Thursday, April 24, 2014

Losing my appetite at the PNP Easter Tour

I do remember feeling quite excited when I first saw confirmation of the 2014 PNP Easter Tour.  I'd really enjoyed the 2013 edition, and that had been a great stepping stone towards my cycle tour in France - five hard stages in three days.  What's not to love?!

I entered A grade, as I had the year before, but as the event drew nearer, and the field started to fill up with some very classy riders, I became increasingly nervous.  The GrapeRide had been a solid 150-minute time trial, and I knew my form wasn't terrible.  But, I also knew I wasn't in the shape I'd been the year before.

One week out, I got my knickers in a real knot.  Simon had recommended some 10-second sprints followed by a bunch of 2-3 minute hard hill climb efforts, but I faltered in between suiting up and actually getting on the bike, and the session went begging.  Simon was pragmatic, and simply suggested I switch to B grade.  I emailed Dave Rowlands, and with his blessing, the move was made.

A few days from the event, Wednesday Worlds almost ended prematurely - when a van pulled out of the carpark at Houghton Bay in front of us, and I got popped halfway up the not-so-Happy Valley.  I swung by Oli's for him to give my Colnago a quick once over, returning the next day with my new TT rig.

My days of riding time trials on a road bike are over, with a BMC TM02 recently acquired from Capital Cycles and added to my handsome fleet of pushbikes.  I've been so busy not training, that I've only had a chance to ride it once.  That ride was a real eye-opener though - easing into it around the bays, getting used to the position on the aero-bars, had still amounted to 30 seconds off my best time from Freyberg to Brooklyn lights.  Promising...!

The plan for the tour was to swap my wheels from the Colnago after stage 3, and the return visit to Oli ensured brakes and gears would all work perfectly well - all I'd need to do on the day was swap a new cassette onto the rear wheel.

Ready to rock and roll

While my "training" had been lack-lustre, I'd been onto the logistical aspects of riding at Easter.  I had a room booked at the Copthorne, and by close of play on Thursday, had done grocery shopping to at least see me through the races on Saturday - events during the Easter shut-down are not without their challenges.  I'd organised to drive over to Martinborough with Alex Revell on Saturday, and before putting my feet up on Friday evening, picked up a pair of wheels he'd left with Simon.

I met Alex at 6:45 in the morning - just as it started to rain.  The drive over to the Wairarapa was a great opportunity to catch up, and the conversation was engrossing to the extent that I never noticed when the weather perked up.  Over on the other side of the Rimutakas, the skies were blue, and racing seemed like a lovely prospect.

We arrived in Martinborough a few minutes after 8am, and found a park near the hall.  Soon after we were both signed in, and final preparations for the morning's stage were underway.  This included pinning a pair of numbers onto our jerseys and handing over spare wheels to the wheel wagon.

The response to the tour had been excellent, and there were about 150 riders present for the race briefing.  Jorge Sandoval, Dave Rowlands and Mike Sim all made points about safety being a priority, and then it was time to roll out.

A grade were first on the road, and a large B grade (plus A grade women) field followed five minutes later, bound for two laps of the 50km Millers Road circuit. 

The first couple of kilometres were neutralised, but in my opinion, they should have kept speeds down for another few.  No sooner had the pace cranked up, than we were blasting through a section of road with regular metre-square gravel patches in it.  I counted at least six bottles on the road, and one puncture, but at least everyone stayed upright.

Aside from Wednesday Worlds, and the odd tandem race, it has been a long time since I've raced in a bunch, and I was finding it quite nervewracking.  My legs felt fine, which was at least one thing off my mind, but the dynamic swarm of the bunch was taking some getting used to.

I heard the sickening sound of the first crash before I saw it, and moments later I was passing one rider lying prone in the grass at the side of the road, with a least another person down beside them.  That was the first time I'd ever witnessed a road crash, and it didn't do my nerves any good.

Once over Millers Road, I decided I wanted to be at the front at the end of the lap.  I thought we were going to ride through the road repairs again, and wanted to be able to see what was coming.  As we made the left turn into the finish straight, I rolled gently off the front, and a few hundred metres later was surprised to see only two riders were with me.  They both sprinted for the line, and I followed them across in third place.

As it turned out, we hooked back into the course beyond all but two of the potholes.  One of my "breakway" companions stopped for a wee, and I cruised until we were swept up by the peloton a few minutes later.

The group split over Millers the second time, and I was the last on the back of the main field.  My mass gave me good acceleration down the other side, but even with the reduced bunch there was no room to pass, and I slotted in behind about 30 riders.

It took about 15 minutes for the group behind to fight back on, and throughout, the riders ahead were taking up the whole width of the lane, and there really was no obvious way of making my way up to the front. My legs were still feeling great, but my position was poor.

At 5km to go, I knew I'd done my dash in this stage.  There was a lot of pressure around the front of the bunch, and with riders 4 or 5 abreast, short of an acceleration on the wrong side of the road, there was no way forward. The left turn into the finish straight successfully negotiated, it was a simple matter of following wheels to record the same time as everyone else.

