Sunday, January 4, 2015

Five lessons from the North Island Series

In the middle of March, just as I was "getting ready" for my ill-fated PNP Easter Tour, up popped promotion of a new race series.

It garnered a great deal of excitement among the Wellington road cycling community - while a few riders compete in the South Island's successful Benchmark Homes Elite Series, team racing is a mostly foreign concept to us.  The wheeling and dealing began immediately, as people who weren't already affiliated to the likes of Wheelworks and MeoGP started to rustle up some mates to form a team with.

I put my feelers out, but soon realised forming a team was going to be an impossibility, and instead accepted a spot on Rivet Racing's roster.  After a very disappointing Easter Tour, and fairly lousy condition, I opted to ride the Masters division, i.e. those 35 years and over, complete with its shorter distances.

The series provided a nice carrot which complemented my general desire to be fit.  I realised that waiting for the inclination to ride often meant that I couldn't ride at all, and so I reprioritised slightly and forced myself out when the opportunity arose.  Within a few minutes, I was usually glad to be on the bike, and was wondering why I didn't do it more often.

Throughout winter, I managed 3-4 decent rides a week.  These were typically short, amounting to little over an hour:  a Makara Loop on the way to or from work, a loop around the South Coast taking in Brooklyn Hill, Murchison St, Mt Albert and Mt Vic, and Wednesday Worlds, a 50-minute blast around the bays.  I started joining my team-mates on their regular Saturday morning ride, which usually took around 3 hours, punctures notwithstanding.

These slowly but surely started to make a difference.  My weight post-France had crept up from 85kg to around 92kg, but a reversal began.  I also started to feel stronger. Limited time on the bike also meant that I stayed healthy during the winter, and didn't succumb to any of the nasty colds and flus that were going around.

Eventually, local races began, and I went to as many of these as I could, even grabbing fastest time in the second Balfour-Pennington handicap race in cold and wet conditions down-valley from Wainuiomata.  That performance, and the fact that in the Chinese Zodiac, 1973 was the year of the Ox (and element, Water), lead to the Rivet boys giving me the nickname "Water Ox" which appears to have stuck, including Jase's take on it which brings a smile to my face every time I read it - Woxy!

In the final few weeks before the series, I'd followed Joel Healy's advice and done a set of hill and flat intervals, and by the time the first race rolled around on September 19, I was pleased with my progress, and apprehensively looking forward to getting underway.

Race 1:  Wrap up warm

The conditions for race one could not have been much worse.  The course was three laps of the Gladstone-Millers circuit, and it was cold, wet and windy.  Water Ox conditions.

It was hard to know what to wear, but opting for a Castelli Gabba beneath my Rivet jersey was spot on (the Gabba definitely lives up to the hype and is the best bit of cycling kit I've owned).

Photo:  Michael Wills
The Open riders were underway first, and then the huge Masters bunch lined up.  We were neutralised for the first few kilometres, and then racing got began.  We managed to pass safely beneath the finish gantry, despite the bunch using the entire left side of the road, and cones sitting on the centre line.

I didn't much enjoy being at such close quarters in such foul conditions, but the pace was manageable at least.  At one point I joked with local legend, Brent Backhouse, that I could see him a mile off in his bright orange POC helmet. He was one person we'd identified to keep an eye on.

I kept waiting for the hammer to drop, but the bunch seemed content to ride at a pace I was comfortable with.  As we made our way up our first of three ascents of the mellow Miller's Road climb, I went to the front and set a good tempo. Over the top I was surprised to hear there was a breakaway 4 minutes up the road.

Setting the pace over Miller's Rd, Lap 1.  Photo: thanks to
The bunch was well strung out on the steeper descent, and my mass gave me a good advantage. Mark Donald and one other got a bit of a gap, and I ummed and erred in between, but in the end drifted back to the main field.

The next leg was into a stiff headwind, and it was good to think of the people ahead getting less shelter.  I hadn't been prepared to grab some food from my jersey pocket - I wanted both winter-gloved hands near my brakes - so it was great to be offered a chunk of one-square-meal by my team-mate Ben.  Joel was up front doing some solid work keeping Mark and mate within sight, and we were soon into the crosswind leg.

As the road started to tip up slightly, I was in second wheel, with another Rivet in front.  Craig was setting a good hard pace, and as we neared the top, I urged him on.  When he peeled off, I decided I'd bury it for a while.  It was nice to be at the front, and I figured that in the strong cross wind, the bunch might split, making for slightly less hectic riding for the remainder of the race.

