So it’s all over and the dust has settled. I’ve even been back to work!
I’m pretty sure that when Fabian Cancellara finishes a stage race nobody asks him to clean out a deep fat fryer the next morning! But that is the life I’ve chosen (I am a history graduate, so a job in the service industry was automatically assigned to me upon completion of my studies). Mediocre bike racer by day, miserable kitchen staff by night... I am officially the worst super hero concept in history.
I apologise for not writing up the final stage sooner but I was utterly incapable of typing on Sunday evening. I have never been that worn down before. I only just had the strength to stagger to the shop in my socks in search of beer and salty snacks. Shoes would have required lacing. That would have required ‘intelligent’ thought. So socks it was. For future stage race aftermath I will invest in shoes with Velcro, sandals…or a butler.
Once home I collapsed on the sofa, drank what tasted like the greatest beer ever bottled and promptly fell asleep. The previous five days had been hard but the final climb of the 6th stage had destroyed me.
The day started early as we needed to be out of our accommodation by 8am and sign on started at 9:30 in the Abergavenny leisure centre. That meant a quick breakfast, a game of luggage Jenga in the boot of the car and a 40 minute drive to HQ. Once there I quickly went about the search for a comfortable chair. We had over an hour before the race briefing so I wanted somewhere nice to sit and stare vacantly at the ceiling for as long as possible. Unfortunately for me and the rest of the race, both sign on and comfy chairs were up a set of stairs, on the 1st floor. Once I’d dragged my self up and fallen into a seat, I sat back and watched the pained faces of riders forcing battered legs to move one step at a time, it was brilliant! It was the first time in 5 days that I’d got to the top of something first and was able to look down on other suffering riders. Faces show a lot more expression than my usual view of rear wheels and arses!
I had managed to make myself quite nervous before the stage. I was determined that I was going to make it to the end, or at least to the foot of the final 6km climb. I knew that it wasn’t just my legs that had let me down this week, I hadn’t been aggressive enough. I don’t mean attacking off the front aggressive, but the kind of jostling you have to do if you want to hold your position in the bunch and not get spat out the back. You need to work to hold your place. People are constantly coming up the outside and knocking you back a position or two. I told myself that today would be different, I would fight to move up and I was not going to be dropped!
Yet again I was struggling in the neutral. But I managed to spin some life into my legs today and didn’t fall to the rear of the bunch. The com’s car had the speed sorted by now, so we tapped along at a pace that allowed us to warm up but not cause any problems or crashes. Once the car pulled away, I stayed where I wanted to be, sitting in the front half the bunch next to Matt and Stuart. A break got away early and the race was letting them have some distance. We rolled on quickly, but it wasn’t the frantic chase that occurs 10km from the line, when a break is still away and the bunch is desperately trying to deny them the win. At some point in this lull I looked to my right and realised that for the first time in the race I was ahead of Matt and Stuart on the Road. With the obvious exception of the team time trial, it had taken me 5 days to achieve this. I shouted over to them, telling of my momentous achievement and Stuart promptly decided that he fancied joining the break. Off he went…I never liked him really!
The first 40ish miles of the day were always going to be an appetizer for the final climb, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to stay with the bunch. The breaks, the sprints and the KOM points meant that there was always somebody chasing someone. The speed stayed high. One very cool thing that I’d not seen on previous days was a motorbike with someone on the back chalking the time gaps onto a blackboard. It was a little bit surreal; this is a little race in Wales, not Le Tour. It felt like it though!
I was finally feeling ok and able to ride like I normally do in races. I was enjoying myself. Some of the roads were brilliant! Tight winding country lanes had the bunch well strung out. The NEG riders were doing an amazing job of stopping traffic and allowing the peloton to pass smoothly and quickly. I don’t know why, but I love sitting on the inside of a race as it brushes past hedges and overgrown undergrowth. You can feel the road buzz through the bars and saddle but the sensation of twigs and leaves bouncing from your knee and helmet really brings home the speed and risk of bike racing. You are asking for a branch to the face though.
With maybe 10km to go the speed went up. We were approaching the climb and from the feel of it we were going to start it fast. Up until this moment I’d been fine but a sprint point just before we hit it brought the speed up too high and put me in the red. I stayed with the bunch but dropped places and lost far too much precious energy. I had hoped that I’d be able to stay with the front riders on the climb. I like long smooth climbs, but I had no chance. I’d lost my position in the group and would have to settle for riding the climb at my own pace. With my legs blown to bits I just pedalled up as hard as I could. I could see Matt, sat on a group in the distance so tried to catch him but it wasn’t going to happen. He’d been flying all week, whereas I had been grovelling from day one.
The climb itself was stunning. Similar to a lot of Wales’ best cycling roads, unless you’re local, you wouldn’t know it was there. Just like the Bwlch or Rhigos, you switch from Valley road to open vista in the space of a cattle grid and a hairpin bend. Suddenly you are windswept and exposed, looking down a long way. Willing yourself to the top of the mountain, pushing down on stubborn pedals that just won’t turn.
It hurt. Cruelly, there is a flat section and small descent in the middle of the climb where you are obliged to jump from the saddle and sprint in the big ring to the next section of uphill, only to start the slog again.
The final 1000metres were horrendous. Amazingly there were people at the side of this remote road shouting out encouragement and blatant lies like ‘cummon butt, 300 metres to go’. Misinformation! I thought I’d crossed the finish a couple of times before I eventually rolled over the top and saw it, 100 metres in the distance. Between me and collapse were a last stretch of straight road and a rider from Cambridge University CC.
Big ring, sprint, overtake, cross line, veer off the road, pull out left foot, leave right foot clipped in, fall to the ground with bike, stay there..and breathe.
After 5 incredible days, 6 stages and a lot of sweat, it was over. I’d finished over 27 minutes down in 74th place. Stuart was in 63rd and Matt in 53rd. The winner, Tony Kiss from Rapid Performance Coaching had taken the race by just 2 seconds from his team mate Adrian Bird. It had come down to the time bonuses for 1st and 2nd on the final climb of the final stage. If I were sat at home watching that on the TV I’d be on the edge of my seat shouting at the screen. That is bike racing at its best!
I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone involved in the race for giving us the opportunity to pretend that we were proper cyclists for a week. The organization was incredible! As was the food and accommodation (maybe not the mattresses..). The marshals and NEG did a faultless job of keeping the race safe and the action constant. I’m sure I speak for every rider when I say that come next year, my entry form and cheque will be landing on Chris Landon’s door mat as soon as possible!
On a personal note, another massive thank you to everyone who came up for a chat about the blog or commented online. It was great to hear the words ‘cummon Bristol’ in a Welsh accent from the side of the road! I’m so so glad people enjoyed my ramblings.
Thank you to Road.cc (This is rapidly turning into an Oscar acceptance speech) for letting me use their site for the week.
I’ll keep writing about cycling at www.ifonlyiwerebelgian.com feel free to come and say hello. There is plenty of racing left this season and you never know, I may eventually learn to ride and pee at the same time!