Tuesday, April 28, 2015

2015 Road Club Nationals

I was scratched from my first attempt at road cycling's annual Club Nationals. That was 2012, and I'd recently returned from a solid block of riding at Cape Epic, and thought I'd enter the road race to see if could make myself useful as a domestique for the Port Nicholson Poneke team. A nasty spasm in my back about a week before the event didn't ease, and I was unable to make the start line.

This year, the buildup was very different, and two races were on my radar. The event was again in the Hawke's Bay, and the action for the M2 riders (men, 40-44 years old), consisted of a 25km individual time trial just after midday on Thursday, followed by a 105km road race early on Saturday morning.

It was a bit of a mad rush getting organised and away, highlighted by a last-minute and very short-notice visit to my main man, Oli Brooke-White for a quick check over the quiver.  His attention to detail never ceases to amaze me, and while I felt a little guilty at the time his fussiness was consuming, I knew he wouldn't have it any other way. 

After a quick pose, and a longer hug, it was off home to cross the next thing off the list.

Two mean machines.  And one softy...  Photo: Oli!


Various events littered the build up to nationals, with my excitement mainly directed towards the time trial. The Wellingon Masters Cycling Club had an excellent mid-week series which helped me get used to the distance (they run a 4-lap race on the 6km Liverton Road circuit out towards the bottom of Haywards Hill), and also build my enthusiasm for this race format.

Things at Liverton went well – I raced four times, improving my time on each occasion, and taking fastest time on three out of four evenings. My final ride was within half a minute of the age-record on the cool schedule the club maintains recording age vs time. (You end up in the list if you've gone faster than anyone your age or younger.) These ended on 27 February though, and by the time I hit the Wellington Centre Champs a few weeks ago, the valuable lessons I'd gained in pacing had faded somewhat.

The centre champs had been a miserable affair, and a pleasing result masked what had been a lousy ride. With the help of Joel Healy, I've been using a power meter to improve my training and racing. It would seem that power is a bit like a savings account. You line up with money in the bank, and spend your way to the end. Finishing the race with cash leftover means you could have gone faster, but my typical problem is spending too much too early, and having to scrounge around for spare change in order to get home.

So it was at centre champs. I went way too hard off the line – my Stages crank had been playing up, and I didn't trust the numbers I was seeing - and was forced to grovel around the second 12.5km lap. My average power on the second half of the course was more than 10% lower than that of the first. I'd been David Rowlands's minute man, and he'd blasted past me with about half a lap to go, being 1.5 minutes faster at the line. 

Photo: thanks to Grant Perry, I think! 

On Wednesday, I made the drive up to Puketapu – not far inland from Napier – via the Wairarapa, by virtue of yet another slip-related closure of the Manawatu Gorge. For a while I was running ahead of a southerly front, but it caught up when I stopped for a coffee in Carterton, and I drove through horizontal rain on a wee tiki-tour of the (wrong) backroads of Masterton.

The rest of the drive was uneventful, and thanks in part to Joel's SH50 tip, made good time through to Puketapu. Joel and Dan were already set up at our crib, and we immediately got our TT rigs organised for a look at the course.

We drove for a few minutes, parked outside the Puketapu pub, and then got rolling.

We missed the first turn at the south end of the course, and once the road tipped up, started to smell a rat. We headed back, and soon had corrected our blunder. The road was sweet, but a cold and strong southerly wind was blowing, and given our cruisy pace, it was grabbing our front wheels more than it might have if we had the power down. I wasn't finding it at all pleasant, and was starting to wonder if the deep front wheel Oli had just built up for me using my retired rear rim was going to have to stay in the garage.

By the time we finished the 10km, out-and-back leg of the course south of Puketapu, Angus had arrived, and we waited for him while he suited up.

Dan, Joel and I.  Photo:  Angus Taylor

Then, it was off along the northern leg, 7.5km out to the turnaround, and then back the same way.

The next part of the course was a lot more technical than what we'd already seen – a couple of hills, and a few tightish turns in between. It didn't last too long though, and then we were back onto a relatively straight forward road.