I rode in the gutter, ensuring that the riders behind me got no draft.  Every time I checked, there was someone on my wheel, but I kept my head down and kept pushing the pace.  After perhaps 5 minutes of this, we made the left turn for the down-wind leg.  I eased up and swung wide to slot in further back in the bunch.  I was expecting 20-30 riders, but to my surprise there were only four.  While none of my team-mates were there, I was sure they'd be keeping a watching brief in the bunch behind.

Before too long, we'd picked up Mark and his cobber, making us a bunch of seven:  Mark, three riders from East Coast Velo, including Craig Hoskin who'd recognised me at the start of the Bridge to Nowhere ride at the beginning of the year, a Tararua Builders rider, myself, and none other than Gary Anderson, Olympic Bronze medalist, and multiple Commonwealth Games champion.  Despite ECV's strength in numbers, we all started working together and it finally felt like we were racing.  The conditions continued to be foul...

The chasing bunch.  Dire.  Photo: many thanks to

And another, just to make you glad you're indoors...  Thanks again to

I had absolutely no idea who was up the road, but I'm sure the ECV guys knew of at least one - their team-mate, Stephen Sheldrake.  They weren't obviously keeping the pace down, but I'm sure they had absolutely no intention of letting us catch up to the front of the race.  On the other hand, I'm sure they didn't want to be caught by the 100 riders behind either, and we continued to make good progress.  On the second lap, we took two minutes out of the front, but two minutes adrift was the closest we came.

On the final lap, and I lead into the left turn a few kilometres from the finish.  The foxing began, and I had to slow dramatically to get off the front.  On the short descent past the Gladstone Hall, my mass gave me a bit of a speed edge, and I ended up at the front again.  We were on the cross-wind leg again, so I stuck to the gutter and kept the pace high.

When the gantry was in sight, I gave it heaps, and got a small gap which I was able to hold all the way to the line.  The five riders in front had finished two-and-a-half minutes earlier, but placings were the key to the series, and I was very happy with sixth.  Despite being completely oblivious to the breakaway in the first few kilometres, I was pleased that I'd made the most of what remained, and glad to have repaid the early work by my team-mates with a high placing.

Success, sort of.  Photo:  Di Chesmar

The after-match was a bit of a fizzer, with not even so much as a biscuit each to help with the resupply of the considerable amount of energy we'd expended during the race.  On the other hand, team managers got a stern email warning of the penalties for riders fronting up to the podium not in riding uniform!  These were quite different priorities to the usual, casual club race.  But, it was nice to be doing what felt like serious racing.

There was news of crashes galore, but luckily no Rivets had gone down.  Dave Weaver in the Open race had steamed into an unfortunately placed road cone and busted his collarbone, while Backy had crashed out of the master's race.  Among many others...

We were also taken by surprise with the allocation of team points.  When we'd entered, it hadn't been clear that the 35-44, 45-49 and 50+ age categories were being run with separate series points.  Also, the field size had expanded from the 80-rider limit, to close to 100, and space on the road had been at a premium.  Emails full of "constructive criticism" were flying left, right and centre...!

I'd lived up to my Water Ox moniker, and had ridden well in the foul.  Despite not eating much early on, my chest was warm throughout, and being big comes with large fuel tanks.

Joel had put a lot of thought into tactics for the race, and it was a shame we were all so busy trying to keep upright that we missed that initial breakaway.  Our next chance was in four weeks time.

Race 2:  Keep your eye on the prize

The second race was based out of Masterton.  The organisers had received a fair bit of flack from the local authorities unimpressed with all the crashing, and the quality of riding more generally, and we were put on notice about crossing the centre-line in particular.

We Rivets lined up nice and early to ensure we got a good start, but were swamped by everyone else and ended up with lousy position by the time we got underway.

I did my best to bide my time, and used the various intersections we went through as good opportunities to move up in the bunch.  A couple of dozen hard pedal strokes were enough to make up good ground with judicious corner-cutting.  I figured there was no way anyone could define "wrong side of the road" when we were crossing it.

The weather conditions were very nice indeed, and there was no wind to speak of.  A shame, since we'd been effective in the cross-winds in Round 1.  A team-mate, Matt Webber, was up the road with Peter Murphy, from Gisborne but riding with local team MeoGP.

When we hit the undulating road between Martinborough and Masterton, I'd been near the front for a while.  Word was coming through the bunch of disqualifications, including that of Craig who'd been an asset to the team in the first race.  Despite this, the U17 Lanes team were constantly riding on the wrong side of the road.  They were very strong, and obviously eager, but us oldies were losing patience with it, and they were regularly being bellowed at.

