Starting at the back of the pack was a mistake for me. I was not confident enough about really rubbing shoulders, and basically didn’t want to get in anyone’s way. So my vague plan was to hang around the back, and stick with the peloton for a lap or two to get used to the racing. As the count down for the start began, something finally switched inside me. I was ready to have some fun and I think I cracked a smile – the anxiety immediately disappeared. And the start itself were a couple of actual guns – Redcoats with rifles had your ears ringing if you had you hands on your bars rather than around your head.
With about 120 riders taking off in a large bunch, those at the back, myself included, had a couple of extra moments to clip in and get rolling. I was expecting swearing, grunting and near misses, but that take off was smooth and fast. Very fast, in fact. From standing start, and essentially straight uphill, the pace was well over 40km/h whilst everyone was jostling for position. This is where I saw Adam Hansen bolt through from the back, and I decided to stay on his wheel for a while – a move I should have stuck with, as he weaved through any available space to move himself closer to the front. Instead, I hung back when he made a more daring move, and found myself settling into a fast rhythm. Riding in the big chain ring, my heart rate was already 185bpm before the first corner, only a kilometre or so from the start, and also before the gradient picked up.
But I stuck with it, and turning the corner and up towards Mt Buninyong, The peloton looked to still be as one, although somewhat strung out. It didn’t feel as though many were behind me, but I’m pretty sure several riders had been dropped already. I was feeling confident – I had looked down at my Garmin to see my heart rate so high, but it didn’t feel like a concern yet – I’d have time to recover on the descent. Up through the King of the Mountain Section of the course, the fans were really loud, but not so deafening as to not here some mates calling out my name in encouragement – I was most probably the smallest rider in the race, so I was sure to wear something obvious to stand out!
I still felt great, and was buoyed on by knowing I’d been spotted, and that I was hanging in there just fine. Up that climb, I was clearly not struggling as much as some others around me… At least my second mistake already, for when we turned left at the top of the climb and the course flattened out, the power with which those larger riders were required to maintain to get up the climb, they managed to maintain on the flat, and then downhill. And without being in the thick of the peloton, the only way I could keep up was to significantly increase the power I was holding on the up and apply it to the down.
Shelled like bar nuts. Myself and 4-5 other riders looked at each other as we could see the peloton drifting away. There was a big bunch that became single file towards the back, and we weren’t on it. I think we all put in a bit of a dig to catch on, and quickly formed a small group to try and maintain contact, but it was too little, too late. We were dropped. And for me, I think the fun was over.
When the course really started going downhill, us back runners were yoyoing our way to the start finish line, but could no longer see the bunch. I was hoping to get my heart rate back down to the 160s, when really I should have been sprinting with everything at the top of the climb to get up the road with the bunch. I wrongly assumed I’d get back on, or the peloton would slow somewhat for me to catch. And at one point, I felt like I was catching back on. At the end of the first lap, rounding Buninyong and onto the Midlands Highway, I could see the peloton up the hill, and I passed enough riders up the climb to give me the impression I was going to catch back on. But climbing even slower than last lap, I had little chance when the bunch were racing so fast down the other side.
As a quick side note about the early fast pace, I should mention that everyone knew that this was going to happen. There was enough talk from riders and commentators alike, that I was well aware that the pace would be hot from the gun and that no one really wanted a breakaway to form in a hurry. I should have been better prepared for it, and assumed I would be able to recover on that first descent. Certainly a lesson learnt. If there are strong indications of how a race will unfold in the early kilometres of a long race – pay attention. Bickies spent then I almost definitely wouldn’t have gotten back, but I would have gained more experience staying in the bunch, and had a heap more fun.
Second time up the hill, I was still feeling good. But it now seemed more like a solo race, and it would just be a matter of time before I was eliminated. And gosh it was hot out. Well over 30 degrees, and super dry – I don’t know how much sweat I lost in the first laps as it all evaporated so quickly. The support you get from the crowds once you fall off the back is amazing too – everyone wants you to catch back on, but they all know the writings on the wall. I suspect about half the field had been eliminated within about 5 laps, but you can’t help but love a crowd yelling at the sag wagon, “leave him alone!”
Another descent, but this time with more help, my tactic was now to sprint onto any wheel going downhill faster than me, and to some extent, this would work. But the riders around me with the power to make gains on the descent, did not have the power to weight to make gains on the ascent. Essentially, we were naturally uncooperative towards each other. I felt it a shame that I didn’t have a bunch of ten or so to ride it out with. And on lap three, I was really starting to hurt, with a much slower ascent.
On my fourth lap, the feed zone had opened up. Ewan did an awesome job directing me to ditch a bidon, and standing ready with another. Icy, cold water was just what I needed, and it really helped me up the hill. But I was riding at a very average pace now, and giving out some high fives, I had knew I had no hope of catching back on. I grabbed an icy pole of a spectator towards the top of the KOM, and could tell how cooked I was by how much I needed that sugary ice. Ditching the wrapper and feeling like I could stick it out for a few more laps, but I was riding considerably slower.
My last corner was a fast one – getting quite low and then powering out of the saddle to grab a wheel for the last downhill of the lap. The cold water and some blocs had done me well, and I thought I might try accelerating up the next climb. It wasn’t to be – in my most anti-climatic finish to a ride I can ever recall, a course marshall was holding up a red sign with a directional arrow – actually, I’m not sure there was an arrow, but that’s how I remember it. A red sign with a black arrow that first points at you, and then points off the course.
The race would go on, but I was eliminated. My race number, 3 by the way, was now redundant, and my timing chip was removed from my front, right fork. I found myself easing up the back streets, and then onto the course near the KOM to let my friends know I was done, and to spend the next three and a half hours as a spectator of what would be an exceptionally exciting race.
It wasn’t quite the experience I was hoping for. I would have liked to have been in the race for more laps, but would would have preferred 3 full laps with the bunch than the 4 I rode mostly solo. Yet I still gained much out of the travel. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to race at a national level, but if I do, I’ll be better prepared. And regardless, I’m even more determined to ride faster than before.
What next? This time, I’m not actually sure. I’ll find something to enter, and I’ll likely train even harder for it. But there is nothing upcoming that I’m really set on. Perhaps the national mountain bike marathon champs in Townsville in April, and I’m pretty keen to place high in the overall at the Tour de Timor in September, but I don’t have anything that I am as yet fully committed to racing. I’m enjoying a bit of a holiday now, and have managed to crack some great PRs around Melbourne. I’m Adelaide bound in a couple of days to watch the Tour Down Under, and then back to Darwin. More tales soon enough.