When I saw the announcement of the 2013 edition, it wasn't just sentimentality that compelled me to sign up. Not only would three days of back-to-back racing be awesome prep for France, but I really love the idea of an annual tour of this type in the Wellington region, and I know there's nothing like a good turnout to encourage organisers to keep on organising.
My prep for this bit of prep was laden with good quality - a great ride at Karapoti and a great ride around Ruapehu were the biggies, but also numerous smaller rides, including the weekly Wellington Wednesday World Champs - a sub-hour blast around the bays.
The Wednesday Worlds have been a major part of upping my game in the last year and a half, since I was brave enough to turn up for the first time. I tend to use them to learn about racing, and myself, and from time to time make useful discoveries about how to make a bike go very fast, and for how long its possible.
As the months progress, the decision of which grade to enter becomes less of a decision. Although I was comfortable entering A-grade for the tour, it was not without apprehension, and I headed over to the Wairarapa worrying about whether I'd be able to keep up.
The first of five stages kicked off on Saturday morning at 9am. This was not without its logistical challenges, with Wellington's supermarkets all closed on Good Friday. I had the foresight to do some groceries on Thursday evening, and was tucking into a big bowl of porridge at 6am before making the drive over to Martinborough.
I had plenty of time to sign in, collecting my timing tag and race numbers (two of them!) from the Martinborough community hall, a quaint old building. I managed a 15 minute warm up before joining the 25 other A-graders on the start line. I recognised a few: Wednesday Worlds regulars, David Rowlands and Dave Weaver, and others that I've seen at races over the last while: Luke, Backy, Dan, Tristan, Kane, Andy, Ben, Craig and Jack. Those that I didn't recognise by face were mostly young, and fast-looking! Some had names which I did recognise, and which made be quite nervous!
The course headed out to the Martinborough-Masterton Road, before heading backwards over the Miller's climb and then south back to Martinborough. We were doing two 50km laps, and I noted the first of those was knocked out in about 1:05. I felt I'd coped OK with the race so far, but had made two distinct errors. The first was starting the Miller's climb at the back of the bunch, getting gapped along with a few others, and having to chase back on. The second was trying to follow David Rowlands when he went on a bridging attack. I left the decision to go far too late, and was never on his wheel. Luckily I pulled the pin early enough that I could latch back onto the cavalry as they swept me up.
A breakaway went and finally stuck just before the second Miller's climb. I was philosophical about this - at the time there was no way to know that this was the race-winning move, and besides, it was the wrong time and place for me to do anything but try and hang on to the main field.
My position over Miller's was better the second time around, but I still had to work hard to get back on. At least my mass - which had hurt me going up - was useful getting me down a bit faster than those just in front of me.
The second split was a bit more protracted than the first had been, and I regretted not trying to get in on it. Would've, should've, could've though. At least the move spelt the end of the up-to-now incessant attacks, and with the added twist of the stage race, all was not lost, and limiting time became the remnant bunch's focus.
I slipped back into my favoured domestique mode, and was happy to be one of the few diesels cranking out the final kilometres. Often I was on Peter Murphy's wheel, and sensibly pulled the pin on a couple of attempts to come around him, lest I soon end up out the arse. Most of the bunch were happy to be dragged to the end, but I did get outsprinted by one guy I'd forgotten was in the bunch! Ha!
In all, I was relieved to get this first stage done. It was nice not to have been dropped as such, more, left behind! At least it was with about half the peloton.
I hoped my endurance would stand me in good stead for the second race of the day, a 34km, seven lap Kermesse, in the outskirts of Martinborough.
Each lap, we'd cut across one corner of the main square, and while I was more confident in my legs than I'd been in the morning, I was less confident in my ability to handle the five hard turns each lap.
There were a few hours to kill, and after a plate of eggs at a local cafe and a short visit to the supermarket, I hung out in the shade of the trees in the main square, enjoying the company and conversation of some of my fellow racers, and Tighe - not racing on account of a heavy crash at the Kapiti "fun" ride.