What minimal tactical nous I have was well and truly tested in the second half of the race.  I was feeling strong, and with no sign of any other Rivets, I felt like I was obliged to chase just about everything.  MeoGP and East Coast were taking it in turns to attack off the front.  The thing was, they were never going together, and it didn't cross my mind that they'd chase each other.  Stuart Holder from Auckland was looking strong too, and was also doing a lot of covering work.

I was keen to get away with someone, but every time I bridged to an attack, they'd sit up, and I was too thick to realise their attacks were successfully wasting my energy.  About 10km from the finish, I spent a few minutes away with one of the young Lanes boys, but I wasn't prepared to go 100%, and we were soon swept up.

Despite having excellent bunch position for all but the first 25km, I got swamped in the run to the finish.  The pace was high, and I was scared I wasn't going to get a look in come the finish.  It was nerve-wracking riding the in middle of an increasingly high-speed bunch, with every man and his dog trying to get near the front.  About 1200m out it was like the Red Sea had parted, and I had nothing between me and the finish line.

Rather than consolidate, I foolishly thought that it was now or never.  It was way too far out though, and I faltered 200m from the line, and could do absolutely nothing as those who'd been far more patient than I contested for the win.

I was 27th across the line, and bloody annoyed with myself, being upright and in one piece was only a tiny consolation.  I felt like I'd totally screwed up the race, and my perception was wholly accurate.  I hadn't been thinking about the importance of the series at all, and rebuked myself for not following wheels and securing a high place across the line.

While I was the first Rivet to finish, I hadn't been the only one in the 37-strong bunch. Peter Moore was a couple of places back, and Neil a few places behind him.  Peter had been stuck at the back just in front of a vigilant commissaire and hadn't been able to move up in support.

I vented a little bit of my frustration on the poor Lanes boys.  I first complimented their riding abilities, to soften the blow:  "you guys are incredibly strong, but you're riding like idiots...".  They and their parents looked suitably embarrassed.  The organisers obviously agreed - five out of the starting eight had been disqualified for riding over the white line...  I felt slightly guilty afterwards, but as a father and an educator, I was somewhat glad I'd said something to them - they needed to hear it.

I'd dropped to 7th in the series points.  Despite attacking what seemed like constantly in the final 20km, Stephen Sheldrake won the sprint, and took the lead in the series.

Race 3:  Watch your speed

Race 3 was on the "Carrington circuit".  I'd deliberately made the trip over a few weeks earlier to do a club race on the same roads, so was feeling positive having had an opportunity to recce what I thought was the course.  I was slightly disappointed to realise we'd be in the reverse direction for the most part, though the upside was that the course would suit me better.

Conditions were again great (in the usual sense), and there was absolutely no need for storm gear.  Sun cream was a must though.

Finally we got an excellent position on the grid, and it was good to hit the road.  From our start just off SH2 south of Masterton, we took quiet back roads before linking up with the race circuit.  We rode once up the steep side of the hill we'd done seven laps of in the club race.  It had been described as a power climb - by someone with a hell of a lot more power than I have.  It was good to know what was coming, and instead of muscling up in the 53 as I'd done in the first lap of that race, I was spinning the easy gear and hadn't had to dig nearly as deep...  (By lap six of the club race I'd been in my granny gear on that hill, and never again rode it in the big chainring!)

Photo:  Chris Denholm
The descent was fast, and then we were onto a sinuous section of road.  The map made it look somewhat horrible, with regular 90-degree turns.  But, they were so beautifully cambered, you could ride through them at full noise, pedalling as you went.  So, no need to brake and then accelerate back up to speed - something which kicks my arse every time.

The course then took us across to the outskirts of Carterton, where we did a loop before returning back the way we'd came.  This time it was back over the shallow side of the climb, but not before we'd been confronted with the women's bunch and associated vehicles...!!!!  They'd obviously got as big a fright as we had.  It wasn't immediately clear why they'd been there, but we found out later that they hadn't been sent the right way and the delay had meant they weren't clear of the course by the time we'd come through.

The steep climb had become a steep descent, and I became aware for the first time of the differences between the alloy rims I'd been riding previously, and my new carbon wheels.  Jason McCarty had jacked up a deal with and I'd leapt at the chance to get a lightweight, aero wheelset for a bargain.  I wasn't used to the sounds and smell of heavy braking on carbon rims, but negotiated the tight corner at the bottom safely enough.

