Saturday, October 7, 2017

Processing old film: Club Nationals Time Trials

It has been almost eight years since I first posted on this blog, and in those years, I've used it in a variety of different ways.

It's not a diary, locked in the top drawer of my bed-side table, so on some level, I must want people to read it.  That does affect the way I write, and to an extent, what I write about.  If reading something here triggers someone to go out and have their own adventure, that makes the effort put into the posts all the more worthwhile.  Similarly, I try to leave clues as to what my challenges were, and how I overcame them (logistical, physical or mental) and hope that others enjoy the fruits of that labour.  I do want to entertain, and inspire, and be useful - I'd be lying if I said otherwise.

That all said, this blog is very much something I write for myself.

Crafting a post takes me hours, but that process is something I really enjoy.  In and of itself, writing here is a great second hobby.

Reading old work always brings back memories, and I'm often surprised at what I've forgotten.  It's an opportunity to record things I want to remember, in isolation, but also as a package, and well worth the effort for that aspect alone.

As I've come to realise over the last couple of months, there's an aspect hidden from the casual reader, that is probably where I get the most value.  This blog forces me to work out what I think, and then the act of carefully laying it all out (over many hours, usually) both challenges me and lets me off the hook.  Confronting myself is the first aspect, but what also seems to happen is that I become forever free of re-litigating whatever issue it was that I've described.

Reflecting on that, I realise that writing has long played a role in my thought processes.  As a PhD student, I wrote as I went - the words not only securing the maths that had gone before, but informing the forward direction of travel.  (Or, also common, highlighting a glaring problem and the need to take a step back.)  The act of writing helps me move in the right direction.

Spring is here.  The fourth North Island Series has begun.  I've had yet another solid winter of riding, on the back of a 25-year-long (and ongoing) transformation as a cyclist.  But, things don't feel right, and it's high time I sorted out why.

Hopefully by the time I've got a few things off my chest, I'll be both unburdened, and clearer about what the future holds...

* * *


From the moment I'd seen the M2 time trial results at the 2015 Club Nationals, I was committed to the 2016 event in Alexandra.  Missing the silver medal by 15 seconds, and the bronze by a mere 3, had stuck in my craw.  Worse had been the fact that I'd paced myself badly, and while it was somewhat satisfying to be there or thereabouts, I was keen to race again.

The first part of the 2015/16 season was dominated by the successful North Island Series, but well before that was done, I'd dusted off the time trial bike and begun preparations for nationals.

While I'd again licensed under Port Nicholson Poneke Cycling Club, the road arm was in a bit of disarray, and besides, did not typically run time trials.  On the other hand, the Wellington Masters Cycling Club ran a fantastic time trial series using a variety of courses: 3 or 4 laps of the Liverton Road circuit just south of the Haywards intersection, hill climbs from Makara to J'ville, both sides of the Akatarawas, and the south side of Paekakariki Hill, the 40km Kahutara course, and the 80km lap of Lake Wairarapa, as well as a shorter TT in Whiteman's Valley.

My intent was to do as many as possible, but the North Island Series clashed with quite a few of the early events, and even the Wednesday evening TTs on the Liverton circuit proved somewhat elusive.  I was able to do a few though, and managed to grab the club record on my final outing of the season on the 24km course.

Liverton Rd
After the Christmas hiatus, which included a wonderful cycle tour with Sarah and the daughters in Northland, I managed to log a 55-minute 40km time on the Kahutara course, despite again, lousy pacing.

Things began to go wrong around the time I received a special gift from my coach, Joel Healy:  a t-shirt reading “Train Hard, Get Lucky:  the harder you train, the luckier you get.

I got absolutely smoked on the 80km Lake Wairarapa course by David Rowlands, so despite clocking a  respectable 1:57, being over seven minutes slower than Dave was humbling.

