Guest Article: Racing, Not Riding
Is anyone else in need of some bike racing? I’m strung out and need a fix. @chrisO has come to the rescue by actually racing his bike and filing a proper report. He didn’t just jump into some Sunday Cat IV event either. He raced a stage race, the Tour of Sharjah, which might be part of Abu-Dhabi, no embrocation and Belgian booties for them.
My team in Dubai-Abu Dhabi was recently invited to, and competed in, the inaugural Tour of Sharjah. A four day stage race around Sharjah emirate. While not a UCI tour event it was a proper pro race, and with big prize money on offer it attracted two Continental pro teams, ten national teams from Arab countries and a combined African team. And us, Team Frankie’s-Raha-Wolfi’s. 12 mostly middle-40s guys who could match them with kit and bikes, but what about the legs… ?
Sometimes the story ends with the hero waking up to find it was all a dream. In this case the dream was the starting page. A pro-level tour, with accommodation at a luxury hotel, support cars and sponsored stuff while spending four days riding closed roads with police escort, TV crews and all the trappings of an international race. Well, apart from podium girls.
We’re essentially a Masters team doing local races in the UAE. Mostly over 40s, with a smattering of experienced riders and a couple of really good ones, but a lot of people who took it up later in life. If Jane Austen lived in Dubai she might have added to her universally acknowledged truth that, once married the man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a bike.
So here we were, invited to the biggest race of the season, ready to live the pro dream.
Anyone who has lived in the Middle East will know that events are approached flexibly. Only uptight westerners expect everything to be set in stone. Sand is the medium of choice here.
We arrive for the team briefing to find that there is a misunderstanding and the local teams have no accommodation. We’ve got two guys from Oman, and a couple more from Abu Dhabi, which is a two hour drive away – or more in Sharjah’s notorious traffic. But the sands can be shifted, and after heated conversations and various phone calls from the one Arabic speaker on our team we have a magic upgrade. Not the standard twin rooms of the hotel for us but the spacious serviced apartments of the adjacent resort.
Our team liaison Toufic goes to the briefing alone – it’s in Arabic anyway. Here he learns useless things – the order of stages has changed, there will be team classifications but we don’t know how, the African team will join on Day 2. It will all change anyway.
We have dinner and a team meeting. We don’t know the level of the teams, we don’t know the favourites and we vaguely know the routes. Team dynamics kick in – some people want to plan it all in advance, others want to let it unfold. It’s stressing me out so I mostly shut up.
Room-mates are chosen and I’m with Paul, a chap I’ve only met that afternoon by giving him a lift to the hotel. He seems to have been around bikes and racing most of his life. He’s also an ex-Marine so I figure he should be tidy if nothing else.
Stage 1 : 90km Umm al Quwain to Sharjah Academic City
The cars arrive, bikes are unloaded, riders warm up and we see the teams for the first time. The Algerians look like a unit. There are national squads in national jerseys from Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE among others. We sign on and warm up and take our places when the starter calls, mostly leaving the front row to others.
Racing here is usually fast and furious from the start and by comparison to the levels we’d be riding in Europe it’s aggressive and with an all-or-nothing approach. With no team limits in local races a big squad can just throw people off the front until it sticks. There are two local club teams plus the UAE team so that’s effectively 18 riders.
There’s no neutral zone and the attacks start as soon as we are off. It’s punishing stuff – fast accelerations get 50m ahead and are caught. Again and again. As they’re caught the breakaways sit up and slow right down, often spread out, causing chaos behind as the fast moving bunch hits the decelerating break. Bikes and riders go spinning through the air with rubber the wrong way up. One lands on his feet and hands and goes sliding along without falling.
Eventually, thank heavens, a break sticks and we have men in it. The rest of us stay together. Despite some confusion over the exact finish, which is 10km shorter than expected, we are safe and with well-placed riders. One box ticked.
Stage 2 : 150km Maleha to Dibba
The decisive day. 150km with a Cat 2 climb and some rolling hills and power climbs which will split the field.
I’m no grimpeur (I really do climb well for my 85kg weight) though I am good on steady slopes and hope to be able to help the team and maybe finish in the second bunch. But today is a triumph of inexperience over hope.
Early on we’re rolling at a decent pace when there’s a crash ahead and I have to stop dead and waddle around. I was too far back in the field but there are others to help chase back. Only three of them don’t chase and I’m left with a skinny Kuwaiti kid who I actually believe when he says he can’t take a pull. Within a minute I am on the redline and for 10 minutes I am over it, dragging us slowly back.
