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.
I wasn’t even meant to take part. I had registered before the deadline to leave the option of participation open. But I had failed to read the rule book of the Danish Cycling Federation and therefore I was oblivious to the paragraph of ‘binding registration’. I decided against participation even before leaving Dubai and after extensive research, when I discovered the practical, logistical and financial efforts and implications of bringing two bikes from the Middle East to a faraway place in Jutland, Denmark, on a solo journey. I accepted and decided against it. And also I have only really started training more specifically on the TT bike four months ago, along with participation in only three ITT events locally during this time. I took off happily from Dubai with my road bike only.
I learnt about the rules of the ‘binding registration’ as well as the extortionate cancellation fee only 48 hours before the start of the ITT event. To be fair, the rules and regulations are there for a reason and I do take full responsibility for not reading them before submitting my registration. Done is done and I accept the consequences. Luckily the consequences were no worse than I was pretty much forced to take part in the ITT Nationals 2017. It could have been a lot worse really.
I considered my options carefully:
1) Roll down the ramp on my road bike, and then exit the course, accepting a DNF.
2) Perform a personal test on my road bike on the ITT course, and finish most likely as the only rider on a road bike and with a potentially ‘embarrassing time’.
3) Perform some sort of max power test, and then exit the course before the finish line, accepting a DNF and avoiding an ‘embarrassing time’.
4) Get hold of a TT bike? (not an easy task this close to the event)
Not yet having made a final decision 24 hours before ‘my start time’, miraculously my friend Svend appeared with an offer to compete on his TT bike. “Take my bike! I am there anyway acting as support for one of the girls. I’ll bring everything for you”, Svend almost demanded, “I have seen all the training you have done. You’ve got this”. The stars somehow aligned.
At the race destination, I met with Svend 2 hours before my start time. Svend pulled out his tool box and adjusted his bike set up as close as possible to my own bike measurements. Not one measurement was correct. But all were within a few centimeters deviation and as I made an easy roll on the bike to collect my start number and back again with a plastic bag in one hand, I decided “yes, it’s going to be okay, it fits okay for 28km”.
I changed back to my road bike and warmed up on the turbo trainer (supplied by Svend). I didn’t ride the TT bike again before I jumped onto it on the start ramp.
For those of you who do bike racing, you know it’s not an easy task to do alone: drive to destination, find your way, find parking in town via roads that are already closed off, and collect race number in one area and timing chip in another. Go to the loo (at least 3 times), change clothes, set up bike, find tools, buy water, get all stuff organised, eat and drink the right thing at the right time, don’t get too hot, don’t get too cold, warm up (not too early and not too late), stay warm and hydrated on the start line, but don’t carry too much stuff…. Clear the mind and get focused on the task ahead….; the list goes on, and it’s almost impossible to handle this solo and at the same time be fully focused, stress free and perfectly warm for the competition. I have been in this situation countless of times before when travelling alone for competitions. And every time when I have jumped on my bike stressed or cold, I have asked myself the same question: “Why? Why are you putting yourself through this?”.
And here I was again! On all borrowed equipment, set up right before the start of a small event called the Nationals, a competition between the best in the country.
With huge thanks to both Svend and my dear mother, who offered their support from their big hearts, I even managed to fit in a 30 mins warm up on the turbo trainer. Svend supplied the equipment, while my mother unofficially accepted the role as my race assistant. “Mum, I’m running out of water, can you please find some more. Mum, can you please find some tape or cable ties to fit my timing chip. Mum, can you please pull out my vaseline in the right pocket of my sports bag. Mum, can you please add electrolytes to my water bottle. Mum… Mum… Mum… Please… Please… Please…“. Bless my mum. It was her first time being support at a race and I was literally dishing out orders to a clueless helper, while turning my legs on the turbo trainer. It was either that – or start the ITT cold. I cannot thank my mother or Svend enough for their flexibility, patience and generosity.
On another positive note and under the circumstances I was probably the calmest I have been in a long time. No one had any expectations of me. But more importantly, I didn’t have any expectations of myself either. I was out swimming with the big fish, against all odds. The best I could do, was to give the best of myself, on someone else’s equipment. I came into the competition expecting to place last. I would be very happy if I achieved 2nd from the bottom. Let’s not forget I was lining up with the best in the country, incl. 7 World Tour riders.