Joel was doing a fine job as road captain, and at one point sent me back to get him some help at the front. Craig responded immediately, no doubt being pretty gun-shy after a DQ in Round 2, and promptly got himself to the front within the rules of the game.  He and Joel both worked hard keeping a small group of riders out front in check.

I'd lost track of how many laps we were doing, but was feeling good enough that the "extra" didn't bother me that much.  In this direction, the climb was a perfect gradient for me, and one which was both suited to my power, and not steep enough that my mass caused me problems.

I resolved to lead over the top on the final lap.  From there we'd have a few kilometres to run to the finish, and I figured I could recover on the descent, drop back a few wheels and then unleash in the relatively short finishing straight (maybe 500m compared to the previous round's 3km one).

My plan started off perfectly.  I did get over the top first, and I did have a good breather on the descent.
So far, so good.  Photo:  Di Chesmar
Immediately beyond that, things didn't go so well...

Remarkably calm face, under the circumstances.  Photo:  Di Chesmar
Eeeek!!!!  Photo:  Di Chesmar

While there's light, there's hope...  Photo:  Di Chesmar

Pointing in the right direction, with some relief.  Photo:  Di Chesmar
When I finally had my bike back under control, I was in a going-very-fast-on-tarmac gear, not a mountain-biking gear, and as a consequence, it took a lot of effort to get off the grass.  Not ideal with so little of the race remaining.  Having moved from the front of the bunch to about 25th, and having expended a lot of energy doing so, I realised I was no longer in a position to win the stage.  Still, I hadn't found a ditch or a face-full of fence, and I was quickly able to redefine my task - to make up as many places as possible.

I drafted for 30 seconds or so to regain a bit of strength, before getting into my work.  Craig was amongst the riders I passed, and gave me a good bit of encouragement as well as a much appreciated momentary draft.

By the time the finish straight had come, I could see a cluster of riders an insurmountable distance ahead, but 5 or 6 still within striking distance.   I got the last of those a few metres from the line.

One of the useful things about depression, is that it prepares you well for disappointment.  As a result, I wasn't bummed out at all about my off-road excursion, and instead was stoked that it hadn't ended up worse.  I'd gone far too hot into the corner, and while I hadn't stayed on the road and contested the race ending I'd visualised, I felt like I'd recovered from a lousy situation bloody well...!

We'd finished quite a distance from Masterton, and so had 20 minutes or so to get back to base.  There, it was time for some chocolate milk and a bit of sitting in the sun.  I stayed in my riding kit just in case I was called up to the podium.  I knew Mark Donald had been ahead of me, but so too had some of the juniors, and Rob Kilvington, Craig Hoskin and David Meo - quite a few places taken by those in other age groups.

It was still a very nice surprise to be called up in 2nd place in the 35-44 category.  The last two people I'd passed - Aaron Sheldrake and Ben Copsey - had both been in my category, and those final few metres had put me on the podium...!  I hoped my non-regulation jandals and skin-coloured socks wouldn't result in a team fine.   In any case, I'm sure the boys would forgive me even if Jorge didn't...!

2nd, with Mark Donald (1st) and Aaron Sheldrake (3rd)

I'd been 10th across the line, and moved back into 4th in the series points.  Stephen Sheldrake hadn't been at this race, but after 2nd and 1st placings in the earlier races, held onto first.  Hannes Venter had been consistent in three races to lie in second, and Stuart Holder was in third again by virtue of his first two results - absent this round by racing Tour of Southland...!  Immediately behind me was Mark Donald, who like me had missed points in race 2.

Race 4:  Always start

By the time Race Four rolled around, things had become somewhat simpler - I had a decent placing in the series, and had to ride to improve it, or at least to protect it.  That was the good news.  The bad was that since Race Three, I'd been on a work trip to Beijing.

Unfortunately, the hotel I was staying at didn't have a stationary bike anywhere, and when I enquired about any local gyms, I'd been told there was one but that the staff were unlikely to speak English.  The extent of my Mandarin is of the fruit-consumption variety, so, I had to make do with one-and-a-half ascents of Hawkins Hill a few hours before leaving Wellington, and sprinting up some steps on the Great Wall of China - not entirely unlike cycling they were so steep.

Stopping for air after the second hill interval!

