Recently I gave an account of my ride at this year’s Giro Della Donna, in Warburton, Victoria. Whilst I did very well, I was still pretty disappointed in my performance. I mentioned that I didn’t have any excuses for not quite nailing my goal, but with a solid block of training coming into the event, I feel that a couple of things went wrong. Caution – big whinge coming.
I live in Darwin, it’s a small city, with limited roads to train on, and they are basically all very flat. Sometimes the road tilts up at 2% for a while – and this can certainly be enough to make your legs sting, but the course of the Giro Della Donna included 2700m of climbing. The first climb took me over 40 minutes, and was certainly a fast time… this isn’t easily to simulate in Darwin. I’ve been training to build power, to resist lactate build up, and to push through pain barriers. This was certainly useful up Reefton Spur, but I found that I felt inefficient. Watching the other quick riders in that front bunch, the majority didn’t look laboured in their riding style. It felt as though I was chewing up a bit too much oxygen keeping myself at a decent power level – rather than riding smoothly, I was mashing on the pedals. Frustratingly, whenever the route flattened out, riding at threshold was far less difficult. Climbers train on climbs, and towards the end of my trip in Melbourne, once I had mostly recovered, I started to feel smooth again uphill… Too little, too late.
Whinge two. I was pretty crook in the lead up to the event. Whilst I had basically recovered from a cold/respiratory problems a week or so before the event, I was still hacking up phlegm until a few days afterwards. The colder air in Victoria seemed to irritate it a bit, and I didn’t feel nearly as well as I did going into say the Mitchell St criterium, where I had far less training under the belt. It was genuinely frustrating to basically sit around for a 2-3 week period when I really wanted to be smashing out some good sessions on the bike. Instead, I felt I had a taper week of pushing the legs far too much in an effort to waking them back up. It was outside of my control, but I think I did a good job of staying pretty positive and managing the illness well, by resting up and not trying to push myself. Unfortunately, I also lost a lot of confidence going into the Giro, and rather than feeling ready to let rip, I was keen just to get it over and done with. Much of my excitement had evaporated, and on the morning of the event, I didn’t have the right mindset to stay up the front.
It’d be a bit rich to say that I could have done better, because regardless of the circumstances, I feel there are always things to improve on. Above all else, I’m taking much away from the fondo. I had an opportunity to ride with some exceptionally strong cyclists, and on a course that, I was surely much less prepared for than they. Staying calm and patient is something I need to work on more and I am keen to keep up the training. Matt has still been coaching me, but we’ve both had interruptions that haven’t allowed for either of us to make the most of our potential as coach and athlete (I don’t think I’ve ever called myself an athlete before, by the way). I’ll find something else to enter, and I hope that my focus remains in check until the end of that race.
I left off with the finish up the Reefton Spur timed climb. Although I didn’t remain in contact with the front bunch, and despite cheating myself of a little bit of time by getting on the front early, I still did very well. Not quite the top ten I’d been targeting, but 12th was very close.
Some quick stats from the climb on Strava (the Cycling Tips timed segment has slightly different results):
Distance: 20km @ 3% average gradient (there are some short downhills)
My Time: 43:28s
Average Heart Rate: 176bpm
Average Speed: 27.6km/h
Whilst I am somewhat disappointed to have been spat out the back of the lead group, I definitely didn’t blow up, and managed to best my time from last year by one and a half minutes!
Back to the narrative at hand. Soon after the left turn at Cambarville, I found myself in a nice little group of 3. I warned the other two of the looming steep pinch and technical descent before the proper drop into Marysville. They seemed to be labouring somewhat, but I was feeling pretty comfortable again – something that would change later in the day, as these two really had some legs left for the finish!
That pinch is really something – after sitting at comfortable gradients for 20km, throwing a ten percenter into the mix is a tad rude. And to keep you on your toes, the minor descent that follows has a couple of rather dangerous turns that lead to some riders not finishing the event last year. Fortunately, despite hooking along at a high pace, the three of us came through clean for one last little hill before the fun bit. I’m going to call it “the drop”.
The drop in the course begins at the turn off for Lake Mountain. Rather than turn right and continue climbing towards the summit (a ride I did with James Morton at the start of the year), the Giro Della Donna route takes you straight down to Marysville. And it is ridiculously fun! Last year, I stayed in contact with the front bunch until here, before being dropped like a sack of potatoes as these very skilled riders took away at speed. This year I was feeling much more confident, and despite the lack of descending practice, I felt very sure-footed on my new bike. I stayed with the other two just fine – pedalling for speed whenever the gradient eased off too much. 56km/h was my average speed, maxing out at almost 78km/h (by no means a cracking time down here). I’m pretty sure I could descend much faster again, but was very happy to be a good thirty seconds quicker than last year.
After many, many ripping corners, a couple of tight and sketchy ones spit you out into Marysville, having dropped over 600 vertical metres in just under 9km. And just like last year, I could see the front bunch exiting town. But this time, they were not so far away!