It was exciting to be out on the course, and it took all my self control on the return journey not to open up the throttle. We talked a bit about the key parts of the course, but before long were back at the car.

I stayed with Joel for the managers' briefing at 5pm while Dan and Ango headed back to base. The briefing took about twice as long as advertised, and even though we hadn't ridden hard, we had sweated a little and as a consequence the breezy school hall was not the most comfortable place to be. But, Joel had an important function to perform for the PNP club, and I'd been able to hear from the horses' mouths information about the events ahead.

Back at base, I straightaway smashed back the delicious fish curry left-over from Tuesday night's dinner, and then we got ready to head out for our actual dinner. The place we settled on in Taradale had a good looking menu, but the “side-dishes” on offer should have alerted us to the likely size of the meals. We had mixed fortunes, but, on account of my curry “appetiser”, I was well sated by the end of it all.

By this stage, Joel's team manager duties were calling him back home, so after dropping him and Dan off, Angus and I returned to Taradale to get Angus a second course from the supermarket and some stuff for breakfast.

On Thursday, I was due to be the first away of the four of us – at 1:13pm. That made for a leisurely morning, or so we all thought. With the exception of Dan, fathers all, we surfaced before 9am, not really able to shake off the usual daily patterns despite our freedom. After porridge and coffee I was keen to head down the event HQ to get my TT bike measured up. The race is conducted under UCI rules, which means the bike has to meet certain restrictions. At 1.89m, my TT bars are able to extend no more than 80cm from the bottom bracket centre, provided my saddle-tip is at least 5cm behind the BB. The Centre Champs jig was rudimentary to say the least, and at home, I'd adjusted my bars forward (the third independent attempt to hit the limit exactly!!!), and I was keen to ensure that I hadn't over done it.

My bike passed with flying colours, which was some relief, but Angus, behind me in the queue, had significant problems. His bars were far too far forward, and his saddle also had to go back. Problem was, his bars were not adjustable... Eeek. On the upside, it was only 10:30am or so, and he had 3 hours up his sleeve.

On the way back to the car, our minds were all whirring at how Angus might get out of this jam. In the end, it was a relatively straightforward task of hacksawing 5cm off the extensions, and our temporary on-site landlord was able to provide the critical implement of destruction. It was a stressful business for Angus and Joel though, and I didn't envy them their task.

That wasn't the only drama of the day, and when Dan was bitten by the resident Staffordshire terrier, I did wonder what ill-event was going to befall me.

Bike unchanged, and no puncture wounds anywhere, I was relatively calm when I loaded the final bits and pieces into the car about an hour before my scheduled start time. A TT is relatively easy to prepare for, as you don't tend to carry anything with you – no food or puncture repair equipment – your body doesn't have any time to make use of the former, and the effect of a quick 2 minute change and a 20 minute walk are equally catastrophic for a 30-and-something-minute time trial, so one takes the risk of the walk.

Joel and I parked in the paddock adjacent to the finish chute, and got our bikes loaded onto our stationary trainers. Shoes on, it was time to jump aboard and get the legs warm. The sun was out, and the relatively light wind was not bitterly cold like it had been the evening before. So, sitting in the sun was a relatively pleasant affair, and I soon started to sweat.

I got a lovely surprise when out of nowhere appeared my Dad! I'd totally forgotten he, Mum and my sister's man's mother were going to punctuate their road trip from Wellington to Auckland by a bit of spectating. He wished me well, and then went off to find a vantage point, leaving me to focus on the task ahead.

As my start time drew ever closer, my nervousness grew. Final prep involved downing the double-double espresso I'd made before leaving home, and having a quick wee. I wished Joel all the best for his race, and then went to the start.

My bike passed the measurement test again, which was just as well, and I had only a couple of minutes' wait for my allocated start time, during which I quickly had to fix the rubber nose-piece that was coming off my helmet's visor, and to then untangle the straps.

Then, I was up to the line, and with 30 seconds to go, clipped into my second pedal, now being kept upright by the volunteer “holder”.

