Guest Article: Finding My Level
Keepers Tour 2012 veteran @ChrisO is back to his racing ways in Cyprus. Yes, this is not Northern France; let us take a brief respite and go to warmer Mediterranean climes. This is ChrisO’s second guest article about his racing; his first was a stage race, the Tour of Sharjah, last year.
Yours in Cycling, Gianni
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
It was with more than a little anxiety that I signed up to ride the Tour of Cyprus for my Dubai-based team, Frankie’s. The Tour of Sharjah last year had been way out of my league, but since then I’d lost about 7kg – the weight of a whole bike – scored some podium places in local Masters races and recorded my fastest times in the mountains. So they promised that Cyprus would be different – more at ‘our level’.
The Build Up
We didn’t know much about the race. It would cover about 100km a day for three days and it had some climbs was all. With a week to go we discovered it WAS climbs. Each stage began and ended with a neutral section sandwiching a 30-40km uphill timed course in the middle. Short enough for people to try to smash it, and long enough to be extremely painful. The second day even started on a gradient – bad luck if you missed your cleat. Nasty, brutish and short. As if the potential suffering wasn’t enough, our team was also hoping to get some results. They were even expecting me to be part of it. Our team ‘manager’ Toufic had somehow persuaded two of the UAE’s best cyclists, Bader, a former national champion, and Murawwi to join us. And Youcef, from Oman, who rode with us at the Tour of Sharjah would be there as part of his build up to the World Masters Championships. I was to be his right-hand-man – then again, maybe he was left-handed. But we had competition. A new mainly-expat team from Dubai called Air Arabia, led by one of our former riders. They were clearly taking it very seriously and there would be bragging rights, and a bit of needle, at stake.
Day 1: Larnaca to Limassol
We’re split in two teams. An A team entered in the Elite, led by Bader, and the B team in Masters led by Youcef. Apart from Air Arabia there are a couple of other teams from Lebanon, some local Cypriot and Greek teams and some Germans who look fit, lean and well equipped. About 100 riders in all, but many clearly there for the ride not the race. The previous day was howling a gale and we’ve woken up to rain and grey skies. We will the blue spots on the horizon towards us and as we arrive at the start zone in time for pre-ride espressos the sun has made a cameo and the brave or determined are removing gilets and armwarmers.
It rolls out with a long neutralised zone. Too long – about 50km riding behind a car. On the first day the bunch is nervous, with sportive and race riders mixed together, plus it’s still windy so everyone wants to be sheltered. It has all the mental stress of riding in a peloton, without the chance to do anything about it. We notice Air Arabia have notes about the parcours stuck onto their top tubes. Not here just for the halloumi then.
The pace picks up as the timed section starts and we hit the first short hill before the main climb of the day. It’s a winding road with an average 5% gradient but steep corners at 8-10%. The attacks start coming and I concentrate on staying near the front – Don’t Lose The Wheel recited over and over in my head. The cyclists’ mantra. This section is only 4km and if I can stay with the group there will be a downhill to get me to the main climb.
I’m focused so much on keeping the pace and staying tight I don’t even look around until we’re more than halfway up. I’m shocked. We’re down to about 12 people. Whoah… how did that happen, and how the hell am I here ? Even two of our good climbers have gone. At the same time Bader and Murawwi respond to an attack and keep going clear, but Mike from Air Arabia is with them. That’s good – two against one with Youcef and Paul, my room-mate from the Tour of Sharjah still in our selection. Races are filled with mental calculations but basically they all boil down to a simple question… ‘Is this going to be hard, or harder ?’
Now we’re over the top and heading downhill before the big Cat 2 10km climb, which someone on Strava has named the “Agata Kelakka Brute”. Quite. The average is also just over 5% but with a final kick of 10-12%. Ouch.
Bader and Murawwi we can see up ahead and, this is big news, Mike is dropping back. As we take the long climb the group splinters more. I go out the back with some others but keep plugging away. I can still see the leaders, although 500m on a mountain might as well be 500 miles. I know there are only seven or eight ahead of me as Elton, one of the Air Arabia guys catches me near the top. We bomb down together, trying to catch the two riders ahead.
These are mountain villages, in Cyprus, and smooth surfaces aren’t high on the list for countries facing bankruptcy. As we go into one village there are suddenly people at the side pointing to something – not something to avoid in 50m, but something we’re inevitably about to hit. A speed bump AND a pothole. Oh… Fuck . And a 90 degree turn. Fuck… More. I narrowly scrape a wall as I try to scrub my speed. I’m sure I’m about to crash, I’ve got that feeling in my stomach, but miraculously I’m upright, and I’m around, and… what’s that noise ? Is it him ? No it’s me. Puncture – pinch flat.
