Two years ago I limped to the finish of the Strade Nero road race after crashing before the start of the dirt climb. Last year I missed the race altogether, having crashed badly before hand – a story my friends and blog followers know well. So this year I was looking forward to the weekend of racing at Sam Miranda Wines. Once the dirt was settled, I did travel home with a glow of satisfaction – albeit, vicarious.
Earlier in the year I mentioned here that a new friend, Claire, had supported me at the Mansfield Tour and Mt Baw Baw Classic. I was fortunate indeed that Claire was there at Mt Baw Baw – It would not have been safe for me to drive home after that effort!
Claire had a background in long distance touring. She’d ridden 8000km solo through the Jura, Massif Central, Alps, Dolomites, and Pyrenees in 2014. She conquered such famous ascents as the Gavia – albeit on a fully laden steel touring bike!
At first we shared an assumption that whilst we were both passionate cyclists, her touring and my racing were essentially different aesthetics. But after a few road rides together Claire knew she wanted to go faster.
Our friend Don helped Claire get an awesome deal on a bike that had been ridden by Bridie O’Donnell and it turns out Claire and Bridie take pretty much the same fit – she and the bike just snapped together.
Soon she found herself taking top tens on iconic local climbs like Humevale Rd. Perhaps a bigger sign of her competitive streak was she actually relished riding the trainer and smashing out indoor rides on Zwift.
A certain transformation was complete and Claire was now talking about racing .
She entered her first race on the 7th of August, barely three months after getting a road bike. This was a vets race (women over 30 and men over 35) at the South Gisbourne course used by Northern vets and the Northern Combine, as well as the Hawthorn Road champs. Entering D Grade, Claire simply rode the men off her wheel and won with a big gap. No more D Grade!
So the stage was set for a bigger goal – the Victorian Road Series races at Sam Miranda Wineries in Oxley, near Wangaratta. This year, the 115km Strade Nero Road Race would feature extended dirt sections and would be followed the next day by an 80km Road Race around Wangaratta.
A week on from the race I sat down with Claire and posed some tough questions! …
Day 1 – Strade Nero Road Race
So, you won your first race. Did that make you feel confident going in to the VRS races or was it all still too much of an unknown? How did you feel going in? What did you expect?
I felt a bit more confident. It was like when I did the Ella-Cyclingtips ride – I didn’t realise what I was in for at all then, and then I realised I could keep up. I did the Vets race thinking I could lose and did quite well. But I also knew the VRS race would be younger women who train harder.
It was freezing on the morning of Strade Nero, and they announced Women’s B and C grades would be merged – how were the nerves on the start line?
I was very anxious – my heart was racing! But I also had this attitude of like, OK bring it on!
So talk me through the opening of the race – what was the pace like at the start?
I was on the front for pretty much like 25km, and there’s this really weird experience you have when you’re on the front and you can’t hear anything behind you – when you’re in the peloton it’s like a buzzing beehive of bike noise, but then you get on the front and it’s like complete peace. But I was stuck on the front – I could hear your voice saying, ‘don’t let them sit behind you’, but I was like, ‘What am I supposed to do now!?’ I tried to roll off the front but nobody came forward – I just didn’t know what the etiquette was.
There are a few little pinches on the way south, before the real climbing, did that sort the group out?
Some riders definitely came forward to sprint up the hills, but I don’t think the actual contenders did until we hit the first dirt section. We lost some riders there – one rider said later she didn’t like the dirt. It was scary when we went over the first bit. I was riding near the front and we were in a tight group, there were lots of potholes and they weren’t getting called out. I smashed into one at 30kph.
Before the major dirt climb there’s a sealed QOM. How did that play out?
That’s when the strongest riders really came out of the woodwork. It’s a bit of a blur – I was going hard, still with the front group.
And then you descend down to the base of the dirt climb. But there’s that right hand turn before the dirt – You were talking about that right hand turn – what happened there?