It was also a delight to see Oli and his son Bodhi who'd driven over to spectate for the afternoon. It is always an honour to wear the Roadworks colours, but doing so in front of Oli himself brings that little bit more.
Despite keeping my bibs on over lunch, once I'd noticed Andy Hagan getting ready in his skinsuit, I figured I might as well do the same.
|Oli: sponsor, mechanic, friend, and paparazzo!|
My nerves about the cornering were unfounded...
|Photo: Oli Brooke-White|
... and neither had I expected the format to suit me so well. I contested neither intermediate sprint, but did spend a lot of time on or near the front of the bunch through the middle of the race. My friend David Rowlands was in yellow, I was feeling good, and there was a small breakaway up the road to keep in check.
|Photo: Oli Brooke-White|
There weren't nearly as many attacks during this short race, but by the time the final lap came and we were all together again, my legs were starting to feel a little worse for wear. The penultimate straight was into the wind, and I drifted a bit too far to the back on account of my fatigue. I got a great line through the final corner, but was a little boxed and only wound it up to the extent that I had space to use.
Dave was grateful for my help during this stage, and I was glad to have got through it upright. It was also interesting to realise that I could have been much more competitive if I'd ridden wholly for myself. The results had me right near the back, but Oli's photos have me just ahead of Luke - credited with 10th - more consistent with the position I remembered! I look forward to unleashing in one of these another time soon!
In the absence of a pocket in my skinsuit, Oli had kindly looked after my car key during the race and a warm-down lap. In his words, we had "time for a quick hug and some good luck wishes for the next couple of days" before he and Bodhi set off for Wellington, and I made for Masterton to rest up for Day 2.
Overnight maillot jaune, Dave, described Stage 3 as "one of the hardest stages for some years...". While he was "resting" at the top of Limeworks hill...
|Photo: Tijs Robinson|
The 119km stage had started with an undulating loop out towards Castlepoint. The pace was on and off, with numerous attacks and chases. As we looped back towards Masterton, we hit a small climb which I simply could not cope with, and I was dropped by the main bunch. For a moment, I thought that it was game over, but soon realised I wasn't alone. Peter Murphy, the big unit from the end of Stage 1 was there, as was Tristan Thomas, who gave me an encouraging shout: "GO SIFTER". So, the chase began, and after a few minutes over undulating terrain, it became apparent we were going to rejoin the main field.
It was momentary though. No sooner had we connected than the attacks started going in. A small group got away, and then another. Dave looked at us all, and pointed out he had team mates up the road and would not chase. For the most part, we looked anywhere but back at him. The gap to the group ahead got a little larger, and then from the back of the bunch launched Dave. I had no hope of emulating him. The race was leaving the station. Moments after Dave had shot off, big Dan Waluszewski left with Jason Christie on his wheel. I swear the road was curling up behind Dan as he laid down unsustainable power. Dan was back a few minutes later having successfully delivered Jason up the road to where the race was.
In many ways it was a relief to have been dropped. The riding had been very, very difficult to this point, and it showed no signs of easing up. On the other hand, we still had over half the stage's distance to go. Nonetheless, we switched into "let's do as little damage as possible" mode.
We well and truly cruised, with the exception of me sprinting for 50m or so towards a "SPRINT, 1KM" sign, throwing one arm in the air as I passed it. Kane pointed out I still had a kilometre to go, but I was happy enough with my shorter effort! A while later we turned onto the Kourarau climb, past Adrian Rumney, adding to his wonderful portfolio of Wairarapa race photographs. It was nice to have enough spare breath to say gidday, and to admire the man's attire!
|Photo: Adrian Rumney, adrianrumney.com|
Soon after passing Adrian, we too were passed, by the leading B-grade riders. I gave my buddy Jase McCarty a good holler. I'd hoped we'd link up with the back of the bunch, but it was in ones and twos, and so we left them to their own devices. There were quite a few riders unaccounted for, including my friend Tijs.