The 80km race had been somewhat torturous, but afterwards I once again felt at home on the TT bike.  Three weekends before the nationals, I was nearing the end of a great ride on the outskirts of Carterton, when I felt a sharp pain on my right ankle.  I looked down to see a bee in its death throes, flicked it off, and thought nothing more of it.  That night, my ankle didn't feel right, and by late on Sunday afternoon, it didn't look right either.  A trip to the medical centre confirmed I'd contracted cellulitis, a bacterial skin infection.  It wasn't clear if the bee had played any role other than punching a hole in my skin, nor was the time frame to recovery obvious.

Monday was a dream, by virtue of the Tour of Flanders being raced overnight.  I spent most of the day lying on the couch with my leg up in the air, watching the 6-hour race from beginning to end.  I caught up on more recorded-cycling over the next day or two, but by Friday, my ankle was still flaring up every time I moved off the couch.

Hot, red skin: there was obviously a battle going on in there, and it was rather creepy

I was symptom free on Saturday, and enjoyed supporting Sarah at her first Centre Champs.  The next day, I tried a gentle spin while my peers were vying for the centre Road Race title.  My legs didn't last, locking up as they've often done after international travel.  It was another few days before I was able to ride properly, and then it was back onto the TT bike.

In hindsight I overdid it, something I knew was on the cards, joking to friends: “I've done my taper, and now it's back into the training”.   I was enjoying myself though, and my body hadn't forgotten its hard-won comfort on the torture machine.

The long drive down to Alexandra had much promise, but was riddled with frustration.  Sarah and I had booked on the 2:30am Bluebridge sailing.  The boat arrived into Wellington late the previous night, and while the promise of boarding at 10:30pm and heading straight into a cabin for a good night's sleep had been appealing in theory, in practice it was closer to midnight before we hit the pillows.

We spent the next night in Twizel, managing a lovely ride along the canal, before all hell broke loose and the evening was wrecked by a by-txt-message tiff with someone back home.

By the time we raced on the challenging TT course the day after next, both Sarah and I were pretty exhausted.  She was out racing while I warmed up.  At the end of her race, I retrieved my helmet from her, and set off before learning her result.

"Warming up the engine."  Thanks to Kirsten Hagan for the photo, and the caption

The out-and-back course was hard, climbing, gently at first, and then not so gently out to the turn.  Gauging how much to overdo it on the way out was tough.  Time trials always feel hard, but the good ones are usually obvious.  Crossing the line, I wasn't pleased with how I'd ridden.

On the upside, I returned to learn that Sarah had won a silver medal in her race, only 8-seconds behind the winner, and was able to watch her receive her medal.  A decent sleep in either of the previous two nights would easily have accounted for that difference and then some, but to her credit, she didn't seem to be dwelling on that like I undoubtedly would have.

Before the M2 results went up on the notice board, my name was called out to report for the medal ceremony.  Nestled in between David Rowlands and Heath Lett, I felt sure I'd got silver, but was unable to sight any confirmation of that before lining up for the podium presentation.

The chaperone put the three of us in order, and as instructed, I climbed onto the top step of the podium.  No more than 15 minutes had passed since the three of us had finished our 30+minute all out efforts, so when my name was called, and the silver medal was placed around David's neck, it took us some time to register what was wrong.  When his name was called as the winner, we silently swapped places, and he gave me my medal before receiving his rightful prize.

It's impossible to judge how I would have felt without that stuff-up.  But, I can tell you, being the “first loser” feels a lot worse than it should after an experience like that.

2016 M2 Time Trial podium.  Rowlands (36:10), Randal (36:32), Lett (37:13)

The following day, Sarah claimed a brilliant 4th place in the combined W1 and W2 Road Race.  All three riders ahead of her were unfortunately in her own W2 grade, but she performed exceptionally, finishing third in her first ever bunch sprint (for 2nd place).

The day after that, I rode in support of David, even spending half a lap out on my own to give him some time out, before collapsing at the start of the final lap.  I limped around the course to the finish.  Despite learning that Dave had won, I don't think I've ever wanted to cry more at the end of a race.  Only exhaustion prevented it, I think.  I was physically and emotionally spent.

