I’m sat in the airport with that ‘the-morning-after-two-days-of-hard-racing-feeling’. Everything aches! I have that sense of disappointment that comes with failing to meet my expectations. I got dropped. Both days. It’s gutting after the best winter of training I could have hoped for and knowing that I am the strongest I have ever been.
Saturday’s race was scheduled bright and early for an 8:50 am start. We dragged ourselves out of bed at 6 am (slightly sleep-deprived from the dulcet beats of DJ Lee pumping until midnight in the bar downstairs) and drove to HQ. Problem. We were soon driving into a wintery wonderland, with snow covering the hills where we were headed.
The organisers made the sensible call to delay the race by an hour – just enough time for the ice to melt and the showers to pass. I wrapped up in my full winter gear (with my favoured double-buff get up, Catalan style!), had a quick warm up and squeezed into the bunch on the start line. And we were off. The neutralised zone started straight up a 14% climb. A rolling few km’s later and the flag dropped.
The pace was high but I felt good. I managed to make up a few places but soon lost them again as the race went downhill. As we took a sharp left and turned onto the 2 mile circuit I was pretty much at the back, and so the cycle started. The course was pretty simple: windy flat gravelly bit across the reservoir, steep descent, long drag up, sharp right across the cattle grid and back to the windy flat bit. I rode it as follows: lose position on the windy flat bit, end up at the back on the descent, make up places on the long drag up, chase out of the cattle grid and repeat! Exhausting stuff.
I could spot my team mate Harriet riding an exemplary race preserving energy in the top 20 0f the bunch. Oh to be her! Around 5 laps in as we crossed the reservoir the peloton wobbled around me and there was the sound of panic and wheels sliding out on gravel. The girls either side of me fell and I somehow made it through upright. I refused to fall off. I knew a couple of my teamies were behind and hoped they were ok. Harriet was cruising safely ahead.
Then it was a manic chase back to the back of the bunch and there I stayed. I just couldn’t move up. The riders ahead looked like an impenetrable wall. Each lap I heard Simon (our team DS) yell to move up and ride with Harriet. Instead I dangled at the back. Finally I paid for it. On the last lap we hit the steep descent – I was flying down behind Chanel from the Army Girls, I could see wobbling and braking ahead and riders were on the floor, I squeezed my brakes and killed as much speed as possible. I just avoided the handlebars of a floored bike and came to a standstill just in time to avoid hitting the front wheel of another bike. The peloton were turning the bottom corner, heart thumping I heaved my massive gear into action and chased as hard as I could, knowing I’d never make it back before the finish line.
That night in bed (listening to more classic tunes downstairs being pumped out by DJ Lee) I thought about tomorrow’s race. I felt more positive. It was mega hilly and would be a battle of attrition – my kind of race. My role would be to look out for my three team mates who’d all landed a bunch finish in Stage 1 and were still on the same time as the winner. We knew the race would blow apart and positioning – my weak spot – would be key to survival.
The battle for a good position on the start-line meant that the bunch had crept forward to ensure we started on a very steep hill (instead of just before it). After lots of one-legged pedaling and fumbled attempts to clip in we were finally off. I started mid-pack and could see my team mates ahead. Right. Move up. Move up. I willed myself to squeeze into gaps but would pull back at the thought of causing a pile up.
I soon found my teamie Emily stuck with me at the back. Gemma and Harriet were doing a better job at the front of the race. Lap 1 was brutal. Riders attacked it with the same energy as yesterday’s kermesse, and this was double the distance! When we hit the hill I thought I’d be able to get myself to the front. The reality was I could barely hold onto the back. Not a good situation.
At the crest of the hill the race lined out on the exposed windy main road. And the chase was on. As riders at the front got a rest on the descents, I had to keep chasing until we hit the hill again. I saw Harriet drifting backwards, I stuck with her determined to keep her in the peloton and together we chased back along the main road and made it back. By the next climb I was at the back again and was properly dropped along the windy main road with some others. We worked together to mount a chase and as if by magic the team cars arrived to help us back on.
I went straight through to the front, picking up Gemma on the way. I sat on the front for a bit and calmed down. I had a stress-free couple of km’s looking after Gemma before we hit the climb again. I was drifting backwards yet again, I willed Gemma to come around me and eventually she saw what was happening and did. I thought I’d made it up safely but the peloton was once again stretched to breaking point. Emily managed to make it across the gap (which literally appeared from nowhere) but I just couldn’t get there. The peloton got further away and I knew it was game over. The cars sped past – no jumping on the bumper for a ride this time. I was left with a couple of riders for company.
We worked together for a bit – the rear of the race convoy tantalisingly in view. Despite my encouragement the other two seemed to lose interest and my turn on the front turned into a solo venture. With 1.5 laps to go I was determined to finish. I would not be a DNF. And so the lonely pedal began. It was cold and I wanted it to be over as soon as possible. The disappointment set in. I had been dropped! I was utterly useless! I had let my team down. I got into TT mode and focused on my 1.5 laps of shame.
I imagined I was off the front for a bit to keep me going. That just made me sadder. I took a gel and savoured the thought that the only way I would crash now is if I was a muppet and took myself out. Small comfort. At least I was providing a little entertainment for the scattered spectators. On the climb my legs finally had some life in them – one man shouted I had ‘good climbing speed’ I grinned and shouted ‘Bit late for that now though!’ They all laughed. So did I. Just. It still hurt.
The last lap felt like forever, the marshals had gone and the course wasn’t signed. Everything looked different without a wheel to chase. I took small comfort on overtaking a couple on touring bikes (with panniers) and an old man on a mountain bike. I thought how shit it would be if they caught me. That kept me going! Finally I reached a traffic heavy turning to the reservoir. I wove my way through the cars only to have a marshal shout that the finish was the other way! One u-turn later and I was at the 1 km to go banner.
I got a round of applause crossing the line, my legs screaming from the day’s effort. I was gutted. My team mates had already left for HQ. I gave my friend Chloe a hug and congratulated her for finishing in the bunch. Then Ro appeared like an angel with a jacket and, feeling like an emotional wreck, I left the podium presentations to ride back to HQ. Those last 10 kms were so sad and cold!
I’m very worried about how I performed (or didn’t) this weekend. It was great to finish a national level road race, but not great to be so easily distanced as I know I am strong enough to be up there on the climbs. I must master riding in the front of a bunch and work on my bike handling skills for my racing to progress and to start getting the good results I crave.
Forgetting about the actual race part I had a great weekend! Thanks to Simon Howes (top DS), Roland Kemp (of Kemp Fitness) and Steve (Harriet’s Dad) for making everything easy and stress-free, thanks to Aprire Bicycles for the lovely bikes and HSS Hire for footing the bill. Thanks to Nutrixxion for fueling us all, Exustar, RPM & Absolute 360 for kitting us out, and to my team mates for being awesome. Thanks to my parents (and Michelle!) for the comfy nights of sleep and delicious food. And thank you to Katie – my super awesome coach. Now if that thank you list isn’t motivation to master riding in a bunch and put my energy into the front of the race then I don’t know what is.
Photo credit: thanks to Huw Williams for permission to use his stunning pic – see more photos of the race here.