Saturday marked my return to racing. My last race being a crit back in November, the week before my crash.
This was not a crit, however, it’s road racing season, my favourite, and the first race up was Metcalfe—an 85km course with around 1,000m of undulating roads. So nothing too crazy in the climbing steaks, but still a few testing ramps dotted throughout. The last time I raced on the road was on this course and in this grade (C grade), and I was dropped on the last of these ramps; a 3km climb at around 4%, 10km from the finish line. Back then I was also very ill prepared. I knew very little about the course, I did not eat right the night before and I didn’t get much sleep. In fact I had a pizza, tub of Ben & Jerry’s and a couple of glasses of scotch. I wasn’t in a great mindset. Nevertheless, I was caught out and couldn’t match the pace of the day.
This time around I was well prepared. I’ve trained really hard since my injury. I took a week to taper properly, mostly driven by the fear of getting dropped again, and I ate pretty well all week.
I also decided to study the course. Taking notes and writing down each of the climbs. I had this on my stem and boy did it come in handy. I knew when each of the notable climbs occurred and how long they were, so I could measure my effort without going into the red and blowing up.
The race itself:
Well, firstly, it was a beautiful day! The sun was out yet there was still a morning crispness. It was cool, but not cold enough to warrant arm warmers. I wore a short sleeve jersey with a base layer. Perfect.
My aim for the race was to not be dropped. Taking heed of James’s (AKA Jlamb, Lamboy, Jimbo, Jono, Jonny, J-dawg, WWJLD, Bertie) advice, I would try to stay near the front of the bunch and allow myself to take advantage of the draft on the flats and fall through the pack on the climbs, if need be, and still be in contact with the bunch. Basically drifting backwards and then hanging on.
Things kicked off with around 2km neutral, then we got to the start point and I started my Garmin. It was imperative I got the start location correct to make sure my notes were correct. In fact, I started my Garmin too early, realised it was wrong, discarded it and started again in the right place. This is important stuff guys!
The bunch started at a pretty easy pace, which I didn’t like. We were sat doing around 30km/h and pushing very few watts. I wasn’t there for a casual ride, so I moved to the front and started pushing at tempo (a more than sustainable pace), creeping up to 40km/h. This was better. Let’s race guys!
The first 5km, I more or less led the bunch with Kate Perry, an NRS rider, and another guy each pulling a few turns. Still, it felt pretty easy. I felt good. The guns were strong today. It was around this point some old boy came up to the front to tell us to slow down. Seriously, this happened. I was like, “why?” To which he responded “we’re catching up to B grade, we don’t want to do that.” Again I questioned this, and decided I would race however I wanted to. Kate said something and he then said to her “Have you ever raced before” in an extremely condescending manner. She looked both stunned and unimpressed, and then went and sat on the front and pushed on. Mate, she’s practically a pro rider.
We turned onto a really long straight road, and out of nowhere a guy jumped off the front. We still had 75km left so it was never going to make it. I was feeling good and wanted to warm the legs up properly so I went after him. We were then joined by another guy, so the three of us started rolling turns for a little while but the bunch caught us pretty quickly. I then sat in for a bit but got restless again and went to the front.
I continued to roll turns on the front with the other two from before until I noticed no one was coming around me to take the lead. Then no one seemed to be rolling in front of me, helping out. I wasn’t really hurting so I didn’t care too much. Eventually, I looked around and suddenly realised I’d accidentally caused a gap. Quite a significant one. The best thing about an accidental breakaway is that you haven’t had to use up loads of energy sprinting to get away. Anyway, I didn’t want to ride the remaining 65km on my own so I sat just above tempo and stretched the gap out a little bit further.
It must’ve been about 10km I spent out on my own. Eventually I eased up some more. I’m sure they were leaving me out there to wear me out. The gap was around 500m, and wasn’t really moving, so I knew it wasn’t going to last, but I might as well keep pedalling.
