So, here we were, fully donned in GB colours, pockets fully stuffed: gels, inners and all the non essential stuff in my essentials case, penned in and not quite so raring to go. This was the UCI World Cycling Tour Final- a 160km road race through the rolling Danish countryside.
We had a plan, my three Dulwich Paragon team mates and I. We had qualified working together at the Tour of Cambridgeshire, and we were going to race together today. We openly knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses, we knew who would need to be called upon when the going got tough. We knew who would do the feeding reminders, who was best on the hills, but most importantly we knew who was scared.
(All of us).
What we didn’t really know, was the truth of what would lie ahead. Our qualifying race was 30km less than the finals. So that’s a 100 mile race, on roads we didn’t know, in a mass start pen. We knew we would have to go quick. We had only just scraped into qualification, and it was painstakingly obvious from the tanned and lean women that surrounded us (carrying none of the stuff that I was carrying, and some, nothing at all) that these girls were going to be quick.
Boxed in by USA, Italy, Sweden and Russia the count down came and we rolled across the start line, gears clunking into position and timing chips beeping across the matting. The commissares car rolled in front with the red flag poking out of the sunroof. We had a few kilometres of neutralised racing to get us safely out through the city. This was an incredible feeling. Even though I felt slightly out of my depth, it was an incredible moment to be amongst this vibrant peloton, surrounded by nearly 150 women, the colours merging and blending as we rolled through the sun flooded streets of Aalborg.
A few nerves and heavy brakes around tight chicanes resulted in the peloton ricocheting on more than one occasion, and the shouts and gestures soon calmed down as the pack got down to business in the widening lanes.
The pace picked up rapidly. Not great on cold legs and lungs. It usually takes me around 30km to even feel warmed up, so this was a real test. A breakaway formed and as our four talked to each other, we quickly realised that we were out of the running. Unless a crash happened in that breakaway, we would always be the chasing group. Mentally, that’s quite tough. What were we now racing for? I’m not sure I can answer that question.
We started to work together with the group around us: riders from South Africa, Dubai, Australia, New Zealand and slightly closer to home, London. I was proud to be with my three Dulwich girls, as we each talked to other riders with ease and started to form a good working chain.
The race rolled on, and the test of the road soon became apparent as the almost constant and ridiculously strong headwind battered our peloton. Hills spilt the group, and the less stronger climbers soon lagged back. At first, the peloton was sensitive to the riders dropping off the back, and were waiting, regrouping, and working again. All good things must come to an end however. The strength of the peloton soon took flight and the majority of the group stuck together on the climbs. One of our team was struggling with these short and sharp climbs. Usually strong, determined and able, having more than proved herself over the gruelling Marmotte earlier in the season, a fractured shoulder had scuppered Libby’s summer training.
My priority shifted to looking after her. I would drop back on the hills and give her my wheel to pull her up, while the other two Dulwich girls Sara and Jo attempted to get on the front of the peloton to slow it down. I’m not sure that my wheel offered all that much, I’m not exactly much of a wind block, but the mental element of having someone to pace you up a hill is invaluable.
At one stage I thought we had lost the group. We hit the most cruel road: a steady, long incline that seemed to stretch out for days ahead of us. Exposed and windswept it was exhausting without anyone to hide behind. All I knew was that I had to get us back in that group. We were still a long way from home. I kept talking to her, between my gasps for breath, and glanced behind on every other pedal stroke to check that she was still glued to the back of my bike. She was there. She wouldn’t give up. I knew her well and she knew me. Solid foundations of incredible teamwork.
The push over the brow of that punishing hill didn’t mean that we were done. We couldn’t sit up. The group were descending and we had to catch them. We were straight into the drops, and we pushed on with legs spinning like mad to ease the stiffness. I’m not quite sure how we did it but we made it. I was exhausted and rode straight onto one of my other teammates wheels and reached for my bidon.
The South African rider had also had a tow up the hill, and was incredibly grateful. “You’re amazing” she expressed. A nod between us all and a smile made the suffering worth it, but I knew I was getting pretty depleted with a long way to go. We were only around 85km in, and we were very aware of the distance and elevation that lay ahead, the Garmin screen like a ball and chain showing me how far I had to go, not how far I had come.
I took to the front of the group quickly and sat up, fiddling with my shoe, slowing the pace right off. We had done the brawn, now it was time for the brains. The group sat up, and the pace slowed, riders happy to stay quiet and enjoy the shelter from the perpetual head wind. This couldn’t last forever though, and the pace slowly picked up again, and as in all good cycling stories, there is always another hill. In this case, it was several. It all became too much for Libby, and executive decisions were made. I would stay back with her and the other two would try and work up a few finishers places. Teamwork means that your riders who finish ahead of you are doing it for everyone, not just themselves.
It’s a valuable lesson to learn, and one of which made me incredibly proud of those girls on that day. A hand on Libby’s back, a rant about lost fitness, frustration and a few tears later, we got down to the dirty work of getting two sets of tired legs home.
The silver lining of this decision was that it gave us the chance to look up. The first chance in four hours to see something that wasn’t my stem. A chance to see that the sky was bluebird and the fields were vibrant green. A chance I’m not sure Froomy gets.
Hour five ticked over on the clock and with no stops and 20km left to go, my back was in agony having sat on the drops most of the way around, and the tears and ranting switched to my saddle. I sat on Libby’s wheel, and with her instructing me to breath and to stop swearing at hills: it was a monumental effort to keep the pedals turning. The broom wagon overtook us, and the marshals were packing up on every corner we went past. It was excruciating, both the pain and the mental effort. I was happy to kick in the can at 10km from home. Denied this luxury, and instructed to crack on, memories of Libby giving me a solid kick 6 miles out of finishing the London marathon came creeping back in. I knew I could do it, but at that stage I simply did not want to.
Three kids appeared at the side of the road with their hands extended to get high fives as we rolled past. This was it. That was all we needed. An energy boost from a six year old blonde kid. As we made our way to the finish line, we were incredibly pleased to see the group of Dulwich blue at the side of the road, many of them having just been through what we did, cheering us on, as we rolled down the cobbles and under the still erected (but only just) finish line, an arm on each other’s backs and libby shouting at me “just don’t fall off!”.
It can be easy to forget that when you come in close to last, after such a challenging day that what we actually achieved was pretty impressive and something to be proud of. It’s not everyday you can say you had an average speed of 28km / hour for just under 6hrs, and my appetite for racing has only increased as a result of it- I just might pick a few shorter races next time…
So, we did it. Friendship and teamwork won on that day. Riding a bike is so much more than, well, just riding a bike. Hopefully the not-so-short race story makes a bit of sense of that.