At the start of 2016 I had to decide what kind of year I was going to have on the bike. 2015 had held its share of highs, but the lows were pretty bad. As the new year came around I was pushing on hard and improving, but still with lingering difficulties from my bad crash in August.
For the past two years the races which have meant the most to me have been those of the Victorian Road Series (VRS). These races are bigger and more exciting than than typical club-level races and unlike club racing, feature some decent climbing. So for 2016 I decided I would focus on the VRS and aim to compete in most, if not all of the races in the series.
Prelude to Mansfield, the 2016 Tour of East Gippsland
The first race of the series rolled around before the end of Summer, and I found myself in East Gippsland for the first time in my life. I also found myself looking out to sea for the first time since 2011!
The Tour of East Gippsland was good, and I should have done more with it. My ITT was stronger than in previous events. Only a couple of silly mistakes cost me a top ten GC finish after a solid ride to stay with the stronger selection on Stage 2. I headed back to Melbourne with some valuable lessons learned and a determination to do better at Mansfield.
In the lead up to the Mansfield Tour I was showing some signs of stronger form. Really, this dates back to the Tour Down Under where I rode with Peak Cycles and had some conversations which inspired me to believe I could improve further. By the time I reached Mansfield I felt well prepared.
In East Gippsland I stayed in the cheapest place I could find – it was like a cross between a shoe box and a fallout shelter. I decided to look after myself at Mansfield and stayed at the beautiful Burnt Creek Cottages, where I stayed for the 2014 Mt Buller road race.
Stage 1 ITT
Despite my preparation I had to face a fact of the cosmos: ITTs and I don’t mix well. I got up really early after a good sleep, then somehow found myself running late. I underestimated how long it would take to get to the start, then realised I’d forgotten my tail light! By the time I returned with my tail light I was running about 30 seconds late, like last year. Then a commissaire stopped me for a random helmet check! I fumbled with desperate nervousness to get the helmet back on and started two minutes late!
I really wanted a top ten GC finish at this tour. I believed I was capable after finishing 11th on Mt Buller in 2014, 13th in the Tour of Bright in 2014, and 14th at the Mansfield Tour in 2015. Of course the pattern of these results was going in the wrong direction! Now my GC hopes were dashed at the start. ‘Oh well’, I thought as I struggled to clip in, ‘let’s see what you can do.’
After the top of the Old Tolmie Road climb I caught the rider ahead. Photos from this moment are interesting:
Clearly this rider, Shaun from Alpine CC, has stronger legs than me. But what these photos prove is that aerodynamics count. I was able to create a smaller frontal area than bigger riders, and with the TT bike and helmet I found myself pulling away on descents – that’s something that’s never happened before!
Shaun and I leap-frogged a bit before we both caught the next rider ahead, although this rider then held on and crossed the line ahead of us.
Of course it was all a big mess for me. I finished in 31st place. Where would I have finished if I started on time? – 10th. I just had to make the most of the next two stages.
Stage 1 Strava file here.
Stage 2 Mansfield – Jamieson Return
I started to stretch my legs on this stage last year and this year’s race played out in almost identical fashion. There was a little nervousness in the bunch as we headed out passed the neutralised zone. I got sick of worrying about my front wheel and decided to sit on the front of the pack; it wouldn’t cost me anything if they were all prepared to sit behind me, at sub-threshold. I was right. No one wanted to push into the wind, and no one complained that I was setting an easy pace.
It started to rain and I thought, ‘probably a good time to attack.’ Someone one else had the same idea and after a flurry of efforts the group was back together and my time at the front was over. That is, until we hit Martins Gap.
Last year, the contest on this climb took off about half way up. This year I decided just to hit it as hard as I could from the start. I broke past the front of the group and didn’t look back. I really couldn’t go much harder and later I found that I’d set a new best 5min power. Still, two guys came past me with a couple hundred metres to go and a few more on the line. I was sixth over the top; one place worse than last year.
Some sketchy descending irritated me on the way out to Jameison. More of a stand-out was a terrific breakaway attempt by a Manly CC rider. He must have ridden half the course solo before we got him, not long before the climb back up the south side of Martins Gap.
Again, déjà vu. Like last year I pushed off just behind the leading climber, and in a more select group than the north side of the gap. Like last year I was fourth over the top. But unlike last year I felt an extra mental reserve, something that whispered, ‘tap into me and you’ll go faster.’
I came past our selection on the descent and urged the group to roll turns for the fast run into the finish. We couldn’t get it together and were caught by a following group. Unbeknownst to me this was something of a selection in itself.