A big digital panel showed the time, and in addition the starter counted down the final five seconds. I hit the Start button on my GPS with a couple of seconds to go, took a deep breath and then was off.

The first 10 minutes or so should feel easy, and boy do they. I did a much better job of toning it down than I had at centre champs, but I was still a bit high on the power front. I felt really comfortable, and sat just above the target power Joel had suggested, hoping that it wouldn't come back to bite me.

My minute man was the top-seeded M3 rider (45-49 years old), and I'd eaten into his “lead” a bit by the time I turned at the 5km mark. Everything seemed to be going well, and I focussed on riding smoothly, and NOT TOO HARD (not too hard... not too hard...)!

The start/finish area came quickly, and I could vaguely hear mum cheering me on over the wind in my ears.

The first short rise felt good, and then it was down through the only technical part of the course. It was tight in this direction, but much faster in the other. I was careful not to overcook the first tight, dropping right hander, and again took care through another sweeping right bend that dropped into a gully and had a nasty snap to it when the road tipped up again.

Those successfully negotiated, it was now time to focus on issues in the engine room. Everything was pointing towards the fact that I'd overspent...

I tried to break what remained into chunks. I was heading out to the second turn, then had a long drag back to the hilly section, and then home. The first of these was proving one hell of a struggle, and I had grave fears for the other two.

I tried not to think about how much better my guts would feel if I sat upright – something I'd done on occasion at Liverton Road - but did accept that ignoring the target was essential. Numbers which had been easy in the first 15 minutes were unattainable at the moment.

After the turn, which seemed to take an eternity to arrive, I began to get my legs back a bit, but I was still struggling to keep the power up. Psychologically though, life was better – I was now heading back towards the finish, and I'm sure this helped immensely.

I almost came a cropper at the right turn off the main road – the cone on the centre line had been the focus of my gaze, and I hadn't noticed the shape of the road beyond it. Luckily I was up off the bar extensions so was able to grab the brake, which peeled off enough speed for me to avoid the looming kerb. Speed which I then had to fight to get back, but que sera sera.

Whether it was because I was rooted and going slower or because the shape of the course made the speeds slightly more manageable, in any case, the run to the base of the final pinch climb was fine.

The climb itself, less-so. What had been a piece of cake the evening before, and had elicited images of smashing up there at “full gas”, became a low-cadence grovel, with the ignominy of needing to drop down to the 39-tooth chainring not far away. I avoided it, but might not have done my final time any good doing so.

At least the end was nigh, and I accelerated the bike as best I could, helped more by gravity than most in the field. I didn't finish the way I'd imagined, but it might have been a lot worse, and at least I was able to accelerate right through to the line.

I felt sick to my stomach, and that didn't ease for quite a while. I was shepherded away from the finish chute, and found somewhere to lean. Aside from a great deal of physical distress, I'd been emotionally smashed around too. I actually felt like I wanted to cry, but that would have required energy I didn't have.

While I didn't feel like I'd totally fucked the pacing, I also knew I hadn't nailed it. Of course it's the same as not having the grunt when I needed it, and of course you don't know exactly what the perfect power target is on any given day, but knowledge that if I'd gone slower at the start then I would have gone faster at the end was enough to upset me, regardless of whether or not that would have made for a faster time overall (which it almost certainly would have).

After composing myself, I headed back to the car to warm down a bit. I was soon visited by Mark Donald, who I'd beaten at centre champs by about 30 seconds. I soon knew that he'd returned the favour on this occasion – I was pleased for him, and despite knowing that he has an excellent TT pedigree, and that there was absolutely no shame in being beaten by him, I was also disappointed as the wider implications of my performance started to become apparent.

Unlike a road race, when you know the finish order the moment you cross the line, it took a while for the full results to filter through. I soon learned that Aaron Strong had lived up to his name and totally smashed us, and based on my approximate time, was a full two minutes faster than I'd gone. Peter Murphy reported being a minute and a half slower than Aaron, and I knew then that I was out of the medals.

