In yellow, by default
Randers Bike Week, Denmark, August 2017 – 4 day stage race
I am kind of stripping myself of my victories here. At the same time, I don’t want to appear as if I am the champion of the world. There is always room for improvement when it comes to my racing skills and strength.
Admittedly, I did feel some sort of pride as I was lining up, in front of the remaining riders, in the leader’s jersey. At the end of the day, what I had done, was enough to get rewarded that yellow jersey, representing the current leader of the GC classification. At the same time, on the roads, I felt a significant sense of embarrassment.
I never came to the stage race in Randers to achieve any kind of result, I actually came only to practice my ‘racing skills’, some of which I have repeatedly proven have room for improvement. I also wanted to test my physical ability to race 4 days back to back. Only the week before I discovered I can climb Mt Ventoux 6 times in 4 days with no problems, but… I always stayed under threshold, because I didn’t want to waste any time on recovery. But how will my body react to 4 days repeatedly over threshold? I wanted to find out.
I am on my own again. Surprise! But actually, this time I didn’t mind so much ‘riding on my own’, because I just wanted to focus on what I came to practise. I was happy not to be held accountable to anyone. I had also been clever enough to book myself into the official race Motel (motel = motorway sleep over building), full of riders and teams, 99.5% male. Check, I am gonna be just fine here.
Here’s what happened, yellow jersey and all:
Stage 1 – 30 mins Criterium (15x 1.4K lap in Aars town: uphill on cobble stones, downhill on tarmac)
I had a 330K drive to the race destination, I am not exaggerating; I had the windscreen wipers on full power the entire way. It never stopped raining. 20 mins before my wave starts, I am sitting inside my mum’s small car, getting changed and pinning numbers on the front seat, with the windows fully steamed on the inside and hammered with rain on the outside. On a positive note, no one on the packed town centre supermarket parking, will be able to see that I am getting naked inside the car. Four turns. Cobblestone hill. Rain. Again and again and again. I ask myself once again: “Why are you doing this to yourself?” I always find a strong enough argument to get on with what I set out to do in the first place.
Unfortunately there are not enough female riders to form our own wave, let alone our own classification. Men or women, I don’t really mind, I just need to practise. Men over 60 and women are thrown into the same classification, however we are still not enough to form our own wave. We start all stages also with Men over 50 and Men D classification. Now we are enough for a good size peloton, however with a wide range of strength and ability. It’s my 4th Crit only, ever. I am here to practise everything that a Crit demands. Another aim of mine; postpone the DNF as far as possible (yes, in a stronger field on a 1.4K lap, of course I will get lapped and taken out, it’s just a matter of time),
Miraculously, the rain clouds slowly disappear during my 12 mins warm up (yes, I left it a little late. It was raining), and we took off, uphill, dry. Jeez, the gentlemen are GONE! Flying start, completely stretched out, I think I have lost all wheels (in front of me), already on the cobblestone uphill on lap 2. We don’t have cobble stones in Dubai. I have many things I want to practise, so I’d better get a move on with my practising. Some I have lost already; positioning, gone. It takes me 2-3 laps to settle in on the cobble stones, working out gearing, cadence and grip, what works best for me. Good practice. I am left on my own somewhere. Don’t take any risks Helle and ride as hard as possible to postpone the DNF. Just over 17 mins after start, I got pulled. It was inevitable. Two men over 50 had taken the lead, wiping out rider after rider. To my great surprise I got pulled ‘3rd last’ in my classification and to my even greater surprise, only one rider in my classification did not get pulled. A German gentleman earned the yellow jersey.
Stage 2 – 77K Hill Stage (5 laps, ca. 875m elev total)
I drive to the race destination, arrive ca. 1 hour before my start. I sit in my car, again, this time in between to fields, with the rain hammering down on the roof. I stay there. The weather forecast for today was: Rainbows (no joke! I watched it on TV). Rain and sun, all mixed up, wait for the rainbows. Yes, I am waiting, for the rain to stop. It’s on and off, like someone is playing with the control for the shower. It’s time to go, I manage to get a 12 mins warm up, on a hill, then it starts pouring again, I hide under a tent by the start line. Miraculously, the rain stops before we take to the start line.
