I am ruined. I’m back at Mum and Dads and letting my body heal after giving it a 400 km beating over 5 stages of racing in the Czech Republic. Just getting to the start line constituted a pretty massive achievement for me; just the week before I could barely spin my legs for 20 km without pains in my legs bringing me to a standstill.
We arrived at Hotel Permon late on Wednesday afternoon and parked up next the exceptionally pro-looking team buses of Orica AIS, Team France & Team USA. As I wasn’t sure if I would be able to ride until literally a couple of days before I hadn’t done my homework, it started to sink in that this race was going to be hard. Very hard.
A spin down the road that evening confirmed my suspicions triggered by the kit in the car park. Czech would be a beautiful but very challenging place to race. To say the terrain was rolling is a bit of an understatement. The climbs felt hard enough spinning up them, let alone attempting them at the race place of national team riders. The roads were narrow, they twisted and turned through little villages, climbed through forests and wound along by rivers. It was pretty idyllic.
I was super excited to race with 4 guest riders who were joining our team for the week – Flavia Oliveira (who’s off to race in Rio in August for Brazil), Chantal Hoffman (also racing in Rio for Luxembourg) and Willeke Knol from pro Belgian team Lotto Soudal and Brittany Peterson – a South African rider just getting into bike racing (and who’s currently based just down the road from us in Banyoles!) Joining me from Aprire HSS was my teamie Sophie – we were both in for the hardest race of our racing careers so far.
Stage 1 was 118 km of actual pain. It was hot, it was hilly and the 180 strong peloton included names like Jolien D’Hoore, Tayler Wiles, Ellen van Loy and Loren Rowney, as well as the National teams from 9 countries. The stage went off like a bullet and if there was a neutral zone, I didn’t notice it. After 20 km I was hanging off the back as the road went skywards. The peloton strung out and all too soon I realised this was me getting dropped with 100 km of racing still left to go. It was going to be a long day. The cars shot past and all too soon I was out the back of the caravan with about 30 others. We finished 20 mins behind the leaders. I was 152nd, but chuffed to pieces that my legs had held up over the 1,733 meters of climbing.
For Stage 2 I had realigned my expectations of what I could hope to achieve in the race and a sat on the start aiming to hold on this time for at least 30 km. To achieve this I treated this as a 30 km race and vowed to battle my way to the front of the bunch as quickly as possible. This time our team had lined up together and I was able to follow Willeke’s wheel up through the peloton. I started the first big climb about halfway down the pack, which meant I was just in contact cresting the hill. On the descent I lost positions and was forced to expend more energy than I could afford to to stay in touch with the peloton in the run in to the climb. The second time up I lost contact at the bottom after a rider in front lost their chain. I squeezed out as much power as I could in the convey of cars and rocked over the crest of the climb. Legs burning, I tried to chase downhill. I ended up racing 40 km in the peloton, spending 40 km in touching distance of the bunch in the cars (with a little help from some convenient sticky bottles) and finally did a 10 km solo TT to finish the race alone, 6 min 57 sec down and in 109th place. And to be honest, I was pretty happy with my 40 place improvement from the previous day. In a good day out for the team Flavia had also taken the QOM jersey, and spirits that night were high.
Day three treated us to a double stage – a 14 km rolling TT in the morning and a 70 km road race in the afternoon. My TT experience this year totaled a whopping 2.7 km at the Bedford 3 Day prologue. Not the best prep. I pumped my wilting body full of caffeine and energy drink and tried to coax my sleepy legs into action on the rollers. Safe to say my legs burned with lactic acid within the first few minutes of the TT, my lungs were bursting, and I just felt terrible. I couldn’t find a decent rhythm, couldn’t focus my brain and let myself be psyched out by the competition on their flashy TT bikes. I felt destined to be mediocre to bad. I missed my sub-26 min target by 20 seconds, and lost a depressing 3 mins and 55 seconds to the winner.
This is where stage racing gets tough. You’ve got to the point when you feel tired, you feel weak, you know you’re not competitive in the race and are useless to your team mates. But somehow you have to find the motivation to finish and race 2 more stages. My team mate tried to take a photo of me after that TT. I was so whacked I couldn’t really open my eyes and my attempted smile looks like a grimace.
