2016. What a year! At times it might have seemed like the world was fracturing: with wildly unexpected political outcomes alongside ongoing turmoil and suffering. Against this backdrop my world of amateur bike racing stood in stark contrast. Racing in Melbourne continues to grow and the contests of the Victorian Road Series and local club races showed evidence of a buoyant community. For me, after four years of racing and training, a lot of things crystallised. Whilst some of the year’s defining moments were bitter-sweet, I have to look back on this year with real personal satisfaction.
When I returned to work after a summer break in early 2016 there was a scrap of paper with a message left on my desk:
‘What’s this?’ I asked.
A nearby co-worker replied, ‘Oh, the kids at the Christmas party had fortune cookies, that must have just been left behind.’
Still, I decided to stick this message on my computer for a while. I needed the motivation. 2015 had been a difficult year. Though I’d landed a great full-time job I’d been badly injured in a crash in August and struggled to return to form later in the year. My personal circumstances also changed significantly and I faced an uncertain future.
But even as I grappled with the new changes, I was girded by an exciting sense of optimism. Really, anything could happen. All I knew for sure was I had a roof over my head and an income – and that’s just about all any of us need to get things started.
Spectating summer racing provided a good start to the year. Riding around Adelaide during the Tour Down Under with Peak Cycles was very satisfying. I caught up with old friends and made some new ones, and for the first time in three consecutive visits the race became a secondary concern.
One case illustrates this for me. On the day the race ascended the Corkscrew we’d been riding around the hills and left our timing a bit late to comfortably reach the iconic climb. One rider was determined to watch the race whilst the rest of the group were content to continue the ride. I’d wanted to watch the race – the memory of Cadel cresting the Corkscrew ahead of the 2014 peloton was so strong. But I went with the group and it was worth it: through gorgeous Basket Range and then down the Greenhill descent. The week proved again to me that in the world of road cycling, community is as important as competition. I returned home with my love of the sport fully charged.
Adelaide is probably second on the list of the places I could live in Australia. But it can’t really compete with my local hills and the mountains just a little further afield. Having Myers Rd showcased in the Sun Tour was pretty amazing – Froome and Kennaugh totally reset everyone’s idea of what a good time on the climb is!
Having the Tour come to Kinglake this year, after some high country stages, makes for a perfect parcours. Like many local riders, I’m looking forward to the contest between Froome and Chavez at Falls Creek and Glenburn Rd as much as what’s install in Adelaide.
One rider I shared some spectating with is my friend Alex. Alex contributes enormously to promoting road cycling in our area and maintains the Green Wedge Cycling club on Strava. For seven years now, he’s put on an informal 40km time trial through the local hills, starting and finishing in Warrandyte. This year I won it for the second time, joining Shane Miller who has done the same. Of course this is all a bit of fun. Shane does the course 10 minutes faster than me. With no grading for this informal event my result is only proof no one faster turned up! Still, I want to go faster again in 2017 – I reckon I can get within five minutes of Shane’s time. :)
More seriously, the races of the Victorian Road Series provided my training and competition focus for the year. I’d imagined at the start of the year I’d race in all the 2016 VRS events. Whilst doing them all became impracticable, the trio of events that began the series provided great racing. From East Gippsland to Mansfield to Mt Baw Baw, the grades were fiercely contested.
At the Tour of East Gippsland, I found myself out that way for the first time, staying in a motel which could have doubled as a Cold War fallout shelter. Mistakes on the final stage proved how easily your fortunes can shift in a short stage race if you’re not careful, and frustrated my sense of progress. Conversely, getting on the podium for the mountain finishes at the Mansfield Tour and Baw Baw Classic felt like the culmination of years of effort. I had no chance for the win on Mt Buller – when Max attacked I simply couldn’t cover it, but the near miss on Baw Baw caused a bit of soul searching!
What I achieved on Baw Baw, was nothing short of the worst physical state I’d ever voluntarily pushed my self into in a single day. I said I would never do it again, and the next day I said I was planning for the 2017 race. This is the essence of competition road cycling. More a way of life than a sport, and psychologically indecipherable, even if aesthetically appreciable, from the outside.
I have tried to arrive at a definition for a ‘cyclist’, as opposed to someone who simply rides a bike. I’ve been needled as a bit of an elitist for thinking like this at all and I admit for the purposes of planning, legislation and public health it’s an unhelpful distinction. And yet we know it’s a real one. Was it Joel Friel who said you can call yourself a cyclist after racing for seven years? That seems a bit arbitrary! I think a cyclist is someone who persists with their love of cycling as a way of life, and in spite of everything it entails; injury, discomfort, expense; and for racers: routine disappointment (albeit punctuated by moments of gratification). I’m tempted to add something to that definition about the tendency for a structured orientation to self improvement – that might be too specific but it holds true for many of us.
