Monday, 31 March 2014

Ben McKenna Memorial Race - A3 Race Report

Big Ambitions!
I had big ambitions for the Ben McKenna memorial race this weekend. I had decided to treat this as my first big target race since moving up to A3, more to see how I could perform when I put the best preparation possible into effect and what I was capable of. Having consulted our in-house pro rider Andrew Stanley about how to best prepare for a race in the week leading up to it, I was feeling confident, fresh and strong on the day of the race. I was feeling particularly de-stressed because my brother, Simon, had agreed to drive me to the race and watch. Simon isn’t the biggest fan of watching live cycling as I once dragged him along to watch the Vuelta a España when we were on holidays in Biarritz. As he describes it, “You just stand around for 2 hours in 40 degree heat on the side of a mountain, then the peloton whizzes by and that’s it!” It was amazing I managed to convince him to come out to our race!

Getting ready to race
The course consisted of 4 laps of a hilly 19.5km circuit. It was considered hilly because of the final hill up to the line, at 2.5km with a 4% average gradient, it would be substantial for someone of my stature… Within the hill, there were a few significant ramps where the gradient kicked up for a few 100m, requiring a standing effort and an expression of pain. Other than the hill the course was relatively flat and easy for me to deal with. I knew that in the finale that I wouldn’t be able to feature as the mountain goats would come to the fore and simply ride away from me on the hill. I had decided to go for a different goal: try and win the combativity award, which is awarded to the most aggressive rider of the day. This would require much attacking by me and trying to instigate breakaways from the peloton for the majority of the race. I had set my eyes on this prize earlier on in the week and was feeling both mentally and physically ready for the challenge. The weather had been showery that morning but by the time the race was starting, the showers had gone and the sky was clearing up.

I was riding with Bennett Thomson and we had discussed many tactics before agreeing on one. The race started on the finish line, so at the very top of the hill before rolling out and shooting down the descent. We had agreed that when we were arriving into the bottom of the climb on the 1st lap, we would attack and hope that the 2 of us could work together get a gap and then work our way up the climb, maybe bringing a few guys across with us and try to hold a gap over the peloton. How naïve we were!
Bennett and myself ready to race!
When the peloton rolled out, Bennett and I were initially in bad positions, starting near the back of the group, which would result in extra effort being made by us to get to the front of the bunch. By the bottom of the decent before the flat section of the course, I had managed to get to the front of the bunch and was ready to win that combativity award. So I decided to immediately to attack, throwing our pre-discussed tactics out the window in the process! With numerous Juniors in the bunch, the aggression was very high, as they were all vying for selections into development squads. This meant I had some riders to work with as we all tried to get something going. I couldn’t believe the strength of some of the Juniors, riders who were half my size were easily keeping up with me or simply powering away from me, unbelievable stuff!

This continued until the base of the hill. Bennett popped up on my shoulder and our pre-race tactics were ago. We drilled it into the bottom of the hill, and then everything went wrong. We simply couldn’t hold onto the pace we had set and then everyone else starting creeping past us. I lost Bennett and proceed to withdraw into the world of suffering that is climbing at your limit. It said that to be a pro cyclist you need to be able to suffer with the best and then suffer some more. I never participated in a sport that requires so much consistent pain in order to succeed. And even if you get fitter and stronger, you just go faster and the pain is still there. I often ask myself why I’m doing this when you’re struggling up a climb and hating every moment, and yet I find myself coming back for more. I could just about see the skinny Juniors attacking off the front of the peloton as I proceeded to slip down the bunch till I was dangling of the back of the group. I really gave everything just to hang on by the skin of my teeth.