To be honest, I hadn’t even looked at the route in detail (just to make it clear, I would never consider not studying the route under more controlled and competitive circumstances). I heard it was flat with 22 turns. Okay, let’s go! As there was no power meter on the bike, I just received one last minute advice from my faraway coach: “Don’t go too hard in the beginning – and then use your heart rate as a monitor”. I rolled down the ramp and maneuvered out of town behind my personal marshal motor bike. “Don’t go too hard!”… But what does that actually mean? How do you control that ‘feeling’, when you are supposed to give your all, over ca. 45 mins; you have fresh legs and the adrenaline is pumping? I wasn’t sure to be honest. I wasn’t sure of the exact feeling. But I knew I didn’t want to give ‘too little’. I lack experience of my self-awareness.
Just to make you aware that 22 turns, is 22 turns more than what we have on our UAE tracks; NAS, Al Qudra and Al Wathba, where we have zero turns. At home we put the hammer down from start to finish, that’s it. Get measured on raw power. I am not entirely sure how to turn a TT bike efficiently and safely. Again, I lack experience. I decided to take the same line as the motor bike in front of me through every turn. And I decided it would not be worth taking any risks and potentially causing damage to myself or my borrowed equipment. After ca. 10K, I realized and I had to accept that after all I had started too hard. Everything hurt and I was forced to take it down a notch. At this time I was on a long straight, but I only discovered I was on a long straight when I was far enough into it, to realize it was a long straight (lack of preparation). It was quite hard to swallow that I didn’t have full power down the straight (it wouldn’t necessarily make much of a difference to the bottom of the results list, but it would make a difference to my personal performance, judgement of effort and certainly confidence). I was overtaken too. In the UAE I haven’t yet been overtaken (by women). I was totally prepared to get overtaken going into this competition however, but I didn’t know how it would feel, until it happened. I definitely spent some time (and maybe also energy), seconds or minutes, I can’t remember, to deal with it mentally and emotionally. Also around the 10km mark, both my feet started to cramp, like serious pain in both my feet. I had simply tightened my shoes too hard. I don’t know what I was thinking when I was standing in line to the ramp. I always tighten my shoes before I take on a sprint for the finish line. Subconsciously, I tightened my shoes before jumping on the bike. Tight shoes for the best performance. Big mistake. The pain was almost unbearable. I spent a considerable amount of time weighing the two options: 1) loosen both shoes (consequence: a significant drop in speed and momentum) or 2) suck it up and continue riding in pain. I chose the first option as I was coming out of a turn and reached down on both sides. The shoe strings didn’t at all loosen enough. And I still took the loss of speed and momentum. Ah dammit. I’ll have to suck it up then. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling at all. In the Summer heat of Dubai riding dehydrated in 40+ degrees celcius, my feet cramp on a weekly basis. I had to continuously wiggle my toes for the rest of the ITT. Around 20K and 2/3 into the course, I decided to start picking back up again, hurt more and drive my heart rate higher. There was more technical navigation and another long straight along the way. I did the best I could until the finish line. As I came to a stop, I could hardly unclip from the pain in my feet and I had to take a few minutes on the side, before getting a normal feeling back in the feet and being able to walk again. Quite frankly, I had no idea how I performed. Without a power meter it’s also hard to tell. I wasn’t particularly bothered about the final result, in terms of ranking. If I could have had any form of ‘result’ I would have chosen to see my power profile.
As expected I finished last. Number 20 (of 23 starters and 20 finishers). But you know what? It was not a bad time at all! Under the circumstances, I am quite proud to say I am in the top 20 best time trialists in Denmark in 2017! And I am still in possession of US$ 300 (which would have been the penalty fee for cancelling) minus the penalty for the, also borrowed, non-club kit at US$ 45.
The icing on the cake, was after the event when I caught up with the rider (placing 2nd last) and her coach. Their positive attitude, laughter and healthy delight of beating my time and not placing last in the Nationals, really, it was priceless. Just for that enjoyment factor, I was happy to take the bottom spot in the ranks.
After completing ITT Nationals under these circumstances, again I tell myself “No more of this Helle. Come prepared, with the appropriate support and equipment – or stay away”. On the other hand, with the time and effort I put into my cycling, I am equally intrigued to witness what I am actually capable off, under the right circumstances.
Will I return next year? Right now I am thinking: “Probably not for the Elite Nationals. Definitely for the Masters Nationals! (if I can bring my own bike along)”. But I have a habit of throwing myself in the deep end. So who knows.
The day after, Svend earned his title as National Champion Para ITT.
Nothing won, nothing lost… But always an experience richer 🙂