I was painfully aware that I’d never won a road race. I’d won a few crits, but never a road race. I have that competitiveness that just makes winning a huge desire. And you need that desire if you plan on winning a race—unless you’re sandbagging—because the pain you inflict on yourself is extremely high. You just can’t beat that feeling of crossing the line first. Especially when you’ve put your all into a race.
Saturday’s road race was up in South Gisborne. It was the Northern Combine Championships. No entry fee, and no prize money. Just pride was at stake.
I was a little worried about this stage, as there is a decent climb in it. A 1.5km long climb averaging 5%. The course is an 8.6km loop, which we would do 9 times, so 77.4km in total. The last time I raced here, I was in D grade and that climb hurt so bad at race pace, each time we went up it. And I only had to climb it three times before I was caught up in a crash. This time around, I had to go up it 9 times at race pace, in a higher grade.
The race starts at a winery, and the first half a lap is neutral to the start/finish line, which doesn’t count towards that total. The finish line is just at the top of the climb. So it was a summit finish (if you can call it a summit, which I am). First time up was easy. It was a good chance to get an idea of the hill. It wasn’t quite as bad as I remember. Maybe because my bike and my body are a bit lighter than before the accident, everything doesn’t feel quite as steep. That was until we came back to the hill at race pace.
I was going to play it safer this week. That was my strategy. Firstly, because I hadn’t tapered like last week, and had had a pretty big training week, so the legs were feeling pretty heavy. I tried to sit in for the majority of the first lap, and when it came to the ascent, I was tucked away a bit. But due to the headwind coming at an angle it was hard.
A couple of laps of this and I was feeling much better. The leg heaviness kind of went away. I felt like the pace up the climb wasn’t really causing anyone to drop off. Those pushing on the front were protecting those in the bunch, and not going hard enough to hurt anyone. I wanted to make an impact.
As we approached the climb for the 3rd time (race time) I didn’t so much as breakaway, more of a slide away. I decided to go to the front and just push hard. Hard enough that if you wanted to sit on my wheel, you’d have to work for it. No one wanted to work before the climb so I managed to get a gap. I continued to push on and pull away. A guy I knew to be a decent climber, Ado, bridged across to me just as I hit the bottom of the climb. This was great. I’d have a friend to help with the pace up the hill. We took it in turns on the front, as the wind had a big impact on the hill, and kept the pace fairly high. My biggest goal at this point was not to get away on my own, or even as a two-man breakaway, but to really cause a split in the race. Sifting the stronger people to the front and dropping the weaker riders. Or to catch some people out.
It worked wonders. By the time we crested the hill, only 5 riders had made it across the gap. At this point Paul Kernan, a strong lad I remember from last year’s Three Day Tour, rallied us together and initiated a rolling pack. This basically means that we would all work together to make sure we stayed away.
We didn’t have a huge advantage at this point. But working together would mean that if there were any strong people that didn’t make the gap, we’d be able to stay away. I kept looking back whenever I had a chance to see our gap, which was a mere 500m or less. This gap neither grew now shrank for an entire lap, that was until we hit the climb again. Then, boom! As our little bunch crested, I looked back to see the main bunch completely fragmented. The gap had grown. They clearly weren’t working well together, or there was a huge discrepancy in their strength levels. It was like watching a balloon explode in slow motion. At this point I knew we’d make it. That lap was hard work to sustain the gap and it was well worth it.
But that is no time to rest on your laurels. We continued to push on hard. We were working hard to make sure the rest of the racers didn’t band together and catch us. It was also pretty good experience working hard together and at the end of the day, these races are more about training than winning.
Each time we hit the climb, I could tell the bigger guys were having to work really hard to maintain the pace, whereas it was relatively easy for me. I could sit at a comfortable wattage on the front without really blowing up. Good muscle stress, but nothing that would cause me to get dropped.
On one of the laps we managed to catch up to B grade. Clearly we were working well together and moving at some speed. When we past B grade, I shouted out to James (Jono/JLamb) and saw the shock on his face. How embarrassing. I knew it wouldn’t be long before they stepped up their own pace to overtake us, but it was a fun little moment.
As predicted, about half a dozen or so B graders past us on the climb. James was one of them. That said, they never really got too far ahead of us. We saw them on the climb each lap. It just goes to show that a group of 6 weaker athletes working well together can go as fast as a stronger group not working as well together.
You may remember me saying there were 7 of us in the breakaway. That’s true, but only 6 of us were working well together. We had some weird older guy that was an absolute flog. Strong, but he would sit in our slip stream and then randomly overtake us, sit in front for a minute, then fall behind us again. On occasion he would try to join in, but he was pretty erratic. The rest of us just kind of focused on what we were doing and let him get on with his own thing.
There was a point on the back descent that I saw two of the bigger guys chatting. I think they were planning on trying to get away from us lighter riders. On that descent they could get a bit of a gap if the rest of us weren’t paying attention, so from that point onwards I made sure to keep an eye on them and lead down that descent. It turned out after chatting that they were discussing this option, but by the time it came to it, they didn’t bother. I think everyone was pretty tired by the end.
So here we are, we come over the top into our last lap. I thought this is where things’ll get gamey. A bit spicy. But they didn’t really. The rolling cohesion had started to disappear, but I was actually feeling okay. I went through a stage at about 50km where my legs felt tired, but by this point I felt okay. I was out of water, so didn’t have to worry about emptying any bidons for the final ascent.
We stuck together right until the final corner. It was only after that corner that the games started. There was a full head wind, so it was key to try and sit in. I was nicely placed near the back of our little bunch. That was until most people started to really ease up. By the time we hit the base of the climb I was second man. Not ideal.
This climb was kind of made up of two climbs. The first 1km was a gradual 4%, then there was a 10m false flat, then it kicked up again for about 500m at around 6-7% (don’t take my word for it, this is mere speculation as I can’t be bothered to research the climb at the moment.). My plan was to stay safe until that false flat, then put in an attack and hopefully win. Hoping the bigger guys would already have been dropped.
Unfortunately, the pace was really low and therefore all 7 of us were still there after about 500m. I decided to go for it. I jumped off the front, and just tried to hold my power as high as I could. After what felt like forever I decided to see who had come with me. Assuming Ado might have tagged on. To my great relief, no one was there. This gave me the motivation I needed to continue the grind. No one had enough to come with me. They were hurting more than me. This feeling is ducking awesome! I continued to push on. As hard as I could. Every muscle in my leg hurting. The pain was intense! My lungs were screaming and my heart was carrying out a drum solo to rival John Bonham (Led Zeppelin). The finish line seemed to get further and further away. Time seemed to stretch out. It felt like a slow motion sprint finish.
By the time I’d finally go over the crest, I had about 50m to the finish line. I looked behind me again and saw someone attacking me. Sharking up. This sucked. I didn’t have anything left, but my competitiveness found something to get me out of the saddle and grind. And grind hard. Somehow I managed to cross the line just in front of this attacker. Success. I then managed to work out that this bloke was not even in our grade. Ah well. I won. My first road race win!
I was gasping for water. I was totally exhausted, but winning took away a lot of the pain. We all congratulated each other on an epic breakaway and for working well together. I got a few high fives. Then about 8 mins later B grade came over the crest. James was in first or second at this point, which was amazing! I was cheering him on, but he got over taken at the last. He managed to finish 3rd, which is an awesome result!
I was wondering what a 1st place in C grade would earn me. But then James reminded me that it was free to enter and there was no monetary prize. But I got a cool little trophy. And bragging rights were definitely more than enough.