The long drive home had its ups and downs too.  The wonderful seal nursery on the coast north of Kaikoura was the highlight, but came soon after a $200 ticket for cutting a corner on a windy hill. Apparently 30cm over a dashed white line is a ticketable offence, and the ticket itself was part of an education campaign.  Insult to injury, duly added.

Third time a charm maybe?  Roll on Cambridge...


My bike and kit were fairly dialled prior to Alexandra, so the focus in the months preceding the 2017 event primarily focussed on getting my legs organised.

I'd been surprised to see Huib Buyck representing the Wellington Masters Cycling Club in Alexandra, and leapt at the chance to do likewise in the 2016/17 season, not least of all, to get rid of the horrible plunging neckline of the PNP skinsuit.  Besides, it seemed like a bloody appropriate hat-tip to the club for continuing to put on a full race calendar, all things considered.

Unfortunately, the Liverton Road circuit was out of commission due to the upgrade of the Haywards interchange, and the Wednesday night TTs had shifted out to the Miramar Peninsula.  Despite being closer to work and home, Sarah and I struggled to get to these.  I probably should have ditched the disk wheel and ridden out, such was the horrendous traffic, but after several wind-related cancellations, gave up on the idea of them entirely.

The season was not without its successes - probably the best time trial I rode was on a whim.  I'd had a disappointing road race on the Saturday, and when returning from Wairarapa on the Sunday morning, stopped in to do the Vets' Harcourt Park to Akas summit TT.  I had only my road bike with me, but the damp roads probably made that a good choice.  I also did a decent 40km TT in blustery conditions at Kahutara, pipping ex-NZ hour record holder Steve Bale for the Club Championship.  We were blitzed off the course by a flying Hamish Bond, building TT experience towards his next Olympic goal..  Watch *that* space!!!

It was around about then that the wheels fell off...

I feel very privileged to have been coached by Joel Healy - I think that he has found a very nice balance between pushing me hard when I've been threatening to fail, and letting me off lightly when I do.  He would be very glad if I had a power meter on every bike, and while I've managed to hold off on that, there's been a great deal of structure training to numbers.

One of the staple sessions is modelled on Sufferfest's Revolver:  15 reps of one minute on, one minute off, on an indoor trainer.  The first time I did it, back in April 2015, I collapsed on the 8th rep, and limped home, by then, the minutes-on feeling like an eternity, and the minutes-off passing in the blink of an eye.

I did the session nine times in the 2015/16 season.  On a good day, I could hold power through the entire session, and finished with a PB of 492W average for the on-minutes.  In the 2016/17 season, I did the session six times, and got a personal best average on five of those occasions, 3 out of 4 through August and September, and then up a level in November, and again in late February.  On that last effort, almost a week after the Club Champs, I was tantalisingly close to my goal of holding 500W for each minute, but had to make do with an average of 517W, with a 498W on the second rep, and 497W on the penultimate one.

But I wasn't moving...

A fortnight after the Club Champs, we were again racing on the Kahutara course.  It was a relatively windless day, and I had high hopes for a fast time.  I felt like I'd paced myself relatively well, but about 500m from the finish, I was passed by Ben Storey despite my one minute head start.  And, to make matters worse, despite my power being higher than a fortnight earlier, I'd been 15 seconds slower.

That result had a profound effect on me, and one which I still don't fully understand (the cause nor the effect).  I was more time-poor than usual, with a busy load at work (ironically, I'd shifted a whole lot of teaching forward to be able to be free for the week of Nationals).  Up until this point, I'd been making regular sacrifices to slot in the various training sessions Joel had prescribed, and the power numbers were showing the benefits of this.  I'd been a successful time triallist but I hadn't thought that was the cause of my enjoyment of it, and nor the reason for my commitment to it.  But, this loss, not only to Ben, but also to Steve Bale who'd turned a 40 second deficit into a 1:14 advantage, was strangely crushing.