I spoked to the other two and suggested we work turns to catch them up before the Acheron way. With a decent section of flat before some nasty and steep rollers, I was confident of utilising my pace line training from Darwin to bridge the gap. And I felt great! After my first turn, Julian behind me was struggling to move forward. But he did, and the two of us towed the other rider along to catch the front bunch easily. As it turned out, we needn’t have tried so hard! They were all sitting up, having a drink, eating some food and pulling over to pee! Whilst I was pretty happy to get a rest myself, it looked as though the racing was over for the day!
Now cruising along with the front bunch again, a couple of “kick you while you’re down” rollers were much easier ridden than last year. With a peloton of about 15 riders, we turned onto the Acheron Way, perhaps the most beautiful road in Victoria, and moved along at a fairly easy pace. Last year I grouped up with two other riders to absolutely smash this section as a bit of a team TT, and had no chance to appreciate the magnificent scenery. With mountain ash towering overhead, I had a chance to have a chat to those around me, but was under no illusion that this tea party would continue.
Perhaps a couple of kilometres before the Acheron Way hits gravel, some loud calls in the group alerted us to another bunch catching. The pace remained the same, and when I looked over my shoulder I was stoked to see a green NBRCC kit hauling at their front. It was Ben! It felt great to have a mate now up the front with me, but I was starting to get some serious leg cramps. I’m not sure if it was from the nerves or the lack of climbing prior to the event, but my muscles were none to happy and I was now very concerned about hanging on. On top of this, the gears on my bike were not behaving, and I was continuously pulling to the side to prevent myself causing grief for those behind me, with my chain undecided as to which ring it preferred to sit on.
With at least 20 riders now up the front of proceedings, it felt as though things were getting a little tense as we approached the gravel. The Acheron Way has a 13km section of unsealed road, and in this direction, the first 7-8km climbs quite steady, averaging only 3%, but including some rather steep switchbacks. I had myself position in the top 5-6 riders at this point, and it seemed like those of us in the know were quick to react to the sudden increase in speed. Within a few hundred metres, Ed Green, second overall on the KOM, had punctured, and the field was stretching out over this narrow section of road. The Izalco mini felt extremely sure-footed as I picked my way around larger rocks, around corrugations and on occasion over potholes – I was positive it felt smoother than last year, but again, maybe it was just the bike.
That climb kinda felt like a selection process, and it didn’t stop for the remainder of the gravel. The hot pace up the climb brought it back to about 15 or so riders, and I could see Ben having a blast on this terrain that he excels on. With the course going slightly downhill, it was just a matter of keeping enough space between you and the rider in front so as to be able to easily react to obstacles, but not so much as to lose contact. I heard one rider next to me bottom out his rim, but his tyre remained inflated, and others clearing potholes by means of neat bunny hops, but on the whole, it seemed exceptionally controlled, with Canty and Stalder driving out front and calling the nasty corners early and taking them easy. At one point I stole a glance at my Garmin and saw we were doing 47km/h, and on later inspection realised I went even faster than that. On gravel, on a road bike with 25mm tyres. It was fucking rad!
It didn’t stay that fun for very long, however, with a severe acceleration as soon we hit the sealed tarmac at Cement Creek and the remainder of the climb up Mt Donna Buang, a seemingly distant 9km at 6%. Ben and I looked at each other, looked up the road and made a very easy decision not to follow at that pace. So the front runners would escape once again, but I was content to sit with Ben and try and hold decent power. At first 240 watts seemed reasonable and fast, but then 220 was not manageable, and finally I had to tell Ben that I would see him at the top as I dropped back off his wheel to hold just under 200 watts for the last 6-7km.
As Ben pulled away, I could still see riders in front of him, but was not confident that I would “come good” at any point, and basically saved myself for throwing down anything I had if any riders crept up behind. But apart from cars, there were no riders to be seen behind, and soon enough, no more in front. It was a bit of a struggled labour for those remaining kilometres. I was feeling great in terms of food and water, but the muscles in my legs just wouldn’t fire anymore. And it really felt that this was the case because I was riding uphill. Had it flattened out, I’m pretty sure I would have got my power back up. As it turned out, I was nearly 2 minutes slower up the tarmac ascent than I was last year. And last year I felt even more shattered!
Onwards and upwards. With one kilometre to the summit, the gradient tilts up some more, and I found myself searching for one more gear to make things a little more comfortable. But I’d opted to leave the 11-25t cassette on the bike, rather than going for the 28 (how soon you forget about gears!), leaving me to grind a little more out of the saddle. 100m to go and I got a wave and words of encouragement from Stalder and Canty, already making their descent of the mountain. Soon enough I rounded the final left hand bend, heard a trumpet playing and saw a crowd of volunteers there to cheer people on. I don’t think it looked all that impressive at the speed I was going, but I still dropped it into the big ring for the final 30m and under the finish banner. Finished for the day, and finished with a massive block of dedicated training. Not being given a number, I counted everyone I could see that had finished in front of me, and am confident I was the 15th rider over the line. Not a bad day out at all.
