Sunday, December 11, 2011

From race to race and beyond

Everyone always talks about the post-race comedown. I wonder if the better the race, the harder the comedown. I experienced a pretty epic comedown this week. From sky high this time last week, to wanting to quit by Thursday. I'll admit that I can be a little melodramatic at times(!), but that doesn't really change how I was feeling on Thursday. A few things contributed to the crash, which are irrelevant for the purposes of this blog post, but I can honestly say that I spent some good quality time on Thursday thinking about what on earth I wanted out of cycling, and if this was the best I could ever be, maybe I should refocus my priorities and get back to the reality of my non-cycling life.

But I let Brad talk me into coming along for the Norman (the Friday morning Vikings ride for those not in the known) and I had a lot of fun. Nothing much to write about, other than the fact that it was a really fun ride with some really top people, which just put me in a much better mood / frame of mind re cycling. And as I'd already entered the Eurobodalla interclub (which comprised a 50km handicap race on the Saturday and a criterium on the Sunday) I headed down the coast on Saturday morning for a weekend of coast fun, with a bit of bike racing interspersed.

Even though I knew I was going to race at the interclub, I somehow thought it was going to be a nice gentle race down the coast (mixed up with sun, fun and beach-time relaxation with the crew and my family). I know "race" and "gentle" are pretty much mutually exclusive, but in my head I think I had taken a break from racing last Sunday somewhere towards the top of Mt Hotham. So no one was more surprised than me to find that I'd been put in a pretty harsh handicap (known as Block or Chopping Block). I thought all the girls would have been put in the same group, but somehow I found myself the only girl in a group of super fit boys in the second last group away, 20 minutes behind the first group to leave (and 5 minutes behind Brad, Dees and Rob, who I usually train with and are much the same speed as me).

I didn't whinge to the race organisers about my handicap, but I certainly whinged to everyone else I knew (sorry team!). But I was strangely complimented by the fact that the organisers had bothered to look up the results of Bright and think it was worthy of a hard handicapping, which somehow appeased part of my post-Bright comedown issues. That said, I was worried that I was way out of my depth, so I decided that my goal was basically to stay with the group as long as possible, and if I felt OK, to try and do some work with the group. As with all handicaps a further goal was not to get caught by the bunch starting after mine (which was Scratch (the last bunch starting for those not familiar with the terms) and was made up of the Suzuki and Ollo Industries boys and even a Jayco rider or two!).

As we were waiting at the start line, we started to witness the generous handicaps to the earlier groups - there were groups over halfway through their first lap (the course comprised 3 laps of a relatively hilly 17km course) before we'd even started. But then we were off. And gee we were off! The boys hit it very hard from the start, averaging 42kph for the first 5km. My heartrate spiked pretty early because of this and I really started to feel the pace during the second and third 5km sections. I pulled some turns with the boys for the first 10km, but had to sit back for the third 5kms as I was in a world of pain and doing everything I could to hold the wheel in front and get enough oxygen in to keep upright. An added complication of the course was the various hot-dog turns. As noted in previous posts, I'm a bit challenged when it comes to u-turns, and I ended up taking each turn very wide, which meant I lost a lot of places and had to accelerate hard out of each turn around to catch back on again, which really saps your energy. Lesson learnt for me re the importance of practising hot-dog turns now as I don't really want to have to go through that everytime I need to turn a bike around in a race again in the future.

As the race progressed, it became obvious that we'd gone out too hard too early, and there were limited riders in our group that had the fitness to keep working at the pace that had been set. There was one rider in the bunch that took on the "bunch captain" role, and did his best to keep it under control, but I think the bunch generally didn't have the skill / fitness to ride the way he intended so we weren't working together as well as we should have. I did a fair bit of work for the group on the front (probably more than was expected from me being the only girl in the group), but I found it hard to control the pace on the front as I'd end up surging a bit (and was tapped on the bum by the bunch captain and unequivocally told this mid-race!). I think this was lack of experience from me (it was only my third handicap), but also lack of confidence in my speed: I was so convinced that I was the slowest rider in the group that I honestly thought I'd have to keep pushing the pace even when rolling the lead just to keep the pace steady. I'll try to chill a bit in that regard in future. :-)

We started to pick up some riders that had dropped off earlier bunches, and while we were closing on the bunch that started 5 minutes before us, we never really got close to them. At about the 47km mark, we saw the bunch in front coming back the other way and knew it was game over. A few of us in our group sat up for a bit at that point and recovered to the last turn around, before getting back to business of getting the race over and done with as quickly as possible. I was pretty pleased to get to the finish line and hear that Brad had claimed 2nd overall, and Dees 2nd female, just less than a minute before my bunch. Top work VCC!!

