November 7, 2013

From C grade to the National Road Series in one year

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Here at The Climbing Cyclist we’ve been following Verita Stewart’s journey through the ranks since back in April. Since then she’s moved from racing C grade all the way up to the National Road Series — the highest level of domestic racing here in Australia. In this post Verita reflects on her season so far and the lessons she’s learnt, all while looking to the road ahead.

It has been an exciting 12 months for me on the bike. With the Cycling Australia National Road Series done and dusted for 2013, it seemed like a good time to reflect on the year that was.

The journey so far has resulted in 12,590km of roads ridden, nearly 526 hours in the saddle, 130,269m of elevation gain, and 388 rides. I’ve commuted, toured, climbed mountains, raced, pootled, got dropped, got back on, gone up grades, gone down hills, ridden with friends, ridden in the wet, the wind and the sun, I’ve changed bikes, tubes and cleats and in general learned a heap along the way.

Image: Richard Bailey

Image: Richard Bailey

The National Road Series (NRS) concluded a couple weekend’s ago with the Tour of the Goldfields held in freezing Ballarat. It was the toughest tour this year for me by far, both mentally and physically.

Stage one’s crit saw a huge 70-strong field, with top female cyclists from 17 teams, battle it out in the wind and rain. I had the confidence knocked out of me in the first 20 seconds and that was my race over.

The ground was wet and greasy, the rain was affecting visibility, my legs said pedal faster, my hands put the brakes on. I was off the back. I pretty much rolled turns with a bunch of girls, picking off shelled riders until we were pulled with two laps to go.

Day two saw a team time trial, where I had my legs blown off by my teammates and crawled over the line as third wheel after being dragged along for the last 10km. I was not looking forward to the road race, a mere two hours later.

A rider said on Twitter after stage three’s road race that it was one of the most aggressive she’d raced in Australia. It certainly was. So aggressive that the bunch split in two on the first little pinch. I just didn’t have the legs to keep up.

Image: JXP Photography

Image: JXP Photography

I spent the rest of the race chewing my handlebars and doubting myself whilst rolling turns in the second bunch. And when our bunch suddenly decided to pick up the pace to reel the front group in, boom — I blinked and was blown off the back. This was the moment that I saw the light … well, saw the convoy car’s brake lights.

I dug deep and got on the back of the convoy car, hopping through, slowly working my way back on. After a couple attempts at sprinting from the car to the back of the bunch (to the amusement of the drivers I’m sure) I managed to crawl back on, tail between my legs and started rolling turns like nothing had ever happened. The race was over in a flash and I was left slightly broken, standing waist deep in an icy cold pool wondering why I like racing my bike so much.

The next day, I was stressed, as usual, sitting on my trainer having a minor meltdown, pathetically attempting to warm up for the stage four road race. For some strange reason I was feeling overwhelmed with emotion. I was over it. I wanted to cry. My legs were sore and I felt mentally drained. A pep talk later I was on the start line, still feeling quite crappy, but there anyhow.

Thankfully the race was not as hectic as the previous day. Other than a crash that took out my teammate, a rider off the front early, and a few pinches that hurt the legs, we were all fairly civilised until the last pinch, 200m at 12%, sent bodies flying, including my own.

I mustered all the energy I had and eventually scrambled my way over the top. I was off the back of the bunch and that was not even the final climb. A few minutes later I started the final climb, and crawled over the line with what felt like cement in my shoes and a little vomit in my mouth.

Image: Richard Bailey

Image: Richard Bailey

This post was not going to be about Tour of the Goldfields, but after reflecting on the race I realised just how far I’ve come since I “got on my bike and rode it” about 12 months ago.

Tour of the Goldfields was both mentally and physically tough for me. My determination has increased tenfold, when my legs told me to give up, I dug in. When I flew off the back, I stayed calm and got back on. When my legs were cooked and I was emotionally drained, I just concentrated on sitting in a good position in the bunch and finished.

Without the opportunity to race NRS this year, and the guidance from my coach and our team managers, I don’t think I would have been able to do any of these things to the level that I did at Goldfields. I have got physically and mentally stronger throughout the year and learned a lot about myself in the process.

Images: Jo Upton

Images: Jo Upton

I was surprised when I was asked to ride in Cycling Victoria’s Women’s Development Squad, Team Breeze, six months ago. I did not think that I was good enough. I questioned my ability a lot back then. I did not think that I was worthy enough, strong enough or serious enough to join an NRS team.

