I’ve been growing tired. At the same time I’ve been growing faster, still. It’s something of a contradiction. I should be enthused that I’m improving little by little, even as I’ve reached my 40s. I went into the Mansfield Tour in close to best-ever form and came out with the stage win of my life and what was really a near-miss at the General Classification. So should I leave this scene on a high, or dig in for a longer haul with renewed confidence?
In and of itself, it’s not the racing which has made me tired, and certainly not the riding. But everything else begins to weigh.
Risk / reward ratios seem all wrong when you attend hospital more often than a podium. The cost and effort of maintaining a small fleet of race bikes consumes you, leaving just enough left over to be consumed by the cost and effort of racing logistics; licence and entry costs, accommodation and fuel …
It makes you wonder about all the other ways you could enrich your life with that time and money.
A friend messaged me the night before we left for Mansfield and said,
‘… when it comes to Tour time Your brain turns into a propeller ….’
It’s a feeling I hate; the exhaustion of detail.
This exhaustion strikes an existential note. You can’t help but consider what else your life could be. I have a number of friends my age who have put racing behind them in exchange for fatherhood. Yet they retain a love of riding and can still put me to the sword on a mountain. Does that make all the amateur racing a bit ridiculous?
I could walk away, but when you put something at the centre of your identity and then entertain walking away from it, you entertain walking away from yourself. You can call it reinvention or renewal; you can call it growing up or finding sense, but the break carries the potential for enough dissonance and regret and doubt that it frightens me.
Trying to hang on to the love isn’t helped by the cumulative psychological toll of actual abuse. The special antipathy reserved for cyclists by many Australian motorists ensures your training – which is stressful work in itself – is undertaken amidst a maelstrom of antagonism. It begins to drag on your spirit, or worse. This is affecting my training, creating an emotional obstacle to getting out the door.
Life is hard anyway. Work is hard. Every day is full of petty frustrations and stresses. There is an inexorable pull towards treating your riding as solace, disregarding effort-based measures of satisfaction in favour of pleasure, and peace.
But if cycling is beautiful, racing bikes makes you feel like an eagle. It draws you even more closely to your landscape, and into a community of brilliant, caring, sacrificing people. I’ve never found anything quite like it. Everything burns more brightly. More dangerously too, but it’s a shared danger which binds us and makes you feel more alive. And so you keep going.
And so I’ve kept going.
In December I entered the Tour of Bright in the form of my life. I crashed on Stage 2 before we had even reached the first climb. With my arm broken and plastered I went into a familiar routine: knowing the time would pass, knowing what fitness I could sustain on the trainer and wishing my days away until I could get back out on the road. I felt like, emotionally, I had one last savage burst of determination to spit at fate and get better than ever, again.
One of my bucket-list cycling wishes was to do Kinglake (my local Category-2 climb) in under 18 minutes. Pros do the climb in 15 minutes while fit recreational cyclists target sub-20 as a meaningful goal. I can do 18-something times fairly routinely these days and I really wanted to believe I belonged to the club-competitive climbers who ride 17-something. With my broken arm mended and some base kilometres from Adelaide in my legs I had a magic February ride.
One Saturday morning some quick kids were off the front of the Peak bunch; I attempted to bridge solo into a headwind, took some Masters-A guys with me, and got to the top in 17:40. Two weeks later I did it again so I knew I was on to something.
In 2017 I’d pushed myself into form before Mansfield Tour and in training I rode Mt Buller in 48 mins, which is a competitive time in my grade. But with my acute stress load maxed out I got very sick on the eve of the race and scratched. With that experience in mind I backed off in the weeks approaching this year’s tour. I did enough to keep my long term fitness high, but maintained a pretty cruisey stress balance. For training data nerds my fatigue profile from the crash at Bright to the Mansfield Tour looked like this:
What I did was quality over quantity. Some mean handicapping for my guest appearance at the Musettes Donna Buang race helped. As did a whole lot of time spent secretly on the TT bike …
Stage 1: ITT
On the last weekend before the tour I went with Claire to Mansfield with a plan of riding a full race simulation together.
We’d be sharing the TT bike. This required only a change of saddle height, and hopefully enough time between our starts. Before Claire’s effort on the recce trip I found the TT saddle clamp was broken. The manufacturer confirmed they were no longer available for the 7 year old bike. Of course, more last-minute crisis, more whirring propeller-brains. With a few days to spare, the store Alchemy Cycle Trader confirmed they still had the type of bike in stock and lent us a clamp without charge. Forever grateful. Crisis averted.