As for me, I was pretty stoked that I'd managed to hold onto my bunch for the whole race. Average speed was 36.5kph for 52km with 605m elevation and I sure worked for it. Strangely my legs didn't hurt after the race, but my pectorals sure did for gripping onto my drops for dear life for nearly an hour and a half and not wanting to let go of the wheel in front of me. Who would have thought you could get such a good upper body workout from cycling. :-)

The next part of the interclub was the crit this morning. The organisers ran separate women's and men's grades, which was great, but the turnout from the ladies was a little disappointing, with approx 7 riders in WB and only 5 in WA. I quite enjoyed watching the WB crit, which kicked the morning off. Tegan, Ches and Ange put on an excellent demonstration of Valkyrie / Siren domination (Tegs took out the win) and it was awesome to see how far they've all come since the start of the Valkyries not so long ago. Nice work ladies!

My own crit was rather uneventful: I spent a fair bit of time on the front for the first part of the race, testing my legs and the girls in my grade. I could tell which girls would be my biggest threats from the first lap and knew my best tactic was to go for a breakaway as I didn't think I'd be able to outsprint them. I put in a few little sprints out of the only corner on the course to see how they'd react, and decided that my tactic would be to try and go clear when I saw 2 laps to go. Stupidly, I jumped when I saw the sign saying 3 laps to go, not 2. But I got a good gap on the girls, and while I wasn't increasing my lead over the first 1.5 laps of the 3 laps to go, I was keeping them at the same distance so thought I might just get away with it. The only problem was that I had to slow down significantly with 1.5 laps to go as a truck was reversing into a driveway (the crit was held in the industrial estate in Moruya). I slammed the brakes on, and weaved around the front of the truck, but my advantage over the other girls was significantly whittled away because of that. And I still had a lap and a half to go! I dug deep (so deep in fact that I hit a new max heartrate!) and managed to hold on for the remaining lap and a half to claim 1st place. Phew! I was quite pleased given that I don't usually like a crit.

So somehow I've gone from sky high last weekend to bottoming out on Thursday to re-inspired for more racing this weekend. I'm really glad I got back on the racing horse (even if it was somewhat harder than I really wanted) this weekend as I've tapped back into my enthusiasm / love for the bike / love for racing in general. I'm still not quite sure what I'll target next race-wise, but I know that whatever I end up targeting, I'll have a great group of friends to train and race with. And that's (more than) half the fun. Thanks team!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Tour of Bright: Mission Accomplished

I spent 20 weeks training for this tour, and now it's done, and done far better than I ever could have hoped. Here's an unfortunately verbose (sorry peeps - I just have a chronic condition where I always have too much to say) race report on what happened in the WB grade of the Tour of Bright (ToB) on the weekend just gone.

Stage 1: The Gaps Loop
Stage 1 was a 91km ride, which was over generally flat-undulating terrain, but marked with a Category 2 climb halfway through the ride, and then an uphill Category 1 climb to finish the stage. There were also 2 sprints during the course: one at the 10km mark and the other at the 77km mark.

My goal for Stage 1 was to basically win the Queen of the Mountains (QOMs) points, but also try and put some time on the other girls to get a time advantage going into the subsequent stages. Deciana was also going for the sprint points for this stage. I wasn't sure quite what I was supposed to do to assist Dees in this regard (knowing the theory that I should have tried to save my legs for the hills), but upon advice from Jason Mahoney (the Uber Coach) we agreed that I should give Dees a lead out for the sprints as it meant that I could not only dictate the pace, but also stay up the front and therefore out of trouble in case someone came down during the sprint.

So anyway, we rolled out of Bright at 7:35am, 10 minutes after Women's A grade. It was quite a cool morning, and given my (and Dees'!) tendency towards disorganisation, we started the Stage at the back of the bunch. I stayed at the back for 5-6km as we rolled through town at a gentle pace in perfect 2 x 2 bunch formation. The only problem with that was that I was freezing! I ended up moving to the front of the bunch at about the 6.5km mark to try and pick the speed up a bit not only in anticipation of the sprint, but also to try and keep warm! Over the next few kms I wound the pace up, and ended up stringing the bunch out behind me. I checked over my shoulder on a few occasions and could see Deciana sitting comfortably in third wheel, so kept the pace up thinking we weren't far out from the sprint.