The route back down to the bus in the valley
I'd tried not to stress out about not being able to get on a bike, hoping instead that the rest was doing me some good.  I didn't enjoy the food at all - most of it was familiar, but at unfamiliar times of the day, e.g. dinner for breakfast - and it all put a halt to my weight loss, which had been running at almost a kilo a week over the last couple of months.

Despite the lack of exercise, and wacky diet, the trip was otherwise rewarding, including grabbing a photo in which, if I'd posted it to Facebook, I could have tagged both Barack Obama and myself...!!!

Obama on stage, and me in the crowd shot (holding my camera aloft)...!

I returned to Wellington a few days before the race, and while I had enough time to loosen the legs, there was no opportunity to test them.  Race Four was the "queen stage" being the only race with any hills of note, and had been the source of my self-imposed pressure to lose weight.

At least I knew bike was going to be sweet.  While I'd been in China, it had been with Oli, getting one of his classic "stem to stern" once-overs, and a race tune.  If you've not experienced one of these, I heartily recommend it - it's not unusual for your bike to run better than it did off the showroom floor...!

Pro-service, courtesy of Oli Brooke-White at Roadworks
I made my regular coffee-stop in Carterton before finishing the drive to Gladstone Hall.  Checking my phone while waiting for the long black with one sugar and a dash of mile, I found the internet was abuzz with tales of lousy conditions on course, and uncertainty as to whether or not we'd even start.  It was blowing a gale, and organisers and riders alike were nervous about the conditions.

Jorge Sandoval and the chief commissaire eventually held a meeting to gauge the field's views. Those who'd travelled were keen to race, while most of the locals weren't so keen.  The motivation of those not keen varied from genuine concern about the conditions, to concern with the sporting disadvantage we'd face with the foreshadowed shortened event.

Unfortunately, immediately after we were given the cell phone number of the ambulance driver, we were told that the race would go ahead, but that instead of the 84km we were expecting, we'd be stopping at the top of Limeworks Hill, about 33km into the original racecourse.  That obviously changed the complexion of things dramatically.  Hanging on over the two hills and then having a fast run to the finish (identical to that of Race One), was now a sub-one hour smash with a hilltop finish.  Not ideal for me at all.

To compound things, we were told it was an individual's choice whether or not to ride, and that entry fees would be refunded.  And, that we were off in less than an hour.  Given my position in the series placing, I felt compelled to ride, but didn't have any time to discuss this with my team.  I needed all the time I had to suit up, and get warm.

Getting the bike out of the back of the car was almost impossible.  The wind was so strong it was very hard to stand, keep the door open, and simultaneously pull the bike out of the car.  Sarah had driven over with me, and she was pretty nervous about me riding, but I promised her I'd be fine, and then headed down the driveway.

Even with my 60mm deep rims (which had been prohibited for the race, not that I had an alternative), riding was curiously easy.  In fact, it was hard to reconcile that with the problems I'd had on my feet only moments before.

Joel had also got organised, and we joined Dan Waluszewski - our Open team-mate who was similarly disappointed by the new race route - for a warm up.  We had absolutely no problems between the hall and the bottom of the main climb, but by the time we returned to the carpark, even if we had time to convince our team-mates it was OK to ride, they'd have had no time to get organised.  So, it was just Joel and I in the masters field.

The neutralised section was the worst of it as far as the wind was concerned, and even then it was nowhere near as bad as a windy Wednesday Worlds around Wellington's south coast.  Te Wharau Hill (aka Kourarau) on the other hand was something else.  It was blowing a gale, sure enough, but it couldn't have been more useful.  The wind was howling right up our jacksies, it was like having a turbo boost.  Every time I checked my Garmin, we were going almost 30km/h!!!!

Even with the wind-ass-sist, I was still 85kg, and had to dig pretty bloody deep to keep in touch with my rivals - well all but one of them.  Three Lanes boys went off the front about two-thirds of the way up the climb, and canny Mark Donald gave them a bit of space before attacking and successfully bridging to them.  Behind were seven of us:  Andrew Young from iRide, Stuart Holder (not completely fresh from Southland - although he'd finished in the top 50 on GC, he'd also crashed badly, and fractured a bone in his foot), Craig and Stephen from East Coast Velo, David Meo[GP], and another of the Lanes boys.

When gravity was finally on my side, my mass then became my friend, and I had a good, fast roll down into the valley, safely negotiating the funny left corner at the bottom of the hill.  I'd had one minor fright on the descent - there was wind coming out of a gully on our right, but Davis was just ahead of me, and having seen it hit him, I was both physically and mentally prepared.

