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Discovering his talent for longer distances has changed Periklis Ilias’ career

If you aren’t familiar with the name Periklis Ilias, you are not alone. The 26-year-old mountain biker surprised even himself when he took the world marathon mountain bike title a month ago in Ornans, France.

The previous world marathon championships were a moment of revelation for the seven-time Greek cross-country champion, who rides for Team Protek, and a strong showing there opened his eyes to where his natural talent lies, and the path he should pursue.

Once he realized that longer-format races were easier for him than cross-country races, Ilias changed his approach and his training, focusing his Olympic year primarily on a marathon podium. Even so, he did not intend to lead the entire muddy race, nor expect that his first major international win would be a world championship.

“I was never thinking I could win,” Ilias told VeloNews.

Being first to the finish line required pushing out marathon powerhouses like defending champion Christoph Sauser (Specialized), who finished fourth, 2:58 behind Ilias; Moritz Milatz (BMC MTB Racing), who took silver; and bronze medalist Kristian Hynek (Ceska Sporitelna-Specialized).

His one-track focus had prevented Ilias from pursuing the discipline.

“I did XC the last four years, only to get points for Olympic Games qualification,” he said. “Before, the rules were based on four years of points, and that rule just changed in 2010. I never had time to try to do marathon.”

When he found himself in fifth wheel roughly 12km from the line at the 2011 marathon worlds, his career goals changed.

Ilias dropped off the pace at the end of the 2011 edition after poor nutrition drained his energy in the final kilometers, but his enthusiasm for longer races only grew.

“I finished 12th — not special results, but it was good for understanding which specialty I can do better,” he said. “XC to marathon is totally different.”

With that, Ilias made up his mind that his last cross-country race in 2012 would be the Olympics, where he finished 33rd, 9:44 down on winner Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized).

For 2013, Ilias vows to focus almost exclusively on marathon. He plans to race the Greek national championships, and, if selected, cross-country worlds, while otherwise focusing exclusively on marathon.

A new direction called for a new regimen, and Ilias’ training has piled on the miles as a result. While previously he would train for a maximum of three hours per session during the season, he began regularly pushing the pedals for a maximum of five hours, with a full two hours of warm-up before getting into specific workouts.

He also adapted his power and heart-rate work, reducing his intensity. Cross country requires more short, intense efforts, while marathon emphasizes duration over speed, he explained.

The boost of confidence that the rainbow stripes provide hasn’t skewed the Greek’s perspective, but he has high hopes for the marathon career he sees opening.

“In front of me, I have a lot of time,” Ilias predicts. “I’m 26 years old, so I hope to find time and power to win one more world champ jersey.”

After taking down the greats in pursuit of rainbow stripes with only one year of specific focus, expect the name Periklis Ilias to grow as a household name in marathon mountain biking.