ChrisO is back with another installment of Suffering in the Desert. Enjoy.
A year after my first stage race I’m doing it again. I just have to remember who had permission to shoot me if I did…
The Tour of Sharjah has become the Sharjah International Cycling Tour. It’s now a UCI Asia Tour 2.2 event, in other words a Professional race with UCI ranking points, and a 20,000 Euro prize pool.
I’m a bit more Pro too, though we’re talking about a sliding scale here OK. Last time I was 87kg having never done a multi-day race. Now I’ve lost 9-10 kilos, done stage events and races, even won some. I’m riding better and faster than ever. I have a power meter and a new team with a sponsor. Ride my own bike ? Alors, I have a team bike. I even have a coach, who tells me how wonderful my numbers are.
I’ve trained hard to be selected. Before the race I have dream-like moments where I imagine sneaking into a breakaway, the classic ‘no threat’ rider, and finding myself somehow featuring in the day’s reports. Sigh…
Day 1 – Sharjah Corniche Circuit 70km
Desert, what desert ? The previous day every school in the country shut to avoid a massive storm and today is no better. It’s a 2pm start and I need my 4WD to get through great pools of water and stranded vehicles. When it only rains once or twice a year drainage isn’t a priority. Months of dirt and diesel on the roads, and we’re supposed to be doing a crit.
We gather at the race hotel for an early lunch. There are grim looks all round. Ryan, over from Doha, says the Qatari team think it’s dangerous and don’t want to ride. Some of our Brit riders think the bad weather is to our advantage. Maybe they’re right but I’m with the Qataris.
The start is near the hotel. The rain stops briefly and we roll out but quickly find our way blocked by flooded streets. Eventually we pick our way across pavements and carparks only to be told it’s been put off for an hour and shortened to let the roads dry a little more.
Annoyed, we roll back again, chill out and return for the official start. Mario Cipollini is here courtesy of our team sponsor who is selling his bikes, so we have a photo with the great man. Touched by Cipo before a race – surely a good omen.
The teams are much the same as last year. Strong national squads – professionals and full-time athletes – from the UAE, Algeria, Iraq, Egypt plus new arrivals like India and Pakistan, and of course our local clubs both the Emirati and the expat versions. The Afghan squad is really Iranian (tip to undercover cyclists, don’t wear ‘Iran’ shoe covers). My former team has brought in a ringer, Roman van Uden, a Kiwi pro rider with a top level British Continental outfir Node 4 Giordana, and clear favourite to win.
The start is neutralised until we get onto the proper circuit. We get a taste of things to come. Water is up over the rims and the bunch tries to squeeze through the dry bits, with spray flying even at a modest pace. As the flag goes the pace quickens and we’re in it for real. This is hairy stuff. The first day is always nervous and the combination of twitchy riders with sketchy surfaces and dangerous obstacles is on everyone’s mind.
But I’m hanging in there OK. I even find I’m in better positions, making my way from one side of the bunch to the other as we change direction and the wind shifts, using the water to gain better positions. There are lots of “whoaaa” moments as riders ahead apply brakes or shift position to avoid the flooding.
No surprise then when the inevitable happens and there’s a massive pile up about halfway down. I’m not in it but I am behind it. Right behind it, no getting around. As I pick my way through bodies and bikes I quickly scan for the red and black of our Ride-GMS jerseys. I don’t notice anyone but it later turns out we’ve lost Josh to some busted ribs.
By the time I’m through the bunch has disappeared. I catch a few ahead and a few others catch us to make a sizeable pack as we try to reel them in. After a few kilometres however it’s clear we aren’t going to rejoin. Most accept the inevitable but a few seem determined to throw away their energy, making sudden efforts and forming small breakaways which last no more than a few hundred metres. It’s a long circuit rather than a crit but we pass the lead group in the other direction often enough to see we’re losing time. Sit in, save the strength.
We make it home, but only after being misdirected three times around a roundabout under a foot of water. We look like we’ve done a cross race on a muddy day in Belgium. Our bikes are covered in crap and lord knows what we’ve swallowed. It’s at this point the thing that makes me feel most Pro happens – my bike is taken, in a good way.
Our sponsors are an offshore services company, GMS (ever need your oil rig looked after just let me know, mate’s rates) and Ride, a Dubai bike shop. With mechanics. Smiley, happy, can’t-do-enough Sherman and Juhn (who also drives the support car) whisk our bikes away to be cleaned and oiled and prepared for the next day. This happens every day. Cross the line and I don’t even have to find somewhere to lean my bike. I get off and I see it the next morning. Tyres cut to shreds by road debris? Two new tyres. Brakes rubbing? Let them out. I could get used to this.