… It’s Saturday morning, It’s 9:30am. I’ve finished my warm-up in the rain. The bike’s in one piece, I haven’t got sick and I’ve even slept pretty well, I’m on time. The rain has stopped and the stars are aligned. I roll up to the start ramp …
For weeks I’d been looking closely at the course and using past efforts, including the previous weekend’s recce to forge a reliable plan for the next 20 mins or so. In previous years I’d done a worst speed around the course of 37kph and a best of 38.5kph or so. I believed I had a 40kph effort in me which would move me closer to the podium times in my grade.
Off the ramp at the start I glanced at my power numbers and saw the predictable excess you apply at the start from excitement. But instead of reeling it back in I told my self to use that temporary adrenaline as compensation for any later pacing issues. I hoped to reach the top of ‘Mt Nasty’ (4km into the 14km course) with an average power over threshold, from which point I’d accept average power would decline to the finish. The aim would be to stem that decline as best I could.
Up ahead I could see the rider who had left 30 seconds before me, closing on the rider who had left 30 seconds before him. A burst of energy might have got me passed the first rider on Mt Nasty but I held steady over the top and continued to narrow the gap on the descent. Turning onto Barwhite Rd for the base leg of the circuit the two riders had come together. They seemed to be slowing each other down. I took the moment to apply a burst of extra power and passed them both quickly.
It became apparent a tailwind had caught the disc wheel at this point and I intermittently exceeded 50kph on flat sections of the road. As the rain started down again I noticed I was already close to my previous best average speed for the course. I was on a good one.
Taking the final turn on to Tolmie Rd back to Mansfield I broke aero position, sprinting out of the saddle over the initial pinch before getting back low and winding it up on the descent to the line.
I’d got the 40kph average speed I’d believed I could reach with a time which would have won in 2016. But it was a fast day on course and others had gone faster. I came in 8th of the 44 starters. Still, probably my best TT effort and my first top ten in a VRS TT.
Strava file here.
Stage 2: Mansfield – Mirimbah – ‘Col du Tolmielet’
Earlier iterations of the Mansfield Tour had seen a second stage run down to Jamieson and back, but last year’s switch to a hill top finish had proven a hit and had returned. At 6.3km and an average gradient of 7% (closer to 8.5% for the first half with points over 10%) the finish up Old Tolmie Rd presents more difficult climbing than some mountains.
I’d relished this last year and assumed the steep climb would be a gift to me. Instead, after rolling turns on the front to bring back a break, and with a slipping saddle, I dropped right off the front selection.
Big time bonuses were on offer for the sprint points this year. I was vaguely concerned this could impact GC but relieved when I saw a breakaway of bigger guys go up the road – presumably non-climbers. As we neared the first sprint point volunteers waved urgently to us to slow down. Our breakaway riders had tangled in their sprint and one had hit the deck hard. He was conscious, but still lying on the ground as we past.
I was just keeping my head down. Last year’s experience guided all my decisions. Aside from moving towards the front at the turn-around to stay with the predictable change of pace, I stayed out of any action. A friend in the bunch, Wayne, alerted me to better positioning in the wind, which I’m grateful for. So out of the wind and out of sight I hid.
Before reaching the base of the climb the course retraced the morning TT, up over the little pinch of Mt Nasty before continuing past Barwhite Road. I had to get from the back of the bunch to near the front by the crest of Mt Nasty to be in position for the inevitable explosion by better climbers at the start of the ‘Tolmielet.’ This wasn’t easy. Having driven the follow car for other races, watching for riders who attack over centre-lines (so we don’t get into the habit of getting killed) I was mindful not to do this and risk disqualification. So I had to seize every hint of a gap and muscle through, which is really not my style. Wayne gave me some assertive encouragement and I crested about 10 riders back – just in time to watch a big rider tear right down the middle of the oncoming lane to the front (he would later finish towards the back).
My heart rate increased anxiously as we dropped down over the bridge and started uphill. Unlike last year it was less explosive and more of a hard steady grind. This suited me. Here was a familiar crowd; my fellow Peak rider Dean and fellow Coburg rider Ado amongst some of the leaner and stronger looking riders from the bunch. I called out ‘I’m on your wheel Dean’, conscious he hadn’t seen me for a while and wanting to lend a feeling that we could work together.
There was a constant nervous re-positioning in what was already a lead selection, just a few hundred meters after the start of the climb. A car descended towards us and I called out caution as a rider swung in front of me and across the centre-line. I got myself to the edge of the verge but then noticed the rider in front of me was fading. Re-positioning again, now I was on Ados’s wheel.