Glad to be in touch, Andrew and I near the bottom of Te Wharau.  Photo:  Di Chesmar

I was slightly perplexed that the chase never really got going.  Craig and Davis were both the only ones from their age categories, and were both further securing their hold on the respective leader's jerseys they were already wearing.  Up ahead, Mark was in 5th place in the series, so maybe wasn't a concern to Stephen, so it seemed up to Stuart, Andrew and I to organise the chase.  We didn't, or at least not particularly well, and so we were effectively racing for second place.

I was shocked when we rode past the 5km to go sign - it felt like we'd only just started - though I should have expected the race would take less than an hour, given its distance.  I'd never really given up on chasing Mark, and with a bit of fatigue thrown in, didn't look after myself nearly well enough in the lead-in to Limeworks.

When I couldn't hold on to Stephen and Stuart any longer, I focused on getting across the line in front of Andrew - I needed all the series points I could get.  Davis shot past me near the top, not affecting my placing in the 35-44 class, but I'd successfully overcome Andrew to cross the line in 9th, with a 4th placing in my age-group.

Uncomfortable.   Photo:  Chris Denholm

It was nice to see Sarah waiting with the car at the hilltop, or at least it was once I finished feeling like I was going to puke.  Many of my team-mates were there too, each in various stages of regret at not suiting up and getting on their bikes.

Sarah offered me a ride back to Gladstone, but I took the opportunity to warm down by completing the loop.  It turned out to be quite a fun ride, complete with a wee peloton, and a convoy of cars.  We also got an interesting insight into the race organiser's decision, courtesy of several large piles of recently chain-sawed trees.   They'd come down across the road not too long before our shortened race had started.  I don't blame them for not wanting to race us along these roads!

Unfortunately Joel had had a miserable time out on course, but it was bloody good of him to start.  Dan hadn't fared as well as he'd hoped to either, so it was a bit of a shitty day for Rivet Racing.

Hannes had dropped out of second place in the series, to be replaced by the race-winner, Mark Donald.  Stephen, Stuart and I were unchanged, in first, third and fourth respectively.

Race 5:  Be patient

After a four-week wait for Race 2, Races 3 and 4 had been at regular two-week intervals.  The final race of the series kept us stewing for three weeks.  A podium finish in the series was not out of the question, but I needed to beat Stuart or Mark and have other riders in between us (three riders for Stuart, and an extra one for Mark).

Joel wasn't able to start this race, and designated Matt Webber as road captain.  He was told, by both Joel and I, that he'd need to boss me around!

We had a long neutralised section to get from the finish at Matahiwi Estate, to the start down the road to Castlepoint.  The Open, Masters and Women all rode together at a cruisy pace.

Once we were underway, we were almost immediately onto narrow roads, and it was clear that the crazy riding from early in the series had returned.  Guys were regularly over the white line, including on blind corners, and there wasn't a peep (or toot) from the following motorcycle marshalls or the commissaire's car.

Despite orders to ride near the front, I wasn't prepared to take the risks needed to move up, and so held my position about two-thirds of the way back through the bunch on the left side of the lane.  At least everything was all together, so it seemed like an OK place to be.

That is, until it wasn't.  Unusual sounds started from 10m or so ahead, and I temporarily moved onto the grass to avoid a growing pile of bikes and bodies.  I stopped momentarily, but the high-pitched screams of a woman in amongst the carnage forced me away.  While motivated purely by wanting to get as far away from that horrible sound as possible, I did tell myself that there was nothing I could have done to help anyway.

The bunch hadn't travelled far, and I was soon tucked in behind again, but now much more interested in moving to the front.

Matt had the same ideas for me, and had come back to collect me.  He told me to stay on his wheel, but 20 seconds later I was watching incredulously as he ducked and weaved his way safely through gaps that I simply couldn't see...

Frustrated that I didn't have the same nerve or skill to emulate him, I came up with a different means of getting to the front.  The bunch wasn't moving that fast, and the roads were undulating.  So, I moved to the right-hand side of the lane, and then when the road next pitched up slightly, I pedalled as hard as I could.  It turned out that was a strategy that suited me well, and what seemed like only 10 seconds later, I'd reached the front.  The effort had been sharp, but not really long enough to tap me out.

Just as well, since I needed to do it again not five minutes later, as for some reason I'd got myself in the slow lane and had been slowly but surely sucked backwards.  A bit like water out the plughole...

I was just making my way up again when I passed Sarah who'd ridden the last 25km of the course to see us pass through the Dreyers Rock Road intersection.