Now I know how David Millar felt when he tossed that bike into the ditch. All that work, all that hard work and effort and luck, gone in an instant, never to be recovered. Riders come flashing past with looks of sympathy, but the bastards know they’ve just moved up a place. Our support car is nowhere to be seen. I have a tube and pump so there’s no other option. I change it, get back on and still catch a couple. Instead of top 10 I’m 23rd on the stage, although I’m only seven minutes behind, so if nothing else it was a quick change. Despite the bad luck I’m still pleased with my effort.
Today’s stage started at 11am so by the time we get back to the hotel (a different hotel, we’ve moved to Limassol), check in, shower and meet up at a local restaurant it’s 4pm. I eat an enormous filled pita with lamb and sheftalia, a traditional Cypriot sausage. I’m very tired. I just want to sleep but it’s too late. As dinner time arrives I’m still full from the late lunch. I have a little pasta but my heart’s not in it, or my stomach.
Day 2 – Limassol to Paphos
The second day promises to be easier. A long steady climb, with just the small matter of what appears to be a hill start. Surely not. We finish today’s mercifully short and far more relaxed neutral zone and reach the start point to regroup. Yep, they’re going to start us facing up what appears to be a 1-2 km rise at around 5-6%. It goes mad from the start as those who clip in successfully start to power away while those who miss, or get checked by people in front try to catch up. I am caught behind two riders who started in too high a gear but I manage to get around and with a lot of effort make contact with the front group of 25-30 riders.
As we crest the climb and go over some rolling hills towards the main climb my legs are feeling heavy. Normally I sustain a good climb at a heartrate around 160 bpm – anything over that starts to drain the battery quickly. Today I’m at 150-152 bpm and it’s feeling tough. I can’t stay with the lead group even to the first climb. I’m paying the price for yesterday, and in hindsight the recovery was where it went wrong. Read any Tour diaries and the riders will tell you it’s the person who recovers best who wins the race. My theory, looking back, is that with less weight I’ve got less in reserve.
I settle down and try to keep a steady pace. Eventually I catch a teammate and another group joins us as we roll up and over the last kms. I’m 20th on the stage and 7 minutes further back. To rub salt in the wound I get another pinch flat on a metal grating as we ride home, although at least it’s not in the timed section. Now I realise I have to recover better and I need to eat as much as I can. So I do. We stop at a village on the way back to the hotel which means eating sooner – a very good idea. Apart from a short nap I just eat, even in the bath, and over the next six hours I consume:
- Date mamoul (filled biscuit)
- Sliced warm fresh pita bread (x 10 pieces, I lost count) Dips – houmous, raita, olives
- Stifado – beef stew, with roasted potato. Mmmm.
- Fruit – clementine, banana
- Baklava type sweet (x 2)
- Turkish (sorry, Cypriot) coffee
- Chocolate filled crepe
- Pro Bar – chocolate and peanut butter flavour (eaten in the bath)
- Dark chocolate (100g)
- Chocolate and hazelnut biscuits (thanks Paul, x 3)
- Mocha Frappuccino at Paphos Starbucks
- Half packet of salted almonds (100g)
- Large bowl of leek and potato soup with 2 bread rolls
- Large plate of salad – beetroot salad, tomatoes, Greek salad, shredded duck salad,
- Large dinner plate – rice, steak in mushroom sauce, pork with apple sauce, steamed vegetables, sautee potatoes, penne paste with bolognaise sauce
- Red wine
- Chocolate cake, berry compote, two scoops of ice cream
I don’t know how many calories that adds up to but I’m feeling slightly sick just from stuffing it all in. As the results are posted that night we see that our A team with Bader, Murawwi and Paul is comfortably in first. Bader has calmly won both stages and tops the GC. But the times go on the top three in each team and we see that the B team is third, behind Air Arabia. This matters, a lot, because the top three in the A team are all guest riders and Toufic wants to make sure nobody can say we only won because of our ring-ins.
The main reason we’re behind is because of my puncture and as we plan for the next day it’s clear that it will be down to me to make up for it. Our team leader Youcef will probably do better than their top rider, and Gilles in second might be equal with his opposite number or at worst behind by a little, so the top two cancel each other out. I have to finish two minutes ahead of their third rider, Ahmed, to have a chance of claiming second spot.