The only problem was that the sprint was actually at the 12km mark rather than the 10km mark, so I was feeling a little wearier than intended by the time we finally saw the sign noting that the sprint was 500m ahead. With about 300m to go, one of the girls jumped and another 4 attempted to respond to the jump to fight out for the sprint. Deciana responded really well and was coming through solidly and looked as if she was going to win the sprint, but ran out of room and ended up coming 2nd in the sprint by less than 5cm. It was super impressive to see her power and sustained acceleration coming up to that sprint!

Just after the sprint we took a right hand turn towards Rosewhite Gap (the Category 2 climb of the Stage) and it was clear that no one really wanted to sit on the front along that section. I was still trying to recover from my previous 5-6km on the front so sat back in the bunch, but it was clear some of the girls were pushing forward in the bunch, which meant I was further back in the bunch than I really wanted to be. So I pushed forward again and took another big turn on the front with Dees on my wheel, and then she took a turn to give me a bit of a break before we hit the hill (she and I ended up spending about 90% of Stage 1 on the front!). Dees continued on the front for the first part of the climb up Rosewhite and then I went around her so she could sit on my wheel and we could try and keep the pace moderate for as long as possible (thereby making sure Dees would have as best chance as possible to be with the group for the next sprint point, which was in between the two climbs for the day).

Unfortunately one of the girls touched wheels as we were climbing up Rosewhite Gap and came down, knocking another girl down with her. I was relieved to have been sitting comfortably on the front of the bunch at this point! Fortunately the girls that came down were ok and ended up finishing the Stage.

After a few kms, some of the other girls started pushing forward (there were only approx 5 girls left in the group at this point), which I took to mean that the QOM wasn't far off. I sat in for a little bit watching the girls, but then started to feel a little boxed in so moved out around the group and accelerated up the hill. I kept a solid pace for a few pedal strokes, and looked around to see a few of the girls try to come with me but it was clear they didn't have the legs (I was very appreciative of all of those Red Hill sprints Jason had made me do at that point!). I crested the QOM line with probably about 20 metres gap on the other girls, which certainly filled me with confidence. I took the descent very easily to give myself an opportunity to recover and also to enable Deciana to chase back onto the group before the next sprint. Sure enough, just before we hit the flat section again at the bottom of Rosewhite Gap, Dees went sailing past me so I grabbed her wheel and we were away again.

Once we'd regrouped at the bottom of the hill I had a quick look around and it seemed that we were down to 10 riders. I sat on the back of the group for a bit recovering a little more, but then moved back to the front to share the work on the front with Dees. We knew that the next sprint was at about the 77km mark, so we rotated the lead until about the 73km mark, where we agreed that she would sit in and I would gradually wind the pace up for the sprint. Unfortunately the sprint wasn't at the 77km mark though - it was at the 80km mark, which meant I had a pretty solid and long lead out for the sprint! We caught the WA bunch just before the town of Tawonga and had to slow up a fair bit while the lead cars sorted out whether we were to pass them or not (they were clearly just out for a dawdle before hitting the hills). The instruction came for us to pass WA, and I must say it was kind of cool passing their bunch and having all of these super fit and pro women giving us a cheer as we went by.

Finally we hit Tawonga and we could see the sprint line up ahead. Dees jumped pretty early, but I think that actually worked in her advantage as she has a deadly long sprint on her while the other sprint contender had a quicker but shorter sprint. It was awesome to watch from behind, and none of the rest of the bunch could see who was ahead at any time it was that close. Turns out Dees got it by about the same margin she'd come 2nd in the first sprint: 5cm. Go D-train!! Super impressive.

And then for some more recovery as we headed towards the feed zone before starting the final climb of the day up Tawonga Gap. The WA bunch passed us again just before the feed zone as we were recovering from the sprint, which was a little chaotic as I'm pretty sure they didn't wait for their lead car to give them the all clear before passing us. Oops!

