very lucky. Jaume knows me better than anybody. On the one hand, he is super supportive, but on the other he always pushes me over my limit. It’s hard and funny at the same time when you are emotionally involved. I can easily imagine telling him where to go when he patronizes me, completely exhausted in Carl’s Dinner; this is the most dreadful section of the race where help is allowed. While stressful, the whole process of training together was a fantastic journey. Well, after this, he will either ask me to marry him, or he will leave me for good, there’s no middle ground,” she joked.
Wining and dining with Karl
Everybody knows how the story went by now. Laia Sanz achieved an impressive time in the first run of the Iron Road Prologue and rode even better the next day. Still, the 13.5 km long track was completely ruined after a stampede of 1800 riders. Thanks to a wild card the organizer gave to the best two female riders of the prologue, on a Sunday race she attacked from the first line. She started well and avoided a big traffic jam at the foot of the Three Kings section. Passing the first checkpoints riding between 16th and 18th place. At this point, her goal of becoming the first woman to finish the race was still within reach. After that the unpredictable factor kicked in and her race changed. She made a mistake just before Carl’s Dinner, slipping down on a snowy slope. She used up her energy trying to climb back with a slightly damaged bike.
When Laia reached the scariest part of the race, the so-called Carl’s Dinner, she was completely exhausted. “To understand the level of difficulty of Carl’s Dinner you have to experience it. The problem is the length, it’s a psychological war you are fighting within,” she explained. Every year the genius boss of the Erzbergrodeo, Karl Katoch, is more a fan of slow food. Luckily, among the iron rocks there was also Alberto Cano, Laia’s mechanic, to join Jaume in helping her. “Normally Alberto is just watching me. If I don’t have any issues with the bike, he can’t do much during the race. This time he played his part really well, I’ve never seen him so busy,” she laughs.
Hard enduro is so much fun
When asked if she wants to come back, or even try some other hard enduro races, Laia replies: “If you had asked me this on Sunday after the race, I would have said no way. Today it’s a yes, for sure. What’s more, I think I will quite miss all of this. The Erzbergrodeo is somehow magical, the atmosphere is quite unique. And most importantly, hard enduro is fun. I had already had so much fun preparing for it. In the first days I hated it, that’s true, but then I got hooked. So yes, I will be back, with more experience and better prepared. The only problem is that every year the race gets longer and more difficult. Karl is a very nice guy, but a little crazy.”
The bottom line: Laia and Jaume are still together and she still has the same goal to become the first female rider in history to finish the impossible Erzbergrodeo and Karl will never change.
The challenge continues …