It’s a sport for people stubbornly addicted to the resilient mindset, to survival. But it’s more than the ability to endure suffering – there’s an awful lot of that going on in the world. It’s something about the willingness to voluntarily return to the suffering (and the danger) again and again – to seek to utilise it.
As I get older I also find something that I suspect is not an uncommon urge for the similarly situated: the motivation to defy the biological process. In this there is the risk of a horrendous cliché – the middle aged man who does his dignity no favours. But that cliché is also a load of rubbish! It’s perpetuated by people outside cycling who can’t understand the motor force of intense feeling which drives it. In any case I’m fitter and more youthful looking now, than I was five years ago. Appearances will catch up, but masters and veteran competition is proof of just how strong you can remain if you stick with it.
As my training improved this year I learned more about what it realistically can and can’t achieve, and how to use this knowledge in the future. The main upshot is I’m planning to have an actual ‘off-season’ this winter. I’ll maintain a base of fitness, but dragging myself into the frozen darkness just to stay relatively fit for some local club races is something I’m excusing myself from! In 2016 I made a rule that if the apparent temperature was below freezing I wouldn’t head out. I’ll raise that a few degrees this year! This June-August will see a lot more time on Zwift, or if I’m lucky, somewhere warmer. But you can only peak so many times in a year, and you need to know when to give yourself a break.
Around the time of the Mansfield Tour I met Claire. The level I was able to sustain through the rest of the year (and build on towards its conclusion) is due in no small part to her influence. Her enthusiasm for training and racing is infectious. Throwing in an extra 40km after the 60km commute to the city and back, after a long day’s work, is something you can’t easily do without encouragement and company!
Claire was especially helpful in my training for the Tour of Bright, which doubled for her, as training for another event. She’d had such a great racing debut and would have loved to race at Bright but had a close friend’s wedding to attend, so I suggested she target Giro Della Donna. The weeks before the event taught Claire about training, and taught me a little about coaching.
We made good use of daylight savings: most days Claire was commuting home through Kangaroo Ground from her work in the East and we’d rendezvous for our super-commutes in the twilight, sometimes roping in a friend along the way. We were generally too tired after a day’s work to make any special efforts, but the sheer increase in volume began to pay dividends. And, I have to admit, it was fun! I was probably the fittest I’ve ever been by the time the Tour of Bright rolled around, and I was probably the happiest I’ve been with my riding too.
Some comparison of my chronic training load (long term fitness), between 2015 and 2016 is illustrative here:
2015 was a bit of a disaster. A hint of fitness around the Mansfield Tour, then a descent into winter before I was wiped out by the crash. By contrast, 2016 shows peaks from a solid base for East Gippsland, Mansfield and Baw Baw; the building of a higher base level before surviving through the winter, then the build towards the Tour of Bright. Facing an uncertain future at the start of the year, all the pieces came together for my most solid and effective year of training.
It paid off for both of us: Claire smashed Reefton Spur at Giro Della Donna, trailing only the very best women riders on the day – a solitary second behind Rachel Ward and only 40 seconds behind Shannon Malseed. For my efforts, I rounded out the year being able to say I’d reached the podium of every VRS mountain finish and won the KOM classification in my grade at Bright. A good outcome.
I can also thank my beautiful new bicycle: my 2017 S-Works Tarmac. I’ve raced for the best part of four years on my old 8kg Roubaix Comp and worked hard to save towards the upgrade. I’m conscious the Tarmac is a lot of bike for someone at my level but I’d like to think I’ve earned it. The ill-fitting spotty jersey hanging beside my desk is hopefully more evidence the money was well spent!
As an aside, I have miraculously avoided what could have been two very bad crashes on the Tarmac. The second of these I recounted in my report of the Tour of Bright. The first I’ll recount in my forthcoming blog post about the bike. Suffice to say I’ve had a bit of luck. 2016 was my first full calendar year of road cycling without a crash.
So I wrapped up 2016 fitter, faster, better equipped and more engaged in my community than at any time since I set out on this journey.
Returning to my fortuitous message – did long-held dreams come true? Well yeah, they did. It was an extraordinary year for me and one which lays foundations for some interesting options. I hope I can continue to improve; I look forward to seeing what Claire does on the bike, and I can’t wait to see all the efforts and results from friends and those who inspire us in the community.
I hope if you’re reading this, your year was fulfilling too. Still, I know this was 2016. I don’t want to come off as mindlessly optimistic or narcissistically content in the context of so much global discord. But there is cause for optimism. In spite of the cacophony of stresses the world conspired to throw at us this last year, we could always find strength in each other. I think that’s true for the effective bonds of a cycling community as much as it is for resistance to political division.
We find our best when we act together. Human solidarity is a wellspring to draw upon when things are difficult.
So ride with your friends, enjoy your time with them and with your competition, share in their suffering, and aim for your best.
Here’s to a fulfilling 2017, on and off the bike!
If you want to see my better results for the year, I’ve updated my not-palmares here.