Not in the garage any more.  Photo: Di Chesmar

Nationals was still a whopping two months out, and while I still told myself I wanted to do well there, I wasn't acting like it.  I let myself succumb to work pressures, and missed session after session after session.  I had half an eye on a second ascent of Mauna Kea, but wasn't even shirking indoor sessions to ride hills.

I teamed up with Steve, Mike Stewart and the ever-impressive Andy Hagan, to ride the Hope Gibbons Team Time Trial.  We came away with a win, largely thanks to Andy's disproportionate spells on the front.

Hope Gibbons TTT:  Hagan, Bale, Randal
I think it is fair to say I was stronger than Steve that day, but a week later crumbled at Centre Champs, finishing behind not only Ben and Steve in my age group, but a raft of others that I'd hoped to beat, despite not being in their grade.   Further demoralisation ensued, but I had little time to dwell on that before jumping on a plane to Hawaii.

Immediately upon arriving home, I went out to see Joel, and he tinkered with my bike a bit, looking for some free speed.  A 1cm spacer was shifted from below the stem to above it, and both elbow rests were moved inboard.  I then spent the weekend riding it, and was relieved to feel relatively comfortable on the bike.  We hadn't done any harm, at least.

I got out another couple of times early that week, but by then had overdosed on it, and was getting weary of the precarious position and the high speeds.  The air temperature had dropped significantly too, and while I'd made decent attempts at a couple of hill rep sessions, the fan forced cold air in the garage late in the evenings was a different story.  More missed sessions...

It's embarrassing and somewhat ironic to think I probably did more training in and around the bee-sting the previous year.  But, the event finally rolled around, nearly a full nine months after my first Revolver session for the season.  I'd been referring to club nationals as my goal since around then, but in reality, had completely lost sight of it.

The race was on a Friday, and Sarah and I made our way north with Brendan on the Wednesday.  While he and Yancey did a recce around Saturday's road race course, Sarah and I rode our TT bikes over the time trial course.  Just once, unlike Hamish Bond who we saw a couple of times, the last of which was as he set out for a second lap.  He would go on to absolutely blitz the field the next day, taking the rare step of loading his power data up on strava.

Unlike his disciplined excellence, my race was an absolute mess.  My warm up was good, though about 20 minutes from the start, I somehow knocked my power meter pod and had to spend about 5 minutes getting it sorted.

By virtue of David Rowlands moving up into M3, I started last in my field.  And, from the outset failed to get on top of the occasion.

About to take off.  Photo: Kirsten Hagan
One of the things a power meter highights, is how free the first minutes feel.  The pedalling seems easy, yet the power numbers are so high, and it can be easy to convince yourself that the meter is miscallibrated, or on the blink somehow (especially if you've been fiddling with it mere minutes earlier).  And, so it was, at Club Nationals, that I set off way too hard, wondering for the first couple of minutes whether the numbers I was seeing on my screen were correct.

Aside from that regularity, everything else felt foreign.

My position felt strange.  Since Joel had changed things up front, apparently successfully, I'd ridden forward on the saddle, successfully avoiding the "pissing glass" symptoms which arose time and again when I'd ridden too far back, obviously affecting a nerve somewhere that nerves are best left alone.  Yet here I was, having to fight to get forward in the saddle, for the first time in weeks.  I didn't understand why.

It felt like there was friction somewhere too.  I'd had the same sensations on and off during Hope Gibbons, and again at Centre Champs.  The disk wheel was only on the bike for special occasions, and while post-event checks seemed to suggest everything was fine, in the heat of the moment, it felt like the brake was rubbing, or the tyre was rubbing the frame, or something.

Unfortunately the pedalling effort is not quite enough to slow my brain down, and so I fixated on how wrong my position and the flow of the bike through the air felt.  I convinced myself that the wheel was rubbing, and I almost convinced myself to stop to check it.  I was literally one "ah, fuck it" away from stopping the bike.