The last few meters are the worst. Tantalisingly behind and willing the bunch to just slow down for a few seconds so I can reach the haven. With a final effort we are there and I am exhausted.
Just in time for the first climb. I have nothing left and immediately drop like a stunned fish sinking into murky depths. Now I despair.
With 130km to go I am alone. This was my day to be Stuey O’Grady not Tail End Charlie. There’s nothing to do – I know I can ride the distance on my own, so I get on with it. Soon I start to pick up other stragglers including two of my team mates and we have a group of 10, all working together. We will survive.
I am faster up the climbs than the others so I go at my own pace and we regroup at the bottom. We reach the coast with the climbs behind us and now 60km to go as we start to pace ourselves in an echelon. We are at the tail of the field with the last race car and ambulance behind – perhaps they know our ages.
The wind is gusting from the side now and on the open flat some team cars are coming up to hand over food and water. As one comes beside us I move instinctively away, just as the wheel in front is pushed by a gust of wind and…
There is a frozen instant where you know you are crashing but you haven’t yet crashed. Too quick to anticipate the pain but the brain is deploying mental airbags.
I am quickly up and doing the obligatory check – limbs move, the bike is OK, nothing sears through the general pain. The ambulance guys look as shocked as I insist on continuing. My two team mates Mark and Gareth have come back to me. I could hug them.
We plug away, and after a while I am able to do some turns. 40km later we catch the others and fall in together. Grupetto Reunited.
Incredibly as we approach the finish the Kuwaiti kid, who has done turns you could count in pedal strokes on two hands, starts asking who is our sprinter. He’s not joking. As mature middle-aged men we should be above this, so I end up sprinting to get 82nd place by half a wheel. What a day.
Stage 3 – 100km Sharjah Corniche Criterium / Circuit
In the aftermath of my crash the team rallied around, for which I am very grateful. After all, if I dropped out now who would notice ? My stuff is gathered, bike taken to my room, checked over, new kit and cage arranged. I limp early to bed but not before being told that Stage 3 will start much earlier than expected at 6am. It’s dark until 7… were we supposed to bring lights ?
Paul promises to set the alarm once the time to leave the hotel is decided, while I leave them to it and fall gratefully into bed.
As I regularly get up about 5am to train my body clock is pretty much set, and I’m always anxious when I have to get up earlier. I wake about 4am thinking we must be getting up soon, then go back to sleep in fitful 5 and 10 minute blocks waiting for the alarm. Which doesn’t come.
Finally about 5am I get out of bed. This disturbs Paul who tells me the start is really 8am but he didn’t want to wake me up. My relief at extra sleep and not racing a dawn crit outweighs the thought that I would have slept better without fear of missing the start, so I go back to bed.
The stage is not far from the hotel and the team cycles over as a group. Sharjah traffic isn’t car-friendly let alone cycle-friendly. The day before when police vehicles with lights and sirens blocked roundabouts for us, cars were still squeezing past them in any conceivable gap.
But we make it and wait for the start. I’m glad to have had a gentle ride to warm up and loosen my stiff limbs. I have a truly massive and deep bruise on my hip and my groin muscles are strained. Lifting my leg to mount and dismount is a challenge, but pedalling is OK. Otherwise it’s just elbow gravel rash and some minor scrapes.
It’s more of a circuit than a crit. Five laps of 18km. With two tight hairpin U-turns at each end and strong crosswind in between.
I’m sore and nervous and nearly get dropped at the very first U-turn as the bunch stretches right out. My head is begging them to just slow down and let me back on. I can’t keep doing this and I try to stay in a better position further up. In sections I manage to stay out of the wind, but as we navigate the course my inexperience puts me on the windward side again and I have to fight to get to shelter, usually just in time for another change.
After two laps the pace starts to pick up for an intermediate sprint, with me being towards the back and in the nastiest stretch of crosswind.
We’re in the gutter, stretched single file.
Being shelled is like ice breaking. It starts behind you, then the deadly crack reaches your wheel and you plunge into the void.
50-ish kilometres to go, but my team mate Toufic has been dropped with me. And what do you know, my Kuwaiti friend. I can’t keep the peloton pace but I’m not exhausted so I do most of the work, with Toufic joining in. We pick up more stragglers briefly, joined by a rider from the Seychelles, part of the otherwise strong African team – I know how he must feel. At least we won’t be last.
I suggest Toufic tells them in Arabic we are both probably older than their fathers and they should show us some respect, even if we hadn’t dragged their scrawny arses around. No surprise then that I lead out Toufic for a stunning 1-2 in the fight for 70-somethingth place.