I was waving on the inside!

When I reached the front the second time, one of my team-mates, Mark Hussey, had just had a jab off the front.  I used my momentum to join him, and then, figuring I could benefit from some quiet time, put my head down and opened up a 50m gap from the peloton.

Matt Webber was surely shaking his head in dismay, but I was soon joined by two of Stephen Sheldrake's East Coast Velo team-mates.  We worked well together for five minutes or so, but the bunch soon shut us down...  Despite the expended physical energy, I felt like the short break had been worth it if only to recharge my emotional battery.

I was nervous about the turn around at the far end of the course, but need not have been.  The bunch strung itself out, and the road was relatively wide, giving us plenty of space to safely turn 180 degrees and resume racing back the way we'd come.

David Meo attacked, and Rivet were prominent at the front keeping him in check.  His timing had been bad, and he was swept up just as we began the short but fairly steep ascent of Dreyers Rock Road.  I found myself near Stuart Holder - in fact I was quite astonished to see him at all given his injury.

The road was still pointing upwards, and I tried to focus intently on the wheel immediately in front.  It got to the point that it was all I could see, and the horrible "I can't do this any longer" mantra started making an appearance in my head.  I don't know if the pace eased imperceptibly, or whether it was just a bit of old-fashioned teeth-gritting, but I managed to hang on, enduring probably what had been the hardest couple of minutes of the series for me.

Dangling off the back of a select bunch...  Photo: Rob Kilvington

One of the things I hate about road racing, is how it comes down to moments of weakness.  Getting dropped on Kuratau Hill a few years ago still sticks in my craw, frustrating on account of how strong I'd been apart from those key minutes where I lost touch with the bunch, and my competitors.

As then, as soon as the climb was over, my strength started to come back, like one of those video-game characters after a fight.  This time though, I was still in touch, and it was time to make the effort on the hill count.

It was the usual suspects in attendance:  Stephen, Mark and Stuart were joined by Mark's team-mate Rob Kilvington, and a couple of Stephen's team-mates, Aaron and Michael.  Conspicuous by their absence were Craig Hoskin, and Davis Meo - the latter had seemingly paid for his attack 5km from the base of the hill.

We were all keen to capitalise on our advantage, and we quickly organised an effective pace line.  With only seven riders, you didn't get much time in the slow lane, and we still had about 20km to the finish.  For the most part, people took their turns, though it was clear both Mark and Rob were getting a bit ragged.  We were occasionally disrupted by the odd level-crossing and a couple of short patches of gravel.  I never saw the bunch behind us, but Stephen had, and urged us all on.

Within a few kilometres from the finish, it was clear we couldn't afford to completely focus on the race win - the main field were only 20 seconds or so behind, and too much dicking around would have seen them catch us.

Only a few km to run, and in the sights of the bunch.  Photo:  Heysmartypants Design Online

I led into the final turn about 500m from the line.  I'd been on the front for a little while up to that point, and while I was trying to keep my effort down, I carried good speed through the corner, and ended up with a 10m gap.  Despite checking the finish straight out in my warm-up, and knowing it was long, I still am unsure about my sprint from a bunch, and so I put my head down.

The gap initially opened up, and besides, I knew the die had been cast.  I didn't look back again, and instead focussed on trying to keep accelerating for as long as possible.  50m from the line, I stood out of the saddle, and tried to fight through the growing levels of lactic acid in my legs.  I needed to change gear, but didn't have the wherewithal to, and even if I had, it's not clear I could have overcome it.

I held my line, and tried to get as low as possible to minimise the air-resistance, and desperately trying to force energy into the pedals.

But, it wasn't enough.  I sensed a rider on each side, and within spitting distance of the line was passed by first Stephen on the right, and then Stuart on the left.   I only just held off Aaron, and the results have the four of us within a quarter of a second.

L-R: Stephen, Aaron, me - going backwards - and Stuart

Mark was the next 35-44 across the line, which was enough to grab 3rd place in the series, but not to hold off Stuart, who moved into 2nd.  The bunch finished a mere 21 seconds later, and so it could easily have been a lot worse!

Once again, my impatience had probably been my downfall, though it was clear to me that I'd been beaten by stronger riders.  And, smarter too.  Nonetheless, I was pleased with my 3rd placing, both in my age-group and overall. Unfortunately there was no podium presentation for the race, only for the series, so I kept my sweaty kit on for nothing!