After passing out at the hotel for a couple of hours and stuffing my face with pasta, it was time to head out to Stage 4. 70 km made up of 3 laps of a circuit. I could do this. I adopted the starting tactic for stage 2 and stuck myself on Willeke’s wheel again. I managed to follow her halfway through the pack, then as the road went up she continued to make up places and no matter how hard I pushed, I stayed exactly where I was. The same scenario as pervious stages played out, I made it over the first climb (just), hit the cars during the second climb, chased through the cars and got back on, then properly went out the back over the next one. I found myself riding with a Polish rider, she didn’t speak, but she was willing to pull through. We worked together and picked up a few others along the way. My main focus was to get the stage done as quickly as possible and I couldn’t help but laugh when a Ukraine National rider and an Atom Sobótka rider stopping pulling through (in order to save themselves for the sprint for 130th place).
Stage 5, the last day! I woke up with a confusion of emotions – happy that this was the last day, but so broken I didn’t know how I would make it through the last 98 km. And not just because my legs hurt (I had to get down the stairs at the hotel backwards & very slowly), but also as I had a nice dose of saddle sore. We arrived at race HQ. I couldn’t get out the car let alone motivate myself to warm up. I ambled to the loo instead, then forced myself to eat an energy bar. The ever smiling Shana (our lovely Lotto Soudal swanny) came over and massaged my legs. We had our team brief, I actually had tears in my eyes at the thought of riding my bike. Riders here were so keen to line up all 150 of them were in position with 20 mins to go. I hadn’t even signed on yet. I did that, then adopted a side position with Willeke, Brittany & Chantal, the aim was to filter in mid – pack. My heart rate was the lowest it had been all week. I was so tired I didn’t have the energy to be nervous.
For some reason we all had to do a mad ‘neutral’ lap of the square. One girl fell off 100 meters in. Back at the start, I found I hadn’t lost places, but I had lost Willeke, my ticket to the front! Then we started proper. I could see Willeke a few riders ahead so focused on reaching her wheel. I have no idea how, but it worked! I saw gaps open ahead of me and actually managed to move into them. Maybe everyone was going slower today, but I had the power to glide up through the bunch and rolled seamlessly through to the front of the race. I couldn’t help myself, I grinned like a cheshire cat, forgot about my saddle sore and savored the moment. I rode top 20 for around 10 km, I was so excited! It was so much easier than slogging it at the back and so much less stressful. I was up there with the fast girls! My lovely team mates kept popping up and asking me if I was ok, and gave me a wheel to move up if I started to drop back. I felt so pro!
This time I didn’t go backwards when the road went up, but went backwards when the road went down, I just couldn’t let go of the image of a massive pile up on the approaching hairpin. I backed off and people came around me. All too soon I was mid-pack, and with the pace picking up the peloton had lined out, it was basically impossible to move up, then we hit the hill. Oh the pain! This time I held on until a 7 km uphill drag. I just couldn’t get anything more out of my legs, the peloton moved off up the climb, the heat of the sun reflected off the tarmac and off the passing team cars. Oh the sweat fest! I ended up with Chantal, (who was on a bad day) and she brought us back to the grupetto forming ahead. I clung on. We ended up with 30 others and they set a decent pace. It was nice to be with my team mates, and good see Flavia making progress in the QOM competition up in the front group (via the results shown on a board on the motorbike).
To my horror I started to get dropped from the grupetto. This was not good. They were my ticket to finishing the stage as quickly as possible. The thought of a solo lap made my saddle sores worse. My team car appeared and gave me a bumper, with some others who had been distanced. I was rocking, I couldn’t speak, my feet were killing me. I think I was dribbling too. We got back on. I joined in the chain gang. Nothing like riding like you’re feeling good to make you feel better. And then we hit the final climb! After the first ramp I was at the back, up the second I was losing contact and I crested as the last rider in the grupetto. Chantal was just ahead and I swear she eased off to let me back on. Chantal can descend and so I glued myself to her wheel all the way to the finish. I got my best result that day with 87th place. I have never been happier, a top 100! To top it all off Flavia managed to win the QOM jersey too.
From not being able to pedal, to making it to the Czech Republic, to finishing Stage 1 and then improving my racing over each stage I am so happy with what looks like a pathetic effort on the results sheet. Now it’s time to rest up, focus on getting my legs properly fixed and prepare for the end of the season.
Thanks for an epic week go to Aprire HSS, Phil (team manager), Andy (the mechanic), Shana (the Swanny), all the girls and Charlie at Hotel Permon.