That’s when, coming down from the first QOM, there’s a descent and a sharp right bend. Some riders had got ahead and I remember thinking – ‘shit I can’t let them get out of sight.’ I was racing down and I took the corner too fast – it was wet and gravely, it could have gone badly, but it didn’t!
You used up a life there! So now you’re on the dirt. It had been really wet leading up to the race – how was the dirt affected?
It was actually much nicer riding the dirt climb in the wet, compared to the dry recon. For some reason I found it easier to ride. A couple of girls had got away. Then a girl crashed in front of me. I think she cramped – she just came to a stop and fell off. The instinct was to help but then …
There were a couple of girls up the road. When we started the climb I reckon there were six girls ahead of me. I could see two ahead of me, and I was gradually gaining on them, and then I caught them, about three quarters of the way up the climb. There was one girl holding the same distance ahead of me then.
Over the top you get back on the sealed road and there’s a fast descent with sweeping curves – was that wet? Did you race the descent or take it cautiously?
It was raining pretty much the whole time and the road was wet. The girl in front was cautious and I caught her. I didn’t feel like it was a particularly technical descent, it wasn’t unsafe. And then one girl, Katie, caught me at the bottom – she’s a good descender.
Then the two of us rolled turns. She shouted at me, ‘don’t surge!.’
That’s a pretty typical new racer’s experience – you want to pull your weight when it’s your turn and end up going too hard.
Katie had said she could see the riders ahead. Then we saw some spectators and she asked how far they were ahead and they said two minutes! Then we went up the last climb – I was going pretty hard and she dropped off – I think she had a mechanical.
So then it was basically 50km of flat ground until the end – how did you handle that?
I was on my own and I was just gunning it. All I could think of was Mara Abbott [trying to hold off the chasers in the Olympic Road Race] and the riders hunting her down like sharks. I was just thinking, ‘Oh god, there’s a whole peloton behind me – they’re going to catch me.’ So I was just gunning it the whole time.
I was getting tired, there was a headwind. The last 30km were actually quite stressful. I was going at 30kph into the wind but it felt so slow. They have signs up saying 20km to go, 15km to go, and it felt like it was so slow. I was seriously just looking at the front wheel, and the rain coming off the front wheel, for the last 15km, just to keep me going.
Then the MAS C guys came past and their commissaire called out ‘good job!’ But I was like, ‘I don’t know what that means – who’s ahead of me?!’
Then another couple of MAS C guys came past, 10km from the end, and they called out, ‘You’ve got 50 seconds!’ I was like ‘Fuck!’ I was putting everything I could into it. I couldn’t even look behind me – I was too scared and thought I’d get dispirited if I saw the chasers behind me. I just kept my head down and went as hard as I could, and counted the Kms down.
Katie had said there were three riders up the road by her count [there were actually four] and I didn’t know what grade they were, so I knew I was in with a chance of getting on the C grade podium and there was just this idea in my head that I might get overtaken by the bunch, and I wouldn’t be able to hold on because I was so tired.
They changed the finish approach from the old days, maybe this started last year, I don’t know, but you would have seen the inflated arch a way off – that must have felt good?
That’s when I looked behind and I thought, ‘Oh my god they’re not going to catch me!’ It was the first moment when I realised I’d actually broken away. Though I held my speed right across the line, still imagining they might just jump out of the bushes and catch me!
And then the result – there was only one C grader in that lead selection – so you got second place!
I was a bit disappointed. A part of me was imagining all the girls ahead might have been B graders. I’d really given it everything. But I think I was too inexperienced to understand how it was playing out. I probably could have responded quicker when they got the break. And if I hadn’t spent so much time on the front at the start I would have had more energy. They were just sitting in.
Day 2 – Kelly Country Road Race
So you had an idea of what you were up against for the second race? How did you pull up? How were the legs?
Very, very limpy! I was having trouble walking, but once I got on the bike I felt OK.
And the pace at the start? Was there fatigue in the bunch or was everyone going for it?