This effort really affected me mentally. This was only the first of 4 ascents up the hill and I barely hung on. How was I going to hang on and make it to the end? Was I having a bad day? Was my fitness up to the standard of A3? I also knew that there was now no way I could win the combativity award. Going over the top of the climb the whole peloton was lined out in front of me. I knew if I could get back into bunch I could shelter and rest until the next ascent. On the descent down to the flat section of the circuit, I really had to floor it just to get back onto the bunch, reaching speeds of 70kmh, thrilling stuff! I didn’t know what happened to Bennett as I was too focussed on my own situation to think about him. After a few km and with a few other riders, we managed to get back onto the bunch. I stayed sheltered in the bunch for a while and recovered from the horrible effort of the climb. I found that in no time, I was feeling good once again, both physically and mentally, and willing to do some work on the front. I was told a group of 6-7 riders had gone up the road on the climb and had a gap on the main peloton. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do anything on the climb when we arrived to it, so I decided to use the flat section of the course as some practice for other races.
Pulling the peloton along
Having mentally recovered, I decided to be aggressive once again, as there was nothing to lose from it. So I hit the front again and attacked before being reeled back in. This continued until the second ascent of the hill. I tried to be near the front again so that I could slip down through the bunch as they crawl past around me. I once again entered to the pain cave and just rode and rode. I was feeling slightly better this climb, but it hurt nonetheless. Again, by the time we made it over the top, the bunch was strung out and I was dangling off the back. I managed to once again get back onto the bunch on the descent and recover surprisingly well. Once I was recovered I made my up to the top of the peloton again and continued to attack and pull the peloton. I should have been keeping my powder dry for the efforts up the hill but I thought what’s the point if I’m just going to be spat out the back anyway? So I attacked and drove on the flat section of the course to see what I was capable of and how far I could push myself. I once again led the bunch into the base of the hill so I would have some space to slide down the peloton as we climbed up the hill. This ascent was the worst of the day as I was feeling the efforts I’d been putting in on the flats and I had to dig deep to survive this one.

I got a stich near the top of the climb which felt like an exploded kidney! With me dangling off the back again and having a searing pain in my side, I was close to calling it quits. I was also overheating as the sun had decided to come out and I was wearing a base layer which, at the start line, had seemed like a good idea, but was now a poor choice. I again found the mental strength to push on and not give up, probably due to my pride. So I bombed it down the descent and got back onto the tail of the peloton. I was surprised again by my recovery as I was feeling ready to attack again. I knew that on the next ascent up the hill I would blow up, so I decided to give everything up to the bottom of the climb before peeling off and working my way to the top. So I gave a really big attack and had a gap for a while but eventually the peloton caught back on to me, why couldn’t they just let me go?! I knew then that attacks wouldn’t work so I decided to work for the good of the peloton and try to catch the breakaway by giving my all to the base of the climb. We could still see the breakaway around 30 seconds up the road. So I got into my aero position and put everything I had into bridging the gap. I’m sure some riders were confused at my actions but I might as well be nice before I blow up. So at the bottom of the climb I peeled off having down what I could and proceeded to lightly cycle up the climb, which was much more enjoyable for me! (It turns out the group of riders in front of us were dropped riders from the A1/A2 race, which started before us, so all my effort was for nothing!)
Reaching the finish line at a cruise!
When I got to the finish line Simon was waiting for me with a look of confusion: “Where were you?!” I explained what had happened and my actions and he seemed to understand. I was thoroughly f**cked from the days effort. In hindsight, I should have seen that the hill would have been too much for me to handle in a race and that I should be targeting flatter races with smaller more numerous climbs which I could handle. I learnt a lot about my mental capacity and recuperation while discovering that I had encouraging recovery abilities after serious efforts. The fact I could hold on to a peloton on the hill also gives me encouragement for the future. If I can lose some more weight, maybe I could be attacking on the climbs.

Bennett had exploded on the first ascent of the hill but continued to complete the course with a small group of riders, coming in 5 minutes after me. In fairness, he had cycled out to the race and had to cycle home unfortunately. Simon’s car is minuscule and could barely fit me and my bike!

I’ll take a rest for the upcoming week as I’ve been racing for the last four weeks and could do with an extended break. I also have some serious exams coming up which require studying so it might be a while before I’m back writing race reports. Thanks to everyone for the encouragement and comments on these write ups, I didn’t know I had it in me.

Please check back in a couple of weeks!

Reasonably satisfied with my race.
Technical Information:
Canyon Aeroad CF 7.0 Di2

 Base layer
Waterproof Shoe Covers
‘Lucky’ Bandana

Special thanks to my brother for the lift out, taking photos and being around to help out.

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