Soon the full results were up, and I learned that I'd been oh so close – Mark had taken a fine second place, taking 17 seconds less than I had (my time was 35:04). Peter was a mere three seconds ahead of me in third place! I was fourth, seven seconds ahead of Heath Lett in fifth, with sixth almost a full minute behind him. Only 24 seconds separated 2nd from 5th, tight “racing” indeed, though of course we were all oblivious to it while out on our bikes.

At that moment, it was hard not to focus on what could have been, and over the next few hours various metrics came to mind – one second per leg, or, roughly 36 metres, equivalent to about one metre per minute of riding... Awesome...

I sought Joel out, and told him the news. As he's reminded me in the past, the purpose of any good coach is “not to blow smoke up your arse”, but to identify weaknesses, and to think about how to address them. Today though, Joel's reaction was kind, and he congratulated me on what was a solid ride. He pointed out the calibre of the riders ahead of me, and the fact that this had been my first race at this level. It made a big difference to my state of mind, and I appreciated it immensely, telling him so.

I made a point of heading over to watch the medal ceremony, before returning to the car to pack up.

M2 TT podium:  Aaron Strong (c), Mark Donald (L), Peter Murphy (R).  Well done, men - Aaron and Peter - I'll see you in M3 in a few years time!
Back at the house, the debrief began in earnest. Joel's ride had been disrupted by a truck, and he'd had an off day to boot. Angus had ridden well, but had felt understandably out-of-sorts, basically riding a completely unfamiliar bike for the first time. Dan's hip, due for surgery in a few week's time, had prevented him riding the way he wanted to, but he'd still cracked out an amazing 5th place in the elite field, behind Gordon Macaulay in 4th, and three guys that ride professionally in Australia.

However, most of the focus was on my three seconds.

We calculated the distance, and discussed kit upgrades that might have wiped that off the board. I started taking notes, mentioning how blank my birthday and Christmas lists typically are. While a TT bike can be a money-pit, a few logical upgrades came up: a Kask helmet – without a tail, it is way faster when looking down, and not much slower when looking straight ahead; an aero front brake caliper; ceramic bottom bracket bearings; a TT-specific front tyre and latex tube - all things that combined should give a fair bit of change from $1000. A new handlebar and extensions might not, but is another potential source of “free” speed.

Financially costless, but not without opportunity cost, will be a training programme focussed on the 2016 Club Nationals TT. No Karapoti, no Easter Tour, plenty of TTing, and almost certainly more power come race day in a year's time. What I didn't know before, but know now, is that at least I'm in the ball-park.

We headed into Napier for dinner, and occupied ourselves while waiting for our meals at Lone Star - guaranteed not to have the same size issues as the night before, and not disappointing – by debating the function and operation of the PNP Club.

Given the weak cell and internet reception at our digs, it was also nice to get online, and David Rowlands's classic comment on Facebook: “bet you wished you'd gone a bit harder now!” made us all laugh. Insensitive maybe, but perfectly correct.

My final task before getting back into the car was to upload my power file onto the Cycling Analytics website that Joel and I use. This was much more insightful than we imagined it would be, and identified a flaw in our preparation.

It wasn't the power data that were surprising – they simply reinforced what I'd already described, to Joel, and as above. What fascinated us was the elevation profile of the course. In fact, it had climbed more from the end of the technical section to the top turn than it had through the technical section itself. My power had been down on the part of the course that I could least afford this to happen. We agreed that we should have been better prepared, and the folly of me forgetting my GPS for the shake down ride (not a big deal, eh?) was apparent. Had I remembered it, we might have been regretting not making a point of uploading the data, I suppose.

It doesn't take a time series analyst to notice the power fade in the third quarter!

As Dan had said that afternoon, “there's either winning, or learning.” I'd notched up a good learning experience, and I'm already looking forward to learning from different, and hopefully much less significant, mistakes next time, at the very least.

A couple of hours later, which had been punctuated occasionally by an outburst “FARK!!!!”, eliciting laughter from my cobbers, it was time for bed, and an opportunity to stop thinking about the ride for a while. In the morning it would be time to switch focus to the next day's road race.

Despite a relatively short effort during the day, sleep still came easily.