Finally, the bunch caught me. Now this was a fun moment for me. I had kept completely within myself. By the time they caught me I was feeling pretty normal. I wasn’t panting, or hurting, nothing really. But a few people that had clearly worked to pull me back were panting and looked a little worn out. And I hope their legs were hurting. As a bit of a psychological game I sat up, had a drink, smiled at the front runners and ate some food. They must’ve hated it. I hope.
I sat in again for a little bit. Although my legs were feeling good, we were about to hit the first real climb at 25km. I also knew it was a long race, so let’s not be stupid now.
I did get a little restless again and moved near the front. As well as being bored sitting in, I was thinking of James’s advice. When we hit the climb, Kate went to the front and pushed hard—she did this a lot throughout the race, putting the pressure on—I knew this climb was only 1km long so I measured my effort and managed to move to the front by the time we crested. Still feeling pretty good I decided to push on. If anyone got dropped on that climb, I was going to make sure they were going to have a hard time getting back to the bunch. I was dropped here last year, and boy was it hard to make contact again! Time to pass on the favour.
That was the only notable climb until the 40km mark. Between that and the next climb, Kate jumped off the front, so I chased her with another guy. We rolled turns in a breakaway for a few kays but were caught and absorbed back into the peloton. She’s bloody strong that girl.
Side note: There were about 5 women racing with us. Their race was a race within a race. Although they could use us men as any other competitor, their results would be women’s results. In fact, I felt like we were probably a disadvantage for Kate. There were points near the end that she would attack and the men would chase her down, allowing the other women to come back into contact with her too. Had we not been there, I wonder if she might’ve gotten away to a solo victory. I guess that’s where strategy comes in. And I’m sure she was just using the race as a training session.
The remainder of the race was generally uphill, with lots of undulation. By 50km my lower back started to feel tight, which wasn’t ideal. I sat in and didn’t do a great deal of work until the tightness subsided, at least a bit. I am going to get a bike fit next Thursday, which should help to fight this problem, as it’s happened numerous times.
At about the 60km mark a crash happened, right in front of me. Similar to the one that caught me out in South Gisborne last year. However, this time I managed to veer onto the grass, stay uprights, and get back onto the road and back into the bunch. The guy that went down only suffered a few scratches, and some bike damage, I was told. We eased up a bit to let those caught in the crash get back on. Great sportsmanship.
Things heated up after this point. A few breaks went clear. Nothing to worry about really. We kept them in sight and let them wear themselves out. Or at least that’s what I was thinking. The last 15km were pretty hard work. Each climb was a chance to shed some weight, as in drop some of the others. This would make the final sprint to the line less crowded, so it’s always good to put the pressure on right to the end. Also good to try to wear out the sprinters. I’m a bit of a sprinter, or I used to be, I’m not really sure what my strengths are at the moment.
The last real climb came at 70.4km mark. Kate went again right at the base of the climb, and she went hard, but the guys at the front chased her down before the gradient really increased.
This one was a tough 3km climb. It’s only around 3-4% gradient I reckon, but at race pace, after 70km of racing, into the last stretch of the course, everyone went really hard up it. The first 2km I sat in and tried to measure my effort. As we went into the last km of the climb some people at the front started to blow and fall back a bit. I was still feeling fresh enough to continue my effort, so I made my way to the front. Kate was there and a couple of other guys were also pushing on hard.
I’m sure many people were dropped on this climb and would have had to work really hard to get back on. If they even managed to. But climb complete and we were now into the last 10km, which kind of flew by to be honest. I barely remember what happened until the last couple of kays.
I was well positioned. Sitting behind a tall guy. Good shelter. Coming into the last km, there was an attack. Too early I thought, but I switched wheels to someone going a little quicker. Good move. As the finish line started approaching, we weren’t gaining on the one guy that attacked. It was a bit too early to start my sprint I felt, but it was now or never. I went for it. I pushed hard on the pedals, and pulled away from the bunch. I put every last bit of energy I had into it, and as the line approached faster and faster I thought for a brief moment that I’d catch the guy on the line. I could almost touch him. But no, he crossed the line about 2 bike lengths ahead. 20 more metres and I’d have had him!