I manage to sit tight in the group during lap 1, through a couple of brutal hills and ridiculous amounts of water being sprayed around between the bikes, most of it I am certain, landing in my eyes. We go by luck, some of the puddles take up the entire road and they are filled with sharp stones. Some will get punctures, some will not. I struggle on the last long hill on lap 2. I have to see the group disappear just over the top. I get caught from behind by two male riders, we work hard together, chasing the group, not far in front of us. If they slow just a little we can catch them. They didn’t slow, but eventually they disappeared. Towards the end of lap 3, I discover a slow puncture and roll into the start area with a half flat tyre. There are bikes and wheels everywhere, but when I ask if I may borrow a wheel for 2 laps, all answers are something like “meh”. I am now walking around in muddy grass searching between wheels, for a wheel. Forget that then! I wait for the service car. I wait. I wait. I wait some more. Only when the race director, Bjarne, notices I am trouble, he quickly fetches me replacement wheel, a junior replacement wheel, better than nothing for sure. I can’t pedal downhill on the small cassette, but at least I have a wheel. I imagine I am now very far behind and I refocus on some of the things I wanted to practise and learn, one being testing my ability to race day after day after day. So there is only one thing to do there on my own: work hard! Don’t save any energy. I have 30K to go. I push. On the final lap I see a rider in my classification in the distance in front of me. Goal: chase and pass. I did.
As I reach the finish line, I get the news that the German gentleman in yellow had crashed out (he was okay, but didn’t finish the stage). To my surprise, I was now first in the GC classification and rewarded the yellow jersey for stage 3. Okay, I take the yellow jersey then, purely for fighting it out there on my own (in my personal view). As I drive back home, I have to stop; the rainbows are just incredible!
Stage 3 – 62K Road Race (with ca. 570m elev, hills, hills and more hills)
Ugh. Legs are in a little trouble. On day 3 already? Really? Could I still be affected by deep fatique from climbing Mt Ventoux 6 times a week ago? Or is that all I can take? I am not sure. But I am feeling. And I am learning. The weather is the same every day. All morning, it’s hard wind, some hard showers, some light showers, some clear skies. Apart from the consistent hard wind, it’s changing any minute. The start today is conveniently located outside the Motel. I line up at the front with the other 2 yellow jerseys and the one polkadot. I feel a quite ‘cool’ for a moment, the best of the bunch (or perhaps just the luckiest). The guys in yellow set the pace fast out of the start. We hit the first long hill. My legs! They are screaming at me up that long hill. I get passed one by one. I am still on the hill when I stop getting passed. I wave goodbye to the front. I also wave goodbye to the German gentleman, he is fast on the hills. I end up with 3-4 guys. The tables have turned; from feeling quite ‘cool’, to now feeling quite embarrassed riding around in the yellow jersey, behind the front group. Argh. Just keep fighting, Helle. I just don’t know if this is really all I can do? Or are those 50+ and D guys super super fast? Or am I fatiqued?I don’t know. There’s one very strong German guy, who came back from a flat, he did a lot work to get us round the laps. To my surprise, I had finished behind the front group fast enough to keep the yellow jersey into stage 4. Just! I am leading only with seconds. I jump on my bike to ride back the motel. I have a flat. Now? Pheew. Back at the Motel, I lie with my legs up against the wall. They are not very happy.
Stage 4 – 33K Circuit Race (8 laps of 4.2K, one long hill on every lap).
Same, same. Strong wind, some hard showers, some bright patches. Last stage. Let’s go. It appears to be colder today. I manage to get a pretty good 25 mins warm up. I line up at the front, in yellow. It’s pretty okay to be standing here at the front; however it is not cool to be riding at the back, in yellow. On the other hand, we are kind of meant to get dropped or let me paint it a little brighter; we are not meant to be able to finish at the front. After all, our classification, Women and Men 60+ are racing in a group of men qualified to be stronger and faster. Something would not be right if we all managed to finish together. Today, as any other day, my aim is to drop as late as possible. I am 100% certain I will lose my jersey on this final stage. I don’t think that helps much. The pace is a little more settled today. Maybe I am not the only rider with pretty tired legs. I sit in the group until the 3rd time we pass that long hill. I have to let them go on that hill. It is just a little bit too long. Once again we form a small chase group, but the front disappears. It’s a very short race today, just around one hour. I just want to go give everything I have. Apart from the hill, where we go ‘our own pace’, I take the front the majority of the time and hammer the flat sections. I want to finish off my legs. I felt a little less embarrassed today than yesterday, in the yellow jersey, as we lapped through the start and finish area 5 times, at least I was at the front hammering around the corner like it was depending on life or death. I might have been behind the front, but I went home hard. I also wanted to finish 2nd GC. I did.
It was quite an experience. I spent more time behind the peloton that I did in it, which was a shame, because that was one of the top things I wanted to practise. But I got to practise some other things and I always learn something new, both about racing and about myself; all in pretty awful Danish Summer weather. I had never in my life pictured that I would go as far as feeling embarrassment riding a yellow jersey; that was new on my learning curve. To be fair to myself though, there were more riders in my classification than there were space for on the podium. I didn’t get that jersey without having to fight. It was at the times where I could easily have let go, but chose to keep fighting, that I made my gains. They paid off; enough to earn the yellow jersey for two stages. And at the end of the final stage, I happily handed over that jersey to the rider who deserved it more than me, the better rider on hills, the German gentleman over 60 years old, who fought his way back to the top from a crash. Glückwunsch. Well deserved.