Ado had won stage 2 at the Tour of Bright, riding away from the bunch at the top of Tawonga Gap. So here he was marked. I didn’t want to attack him, and no one wanted to help him. I didn’t want to look back, but I noticed Ado had and I asked him what kind of selection we had.
‘About ten’ he said.
‘They’re all foxing’ I replied.
At this point, I felt like my reluctance to move past Ado’s wheel was almost hostile and I decided it was my turn to go to the front. I figured there had been no drastic attack yet and I would try to stay ready to jump the moment it happened.
But as the road relented momentarily I decided to slip back into the big ring and without looking back I sensed a gap was gradually opening. Out of the saddle I tried to ramp it up without showing the physical signs of any sudden acceleration. My power numbers were fantastic and well above what I’d sustained to the same point in training.
I kept it up, still not willing to look back, but still sensing things were shifting in my favour. Then I decided ‘it’s now or never.’ I dug in as hard as I could.
The climb eases with about 700m to go and I knew this well. I hoped not everyone chasing me did. Past the ‘Tolmielet Attack’ sign I dug in harder. Past the 500m to go sign and still not looking back. At 250m to go I looked back and saw my gap was considerable. Nearing the line I took one last look back. I couldn’t see anyone. Then I heard Scott McGrory saying on the PA, ‘now here comes Masters C.’ I hit the line giving a little peace symbol with my left hand and a thank you to the sky – not a religious thing, it was me thinking of departed friends who I know would have been happy.
I’m not used to winning. I’m not disappointed when I don’t. I’ve always backed myself on climbs at this level, but there are a lot of strong riders, always coming through on their way to higher levels. My chances have been real, but slim. Now I’d realised one of those chances. For sure it felt good. I felt glad. A lot of time and money and whirring propeller brains had been vindicated as worth the effort.
I rolled past the line and turned around, seeing the next three riders, including Dean, close together, then Ado. We were all glad it was done. I’d won the stage by 14 seconds over the second placed rider and 23 seconds over third. Now I sat in third place on the general classification, only 14 seconds back, having clawed back most of the deficit of more than a minute I’d had after the TT. It makes you realise how important a TT is – if I’d gone 14 seconds faster! I was also more than a minute clear of Ado in fourth place on GC. It looked like a safe GC podium.
My power numbers for the stage were off the chart. As it turns out the meter was on its last legs but it’s possible I was taking succour from exaggerated numbers and the excitement it instilled dulled my sensitivity to the pain of the real effort.
Now I was well set up for the final day ascent of Mt Buller, which had historically been my my strong stage.
Strava file here.
Stage 3: Mansfield – Mt Buller
I slept about as well as could be expected after the excitement of the previous day. Rolling to the start-line under clear skies and in the crisp morning air, I knew I would be marked. The options of getting 14 seconds for the GC win would be few. But I’d climbed well the day before and Buller suits me. In my previous two appearances at the race I’d podiumed the mountain.
One of the two guys in front of me on GC appeared and I said, ‘I guess it will play out on the mountain, it’s not like we’ll let each other steal sprint bonuses.’ This was just mind-games on my part. If these guys went for the sprint there would be little I could do about it.
I pointed out to Ado and Dean that I was wearing my torn-up socks from the Stage 2 crash at Bright. I was out to vanquish all my old bad luck.
Very soon after we rolled out and the neutralised section finished, breakaways began to form. I kept half an eye on these skirmishes; just enough to ensure no potential climbers were getting away, or so I thought. It would suit me if some big guys mopped up the sprint bonuses ensuring I had only to worry about my 14 second deficit. Mostly, I watched those two riders ahead of me on GC.
At some point I lost track of who had gone up the road. I’d seen at least one break and a chaser, or was it a couple of chasers? I was unconcerned and watching the two riders with whom I would presumably fly past the breakaway on the mountain. But there were some murmurings of unease in the bunch.
Back in 2014 I’d been so badly positioned at the base of the mountain, in a bunch of 90 riders, that I never even saw Andy G and Mathew I ride away. At every appearance since, I’ve led the bunch across the start of the climb, determined never to make the same mistake. I accelerated to the front and said to Ado with a laugh ‘We’re not going to do this all ourselves, ok’.
My remark was partly motivated by my experience last year, where I just rode on the front from the start before getting attacked at Hell Corner. It was the second time I’d been mugged at that spot which rewards the kind of explosive jump I’m not suited to. Everyone had said I should adopt a different strategy this year, but I wanted to at least reduce the group to a climber’s selection before making any calculations.
After riding well over threshold power for about 500m I backed right off and waited to see what would happen. Nothing happened. Here again, I was stuck on the front. So I soft pedalled, assuming the energy I saved could be used for greater efforts further up the mountain.
As I slowed to well under threshold power a rider finally came through. This was Blair who had podiumed Mt Baw Baw with me after my failed 70km breakaway in 2016. He raised the pace a little and complained about how unwilling the others were to stick their noses out. I took a glance back at a switchback. It looked like half the bunch were still with us!
What to do? I would have to attack, but when? My lap power was sinking. All the better to go off the front later I supposed. So long as Ado didn’t pull out a minute on me I was guaranteed a GC podium, so maybe this was the fate I would have to accept?
Of course we had a couple of breakaway riders left to catch but that would happen in due course. Blair seemed more worried though, and as we caught riders he would implore them for info on who was up the road and how far. I was bemused – the breakaway riders can’t climb, what’s the worry?
I rolled around Blair and at the ramp-up following the first false flat I attacked. ‘Ok, all-out, let’s see.’ I sat back down after about 30 seconds and looked around. A long line trailed from my wheel. I tried again. Through a switchback I lifted the pace, but I couldn’t shake them. I backed right off and let Blair through.
With only a couple of km left of the 15.3km climb we passed Paul B, another breakaway rider. This confused me – I thought we’d got them all. But after a tense exchange between Paul and Blair it became clear two riders were up the road. Way up the road.
‘We blew it!’ shouted Blair. Well, I thought, it’s not my job to pull everyone up the mountain quickly. But maybe that’s what I should have done.
I lifted the pace and tried to hold it at a higher level but I was tired. Right on cue I was swamped by about six riders at Hell Corner. Ado was with them and I called out ‘Go Ado – you’ve got this.’ I decided I couldn’t possibly attack over the top and let them go, my third place on GC presumably safe.
Soon after the finish I saw Wayne and thought, ‘I didn’t realise he was with our selection.’ But he wasn’t, he’d gotten second place from the breakaway while one rider had finished with such a margin from the breakaway he’d taken the stage and the General Classification. I was bumped off the GC podium. I had blown it.
Later I would joke to a friend on social media that ‘my race radio wasn’t working.’ His reply was a good summation:
‘that’s club-level racing! “is there someone away?” “there may be” “I don’t think so” “didn’t we catch them?” haha.’
I’d been put in a position I hadn’t ever known, fighting for a potential GC win, and my approach had come up lacking. You hear of athletes in other sports, under high-pressure situations being advised to ‘play their natural game.’ I think I should have done this, and just ridden the hardest mountain climb I could. At the least it would have saved the GC podium and it might just have dislodged others and seen a better result on the line.
Symbolically, my mountain finish in 9th place was worse than my place in the TT – a coming of age as a more even Masters C GC rider. Just in time to become pack-fodder in Masters B!
Strava file here.
I’d entered in great form, but in a very mixed state of mind. This race though, had broken the mould of previous experiences. How should I approach my existential quandaries now?
I joke about the Stage 2 win with one of my favourite aphorisms that ‘a stopped clock eventually tells the right time.’ After all, I have been going at it for a while. Since my first Victorian Road Series race at Mt Buller in 2014 I’ve ridden more than 80,000 kms and climbed more than a million metres. That’s got to create some kind of adaptation. While I’ve seen friends come and go, disappearing into parenthood or work or who knows what, I’ve kept plugging away at 300-400km a week unless injured from crashing.
I’ve been very lucky to have a racing partner. This means in my domestic life the importance of the effort is understood, although the sharing of that effort carries its own very real points of stress. At some level however, I’ve been able to do this with a sense that something must come of it. I haven’t just been in it for the journey. Now something has come of it and I’m not sure where it leads. A climbing win in a VRS race was a bucket-list wish like my sub-18 Kinglake and marking these achievements off does feel like narrowing in on a conclusion.
It’s amazing though how reinvigorating a good result can be. I’ve entered next week’s Mt Baw Baw race. I’m only a few points from being upgraded and I feel a certain moral pressure to fight it out for a bit in a harder grade. But moving up could be a stage in moving out. Whilst I’m not afraid of harder riding in Masters B, I am afraid (to reuse my friend’s metaphor again) of my mind turning into a propeller, of spiralling out of control under the pressure of something which should be fun. There’s only so much of that you can stand.
Reflecting on the best moments of the race I can relish a solidarity forged through shared difficulty and effort and persistence. It’s a funny thing, club racing. People turning themselves inside-out, burning through their bank balances and running their nerves ragged. In some ways it’s such a lonely pursuit. But again, I’m reminded that more important than the results, which no one remembers, are the relationships you forge and never forget. That’s what makes it worth it.
But then I suppose you could say the same for just riding around. We’ll see …