Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Tour of New Zealand and International Cup - as Kiwi as

I've just arrived back in Adelaide from NZ where I was racing the Tour of New Zealand and the Wellington International Cup. After over 500km of hard racing in 5 days I am tired, hungry, happy and ready for a break from my bike for a while!
I went over with the 'Australia 2' team- otherwise known as the Aust national talent ID team, comprising myself, Bridie O'Donnell, Shara Gillow, Rachel Neylan and Miffy Galloway. These are some of the up-and-coming riders in the country, and the purpose of the trip was to gain some valuable international racing experience and a taste of life as a professional rider.
The short version is that we came 2nd on teams classification in the Tour of NZ behind the Aust national team, a great effort, and achieved our goal in the 1 day International Cup of making it an aggressive and hard race for everyone else.
It was my first international tour and first time racing properly in a team. A massive learning curve. The tour itself was 3 days of 125-135km/day, then a rest day, then the 120km 1-day race. Just coping with that volume and intensity was a challenge- physically, nutritionally and mentally. And then there were the team tactics to worry about.

As I am a climbing specialist, I was one of the team's protected riders for the first 2 relatively flat stages, with the aim being that I would storm out on the very hilly 3rd stage and claim line honours. Unfortunately the stars did not align for me- a combination of getting sick at the start of the tour, feeling a bit flat physically and mentally ready for a break contributed to a bad day in the saddle on the final stage. In addition, the race didn't turn out quite as we expected and a few teams (ours included) with specialist climbers were also caught short.

My job on the final stage was to stick with the two riders who were likely to win the tour- Vicki Whitelaw from the Aust Nat team, and Ruth Corset from Champion Systems/Jazz Apples. Both riders had their teams working hard for them to put them in poll position on the second-to-last climb at 106km. As well as me, the NTID team had 2 other climbers- Shara Gillow and Miffy Galloway- so we had a number of cards we could play. Bridie and Rachel's job was to chase the breaks for us.

We anticipated that an early break would go and made sure Rachel was in it. The big surprise of the day was that the early break stayed away, which meant that Amber Halliday (a SASI rider and ex-Olympic rower, riding for MB Cycles) got the win and the tour by around 1min30.

I, meanwhile, had managed to make the later break (which was supposed to be the big one!) at 106km with Vicki, Ruth, Carlee Taylor, a Chinese nat team rider and Shara Gillow. Knowing that the first break was still up the road, I worked our group pretty hard and when it came to the start of the final 12km climb I had very little left and was feeling terrible.

The result was the I lost contact with the group with 10km to go, then steadily got passed by other riders as I just willed myself to either vomit and pass out or finish! It was very disappointing personally, but fortunately we still had Shara in the climbing pack and Rachel and Miffy not far behind. So the team did well, but it was hard for me to be happy with my race as I had been so well protected for the first 2 days, and it was all about building up to a great final stage, and then when it was my turn to do something I couldn't. I finished 20th on GC in the end.

Going into the 1-day International Cup two days later, we knew as a team that we wouldn't be in a position to win it. It was a flat, fast course- 14 laps of 8.5km- and both the Aust nat team and MB Cycles had top sprinters in Rochelle Gilmore and Kirsty Broun. The winning team got valuable UCI points which both teams wanted badly to improve their international rankings, so the stakes were high. So our aim was to force a break (preferably involving Bridie) and to make the race as hard and as aggressive as we could for those teams. And although the race still came down to a sprint finish, we definitely achieved our goals. I have never attacked so much in my life. My role was as 'domestique' (or cannon fodder) - to attack and chase attacks, and to force the other teams to spend extra energy chasing me down. I was instructed to treat the 120km race as a 50-min criterium and, ideally, to race so hard that I didn't finish. It was one of the hardest races I've done, and I lasted 12 of the 14 laps which was more than enough. But we succeeded in really mixing up the race and putting everyone firmly in the box.

The course was diabolical too- the forecast was rain and gusty winds (in a race in which last year a rider was BLOWN OFF HER BIKE this is not to be taken lightly), with loads of sharp corners, on roads covered in oil and 2 sets of railway tracks each lap!! To make things worse, we had 2 scheduled trains coming through during the race- and no boom gates! I was absolutely dreading it. On top of the environmental hazards, we also had to cope with the extremely erratic riding of the Japanese and Chinese national teams, who had caused a number of crashes already (if i had a dollar for everytime someone said, 'I'm not trying to be racist, BUT...'). A few riders had already exchanged blows during racing (!) so tensions were high. So it was a race of survival in a lot of ways.

But, miraculously, everyone survived, although i did almost get taken out by a Japansese team rider cutting me off on the inside of a sharp corner, and there was a hairy moment when a rider a few spots in front of me lost a water bottle in the bunch, which bounced along and rolled between -get this- my front and rear wheels at 50kph in the middle of the bunch! So lucky not to have ended up eating bitumen.
Looking back on my tour experience a few days later, I have learned a huge amount, mostly about teams racing and all the strategy involved, but also some technical skills - using race radios, pushing (and being pushed) in the bunch, holding position when being bullied, and feeding from moving vans during the race. International racing is a big step up from the domestic racing I have been doing for the past 18 months and I've realised that experience counts for a lot. I've made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot from them, and hopefully they'll stand me in good stead over the domestic season this year.
One of the biggest challenges recently has been realising that progress as an elite athlete is non-linear - it doesn't just go up steadily, it might shoot up quickly (like having a ripper Tour of Bright), then seem to drop into a hole (nationals). Over time I will get better at reading the signs to make sure I hit the peaks at the big races, but I've realised that having disappointments is a really valuable thing and an essential part of development. I am definitely getting better at taking risks and being prepared to make mistakes, and I hope that will pay off this year in the national road series.
Now that I'm back in Adelaide, I am having a much-needed week off the bike, hurrah! I'm headed back to Melbourne in mid-March, then going to a 6-week camp at the AIS starting at the end of March in Canberra, which is an altitude-specific camp and involves being locked down in the AIS altitude house for 14 hrs a day for 4 of the 6 weeks. It will be great to be training at the AIS and to see how I respond to altitude training, but I'm sure after it I will be very glad to return to normal life and the office for a bit.
Take care and ride happy.

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