I asked innocently whether there was a time cut, usually a feature of pro stage races. I also hoped out loud that we'd be back in time for our Time Trial starts!
The descent was a ripsnorter, and we all successfully negotiated the left-hander at the bottom, in all its off camber and launchpad glory. We were now pointing into the wind, and still had 20km or so to ride. Jack and Matt were pretty rooted, and rather than leave them in the countryside on their own, we cruised allowing them to shelter in our lee. I chatted quite a bit with Ben Knight from the Masterton club, and shared with him a bit of liquorice one the of the marshalls handed us!
The Limeworks hill wasn't bad at this pace, and we let Kerrin drift off the front lest he be seen to have fraternised with the "laughing bunch". I certainly wasn't laughing though - we were still out in the countryside, and had 10km or so to ride back to Masterton. It was just as well I poked my nose into the Masterton Athletic clubrooms, as I was able to move my spare wheels inside, and to get the news that the time trial had been delayed by an hour. That relief meant I definitely had time to go back to the hotel at the far end of town. I resolved to drive back for the TT, having nearly reached my quota of riding for the day!
For a dude without a time trial bike nor a pointy helmet, I was mighty excited about the fourth stage, a 16km individual time trial. I did have one TT accessory though - a skinsuit - and a preference for steady power output as opposed to the punchy accelerations of the road races. Perhaps my introversion also kicks in, and I enjoy riding on my own!
It's hard to know what the agendas are at this stage in a tour - there's not a lot of incentive for many riders to dig deep, with only a few still in contention for the coveted jersey of the leader on general classification. On the other hand, put men on bikes and wave a stopwatch around, and boys will be boys...
|Photo: Adrian Rumney|
Not only was the wind now coming towards us, but I wondered if we'd been going downhill too. My speed had been in the high 40s, but was now hovering below 40km/h. In the final straight I was able to focus on picking off my 90-second man, and had enough spare energy to give Adrian a wave, while maintaining my "aero" position...
|"ROCK ON", thanks to Adrian Rumney|
After a short ride back to base, it was good to be able to throw the bike and spare wheels into my car before driving to the hotel. Riding with the wheels in the morning had been a mighty pain in the arse...
The fifth and final stage of the tour was a three-lap affair on the Gladstone Loop, each of which included a climb of Miller's Road, and a 150m stretch of chunky gravel, courtesy of some roadworks.
While I've got plenty of experience riding gravel roads, not much of it is on a road bike! When I pulled the bike out of the car, I was surprised my tyre pressures were in the low 80s, and bumped each back up to 100psi. Hopefully that would ward off the snakebites.
My hotel room had come with an Easter bottle of wine, which I gave to Jorge for one of the marshalls. He unceremoniously handed it to one young fellow who looked shocked, on top of the "I can't believe I'm out of bed so early on a public holiday" look his face was already wearing.
I had a good warm-up ride with Ben Knight, who knew the start was back out at the TT start/finish line. It was just as well he knew, as I'd incorrectly assumed it would be back at the cars. Luckily I had everything I needed already with me.
The bunch had gradually been getting smaller, but Luke's dad, Wayne, lined up with us. This meant he got a great view of what was probably my worst race start ever.
Over the years, I've had plenty of practice clipping in - all those traffic lights, race starts, and departures from home, work, and all manner of other stops. But, I temporarilty lost the ability to do it.
Generally, after one power stroke on the right, I give my left pedal a quick flick, engage the cleat, and go for gold. As soon as that didn't work the first time, I pedalled again, and thereafter totally lost the plot. I was trying to clip in as my pedal turned, and to make matters worse, my right cleat disengaged too. When I was finally ready to go, I had a gap of 50m to close down.
The thought of not bothering did cross my mind, but by that stage, I was already chasing hard - on the TT course, superseding my TT effort of the evening before. After a nervous minute or so, I finally latched on to the back of the bunch, and stayed there for quite a while!
