‘My first…’ posts are some of the best, mostly because doing something new is pretty much always a journey to mass on-boarding of knowledge. Last weekend was a ‘my first’ for me: my first stage race.
To make life difficult for myself, I decided to enter the Tour of Sussex. The inaugural women’s race hasn’t had time to conjure a reputation as yet, but the men’s race is known as a climber’s paradise and the women’s profile matches.
Stage one was a 40 mile flat affair, but chased up in the afternoon by the only time trial: a hill climb. The third stage consisted of seven ascents to Beachy Head, with the neutral flag dropping at the bottom of a hairpin laden helter skelter of pain.
Did I mention I’m really more of a time trial rider/puncheur? Whatever tag you want to apply – I’m no climber.
With a competitive field (60 entered, 44 showed up) and the knowledge that the course was about as suited to me as Ronald McDonald’s yellow jumpsuit (read: not), the goal was to use the race to learn. And that I did.
Stage one: leaving the car lights on and other blunders
I feel like it’s going to be be hard to express the comedy of errors that was this race.
On the Thursday before the event, I took a spin on my ‘cross bike, rode full pelt into the grass version of a pothole and slammed into the earth chest first. Disappointingly, I didn’t manage to hurt myself to the extent I couldn’t race, just enough to make sure I felt a bit mangled.
After spending Friday at a conference, Saturday arrived. Car loaded, I left at 6.30am, parked the race-mobile, walked into the HQ – and returned 15 minutes later to find that the lights were on and the battery was dead. And my chain was over-shifting. Cue: mad search for someone with jump leads and a willing spare engine and ripping into the race-mussette multi tool.
I’d failed to acquire any gels during the week as intended – so the race was to be fuelled by Nutella’s new B-Ready bars (this is not a promotional post and FYI they get crushed in your pocket and become inedible).
The race itself was actually fine. We rolled out over the cobbles of Lewes, and onto a 10km circuit. It was relatively flat. Since I wasn’t targeting a win or a GC position (not really sure what I was targeting) I did a little work in the rotation on the front when one rider went from the gun, but like many I was quite happy to let one float away and allow the teams after the win to do the job.
There was a moment of panic when a fairly elderly looking woman driving a white car decided to exit a junction into the race. I had to do my best track stand behind another rider’s wheel, and was quite pleased to note she was better at it than me as her bike stood just behind the bumper of the now stationary vehicle. Everyone handled it pretty well – with limited shouting at the offender, which the commissionaire congratulated us on – and we got to the finish safely, I finished mid bunch about 20th.
In hindsight, it would have been smarter to join the 70 per cent of the field shirking the front in the interest of saving their legs for the TT, since a bunch finish made little difference in terms of seconds – but to a certain extend I actually thought I might have a better chance of a higher result here than on the GC.
Stage two: pacing dilemmas
After jump starting the car (as you do between races) I drove down to Eastbourne. Desire to drive the course in advance was low, more so as the wind picked up and rain began to pelt the town at force. So I didn’t.
The hill climb itself was 3.8km long – long enough for a tester to get into a decent rhythm – but having never ridden an uphill TT before I really wasn’t sure how to pace it.
When the time came, I smashed it from the start. I’m a tester, I know how to do this without blowing up, right?
By the first few bends, heart rate soaring into the 180s, I was catching my 30-second girl. Hitting the 190s, I kept pushing into the bends. And by the next few turns I’d already emptied my legs – my carrot was drifting away and the girl behind was getting ever nearer.
I felt pretty broken from the half way point – and it wasn’t my best result at all, finishing about 24th in a TT.
The crest was quiet, save for shouts from finished riders and the odd spectator. The grey crowds rolling in and heavy, an early pitter-patter became more on the descent and filled my Velotoze as water formed a gentle river down the road.
I packed up my kit, left about 7pm to get home at 8.30pm, stopping off for a ham and cheese toastie on the way home. The dinner of champions, right?
Stage three: how many times up Beachy head?!
Not sure really how to comprehend the idea of racing up a climb similar to that of the TT, eight times, is pretty much how I was feeling in advance of the final stage.
Intelligence from the Tour of Sussex men’s race graduates told me that the peloton usually blows apart on the first climb, and turns into a select front group followed by a trail of grupetti smattered across the course.
When the neutral flag went down, I tucked in and waited to be dropped. Waited – and waited – and then reached the misty flat plains of Beachy Head still in the bunch. Heart pounding, breath rasping, it was a relief when the neutral flag went back up. The mist was so thick I could barely make out who was on the front, and the commissionaire obviously noted that whoever it was probably couldn’t see anything either.
The first climb dispatched, we moved onto the 11km laps, made up of a climb, rolling flat terrain, and descent. I made it half way up the first climb.
It was the first time I’ve made a conscious decision to drop. In hindsight, I should have tried to stay for longer. But the logic was that I simply couldn’t keep this up for another six laps – so I was better dropping back and saving my legs for the indivertible grupetto.
I could see more riders splintering from the safety of the bunch ahead of me as I watched the moving entity slide away – a combination of disappointment and absolute relief filling me up.
They took a while to come – but eventually the cavalry arrived. First two, then three more. Working together we caught up with those I’d seen falling off the back ahead of me, eventually becoming a group of 9 – give or take some found and later lost along the way.
The next five laps were pretty painstaking. The flat section and descent never felt like long enough to prepare for the climb. Like riding through thick bog-mud, there was none of the joy you get from the sensation of moving in a well-oiled chaingang at speed. We were pretty much limping to the finish.
At least the road ahead looked like something from a holiday brochure – white cliffs layering and blue sea dancing against a seamless sky.
Still we worked together – all of us riding for survival over results. The first time I’ve been dropped in a road race – and the sense of camaraderie almost made up for our position, especially when I revealed that all I had to eat was a pocket full of Percy Pig.
Friendship in racing is fickle… or not so much fickle, just forgotten in the race and resumed at the finish line. On the final lap, the less proficient climbers made a stand, and decided to smash it from the top, giving ourselves (yes, I joined in) a good enough gap to escape to the finish in front of our companions. Hells no were we going to be dropped on the final climb having worked so hard for the group on the flat sections. I crossed the line 21st, taking me to 19th on GC overall.
The stretch of grass just after the finish line was littered with bodies. Collapsed, eyes closed, gulping air, hugging, laughing: all emotions displayed on a scale based upon how long the victim had been laying immobile on the slopes. I’ve never felt quite so close to my fellow riders after a race – which is odd since it was the most disjointed of fields I’ve witnessed. However strong your legs are, everyone understands the intense mixture of elation, exhaustion, pain and pleasure of finishing.
I didn’t realise how poor my preparation for this race was until I looked back at the string of errors that led me to the final lap. If I’d have imaged this report before the race, I’d have excepted it to say ‘legs just weren’t good enough’ not to read like a string of logistical fails.
19th of 44 starters is about where I expected to finish, and it’s where I did finish. You can only perform as highly as you set your expectations: mine were low. I don’t feel disappointed as such, more just a little frustrated that I didn’t approach it all with more optimism and organisation. Next year, if there is a next year… I’ll do it differently.
Ps. Massive thanks to Orro and the Tour of Sussex organisers for an excellent event, hopefully it was successful enough to warrant a repeat next year..