Or was it...

More horrible noises from up ahead, arms and legs flailing in the air.  I moved left, away from the worst of the sound, and instantly had nowhere to go but over the leg that was on the road in front of me.  In my dreams, I'd have sublimely popped a bunny hop over it, but my instincts are not that quick at the best of times, let alone at the end of a 100km stage.

I picked myself up off the road, and then my bike, spinning the wheels quickly to assess the extent of the damage (they seemed fine, apart from a rattle in my rear wheel).  Next checks were to me, and I instantly noticed a quite grotesque swelling above my right wrist.  I'd crashed only a few seconds earlier, so immediately assumed I'd broken my arm.  Though, that didn't seem quite right as I had no sharp pain, and seemed to have a complete range of movement in my hand.

I was already very angry, and swore loudly as I surveyed the carnage in the middle of the lane.  I saw at least one cracked front wheel, and watched someone struggle to untangle himself from two bikes.  Samara had blood on her knees and elbows - hardly the thing she needed a week out from the Cairns MTB World Cup race.  Brett was sitting up with blood pouring from a mangled top lip, looking dazed and confused. I'd gotten off lightly, it seemed.  (Later, I'd learn the damage included a broken collarbone and three broken ribs, punctured lung and broken tooth.  I was pleased a broken ankle was not among the injuries...)

I sat down against a fence, and fumed.  The Rivet Racing boys were soon offering me some jellybeans, and an ambulance officer checked out my wrist.  It had swollen up even more, and the skin was now feeling uncomfortably tight.  It looked like someone had taken half a banana, ripped it lengthwise, and inserted half of the half under my skin.  Still no sharp pain, and strength in the hand, and it was declared that nothing was broken.  I was given 3 paracetamol, an icepack and a compression bandage, and was sent on my way.

The ambo hadn't said anything about racing on, and I hadn't asked.  After rolling across the finish line (almost 13 minutes off the pace), I went back to the event HQ, and enquired about whether I could start Sunday's stage 3 if I didn't ride in that afternoon's second stage.  While undesirable, it looked like it was a possibility, though it was one I was keen to avoid.

Within an hour or so, the swelling had gone down considerably, the pain hadn't got worse, and I knew by that point I'd be able to race.  Whether it was a good idea was another question.

I was still really angry about the whole thing.  It seemed so stupid to me that we would crash so needlessly.  The stage was done, we were out of the running for line honours, so the only thing left was to get ourselves cleanly to the finish.

My rear wheel had something loose in it, but it didn't seem to be related to any of the spokes.  (Once home, I removed a piece of gravel from inside the carbon fairing - inconceivably large given the size of the access holes around the place.)

I wasn't feeling hungry, but ate a couple of easter buns, and then went in search of my family.  Sarah and Khulan had been driven over by my Mum and Dad, and I found them ensconced in a local cafe.  I gave them the rundown on the morning's events, and then went to get ready for the afternoon's Kermesse.

By virtue of a very long association with Oli and Roadworks, I had a clean jersey to don for the next race.  This one, a track jersey Ultimo had modified with a couple of rear pockets, nice and tight, making me ever so slightly more aero.  My intent was to keep to the front of the race, and out of trouble.

I went to the front as we turned into the finish straight on the first lap, and spent the next lap or so there.

Thanks to Wheelworks for the photo

I didn't really consider at the time how dumb that was, from the sporting point of view at least, and pedalled way too hard in the context of the contest.  The field swarmed past in good time for the sprint prime at the end of the second lap.

I did one more "suicide turn" prior to the next sprint, and then resumed my spot at the back of the bunch.

The chicane through the square

On the final lap I did move up a bit, but was soon put off that strategy by someone forcing themselves into a hole that, frankly, I didn't think was there.

The road was nice and wide at the start of the last straight, and I made good use of the centre of the road.  I was steaming along nicely, and had passed all but four of the riders, before my hamstrings started cramping, and I started going backwards again, relatively speaking.

The sprint for second...
I was glad to be done, and rode my bike for a minute or so, before bidding my parents and Khulan farewell, and sitting with Sarah to watch the A grade race.  Alex was notably absent on one lap, and it was a shame to hear he'd crashed on one of the turns, and taken a lap out.  He seemed OK though, despite both hands and knees looking the worse for wear.  Joe Cooper single-handedly decimated the field (as a young guy had done in my race), finishing solo.

Once Alex had returned from first aid, his stuff in the car was replaced by Sarah's, and we were off to Masterton for the night.  After showering, and picking up some breakfast food from Pak'n'Save, we temporarily put racing on hold, and switched into romantic-getaway mode, and enjoyed a nice dinner.  My plate was very large, but the portion of pork and mash was more gourmet than I would have liked, but it nonetheless accorded with my desire to eat, and I struggled through it.

The next morning, I ate some cereal and tinned fruit, before heading off to the Sports Bowl.  Sarah was suited up to ride too, planning to ride the main race loop in the opposite direction to what we'd be doing it.  I forced myself to eat a banana before setting off, and had a couple in a pocket for during the race.