Day 2 : Batayeh to Khor Fakkan 97km / 500m
They’ve swapped the long climbing stage scheduled today with tomorrow’s shorter rolling stage. The forecast is more of the same so maybe it’s to avoid a tricky descent.
The start is out in the desert. The roads are straight but lumpy and roll over big dunes. The wind is the bastard – strong and at our right-hand side. There’s no neutral start and the pace goes crazy from the beginning.
Where last year I was being spat from front to back in 30 seconds I’ve now got pack sense. It’s not just about looking at your space. It’s about the space in front of the space in front, and the spaces and riders around you. Every gap is my gap. Unless it’s going to cause a crash, move into it. Get your bars in front of the next guy’s and let him be the one to drift back.
We’re riding at 40 something km/h in the gutter, full of road debris and with a concrete wall inches to my left. As we go over the rollers there’s a classic echelon at the front with a long tail strung behind. There are cracks ahead and it takes several big efforts to get around the gapped riders and latch on again. One time I lose the contact but a group comes from behind and we chase on again, although it takes about 10km to get back.
Today is very fast. We do nearly half the stage at an average of 51km/h – the average for the day, with 600m climbing, is over 45km/h. To make matters worse the rain starts again and the roads are slippery and wet but fortunately this bunch is only about half the field so it’s relatively sane and safe. At one point my former teammate Youcef is next to me and says hello but we’re doing 65km/h on a fast descent in the wet in a bunch of 50 riders and I think it best to chat another time.
After a while our team leader Jamie drifts back and calls me up. I’ve been sitting mid-pack but there’s a dangerous break and he wants us to help set the pace. There are only four of us left here. As the bunch moves around and it gives me a chance to come up on the sheltered side and get on the front.
Another thing I’ve learned – gatekeeping. To work the front you need your riders to come off but not go all the way back, and you don’t want intruders breaking it up. So someone is the gatekeeper – anyone they let through has to work, anyone not working is shut out. You just have to spot the keeper.
So I do some decent turns, I get in, I get around and I’m doing OK. I’m thinking I’ll finish easily with the bunch but as we get near the end, while I’m on the very front I go over a speedbump and can’t see the pothole on the other side. Pssss… pinch flat and that’s me done, just as it will start to wind up for the finish.
With our team car following I get to do the pro thing. Hand up, pull to the side, car comes screeching up, change wheel, off I go again. I don’t get back but I follow the cars and more importantly the breakaway is caught right on the line so no time is lost. Job done.
It’s a 90 minute drive back to the hotel. I know from experience that not eating causes me all sorts of problems so I am determined to cram it in. We spot a Subway on the way back – I’ve never had a Footlong Sub before and maybe never will again but I start from there and in 8 hours I eat:
Oreos x 2
Electrolyte recovery drink
Subway Footlong – tuna, cheese and salad
Nuts and dried fruit
Malted soy milk
Tea with sugar
Chocolate soy milk
Chicken parmigiana sandwich
More orange juice
Salad plate and bread
Main plate – rice with chicken and vegetables, stuffed pasta, moussakeh, grilled lamb and chicken
Chocolate cake, chocolate trifle, apple pie
Protein recovery drink
I can’t believe I’ve eaten this much. I have to write it down.
Day 3 – Sharjah American University to Al Daid 161km / 1400m
I’m tired now. Even my attempts at food-based recovery have not given me much energy as we start what promises to be a long and tough stage. Originally 174km it’s been shortened to 161km. We don’t know exactly where it turns but it’s somewhere in the hills.
Despite that the day again starts fast and furious along similar rolling terrain and the same side winds. Always those bloody winds.
It’s harder today to stay where I should be. Harder to make the efforts to get far enough up the bunch and not be cut off. Harder to get around the people in front who drop back on the inclines.
Soon, too soon, comes the dreaded break. The cracks in the pack ice. There may only be a few metres between each slab but it’s a hard swim from one to the other, and I’m feeling more panda than polar this morning.
I’m now in the third group. We can see the groups ahead, echeloned across the road, but there are only seven or eight in our group of 20-30 who are working at the front. Every time we get near to the group ahead some fools try to break away and bridge the gap. Time and again they sink in the icy waters. If everyone paddled together we’d catch them. People at the back yell to ‘Stay right’ but then don’t come through to work. There’s much yelling and cajoling but after a while it’s clear this group isn’t going to happen.
Number 31, from the Afghan-Iran team comes past doing 60km/h uphill holding on to his team car. This is no sticky spanner, just blatant cheating, and our suffering grupetto howls its disapproval.
My teammate and roommate Paul comes up. He had a good second day, and was up there in the sprint and overall, at 8th. He was. I didn’t know it but a crash has wrecked a wheel and he’s chasing back. It’s bad timing, just as I was needing to save some energy for the hills. and he goes cruising past. I try to come up and help but I can’t. I feel bad about it but a few others go with him and they gradually edge away up the first climb leaving me with an even more hopeless task.