I think that it is important to realise that I’ve put in a lot of hard work to get me where I am today, but being thrown into the deep end, racing NRS, has been important to my progress.

Over the year I’ve raced NRS Sam Miranda Tour of the King Valley (ToKV), Tour of the Murray River (ToMR), and Tour of the Goldfields (ToG). Each of these races has played a different role in my progress as a cyclist, whether it be strength-wise, or tactically.

Verita's best NRS placing so far: 11th in a pancake-flat criterium at the Tour of the Murray River. (Image: Jo Upton)

Verita’s best NRS placing so far: 11th in a criterium at the Tour of the Murray River. (Image: Jo Upton)

ToKV was tough, I felt like I did not belong. But despite my lack of confidence I did a PB in the time trial, I was in a good position up the brutal Strade Nero climb, but was dropped on the descent in stage three, which made me even more determined in stage four to finish with the bunch, and did.

I was worried about ToMR as the flat courses were not as suited to a climber like me. I knew the races were going to be fast and I was not sure that I would hang on. I put my 25 cassette on and that was it, but I did more than survive.

Apart from a horrid hotdog crit on the first day, I did a PB in the time trial, I finished with the bunch in both road races and finished 11th in the crit on the final day. NRS was not as bad as I thought it would be. Apart from the fact I was just hanging on for dear life the majority of the time, barely able to release the handlebars to eat or drink.

I’m getting better and more confident though; maybe I’ll have the confidence to attack and be a bit more aggressive in future, rather than hiding sheepishly in the bunch. Racing with Team Breeze has been a fantastic experience. Working together we have achieved great results, some podiums and in general learnt a lot.

Verita (far left) with her Breeze teammates.

Verita (far left) with her Breeze teammates.

It has not all been about the NRS though. Those of you who have followed my progress so far will know that it has been quite a journey. There was a time before #pinkismycolour and my love of the lift selfie.

My journey started this time last year, racing the Hawthorn Cycling Club Championships … where I came last, or close to it. There, despite the result on paper, I caught the cycling bug. Soon after I bought a brand new bike, Napoleon, a gold racing license and that was it. I found myself somewhat attached to my bike, and racing every chance I got, from club crits, to the Cykel Series, from the Northern Combine to the Victorian Road Series races.

I had some wins early on, at the Mt. Buller Road Race and the Mt. Baw Baw Road Race. They were races suited to climbers — that’s what I enjoy most and after all as I’m supposedly a climber. I was promoted from C to B grade soon after the wins.

Verita tasted early-season success with a win in C grade at the Mt. Baw Baw Classic.

Verita tasted early-season success with a win in C grade at the Mt. Baw Baw Classic. (Image: Laurie Lovelock)

My quick progression through the grades has forced me to realise that cycling is not about winning or the grade you are in; it is about the journey you go on to get there and what you learn along the way.

For me the journey is probably the thing that I have found the most difficult, and as my super coach constantly reminds me, (I have to) “be patient, grasshopper”. I’ve learned that racing is much more than just strength, it is about tactics and strategy too. The last two of those you can only learn on the bike, by racing, over and over again.

I learn new things every time I race. The more I race, the more confident I get in my ability. Though strength is probably the thing that makes me doubt my ability the most, it is something that I am constantly working on and is the thing that will take the most time.

Image: Jo Upton

Image: Jo Upton

So I raced the Hawthorn Club Championships again this year, and to my surprise I came first. A lot has changed since this time last year, when I raced for the first time. Since then, I’ve got substantially more kilometres, races and experience under my belt.

I invested in a power meter and had threshold testing. The most important thing I learned from the testing was not my anaerobic threshold, but some wise words: “Cycling performance takes time. It doesn’t happen in a year.”

It is so true. As my base improves, my threshold power will too. It will be interesting to see in 12 months’ time, how my threshold has improved, with all my training and racing. I’ve got a lot of work to do, like increasing my core strength, and concentrating more on my pedal stroke.

I often compare myself to others in the peloton, only to be disappointed. After a hard race or a race where I expected better results I will often question my ability. I constantly question am I really “a climber”. I love to climb, I am usually good at climbing, though now I’m racing with the big girls, and I’ve got a lot of work to do to keep up.

Fact of the matter is that I have only been cycling for 12 months or so. It is funny to think that my goal for last year was to race Tour of Bright in C grade, a race “suited to me”. A lot has changed since then, I’ve gone from C grade to racing NRS. My goals may have shifted a bit higher since then, thanks to a lot of opportunities coming my way. The goal accelerated a bit, but it has provided an opportunity to set higher goals.