The second day race dynamics were very different. A lot more rolling turns in the group. Quite hard turns. There were periods where I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to keep up with this.’
How did the first QOM play out?
I was near the front, the first six riders. We were going pretty slow and I thought I could go harder and wanted to give it a shot. But for the first half I was pretty boxed in, but eventually I got through and gunned it, then a couple of other girls gave it a crack.
It was followed by a great descent – faster and a bit more technical than the Strade Nero descent – how did that affect the bunch?
I backed off at the top because I wanted to ride with the group, but Katie broke away on the descent. I was with a selection of five riders chasing with only one other C grader, Meredith. We could see Katie pretty much the whole time. She was going strong. We had to work to catch her.
Meredith noted it was obvious I hadn’t raced in a group before! She gave me some advice and we sat on the back of the B graders for a bit.
You made the catch very close to the finish?
Quite close, maybe 5km. But she stayed with us after we caught her. I felt bad for her – it was a serious effort and I think everyone assumed we’d catch her but we almost didn’t.
That’s impressive. So it’s you and five others coming in to the line – did you feel ready for a bunch sprint? What happened?
Meredith said ‘you’ll win, you’re stronger in the sprints.’ We let the four B graders go ahead but on the last corner she had the better line. I went as hard as I could but coming around that corner I could see that I’d lost it.
So second place again! Consistent! You’ve got to be pleased?
Yeah, but I was disappointed. I felt like it was within reach. I should have gone with Katie at the QOM and rolled turns with her.
So it started to rain, they’re doing the presentations and suddenly they announce you’ve won the C grade General Classification and you get your photo taken with Sam Miranda in a GC winner’s jersey. That was all a bit of a surprise?
A nice surprise, but Meredith would have got it, but she took a wrong turn on Saturday. Shell Hyde could have got it if she raced on Sunday.
But you’ve got to be in it to win it!
So what comes next?
I had a massive high, then a deep low as I confronted how much might be involved if I want to take it seriously. I was very tired and sore afterwards!
You’ve got to make sure you enjoy your riding. Will you do more races?
Yeah, but I’m going to be selective. Not every race. I’m really looking forward to mountain climbing in better weather. I’ve got that experience in my legs.
You’ve had this transition from cycling being about travelling and getting off the beaten track to racing now. Is there something you get from racing, something compelling for you, which you didn’t get before?
I’d hate to admit it, but I am a bit competitive. So there’s something fun about that, about trying to take on the other girls. And it goes really quickly cause you’re concentrating so hard. But on the second day especially I felt like it was just a really nice experience and as much as we were competing, we were working together and it felt harmonious. It was friendly.
What would you say to women who enjoy road cycling but don’t imagine themselves as potential racers – would you say give it a go?
It just makes me happy to see people riding. The more people riding the better and they should just do what they enjoy. I like commuting, it helps me switch my brain on in the morning, and unwind after work. Ever since I bought my first hybrid bike years ago I’ve ridden to work, no matter where I’ve lived.
So what’s the secret to your success? Are you just strong physically, genetically; is it your vegan diet; is it your touring or training here in the hills?
I was not a fit young person at all. I started exercising in my early 20s. I started running around 24-25 and got unfit at some points again but always retained some fitness and a desire to exert myself. I’ve always liked pushing myself. And I’m a bit stubborn!
Actually training with someone faster helps! My whole experience before the Ella-Cycling Tips ride was like, ‘I’m so slow I’ll never be able to keep up.’ But then when I rode with the women I realised that hard riding had been good for me – and it gives me something to aspire to! I’ve had some weird moments where I think maybe I’m not that bad?
As a footnote for my usual friends and readers – I only raced the second day and finished mid-pack. I went off the front at KM0 and, with one other, held off the bunch for 40km. I dropped my companion at the start of the climb but got caught by three riders just outside the top of the KOM. We formed a selection with another five or so riders, but I was spent and went out the back at the second climb. You can see my strava file here: