With the cancellation of a number of NRS events, the team had turned its focus to a block of racing in the Canberra and NSW region starting with the NSW Road Race champs in Mittagong.
I’d done the NSW champs event last year on the Marulan course and was quietly worried about my chances of even finishing a few laps given the extremely attacking nature that the favourites ride with. It split the field early last year, and much like the national and world champs, lap based races means few finishers.
After arriving with some time to spare, I got my stuff sorted, and after a few brief minutes of warm up and briefing, we were off under neutral car control – up over the freeway – and out to the course where we would do laps of 24km.
The race begins…
Once the neutral car vanished, instantly attacks rained down. The first stretch of the course we jumped onto started with a steady climb. If anyone thought they might get a few seconds where the bunch would ‘recon’ a lap before anything happened, they were mistaken. The bunch lined out up the climb, big ring. Everyone clicking down, down, down, the hill got steeper, still having to click down. I wasn’t daring to look at the computer. Last year, splits had happened straight away too, and being near the back on any hill was a recipe for disaster then, and man did I bake a good cake out of that – so my motto this year was to be in front of any split. This worked pretty well, but also had the result of inching forward on the climbs, and so when splits did occur on the first stretch of the first lap, red mist descended and I put myself across the gaps and up to the groups. Obviously groups of 20 riders aren’t going anywhere, but hey – you never know! But after a number of these moves, with lactic tickling my eyelids, I calmed myself and found a nice spot in the middle of the conga line.
After our first turn we came onto a fairly rough section. Some of the guys had raced the club event a few weeks back and had reported a fairly rough road surface. The chip seal was your standard country road, but from disuse and weather, unshadowed dips and bumps, ruts and runs were hiding every which way. I’d pumped up the tyres a little too high for this, and so was busy rattling away when we came to a fairly quick descent which caught me off guard, and put me on the back. No matter, it was quick little sprint to get back in the middle, where suddenly a crash appeared magically in front of me on the far left of the bunch as it compacted on the climb.
Two riders fell left onto the grassy roadside (luckily for them), and I somehow managed to slowly edge around them on the grass and gravel as the bunch sat up and did the gentlemanly thing. It was with some confusion then that a rider sprinted on the right, and off up the road with some choice words following him from the bunch. Later, it was revealed that the attacker was one of the crash victims! Smart piece of confusion tactics I say!
Coming onto the Old Hume Highway section to close out the lap should have been cause for some relief, but the lap finished with a short climb to the feed zone and the start finish. Luckily, the run in was straight, slightly down hill, and a head wind providing a great sit in and a chance to recharge and psych yourself up for a max effort on the ramp. It was about half way up this final climb on the first lap that I started to realise that I was doing okay and that my training had started to pay off. Last year, I hadn’t even made one full lap with the bunch, and this year I was looking sweet with my new teammates right alongside me, chatting away.
The 2nd and 3rd lap went very quickly. Attacks were still going off the front, with the big teams duking it out. toward the end of the 3rd lap, I looked behind and found that I was part of a very reduced bunch, and that I was almost the last wheel. We streamed down the Old Hume Highway section and unbeknownst to me, the race winning attack was about to be launched on the final climb at the end of lap 3. Two thirds of the way up the hill that time, the pressure was mounting in the legs after an hour and 45mins of lined out, high pace, with not much drinking or eating. I slowly felt the bunch slip away and the commissaire’s car started to move around me as the feed zone streamed into my vision. I saw the bunch slowly sit up as it moved toward the start finish line and I got up and moved back passed the car and rejoined the bunch.
I would later find a video of this exact moment. A break coming over the hill in its early forming moment, the peloton following closely, bunching up gradually as the gradient relaxed at the line. And there I am, spinning away tucked in at the back. I remember the moment and more precisely the pain preceding this, but observing this video now, makes it look like I was having a laugh at the back. I used to have a terrible poker face when hurting on the bike. I must have drastically improved this!
After this the remaining peloton didn’t get very organised, with a few teams wanting to work, but most remaining were just by themselves with no teammates and just happy to sit in and see a few more laps slip away. However, the pace was just as high on the previous laps. At one point one of my mates from another team told me that the last break was the winning break and if I was going to do anything, now was the time. Later I would think to myself that I was incredibly flattered that he thought I might be able to do anything. But the truth was, with about 30 people remaining in the race at this point, I was desperate for my first gruppetto experience. Alas, the gruppetto pace was not forthcoming.
A highlight of lap 4 was the bunch splitting suddenly around something on the road. Most riders streamed right, and I chose a left line which found me avoiding a baby brown snake out for a slide across the road. Problem was however, the left side I chose was the side it was heading towards which put my legs right in front of its head! Luckily, it was more worried about getting the hell out of there with hundreds of racers out there that day.
Much of the rest of the 4th lap was spent moving to the front for climbs, so that the inevitable drift back didn’t gap me. This was working great, until I realised what this was spelling for me – my energy levels were fading faster than everyone else’s and there were still 2 more laps to go.
As we moved onto the Old Hume Highway, I slowly started to drift from the bunch on the first little ramp. I scrounged around for some food in my pocket and immediately came to the realisation that I hadn’t eaten since the first lap. I’d also only gotten through one bottle. The race was hard enough, but I’d been short changing myself the whole time. But such was the concentration that I had given the race that I’d neglected other factors.
With this mental blow, I let go of the bunch as we approached the final parts of the fourth lap and I called it a day as they disappeared up the hill and over the finish line. After regaining my composure after the finish line I searched out my teammates and caught up on their version of events. In the end, less than half the field finished with the majority being minutes behind the eventual winners. It was a hard man’s course, and man are those guys hard! You can check out all the results on the Cycling NSW website.
This was my first big race with the team, and while I’m pleased about how far I’ve come in the last few years – I’m keen to get stuck into it more, and even eat and drink a bit more during a race! With a big block of 5 consecutive weekends of races coming, I’m excited to see what we can achieve together.
Keep a look out for some photos from the next few weeks as I combine two of my hobbies, racing and photography.