The course was basically flat, but the outbound leg was predominantly into the wind.  That made it hard to supplement power data with speed, and so I had little else to go on but my power numbers and these horrible sensations.

After the turn, the tailwind gave me a healthy speed boost, but "you always pay the piper" as the saying goes, and my apparently over-zealous start began to catch up with me.  I rationalised the fade later on by figuring I'd made better gains into the wind than the resulting losses near the end of the ride.  Who knows if that's actually the case.

I managed to drag myself out of the saddle for a burst of effort as the line approached, and hung my head in disappointment the moment I was done.

Despite Sarah (who'd won a bronze medal in her race, I was delighted to learn), and Brendan, and other friends being around, I wanted to be alone.  After a few minutes, I called Joel, and was talking to him when someone came to me and told me I'd placed second.  Joel immediately began ensuring I was happy with it.

2017 M2 Time Trial podium:  Henton (35:04), Randal (35:27), Gardner (35:59)

When I smiled for that photo, I really was smiling.

* * *

I've now raced three Club Nationals time trials.  Across the three events, I've been a total of 60 seconds behind a silver and two golds.  I didn't pace myself well in a single race, and that's a good enough reason to be thankful for where I did end up.

At the time, fourth place in 2015 really did suck, and being 15 seconds slower than second place (and only 3 seconds slower than 3rd) was a hard pill to swallow.

My 22 second deficit to David Rowlands in 2016 in some ways was harder still.  Despite Dave being one of the best 40-something-year-old amateur cyclists in the world, and nursing a heavy cold at the time of the race, I genuinely believe that the sting had prevented me from giving my best that day.  Throw in the podium debacle, and there is little satisfaction remaining.

On the other hand, it has never crossed my mind to lament the 23 second deficit to Mike Henton in 2017.  This year, the gap I've thought about, if any, was the 32 seconds to third. 

The lead in to the 2017 event was like being in a slow-motion train crash.  It was obvious what was going on at the time, but apparently, I was paralysed to do anything about it.  Of course I did have options, but chose not to take them - I guess there's something optimistic about us that hopes things will magically resolve without us having to take charge and make hard decisions.  In hindsight, the saddest bit for me is knowing that had I intervened, I could have avoided a miserable couple of months of feeling shit about everything (including feeling like I was wasting Joel's time).  Calling it for what it was might even have improved the training outcomes, such as they were.

As nice as it would have been to win this year, I made choices in the months prior that worked against that result.  Too many, and I knew it when I stood on that podium.  I also knew that those choices could easily have had me standing in the crowd, and it was for that reason that the medal was an overwhelming relief.

Big Dan consoled me after the 2015 race with the gem:  "there's winning, and there's learning."  As enjoyable as a job-well-done is, this most recent reminder that to win, you need to work hard, is surely of longer-lasting value.  I was working hard, but not to win the time trial at Club Nationals.  And I'm OK with that.

As nice as it would be to rise to the challenge of riding a perfect Club Nationals TT, that's the last challenge I feel like taking on at the moment.  Ironic, since the 2018 event is in little old Carterton, just down the road from Sarah's and my home away from home.  I'm now much clearer about the sacrifices I would have to make, and realise that the convenience of the event makes little difference in the giant scheme of things.

Even a half-arsed attempt at stuff  like this comes with a massive opportunity cost.


  1. Another great post. Your ability to examine and analyse your feats, goals and, especially, emotions to such depths is a very rare gift - more valuable even than your prodigious strength on the bicycle.

    If, as it seems, you really have stepped away from the very specific target of Nationals I hope you are able to reflect not just on just how impressive your results have been, but also how impressive your character is.

    Whatever amazing things you are doing in the sporting, professional and personal senses, I hope you know you're an inspiration to many, and definitely to me.

  2. good analysis, fantastic writing.
    wishing you success