Day 3: Paphos-Kathikas-Paphos
The weight of expectation is something new to me in cycling. I guess this is how team leaders or sprinters feel when a team works to set it up for them. Time to deliver, come up to the plate, shit or get off the pot. Maybe it’s also why riders like Cavendish make such a point of thanking their team – they’re not just thanking them for that day, they’re storing up credit against the times they let the side down.
I’m nervous after my Nibali day, but I feel somewhere in my legs that all the food and rest has helped. Today is a short flattish start then a long 12km climb, again around 5-6% most of the way, followed by a 15km rolling section to the finish. Clearly Air Arabia know the score too. We reach the climb in a single bunch and Ahmed is visible near the front. Despite my tiredness yesterday I took 40 seconds out of him in the last 5-6km so I figure he’s at least as tired as me, and if he’s in front I can mark him until I feel I can attack.
As we climb steadily the bunch splinters and half a dozen riders go ahead, including Bader and Murawwi, but nobody else we care about. Paul gets on the front and start cranking out a steady pace, Skybot style. At first I’m worried I might crack, I even start to rehearse excuses in my head. But as my HR goes up near 160bpm I feel OK and I feel I can sustain the pace. The question is, can the others ? Gilles from our team and Elton from Air Arabia, both excellent climbers, up the pace even more and go ahead but nobody else goes with them. Youcef is further ahead of them so that’s one-nil to Frankie’s for now.
I look around. Paul’s pace has shelled Ahmed. Great, but yesterday he climbed back to me so I can’t count on it. And Mike from AA is with us. He’s a dangerous rider and just ahead of Paul on GC in the top 10. The sort of rider I’m surprised to find myself with. I understand how Ian Stannard must have felt in Milan-San Remo. For the gregario it’s a triumph just to be there with the campiones. I don’t think of beating him but if I can stay near Mike, and with two of our guys ahead, we’ll be sure to get the time we need. I tell myself to do it or die trying – no excuses.
Now I’m enjoying it. This is tactical racing and Paul is looking after me. I just hope I can live up to it. He stays on the front with Mike on his wheel and me on Mike’s wheel. There are four or five others with us but I won’t let them between and we won’t help them work on the front. We have just one job. Every now and then Paul comes off and puts Mike on the front, and I let Paul slot in ahead. Once Mike makes a little dig around Paul but I’m ready and go with him. In my head I’m thinking how awesome it is to be The Protected Rider.
After the hill there’s 15km of rolling roads to come, full of sharp little twists and turns and Mike is in his element. He flies through the little villages, hard into blind corners and harder out, up from his saddle like in a crit, sometimes overshooting he is going so hard. Paul is mainly a track rider so he’s also pretty handy and several times I need him between us to make up the ground I lose on Mike.
After two punctures on the last two days I’m also being a little cautious over the gratings and bumps. Better to finish 30 seconds down than have to change a tube again. And sure enough as we go into another bonus points-combo of Grating and Super Tight Corner there’s that sound again. But, it’s not me… it’s one of them, Paul, please God no ? No he’s fine. Mike ? Yes, it’s him. He pulls aside and I flash past to relay the news to Paul.
We’re about 5km from the finish so now it’s hell for leather to make as much time as possible, maybe even get Paul up on GC. Now we tell the other guys we’ll work with them, although they’re tired and it’s mostly Paul and I who work as we give it everything to reach the line. I don’t care about the sprint, just the time, so I stay on the front and let the bunch go past. Now it’s a matter of time and I check my Garmin to get the gaps. Incredibly Mike comes over the line, having ridden the last 5km on a flat clincher, and still only lost a minute on us. It could be tight but it should be enough, and when Ahmed comes through two and a half minutes later we are sure of taking the place. The mood in the team is excited and bubbling. Bader has won all three stages and the GC, and in the Masters we have a 1-2-3 with Youcef, Gilles and me, plus the teams in first and second. It’s a Frankie’s whitewash and the prize ceremony is a procession of medals, trophies and jerseys. We found our level.
So, what do I know now that I didn’t before…
1. A good racer can beat a better rider. I came in with or ahead of stronger climbers because I’d improved my race ability so much since Sharjah.
2. The only way to race well is to race. I see why even pros don’t want to leave a week between races.
3. Power to Weight. Cycling is this.
4. Race on tubs. Our mini-race went one way then the other on pinch flats – got to be a message there.
I said before that I would never have a Pro head and that’s still true. But being physically in better shape has given me better results. In turn that’s improved my confidence and made me race better. I give less and take more.
I also said there were many things I could do to be a better rider before I needed new wheels. There still are, but the list is shorter so I’m entertaining suggestions… tubulars only please.
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