There were a number of little attacks on the final run – a notable one from the same Manly CC rider who had been off the front for so long. Somehow I got myself into a really good position for the final sprint. At the very last moment I realised it would be worth contesting it – even as a non-sprinter – but I was boxed in. Still, I finished with the same time as the winner and came 10th on the stage (six places better than last year). It would even be fair to say I’d had fun; and as I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, that’s not necessarily what I race for.
Stage 2 Strava file here.
Stage 3 Mt Buller.
Racing up Mt Buller at the end of March. Third year in a row. Something of a tradition for me now!
I’d barely slept all night. I could feel my legs – not aching, more like a feeling of restless energy in them, and I just couldn’t let go of consciousness. But I was excited as I rolled to the line. Like every other time it was cold. Perhaps this was the coldest start yet.
We pressed towards the mountain, the pace never lifting enough to really warm up under the broken cloud. I noticed with some amusement the council had fixed the previously misspelled ‘Grammar School Rd’ sign. Though the slightly oversized second ‘A’ speaks to the sign’s funny history.
The mountain always imparts a certain grandeur as you push along the long straight approach:
I’d been sitting in the bunch and not aware of what was happening at the front. I moved up to discover we had two guys off the front. ‘Are they any good?’ I asked a bit cheekily. ‘Well one of them won yesterday.’ came the reply. That might have been risky on the part of the peloton, but I certainly wasn’t about to lead the chase.
I had learned a lesson from 2014 however, and for the second year in a row I made sure I was on the front as we hit the base of the mountain:
I called out to a small group by the road, ‘What’s the gap!?’ Someone, obviously not used to racing said, ‘to the women?’ (The A Grade women had started ahead of us). ‘Yeah, tell us where the women are!’ called a rider behind me with bemused sarcasm. As we passed the group someone a bit more savvy said ‘Three minutes.’ Ok, so that was more than I’d expected. Push on.
Sometimes you go into a race with all sorts of stuff set up on your computer, and an expectation that you’ll use all sorts of numbers. But then, when you come to the crunch, you just have to ride as had as you can. I don’t think I looked at my computer until I was halfway up the mountain.
I was still on the front. I turned around and asked ‘Have we got a selection?’ Except my facial muscles were cold and not working properly and as I tried to get the words out I just dribbled all over myself. ‘What?!’ came the reply from behind. I didn’t bother attempting to repeat myself.
Our lead car driver puller over now and then, giving us the time gap. It was dropping quickly. We caught one of the guys from the break. He was struggling. One more to go. With about 5kms to go we heard, ‘thirty seconds.’
‘We’ve got him.’ I said to Max from St Kilda CC, who I’d started to roll turns with. ‘Good work’, replied Max, ‘Keep riding tempo.’
‘Tempo?!’ I thought.
With a few Kms to go, just before the fast false-flat, we caught the solo break. He made some good humoured banter as we passed him. Then Max attacked.
Max had stretched his legs a few times up the climb and each time I’d gotten back on his wheel. This time I made a mistake. In a fraction of a second I decided to work back on steadily, rather than pounce back. He was motoring away. Some of the guys behind me realised I wasn’t getting them back on and they came past me.
Again, déjà vu. The previous two years I’d done well to this point – virtual fourth in 2014 and a solo break off the front in 2015 – before getting caught and finishing just outside the top ten. But now I tapped into that extra mental reservoir I seemed to find the day before. Go faster. I got back on, then passed the chasing group. Max was holding steady, about 150m ahead.
I know the climb well enough now to know the precise moment to slip into the small ring. I didn’t miss a pedal stroke and as we approached Hell Corner we seemed to have pulled back 50m on Max. That wasn’t going to be enough with only the last two ramps to go. We hit the first pinch and two riders came past me – one was Michael from Preston CC. He was first on GC and fighting desperately to stop Max from wrestling the Tour off him.
It was at this moment that I found some self belief. We only had the last steep ramp to get over, and I was still with the virtual podium. I dug deep, got past one rider, then caught Michael. I almost felt like I could go past him when I noticed we’d dropped the others. Michael dug in again and I didn’t chase – I realised I was on the podium and I couldn’t quite believe it. I let go of any effort as I crossed the finish line – honestly feeling elated.
A friend who’d driven up to be my soigneur on the mountain was there to help as I rolled to a stop.
We high-fived, and then I shook hands with the guys whilst catching my breath. I’d come third on the stage, and also third in the KOM championship and 8th on GC. I’d met every goal I’d gone into the tour to achieve. Max had ridden a tremendous climb, and finished 33 seconds ahead, with Michael 10 seconds ahead of me on the line. Michael had successfully defended his GC lead – by 3 seconds!
Stage 3 Strava file here.
Perhaps this is the apogee of my riding. Or perhaps this is proof, that with focus and determination you can always improve yourself.