With the early finish we are back at the hotel to catch the end of breakfast and have a welcome recovery day to sit by the pool, put our feet up and generally chill.
Stage 4 : 170km – Sharjah Airport – Madam – Sharjah Airport
Last day and, inshallah, I know I will make it. I’m determined to do better today.
Today is mostly flat but even as we left the hotel at 6.30 the wind was strong, and it will only pick up. There are four riders within three seconds of each other at the top. The Algerians have five in the top 10 but none on the podium. It could be brutal, or they could be tired and not willing to risk early attacks on a long stage. If anyone asks my preference I have my answer prepared.
The pace is settled early on, with only half-hearted attacks into a tough headwind. I make myself go up the field, finding my team mates and working in with them. For a while I am in the leading line, very happy near the front.
But how quickly things change. One second I’m comfortable in a line or with someone at one side. The next moment I have riders pushing me on both sides, getting their bars just ahead and squeezing me back. Forcing themselves into gaps between rear wheels, where I dare not go. I drop 30 places in 30 seconds. The mental concentration and edginess is just as draining as the physical effort.
But I try to keep moving back up and stay in touch until there is a big split, not just me. Soon after there is panic ahead. A crash and our leader Martin has a damaged wheel. Without hesitation Duncan gives his rear wheel but the bunch is lost and they know Martin is dangerous. There will be no waiting.
Half a dozen of us slow and wait to bring him back, but Martin is stronger than all of us put together even in this crosswind. We are killing ourselves, gasping and rocking, but soon he leaves us and forges ahead to rejoin the bunch as we reel them in meter by meter.
Finally we are nearly there, just 200m to go, but again we see Martin at the support truck. A puncture. I could cry. Really. We slow down and the bunch moves away. Again we dig deep and we get him further up the road before he leaves to bridge, helped heroically by Paul dropping back from the bunch to meet him in the gap.
I’m ready to make the call for survival but Tim is still gung ho and urges us to keep fighting. I want him to go away. I want it all to stop. I make a token argument but knuckle down and try. I start missing turns but only when the strongest riders are behind me. It was their idea to chase wasn’t it ? We are supposed to be doing through and off but the stronger guys are doing longer turns. Bless them, curse them… I don’t know any more.
Up ahead we can see the bunch slowly coming back, and then closer still as there is another crash. Now we are just 100m behind the cars, and I’m on the front. I dig deep and bring us into the lovely shelter of 4x4s and flatbed trucks. We made it.
We infiltrate the peloton, moving up to make sure we aren’t spat out straight away. Now we are at the turning point, around the Madam roundabout and the wind will be mainly behind us now. Alhamdulillah. God be praised.
I last another 10km but now the attacks are coming, the bunch is stretching, riders have dropped off long before and I’ve done my day’s work. One time I manage to get back using the cars again but it doesn’t last long and I’m off for good. I’m at peace with that. The wind is with me and others are behind me. Today is OK.
I had two missions. Get through it and don’t crash. Do the math yourself on that score.
I was way out of my depth but not physically. I felt early on I could compete with about a third of the field. In the final standings I was near the bottom but not the worst on our team, and if you take the DNFs into account I was probably about two thirds down the field. Given I’m twice the age, with more to carry and had a fall, I feel good about finishing a four-day race with no major physical effects. I didn’t climb off feeling I couldn’t look at the bike for a week. And in the end our team leader got back and finished Top 10, so the team looked good too.
Where I couldn’t compete was the mental effort and ability. It’s so inextricably linked to the physical. Many of these guys are full-time riders. I can see where immersion in the whole lifestyle helps support them – thinking and living nothing much more than bikes and racing. It takes mental force to be able to place your body and bike where you want it, and squeezing out the bloke next to you saves physical effort. They are chatting and moving and giving shoves and moves where I am gripping the bars and praying for personal space. They think no more about the ebb and flow of 90 riders than I would think about walking down a crowded street.
With that in mind I leave you with, Five Things I Learned on the Tour of Sharjah
- Riding is not the same as Racing.
- You don’t want to climb off, you just want it to be over.
- The three most important things are position, position and position.
- If nobody is riding there, there’s probably a good reason.
- New wheels would make me happier, but there are many, many other things I can do to be a better rider (don’t tell my wife though).
Would I go back ? Maybe. At least I know I can do it. But while I can temporarily live a Pro life, eat Pro food, have Pro kit and even Pro(ish) legs, I don’t think I’ll ever have a Pro head. And that’s the difference.
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