Just after the feed zone we took a right hand turn to start the climb up Tawonga Gap. It didn't take long after we hit the climb for the group to start shedding riders. I sat at the back for the start of this climb, happy for the other girls to dictate the pace to give myself a little more time to recover from my long lead-out before the sprint. Just before we hit some windey sections with a few hairpin bends in them, we had a very near miss with a touch of wheels and a girl nearly coming down on top of me. I decided at that point that I didn't want to sit at the back anymore. So I moved around the group and picked the pace up slightly, just as the gradient also picked up a fair bit (going from approx 8% to 13-14% in the corner). I cleared the corner and looked back to the group and saw that I already had 50m or so on the other girls and that they were struggling to respond. I hadn't intended to go clear of the group at that stage, but decided not to waste my advantage and kept going. And then the Commissaire moved in behind me after the next corner, which I took to be a sign that I had a pretty decent gap on the other girls.

I kept plugging away at the hill feeling really good. I didn't know exactly how far I had to go on the climb, so I tried to keep working hard, but not too hard, in case one of the other girls caught up and I needed to be able to respond. But then I went past a sign saying 1km to the QOM, and then the Commissaire drove up beside me radioing in that I was coming up towards the finish (she was such a lovely commissaire - lots of encouragement after she'd finished radioing). It wasn't long until there were people lining the road towards the summit and the cheering started and gee that buoyed me on. Seeing Jason M cheering with a big smile on his face was a good feeling too: I knew he believed that I'd do well at Bright and it was nice to be living up to his expectations.

I ended up crossing the finish line 1:09 ahead of the other girls - a very welcome advantage going into the final 2 stages.

Stage 2: Time Trial
My only goal for the time trial was not to lose much, if any, of the time advantage I'd gained from Stage 1. The time trial course was an undulating 15.7km out and back course. It was really windy by the time the time trial was on in the afternoon, and it looked like it was going to be a tailwind for most of the way out (which was slightly more uphill), and then headwind the whole way back.

Deciana and I did a bit of a warm-up, which unfortunately was a bit too much of a warm-up as we nearly missed our starts! Oops! Dees literally rolled straight to the top of the ramp and off when we finally arrived at the start point.

There were two challenging parts of the TT course for me: the held start and then rolling down the TT ramp (I'd only done 2 held starts previously and never on a ramp!), and then the turn around point as I'm really not renowned for my ability to do a hot dog turn (ie, a u-turn) on a bike. I've been told I looked pretty apprehensive waiting at the top of the ramp for my start and I think the person who said that was being polite. I was so relieved when I made it down the ramp that I actually gave myself a cheer, and then got focused on time trialling.

To be honest, there's not much to write about for the time trial as the goal is just to go as fast as you can. And that's exactly what I did. It didn't take long until I started to pass a few riders, which is always a good feeling. I saw Dees coming back the other way from the turn around just as I was approaching the turn around and she was looking really strong. I managed the turn around without unclipping a pedal or falling off (one of my goals for Bright accomplished!) and then got focused on the return journey, which was a fair bit faster despite the head wind.

I came up to the finish line and was watching the clock: Jason M had told me that I'd probably be able to go sub-25 minutes for the TT. Sure enough, I crossed the line in 24:58. Sometimes I wonder if Jason is psychic. :-) We had a chat and debrief post-TT, before I headed home. It wasn't until I got home that I realised I'd actually won the TT by about 20 seconds (Dees got 3rd in 25:23). Not quite sure how I pulled that one out, as I've never been renowned for my time trialling abilities! Maybe I do just have a good race focus after all. The good thing about winning the TT was that it meant that not only had I not lost any of my 1:09 time advantage that I got during Stage 1, but I'd actually increased my lead to 2:15 going into Stage 3. Yay!

Stage 3: Hotham Ascent
We were the 2nd last bunch away on Stage 3 and were met at the start line with the news that the stage had been cut short (by approx 8km) due to freezing conditions on Hotham and very high winds. I was a bit relieved and disappointed at the same time: I was ready to take on the challenge of Hotham, but 8km less climbing pain (particularly when the 8km consists of a few quite steep climbs punctuated by some sharp descents) is never a bad thing when you already have two stages in your legs.