The first time through the chunky gravel section just near the Miller's turnoff claimed the yellow jersey. I was slow through there, and was surprised to see he'd stopped for a whizz. Of course, he'd stopped on account of the puncture and was making best use of the time it would take for the wheel wagon to arrive.
Dave's misfortune was great for me (and at least some of the others, no doubt) as bunch etiquette dictated a cruisy pace until the race leader rejoined us. He did so not far from the top of the hill, and as he rode past the bunch made a point of saying thanks enough times to ensure everyone would hear it. Nice work.
The more I race, the more I learn, and I've taken note of how temporary a hill-top fade can be. Kind of like getting an annoying splinter out - as soon as it's gone, it's gone - and in this case the splinter is the uphill bit. Consequently, I'd been forcing myself to go as hard as I absolutely could to keep in touch with the bunch, even when I enter the zone where the alarm bells start going off and almost my entire being is telling me "dude, you need to stop - you're killing me". Gravity is such a bitch, but as soon as it was back on my side, or at least out of the game, I ceased from being one of the very weakest in the bunch.
Over the next couple of laps, I tried to spend a bit more time further up the bunch. When Ben Knight rode off the front, soon after leading us past his clubmates out for their Easter Monday ride, I was in second wheel, behind Luke McDermott. He looked like he knew it was his job to chase Ben down. I opted not to come through. After spending a considerable amount of Stage 3 with Ben, I knew he was no threat to Luke's team mate's yellow jersey, a while I would have loved to bridge across and see if we could sustain a breakaway, I didn't think I had the acceleration to get away from the bunch in the tailwind conditions. So, I sat tight.
The second time through the gravel went a bit better, and also riding further up the bunch seemed better too. While I was copping a bit more wind, I could accelerate with the attacks much more freely, and consequently their duration and intensity both seemed more manageable. I was still doing dumb stuff though - at one point I hauled on my brakes rather than go past the leading riders, and moments later found myself trying to regain the speed I'd just had to counter yet another attack...
As we turned north for the final time, I was glad still to be in the bunch, and still feeling OK. I was riding up the bunch still, and following attacks as early as possible. Without really thinking about it, I was the first to take off after Dave and Jason Christie, and soon after that I found myself off the front of the bunch.
Brad Tilby joined me for 30 seconds, but then I was on my own again. The head wind wasn't too bad, and rather than ease off and be at the mercy of the others again, I put my head down, and tried to ride a steady but sustainable pace. I was never more than 100m ahead, but it was nice to not have to worry so much about who was where and what they were about to do. After perhaps 5 minutes, I was swept up.
The final 10km were fun, and again, I tried to ride as close to the front as I could, sometimes in first or second wheel. There weren't many attacks which was nice, so the pace was pretty steady.
Andy Hagan, from whom I'd had a couple of good pointers during the stage - including how to use a race number as a pocket for the skinsuit! - did attack a couple of kilometres from the end, and while it was not particularly satisfying to drag the peloton back to him, I was kind of embracing my position at the front of the peloton, and that was satisfying. While I was ruining any chance I had of sprinting for the line, I did feel like I was able to ride a small part of this stage race on my own terms - albeit in the service of others. I think I've finally discovered what I want to be when I grow up - a lead-out man!
When I joined Dave and his teammates, Luke, Backy and Lawny, at the end of the stage to congratulate them on an excellent race, one or other of them might have heard me mutter "I really have no idea what I'm doing out there..."
But, I'm trying to get to the bottom of it!
* * *
A few days on, my legs are still feeling pretty wrecked, but I know I'll be better for it when I eventually do recover (hopefully just in time for the Graperide with Simon on the tandem on Saturday)!
The tour was an excellent training experience, in both the riding and racing senses. I can't wait to get stuck into some more road racing in a few months' time. And, I look forward to having another crack at this Easter Tour next year!