Summing up 

The final series standings had me fourth on 78 points, behind Stephen Sheldrake with 92 points (from only four starts); Stuart Holder on 84 points (also from four starts); and Mark Donald with 80 points.

While it was close at the end, the blown opportunities in Round 2 were ultimately costly.  In fact, Mark's possibly saying the same thing - he was one place behind me in that race...!

I can't say I enjoyed the series particularly.  The exceptions were once I was out in front of the massive bunch. While I do enjoy road racing, and would like to do well at it, I need to overcome my nervousness within the bunch.  Otherwise, events of this type will remain unpleasant. 
Even though Joel had been both an excellent leader off the road, and road-captain when he started, I still found team-leadership stressful.  Having a bad day is annoying, but screwing up, or otherwise underperforming, when a bunch of guys have already sacrificed their own chances for me is much, much worse.  
I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to the Rivet Racing Masters team: Ben Storey (races 1 and 5), Craig Chambers (1-3,5), Mark Hussey (1,5), Matt Webber, (2,5), Peter Moore (2,3,5), and of course Joel Healy (1-4) for their support of me in the 35-44 category, and also of our final rider, Neil Harwood, who finished a fine second place in the 50+ category behind a rampant David Meo (who was five metres short in Race 5 of a clean sweep). 

That said, I wished then and now that I'd been in the role of a helper - something that I think I'm better suited to.  I think if I'd known I'd find myself in such good shape, I'd have opted to ride in the Open race, and would have done anything I could to support Dan Waluszewski in his bid to win that series.  Congratulations to him too for his second place, and well done to the Rivets who did ride in support of him, particularly those old bastards who could have opted to start in Masters like I had. 

It was magic to be able to have an early start on five Saturdays, in guilt-free fashion.  Thanks to Sarah for tolerating the 6am wake-up on what would otherwise be a gentler start to the weekend.

Finally, thanks to organiser, Jorge Sandoval, for putting the North Island Series together and giving us the opportunity to race as a team.  And, of course, thanks to all the other teams that joined us on the road.

While I do have some results to be proud of, if I was to name one highlight of the last couple of months of road racing, it would be seeing Tijs Robinson win a vet's handicap race in Whitemans Valley.  Having him as a protected rider, working for him throughout the race, and watching him leave my wheel 200m from the line and mow down two poor Limit riders who had prematurely raised their arms above their heads trumped what were arguably my best performances on the road (on a bike built for one, at least). 

I look forward to doing something like that again soon!  That, and learning what my strengths are, so I can better ride to them.   


  1. What an excellent report of a more than solid team racing series debut. It never fails to amaze me how much you seem able to analyse and learn from your experiences, even in the white-hot crucible of road racing. Great work, John.

  2. Great post John. How were the new wheels? I'd love to hear your feedback (positive/negative). Thanks.

    1. Hi James! I'm glad you enjoyed reading it.

      I switched from Mavic Cosmic Carbones which are a few years old, and have an alloy rim and carbon fairing. Apart from getting used to the slightly different braking, the new wheels were pretty sweet. I typically ride without a watch, speedo or power-meter, so have no data on which to track improvement.

      They look the business, and the nice wide rim with a 700x25c looks stunning. This is *very* important, of course.

      As the photos in the post above show, they're pretty damn strong, coping well with an off-road excursion under an almost 90kg rider...!!

      I've had no trouble riding with them in the wind, which has been great.

      My Colnago had clearance issues on the rear, and I have rubbed the chainstay a little. Since noticing this, I've put on a different quick release skewer, and a 23c tyre, and hope that this combination will put an end to that. I think one of the dropouts has always been a bit off, and I've had minor problems with wheels not sitting straight in the past. I think in this case it was pulling over, but if it weren't for the rub, I don't think I'd have noticed. (I'm not sure I'm particularly discerning about these things...)

      While I didn't notice any huge improvements (aside from the aesthetics), I certainly noticed them when they came off the bike and I put some training wheels on (beautifully built Mavic Open Pros). These had me working noticeably harder in a fast-moving bunch.

      All in all, I'm very happy, and have already recommended them to friends. I've also been impressed by your correspondence, James, both pre and post purchase.

    2. Thanks for the Reply John. That's great to hear. We are very interested in your feedback and the other Rivet Racing team members feedback as well. (We love negative criticism, because it helps us improve. So don't worry about hurting our feelings ;) I don't know if it's appropriate to post this as a comment on your blog but i've setup a post on our forum specifically for Rivet Racing team members to voice their experience and comments. You can post on there if you would like. We're listening. Thanks again.