The first 26km of the stage consisted of rolling terrain, punctuated by 2 sprint points - the first at the 16.5km mark and the second at the 26km mark. Similar to Stage 1, I took quite a long turn on the front coming up to the first sprint, gradually winding the pace up to lead Deciana out. Unfortunately neither sprint was to be hers on Stage 3, as the girls were all sprinting on tired legs from their efforts over Stages 1 and 2, and it seemed that they started sprinting a bit later in the piece, and Dees' long sustained sprint seemed to get edged out by the girls with their quick accelerations. She ended up getting 3rd in both of them though, to claim 2nd in the sprints competition overall. Go Dees!

The climb up Hotham starts pretty much as soon as the second sprint is over. Having done the lead out for the sprint, I ended up having a bit of a gap on the other climbers in the group coming towards the first pinch up Mt Hotham. I was half tempted to sit up and let the girls catch back on, but decided to keep going and force them to chase me a little bit up this steeper gradient and tire themselves out a bit. It took less than 1km before the initial group of 5 climbers was down to 3, and then it was just me and one other girl. I could hear her breathing hard and knew she wouldn't be able to hold on for long. We chatted briefly, and I offered to ease the pace up so that we could stay together and work together on the false flat section after the Meg (one of the QOMs for Stage 3), and I could hear her try and put in, but mentally she was already done by that point and she dropped off my wheel and yelled at me to keep going. So I did.

I quite enjoyed the first part of the Hotham climb - it averages 6.6%, which is a gradient that seems to suit me. I found a good rhythm going along this section and, while I was pushing myself, I still felt that I could have picked up the pace if required. It didn't take long until I came across a sign noting the QOM was just 1km up the road, which meant that the Meg was just around the corner. I'd heard horror stories about the Meg, largely because it comprises a relatively sudden increase in gradient, which if you've been sitting at or above your threshold over the previous 6.6% section, can be enough to pop a lot of riders. The Meg apparently averages 9%, but I did look at my Garmin on a few occasions going up there and saw figures as high as 18%. I was understandably pleased to crest the Meg and be cheered by the lovely volunteers counting QOM points.

After the Meg I'd been told that the gradient backed off to an average of 1.8%. But unfortunately it didn't back off when I expected it would have - I kept seeing gradients of 6-7% on the Garmin, which as noted above I don't mind, except that mentally I'd thought it would be basically flat. The earlier men's grades had already started descending down Hotham by the time I was at this section, and lots of them were shouting encouragement at me as they went flying by, which really helped me keep motivated.

Finally the gradient did back off, and at about this point I saw a VCC jersey up ahead. I caught up to the rider, and realised it was Boz (VCC icon!), who told me that he'd sat up and waited for me so that he could ride behind me and assist in case I had a mechanical / flat tyre or something over the final 10kms of the Stage. Such a lovely gesture and so indicative of the level of support the V-Maxx squad gave me over the 20 weeks leading up to Bright. Fortunately I didn't have to call on Boz though.

The last 10kms were actually pretty fast as we had a bit of a tailwind and it was a genuine false flat. I loved this section. I loved how my bike was feeling under me, how I felt riding it, the view, the sound of the wind in the trees, the encouragement from other riders, just everything. I felt so lucky to be participating in the race, and just couldn't stop smiling (and have the photos to prove it!). It was an awesome feeling coming into the finish, first seeing Jason Mahoney clapping and then hearing the VCC crew cheering. It turned out I won the stage by just over 2 and a half minutes, and the overall general classification (GC) by nearly 5 minutes. Woot!

Noting the length of this post, here are a few quick thank yous (and sorry if I've missed anyone):
* my family (Andy & the kids) for facilitating and enabling me to train and then race in my first tour - you guys rock;
* the V-Maxx squad generally for their humour, dedication, company and general entertainment - you are a great bunch of people;
* Jason Mahoney, Uber Coach, for not only the awesome program that transformed me from an unfit ex-cyclist to a relatively fit cyclist in what felt like a few short weeks, but also for the support generally and for believing that I'd be able to do it;
* B-Rad (aka my Girlfriend) for being the best training buddy a girl could hope for. Come rain, hail or shine you'd be there pushing me, keeping me company and being my mate. I hope you know how much I appreciate it, and I hope that I've been at least half the training buddy to you that you've been to me;
* Scotty for all the bike love you've given my numerous bikes over the past year - because of you I always run smooth; and
* Dees for being an awesome team mate in my first tour - I'm so super keen to do it again with you soon now that we agree I'm not the world's worst lead out. :-p