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I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of and race the National Road Series with Cycling Victoria’s Development Squad. You won’t seeing me in Europe, but I’m privileged to have been given the opportunity by Cycling Victoria to race with world class female athletes, develop my skills and gain a heap of knowledge on all things racing.

I’m very much looking forward to continuing my cycling journey with Total Rush Hyster’s Women’s Team in 2013/14. Total Rush have supported my cycling throughout the year in so many ways, and have played an important part in my progress.

So too has Hawthorn Cycling Club which, through its fantastic women’s development program, has facilitated many training camps, skills sessions and social events to get women, including me, into cycling.

So now that National Road Series is over, I’m focusing on my first Tour of Bright. I’m keen to get into my pink Total Rush kit and get into the hills over the next month in preparation. Mt. Hotham is calling my name.

The Victorian Road Season starts again soon too, with the Mt. Buller Road Race in March. And the Hawthorn Cycling Club Women’s Criterium Series kicks off on the 13th of November, with women’s A and B grades. See you there!

Image: Richard Bailey

Image: Richard Bailey

In closing, here are three things I’ve learned this year:

- “Be patient, grasshopper”. Set your goals, and work slowly to achieve them.
- “Get off the front, grasshopper”. Position, position, position: try to maintain a good position within the bunch/race, ride towards the front, but out of the wind.
- “Concentrate, grasshopper”. Know what’s going on because it doesn’t take much for you to be off the back. Write on a strip of tape the sprint points, QOMs and any other important race markers. This way you will know what is going to happen, before it does.

Most importantly, just get on your bike and ride it, with your friends, wherever you like. Just get out there.

Special thanks to Monique Hanley, Rebecca McConnell, Lara Zeccola from Cycling Victoria’s Women’s Development Squad and all my fabulous team mates, Bec Domange (aka Super Coach) and my Wednesday morning crew. Thanks to everyone at Total Rush, Richmond, you know who you are (and Specialized).

Perhap the most important thank you goes to Liz Hall, the one who pretty much got me on the bike so I could ride it, and has been much more than a mentor to me over the past 22 months and more.

Liz is the face of Women@HCC and all things women’s cycling too and has supported me and my insecurities since day dot, from that first HCC club championship race 12 months ago and continues as a very important friend in my life. I remember attending many Tuesday morning HCC training sessions on the Boule with her, struggling to keep up.

She introduced me to Total Rush, helped me buy Napoleon and introduced me to the team. Before I had Bec to give me pep talks, it was Liz calming my never fading nerves before races and gave me important life advice when I needed it. Liz is an amazingly strong woman in so many ways, always puts others first, and has a passion for women’s cycling matched by no other. I’m very grateful to have her in my life.

Thanks to everyone at Hawthorn Cycling Club – ladies, join this club! A final thank you to all the women out there cycling, with me or not, racing or not and in general participating in what is a fantastic sport!

Oh and lastly: thanks to all the readers of The Climbing Cyclist and my own blog, for reading, following me, commenting and saying “hello”. Keep your eye out for more posts to come. The journey has just begun.

You can follow Verita on Twitter and Instagram, and on Strava. You can also check out her personal blog here. Click here, here, here and here to see Verita’s previous guest posts for The Climbing Cyclist.

8 Comments

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  1. Verita / Nov 8 2013

    Thanks everyone. It has been a great year, thanks again for all your support, onwards and upwards they say. Get on you bike and ride it!

  2. Jon Thornton / Nov 8 2013

    Thanks for another interesting article Verita. I hope you do even better next year.

  3. David / Nov 7 2013

    Once again V, you have shown why you have come ahead in leaps and bounds. Those are big numbers that you have done and you have earned every success thus far.

    I think I have worked out how she can improve in a big way for the next few years… If you look at all of her photos, there is not one of her looking at her stem!

  4. John Quilligan / Nov 7 2013

    Great writing V. I want to see a book with your name on it someday! I get a kick out of reading your stuff – it’s exuberant!

  5. Andrew / Nov 7 2013

    Congrats. Great read and I am inspired by your story! I don’t race, never have but love your attitude.

  6. Pauline / Nov 7 2013

    Brilliant and inspiring read. Best of luck for Bright :)

  7. Lachlan / Nov 7 2013

    That was a very engrossing write up! Awesome stuff, and goodluck for the tour of bright.

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