And apologies if anyone thought I actually won the event based on the feature photo here and that has been kicking around on Face Book. The guys in that picture are an amazing collection of mates that regularly organise exceptionally challenging rides, continually pushing boundaries, and now that I live away from them all, continually making me jealous. I should have worn that kit!
I’ll soon get around to more of a reflective write-up of the event, and include many of my thoughts on the training leading in, and how it helped on the day. You can look at my stats from the ride on Strava.
Speaking of Strava, if you follow me there, you may have noticed my training has ramped up even more since the Giro. Partly addiction, partly dissatisfaction with my last performance and a desire to ride even faster. I’ll soon have to find another event to enter.
I’m going to get this report rolling by listing off the excuses. I have none. Whilst I’m a little bit disappointed I didn’t crack the top 10 as I’d aimed to, I still did pretty bloody well and am able to take much away from the event. Now that is out of the way, I’ll get into my experiences of this year’s Giro Della Donna.
The event is held out of Warburton, about an hour twenty east Melbourne and just into the Victorian Alps. Consisting of 2700m of climbing over 107km, the course includes some of the state’s most spectacular roads, a 13km section of gravel, and finishes atop Mt Donna Buang, at 1200m. Last year I placed 27th overall, and I was looking to well and truly top that effort.
An early start, 7am, meant an early alarm. I was fortunate enough to have an NBRCC mate pick me up from Hawthorn, but I was still up at 4:30am to ensure I had enough time to check everything was good to go. The drive out in the early morning light was suggestive of a miserable day to come, and getting close to Warburton, the peaks we were to climb were shrouded in cloud. With the car parked and bikes unloaded, we had just enough time to say hello to the rest of the NBR group, but I barely made the warm clothing drop off to be transported to the top of Donna for the later descent.
6:50am and faster riders were being called to the front, as the organisers would send everyone off in waves. Entirely self-seeded, I found myself pushing my way through the throng to settle in about 50 riders from the front. With a 20km neutral roll-out, it wasn’t too much of a concern, and I could see many quality riders starting behind me, but I was nervous of the rubber band affect that can easily find you in a spot of bother before the ride really became testing.
7am and the start was punctual. Leaving from the car park of the footy oval, I was cautious but confident to pick a smooth path out of the start chute to settle in on the road. Too often at races I’ve seen people get overly excited and cause some trouble. With the RACV car leading the way, and a motorbike scout ducking up the road to monitor any surprises on the closed road, the bunch found a good rhythm and I was able to have a chat to some mates whilst remaining careful.
The opening is a 20km stretch of undulating road, with the bunch large enough to really suck you along effortlessly. I managed to have a quick chat to Andrew Stalder, an u23 national road race champion from not too long ago, and someone I expected to give the climbs a serious nudge (he got a mention a few weeks back in Bolton up to Bonds). 15km or so in, he pulled over for a nature break. I considered doing the same and was aware that he may have been using it as a tactic to take out the first and only timed KOM section. Whatever he did, it worked for him.
Last year I found myself caught out too far back before the ascent of Reefton Spur. I didn’t want to be picking my way through the field again this year, so at the 18km mark, I started moving up the right hand side. The course turned left onto the reef ton Spur climb, and whilst everyone seemed to be grabbing a handful of brake on the left, I turned in hard from the right, with speed, and soon found myself at the front of the pack, immediately behind the RACV car. It wasn’t a good strategy for the KOM time, as my timing chip would be first over the sensor, but it felt pretty good to be setting the early pace that would dramatically thin out the bunch.
For perhaps the first kilometre, I stayed on the front holding steady power. My legs were protesting, but I was determined to keep an eye on the front runners. I’d look over my shoulder frequently, and found a small bunch had gathered with a good gap on everyone else, and it wasn’t long before we were riding two abreast and I was able to fall back the line to do my best to hang on.
A few more would eventually bridge across to us, including Ben and Dylan, and the bunch must have been close to 20 strong. I think I found myself most comfortable at this point – the pace had settled for the most part, and my heart rate had settled to low 170s – something I was confident of maintaining. Between 10 and 15km up the climb, the bunch was gradually thinned out to 12 riders. The tempo seemed to suit me, and I was able to hang on during several small, fast descents that stretched it out to single file. At the 15km mark, though, it felt like the screws had really been turned in up the front. The pace was largely dictated by Brendan Canty (now a World Tour rider), and with my heart rate causing me some stress, I made the hard decision to back it off a bit to save something for the rest of the ride.
I was pretty upset for a moment. I mentally made the decision. Perhaps I could have held on for the next five kilometres, but it really felt too stressful. I immediately calmed down when I realised I could still maintain a very good pace, and I had another rider to work with. I could see one more rider in front who had been dropped from the bunch, so I figured they hasn’t surged too hard, and I was hopeful to catch them on the Acheron way, before the final climb of the day.