Saturday, 14 May 2011

On Top Of The World and Looking Up

Whew! What a week (or so) it has been. Last week I made the incredibly long journey to Sydney, Australia for the first round in the 2011 Paracycling Road World Cup. It's a series of 3 races around the world (the other two stops being in Spain and Canada) with the main goal to score points in the road race and time trial that go towards Olympic qualification. The points scored at a World Cup are worth double that of smaller races (and the World Championships score 4x the points!).

We only took a small squad to this race - due to the distance and expense, we decided to only send the riders who had the best chances of scoring maximum points in their category. As I was chosen, the pressure to perform and live up to (self-imposed) expectations was huge. So myself, Mark Rohan (World Champion in the Handcycle) and Cathal Miller (my roommate and mentor) made the trip together.

Things got off to a good start when, on the first leg of the journey from London to Bangkok, the BA flight crew took pity on us and upgraded us to Business Class. This meant sleeper seats/beds for the longest part of the trip. A big thanks go out to them for the service

We arrived in Sydney tired but happy to be there. We were met by a local connection and taken to the hotel. We stayed in the heart of the Sydney Olympic Park – site of the 2000 Olympics and where they would be holding the time trial on the final day of racing. It's an impressive site - especially when you picture what it was like during the Olympics. Also planted the thoughts of what it might be like to be on the London 2012 site next summer.

After a few days of training and acclimatisation, where we all tried (unsuccessfully) to get over our jetlag, the first day of racing arrived. The road races were held on a motorbike and drag racing circuit about 30 minutes outside of the city. It was a challenging course with a few slight hills, fast descents and tight corners. First up was Cathal in his race, followed by Mark in the Handcycling race. My first race wasn't until the following day.

Cathal was up against some really tough competition, but he battled hard and ended up in the fourth place (only losing out on the podium by the width of a wheel). Mark had a bit of luck and rode hard to bring home the gold.

When my turn came to race the following day, I had the benefit of riding the course with Cathal who pointed out the danger spots and places where I would need to hang on to the bunch in order to stay with them. This info proved very useful in the end. 

The race started and immediately the pace was fast - with many riders battling to get up to the front of the pack. I slotted into the middle and kept a close eye on my main competition. When the road kicked upwards, several of the strongest riders surged forward - along with the rider I had my eye on. I dug deep and followed the wheels in front of me.

After 10 minutes of riding, I looked behind me – only to see that no one was there! I had managed to get into the breakaway group. There was only myself and the rider I had been watching in this group from my category, meaning – if I could hold on and stay with them, I would finish in either 1st or 2nd place. But it was still early in the race and anything could happen.

And happen it did. Going up the main climb the 3rd time, I dropped off the pace ever so slightly and BANG - the pack was gone. At the top of the hill, you enter the 1/4 mile drag strip into a fierce headwind. As soon as a gap forms between you and the pack - that headwind makes it much harder to pedal. And that's what happened to me.

I found myself alone and isolated. I didn't know what to do - should I carry on by myself and risk 'blowing up' and losing all my energy - or carry on and try and stay ahead of the chasing pack? I was feeling good, so decided to carry on as long as I could - and hope for the best.

Solo in the Road Race
And so, lap after lap, I pressed on. And a funny thing happened. I actually started to pull away from the chasing group! I just maintained a steady pace, riding as hard as I could constantly manage, and the gap kept growing. Lap by lap I started to believe that I could stay away and hold onto second place. With just one lap to go, I found myself praying that nothing would go wrong. I had a 4 minute lead, but that could be wiped out in an instant if I crashed or flatted.  

My coach was telling me to take it easy, and save my energy for the next day as I passed him for the final time. I eased up, constantly checking behind me to make sure the pack hadn't caught me, and at last.... the finish line was in sight. I crossed over, fist pumping in the air.

I had just made my first international podium!

The next day was the time trial – 4 laps of a tight and technical course around the Sydney Olympic Park. This is the event that I have been training for and as I was racing against the World Champion in my division, a good test of my form. He had beaten me by 3 minutes last time we raced last summer in Canada, but that was on a very hilly course and I'm a much better rider now. So I wanted to see how much I had improved and what I could do on a flat course that suits my abilities.

I was one of the last riders to set off and as per usual, just put my head down and got to work. I didn't feel as good as I normally do on the bike, but no doubt the effort from the previous day was a factor. To make things worse, my power meter was telling me I wasn't putting out much power. I thought I must be going really slow. But, as I rolled through the start-finish line at the end of lap 1, my lap time was close that what I thought it should be so just kept plowing on.

Occasionally, my team car would pull up beside me and the manager would lean out the window to shout encouragement at me. And each time I dug in a little harder. At the end of the second lap my coach – who was standing at the side of the road with a stopwatch in his hands – raised a single finger in the air. I was leading – or so I thought.

Early days though as I was only halfway through the race. I was starting to tire now. Power was still reading low and my legs were aching. No bother – just press on, I thought to myself. On Lap 3 I started to catch the riders who started ahead of me. First I passed my 'minute man'. Then, my 'two-minute man'. I was flying! Push, push, push, push, push.

On the final lap I got stuck behind a handcycle for a short period of time. I had to slow up – causing me to lose precious seconds. I began to get flustered – but then an gap opened up and I went for it. Around the handcycle, down the road.... and past my 'three-minute man'! If I had made up 3 minutes on some of the other riders, I must be having a good ride after all.

I made my way around the course for the final time, pushing all the way up the final straight as fast and hard as I could. Nothing left in the legs as I crossed the finish line. Whatever the result – I had given it my all. As I pulled over the side of the road, I was immediately approached by a UCI chaperone - informing me that I had been selected for anti-doping (just part of being a rider at this level). 

Gold Medal Podium Shot
My coach came running over at the same time with his stopwatch in his hands. Counting off, I could hear him say, "Five, four, three, two, one.... you've just won!" I looked over the the finish line and the World Champion was just about to cross the line. I had beaten him by 4 seconds!

We had hoped to get within 30 seconds of his time. But when I woke up that morning I had a feeling I might actually win. Despite my low power readings (which just turned out to be a faulty power meter), and getting held up on the final lap, I had put in a solid ride – enough for my first gold medal at this level. What a feeling, getting up on the podium in the middle spot – listening to the national anthem and seeing your flag being raised. Unbelievable.

My First Gold Medal
Finally, my results gave me a narrow victory in the World Cup standings for my divisions (the time trial result was the decider). Meaning I was also awarded the World Cup leaders' jersey – which I will get to wear in the next round in Spain next month. I had gone to Sydney with the hopes of bringing the jersey home (secretly) and this was perhaps the best part of my trip. Spain will be a much tougher race and will have to battle hard to hold onto the jersey – but if I come away with it after that trip.... I will be well on my way to reaching my goals for this this.
World Cup Leaders' Jersey

And now, back to training. These medals don't win themselves!

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