Before, during and after my first ever (unsupported) ultra cycling race, BikingMan Oman, 1000km with 7,200m elevation meters, I said it countless times; selling it to myself and also attempting to convince others (who just looked at me and laughed… “yeah yeah… you have no idea, just wait and see”), I WILL NEVER DO IT AGAIN!
Ultra cycling is one the most ridiculous thing I have ever done in my life.
I’ll tell you why:
- It’s long, it’s stupid long, there is just no need to cycle that long, what for?
- It’s lonely. Yes, the actual event is lonely, from start line to finish line, but that I don’t mind that so much, because something happens when the gun goes off and I know I have to deal with myself and my mission, totally alone. This is actually a unique opportunity to learn about one self. In my opinion, it is more so the demands of the training which is the harder part. Because how can you possibly ask someone or anyone not into ultra “hey, you fancy going on a 8hr slow ride?” Hell no they don’t! Training is ultimately long and lonely. And this is even coming from someone who is very comfortable in her own company and even so often prefer yet. Yet, I still think it is lonely at another level. Do I enjoy the long and lonely training – and the long and lonely drives to training? Not that much.
- It’s painful. Yes, it’s going to be painful. It will probably happen to most riders. We just deal with it. And then we heal. But during the times of dealing with the pain and no way to escape it, again I swear to myself; I will never do it again!
- Wet, cold, tired, even freezing. How about dealing with bad weather? There’s no escape. Fun? No!
- Mechanical issues. Well well, if you are not a bike mechanic, or like myself, don’t have any interest in repairing bikes, well then you might be screwed.
- Organizational stress. Organizing a million small things; some mandatory, some personally selected, some I don’t have a clue if I will need or not. To carry it, or not to carry it? What if? This might be useful, but what if I’m not going to need it? Borrowing from other riders. Asking for help. Getting help. Argh… It’s stressful. Stressful organizing. Stressful packing. I have said twice now (as I head off to my 2nd Ultra Race); I will not do it again!
So this is the reason why I am going back. I can’t stop where I started. I am not satisfied. I need to know for myself if I can do better. If you remember from Oman, I rocked up with ‘all the gear and no idea’. I jumped on the bike and started pedaling into the unknown. I had ups and downs, I has mechanical issues and I had pain. I was on a mission to learn about myself, and I dealt with every situation as it appeared. In the latter part of the course (final 300km), I hit race mode, flicked my psycho switch and will-powered (because there was zero physical power left) through the ridiculous Omani hills, crossing the finish line Top 10 overall and 2nd Woman (53 mins after female winner Jasmijn Muller). I was overwhelmed and surprised, but admittedly pretty chuffed with that result for my first ever ultra. I remember my exact feeling at the finish; Good I did so well, I have now proved to myself that I can do ultra cycling well and there is no need to do it again!
Was I physically strong in Oman? I am not sure. Was I mentally strong? Yes. Was in control of myself and my situation? Absolutely yes. Was it beginners luck? No, I had plenty of problems along the way. Was I efficient? No (not enough). Did I waste more than 53 mins? I would say yes. Do I know where I wasted time? Absolutely yes = unfinished business.
I have to know.
I went to Oman as a beginner. I will now go to Corsica with experience. I am by no means an expert, it takes years and many races to build solid experience. But I have one ultra race under my belt and I know where I should be able to save time (as long as it is within my control). I want to know how I do with my time saving strategies, if I will be able to cover the entire course faster, if I can handle it mentally and physically (there is also risk of breaking down) and if I can be efficient, when there is also the option to take it easy.
BikingMan Corsica – 700km w/ 13,000m elevation.
This is not Oman. This is Corsica. It’s way more hilly, it’s colder, it’s wetter. There may even be encounters with angry stray dogs. I have never been to Corsica, but it also looks absolutely stunning, I hope I will be able to take in the breathtaking views and not miss too many beautiful places while I pass during night time. Once again I will be heading into unknown territory, geographically. But this time, I believe I know what to expect, from myself. I believe I know my ultra cycling strengths and weaknesses, to a certain extend. I have mentally prepared myself for above mentioned reasons for not doing it; loneliness, potential bad weather and PAIN.
I aim to go all in. Push myself harder than Oman. Enjoy the dot watching.
Race starts 29th April 2019 at 5am GMT+1