Friday dawned fine, and after a relatively leisurely start, Joel, Angus and I headed out for a recce lap of the road race course. Our abode was directly on the course, and about 4km into the lap.  As a result, our legs weren't particularly warm when we hit the first steep pitch less than 2km into our ride, and that might have contributed to it looking more like a wall than it actually is.

Once again my Stages crank was on the blink – it was completely dead, and I was getting no reading from it at all. While frustrating, at least it hadn't happened 35 minutes of riding earlier – I would have been bloody pissed off if I'd been without it for the TT, which was pretty much the point of buying it.

Various people had reported a hilly course, and while this was proving true, the gradients were, for the most part, benign.

It was the descent that worried me though – while we accumulated elevation slowly over about 10km, we peeled it off very quickly, and there were a few relatively tight corners to negotiate.

The loop completed, Joel and I headed into Napier to do some shopping: a guitar and some ukelele strings for Joel (his kids, actually), and yet another CR2032 battery for me. It was also a good opportunity to catch up on some work email – it was a Friday afterall, and while I was on annual leave, most of my colleagues and students were hard at work.

Home was relatively busy that evening, with quite a few PNP members dropping by to collect their race numbers and transponders. Dan once again had the fire CRANKING, and I was reduced to rolling up my trouser legs and ditching my shirt.

We were due to start at 9am in the morning, which necessitated a relatively early start to get some food onboard.

The weather forecast for the morning hadn't been good, but the rain didn't actually start until after 8am, prolonging the hope that the forecast was wrong.  Unfortunately it wasn't, and by the time we rolled out it was pretty wet.  On account of that and the cold air, I was rocking a Castelli Gabba under my PNP jersey. 

The PNP M2 team, minus Brendan McGrath (there'll be an important photo of him later):  Joel Healy, Ben Storey, and myself.  Photo: Ango
Angus wasn't away until after lunch, and Dan was done for the weekend, but Joel and I were joined by Rivet mate Ben Storey for the ride down to the start. I hate road riding in the wet, and while my body tends to go OK (earning me the moniker “Water Ox” after a good result one day in Wainui), drafting isn't much fun when it comes with a faceful of spray off the rear wheel in front.

The warm up few kilometres reinforced my clothing choice, and final race prep was a simple matter of signing in, and stashing the raincoat I'd worn over the top of everything else in Ben's bag.

As has so often been the case this season, the team talk was pretty brief, so we started without a clear overall picture of how we might collectively ensure PNP ended up with someone on the podium.

Coach Healy and I ready to roll out.  Photo:  thanks to Gayl Marryatt Photography
Once underway, our fourth club-member, Brendan McGrath, positioned himself near the front of the bunch, and rather than join him, I figured that gave me license to sift at the back. 

The first climb was fine, and any “attacks” were the slow and silent type – more like strangulation than a stabbing.  I'd lost track of Joel, but was aware of Ben slipping back and crested the hill for the first time at the back of a large bunch. 

True to form, I was too conservative on the descent, and had a hard chase at the bottom to pull myself back into the bunch.  I had one guy for company, but he seemed content to sit on my wheel, and I wanted to get across and didn't want to lose impetus, so left him there.

I was impressed when Ben arrived – his chase had been at least five minutes longer than mine, and he'd had to come from further back.  We sheltered as much as possible, one lap down and three to go.

When we hit the bottom of the climb for the second time, I was still well back in the bunch, and concentrating on the wheel immediately ahead.  Bad move.  Five or six bikes ahead, someone dropped the wheel, and by the time the gradient eased, there was a sizeable gap which only grew by the top of the hill.

Bunch 2.  Photo: thanks to Gayl Marryatt Photography

I rode at the front of the group on the descent, still nervous on the wet roads, but glad to be able to control the pace a bit. Once down in the valley, we worked relatively well together, and by the time we were staring at the “wall” for the third time, the leaders were within sight.

Once the steep section was over, I spent some time on the front, but was disappointed that there wasn't much help coming from behind. I didn't think we could afford to dawdle, and so when the road steepened, I cranked it up a bit.