The first 15km was sedate, in the scheme of things. I sat near the back, and regularly contemplated reaching for a banana.  It was a good idea to eat while the pace was down, and before the energy stored within was needed.  But, I couldn't quite bring myself to take a hand of a brake, and rather than ease off the very back of the bunch, I just stayed where I was.

I felt very comfortable on the climb, until I didn't.  The pace went on a kilometre or so from the top of Kourarou, and I had to fight hard to stay in touch.  In fact, I didn't (stay in touch) - the acceleration had split the bunch, and while I was on the wheel ahead, six riders ahead, a gap was growing.

90kg comes in handy on a long descent, and I worked my way to the front of my small group.  There was a bit of confusion at the bottom of the hill, with one rider attempting to short cut about 20km of the course.  I lost a bit of momentum in the uncertainty of what those near me would do, and then the chase of the bunch ahead was on in earnest.

I worked hard for about 15 minutes.  Jo Holdaway came through for a turn a couple of times, and eventually we got to within 20m of the back of the main field.  I don't know whether it was my brain, and my tendency to let go when the job's all but done, or the beginning of the end, physically.  In any case, I didn't rejoin the group, and started working my way backwards again.

It was nice to see A grade, and then most of B grade on the out-and-back leg of the course.  Half way through the return journey, I knew I was toast.  My legs felt totally empty, and I started to assess my ability to complete the stage.  I was a mere 40km into 123km, and had a very long way still to ride with little oomph with which to do so.

I found Sarah at the intersection back onto the main loop, and stopped to talk with her.  Another few riders went blasting through, and I foolishly decided to chase a group of three.  30 seconds later, I'd made no headway into their head-start, and I gave in, for good.

Sarah and I rode together, and were passed by C grade by the time we'd reached the top of Limeworks Hill.  There, I handed in my race tag, and grovelled back to Masterton.  My final act of the race was to pick up my spare wheels an hour or so later.

I was bitterly disappointed, not to mention embarrassed.  Pulling out of one race is bad enough, but at the cost of another two was a hard pill to swallow. 

It took at least 24 hours to properly work out what had gone wrong.  Finally, relaxing at home in front of the TV, watching the Amstel Gold Race that had been recorded while we were away, I felt hungry for the first time since the crash, and I realised that I'd eaten much less than I would in a normal day at work.  And consequently, had consumed a fraction of the food needed to sustain a competitive effort in a stage race.

The weekend was not without its positives.  Sarah and I had enjoyed a nice time away, and even got an unexpected ride in together. I had a very nice conversation with Jo G, which was long overdue, and very welcome.  I'd enjoyed the generally social atmosphere for at least the first morning of the tour.  I got tangled up in a bad accident, and had only a few bruises to show for it.  Finally, it seemed I'd dodged a bullet by missing the time trial stage - as had been the case in the Vets' Tour Simon and I had done on the tandem, there were no results, and that would have been gutting had I ridden.

Mostly, the racing had been unpleasant, and this had obviously been a prominent part of the weekend.  Immediately after the crash, I felt I'd lost my humanity.  Where I should have felt pity and concern for the poor chap who'd been at the heart of the carnage, I was overwhelmingly angry about the situation.  It made me feel like a bad person.

It also really made me question my interest in road racing.  For a long time, I've thought at least some races would suit me very well.  I'll never be able to climb with the best, but I seem to go OK on flatter courses.  Physically, that is.  I'm not sure I have the fight in me for the struggle for position.  Maybe I'm too polite, but I also realise it's just not that important to me.  I don't particularly relish beating others, and I'm not willing to fight for position at all costs.

That all said, I'm enjoying the delicious irony of not getting to ride my TT bike in the tour, since I'm now even more certain that that is the sort of riding I want to be doing.

Me, against the clock.  So really, me, against myself.

Sign me up. 


  1. Great write up John, crashes like that give me the heeby jeebies and also make me question racing. All the more reason to race A grade

  2. It's not unreasonable to be angry when the riding that caused it was unreasonable in itself. Can't wait to see you throw down in some TTs real soon, bro. Heal well, Oli

  3. An honest and cathartic account of the Tour John and everyone`s reality is different. For me there was very little fighting for position in this tour and only a few rider`s did I keep away from. The competition is never really about beating others but seeing how far you can push yourself. When the pain is on we all go to dark places but it is how you deal with it that is interesting. I got dropped on Koroua Hill on the last lap but did not blow and managed to work well with Jason and Craig to crawl to the finish. Getting motivated for the TT was hard but the sense of satisfaction at the end was great. It is amazing what the body can do.It is that sense of amazement that drives to me carry on racing despite all the crashes - and I`ve had a few. And by the way it was me that gave you the jelly beans because you were in shock and lots of people care about you.

    1. Thanks Oli. You make an excellent point about the role perception plays in these things. I am always very glad to recognise that riders are not robots, and emotions and other irrationalities all come into play, for good or bad!