Soon after comes an uplifting sight. I hear cries of Allahu akbar from the front and Arabic chatter. Then I see the cause. Number 31 has come a cropper, presumably with one hand for the car and only one on the bike he lost control. Nasty. They say Allahu akbar, I say schadenfreude. We don’t wait.
In the support van now I see Tim and Rob. Tim is my training partner and a strong rider, as is Rob. I see why riders go in the broom wagon now. Seeing teammates in the car is a mixed emotion. On the one hand there’s pride that they’ve quit and you haven’t… on the other hand the fuckers are sitting in a car with food and drink – it’s becomes a real option for you as well. They do a great job of supporting us though, handing out drinks and gels and food as we struggle to the end.
I’m so tired that afternoon I sleep for a few hours. I know I have to eat but I struggle to force it all down. I’m sick of eating now. Sick of plates with pasta, rice AND potatoes. I want a salad and some soup and fruit. Amazingly when I weigh myself the day after the race I will find I’ve lost another kilo.
Day 4 – Sharjah Velodrome to Sharjah Airport 133km / 660m
The final day and it’s a flat(ish) and windy stage. The only stage that follows the race guide.
We’re at the start nice and early so I can have a good warmup. That’s been part of my problem with these fast starts. Us old guys take a bit longer to get going. In fact we have a really good warmup because it’s delayed again.
I’m not feeling great. My stomach is churning from all the food but once I’m on the bike I feel OK. Funny that. My legs are sore but it could be worse. I’ve managed not to have any bad cramps or rub anything raw so that’s a positive. It starts fast again and the echelons form but I’m in a reasonable position. My jour sans over I reckon I can hang on with the pack today. I’ve not got much left in the tank though, no heroics.
After about 20 minutes back comes Jamie and asks me to go to the front. I can’t say no, and I really try to get forward but the bunch is packed together in the gutter. The only way up is the windy side. I have to make 500 watt efforts just to pick up 20 places and then elbow in before having another go. By the time I get to the front I’ll be exhausted and no use.
I’m wrestling with this when I see Jamie to the side, hand up. I pull towards him expecting to have to help him rejoin. That’ll be my contribution today then – it’s actually a relief to know what you have to do. But our car is nowhere to be seen. Paul has punctured, again, and they’re out of position.
“Front wheel, front wheel,” Jamie yells. I stop and dismount, undoing my skewer as Jamie does his. Quick swap and he takes my wheel – I don’t even think twice about handing over my finest Enve carbon – and then he’s off before the cars have even passed so I’m reasonably certain he’ll get back. I, on the other hand, am left flailing a flaccid wheel until the car reaches me. Too late, I’ll not be getting back today.
It’s 16km into a 133km stage. I could quit and nobody would think worse of me. Some friendly managers give me a little draft. Paul comes past behind our car – he’s got better legs than me today and I don’t even try to keep up. A couple of our remaining guys, Bruce and Julien, are also back but lack the energy to get in the car drafts. At one point I’m nearly back up to Paul and our car, just as he gets a very sticky spanner and zooms off.
A little later the car comes back to use the same spanner on me. It gets me up to a little group of two Lebanese riders and two Pakistanis. The Lebanese are friendly – Saleh and Hassan. We rode together in the suffering group yesterday and I know Hassan from Cyprus. Habibi ! We will suffer together for 100km.
Our team cars share drinks and food among the group and Bruce and Julien are now in our van, having dropped out. At one point a Pakistani loses a spoke and we wait while it’s changed. No longer a race. We’re just cyclists, stragglers trying to get home now.
In the end Jamie got back and Paul rejoined the group, and even better our other top rider Ryan nearly broke away but still took fifth on the stage. Their results make us the best-placed UAE club team. Roman gets a run for his money from UAE champion Yousef Mirza but keeps yellow throughout. Of our 12 who started (in two teams) only four finish. In total more than 120 started and just 78 finish, with me in 72nd. Far below what I hoped for and probably about the same as last year, but this was definitely a level above. At least I stayed upright this time.
I said after last time I could have pro equipment and pro legs but never have a pro-head. Maybe now I can compete in that too, and if nothing else I can now say I finished a pro race. Look up ProCyclingStats and I’m in there.
It’s the pro will I still don’t have. That ability to shut out pain and say Shut Up Legs. At least I know what I have to work on.
Last time I had Five Things I Learned, so how would I change that now.
- Riding is still not the same as Racing.
- Other people climbing off is demoralising and motivating at the same time.
- The three most important positions are the ones around you.
- The gap is yours. Take it before someone else does.
- The things you do can make you a better rider and racer. New wheels are your reward.