There was a shout from behind to slow down, and I looked over my shoulder to see a 15 metre gap. Hoping to be joined by some if not all of them, I didn't slow down.

Perhaps I should've slowed down then, but I definitely should've slowed down when Dan was passing me a bottle from the roadside. I knocked it out of his hand, but kept going. I knew I'd see him again, and sure enough, a car pulled alongside a few minutes later, this time successfully completing the transfer.

I was still on my own at the top of the hill, and at the bottom, and at the end of the third lap. I was well and truly in no-man's land by this stage. I'd come within sight of the guys ahead, but had not got to within 500m of them. I probably should have sat up at that stage, and waited for the cavalry, but stubbornly pressed on.

Enjoying a bit of time in no man's land.  Photo:  Jason McCarty

I was on my own for a whole lap, and was caught at about the same point that I'd eased off the front. Catching me had been the goal though, and once I was back in the fold, the pace dropped, and so my initial fear of being unable to hand on to these guys was unrealised.

My bike was not completely happy with the conditions, and my rear shifting had become increasingly poor. Once the climb was over for the final time, I was able to diagnose the effect if not the cause – it seemed I'd lost the bottom half of the cassette.

I worried that I'd be unable to keep up on the descent, but managed OK. I figured there were at least a dozen riders up ahead, so we'd be sprinting for 13th place or so. Despite my gearing being fine on the fastest part of the course, for some reason I figured I'd be unable to compete with these guys on the run to the line.

I made a couple of attempts to get away, but was running out of steam, and was no match for the six guys behind (plus Ben, who was getting a free ride by virtue of us wearing the same jersey). Ben said to me he'd attack on the pinch 1km from the finish, so I kept the pace high until then. Unfortunately, his line into the corner wasn't great, and he had to peel off speed to safely negotiate the turn, losing all impetus.

As the pace ratcheted up, I was done. Rather than battle, I was content to sit up, and cruise in to the finish.

I was disappointed with how my race had turned out, but not in the same way as after the TT. As is usually the case with road racing, I was just glad to be upright and in one piece. I realised I hadn't ridden aggressively enough when it mattered, and riding near the back at the start of the race ensured that I'd be riding near the back at the end, and so it was. On the other hand, it had been a good learning experience, and in particular, a good reminder that I'm strong enough to be competitive in a master's field, recent TT in the legs or not.

I soon caught up with fantastic news – Brendan had won! I knew this race was a major focus for him, and was very pleased for him. Despite the win, I was annoyed at myself for not lifting a finger to help him. It was great that he had the talent, and nous, to win on his own, but as a club-mate, it would have been nice to make his job ever so slightly easier, if I could have. 

Hearty congratulations to the M2 winners:  Brendan (centre), Glen Carabine (L), Aaron Strong (R)
(Incidentally, that photo caption is not the first time I've written Glen Carabine's name on this blog.  He was the stoker on the other tandem at Taupo, when Simon and I squabbled our way to a place in the record books - 4:09, which still stands.)

It was a good few minutes for PNP, and I was very stoked to watch Oli Ferry receive his gold medal for the M4 race soon after Brendan got his.  I'd raced a lot against Oli over the recent months, notably in the Liverton road TTs, and it was awesome to see all his hard work pay off in this way. 

M4 podium: Oli Ferry (c), Jim McMurray (L) and

Unfortunately there was no time to celebrate. I had to get back to Wellington, and after a quick packing mission back at base, was on the road within an hour of finishing, and chowing down on 45 cent roti canai in Kuala Lumpur 48 hours later!

Eating amazing cheap food, and looking at aero gear on the internet...

For a first club nationals, it was a pretty good learning experience, and I'm looking forward to getting back amongst it in the coming years.  The event had a cool vibe, and I'm stoked for all those who met their goals, and commiserate with all those that didn't.

Finally, thanks heaps to Joel Healy for his coaching, to my family, Sarah, Khulan and Kaitlyn for all their patience towards Joel and his demands, and to Oli for responding to all my bike-related whims!  I'm very lucky to have all five of you in my corner, not to mention all the others who've encouraged me along the way.

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