September 2, 2013

Guest post: The 2013 Sam Miranda Tour of the King Valley

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Verita Stewart has had a big year. After winning a couple of hilly C Grade races earlier in the season she was promoted to B grade for the Tour of the South West.

In recent months she’s taken an even bigger step and is now riding for a development squad in the National Road Series (NRS) — the highest level of domestic racing in Australia. In this post, Verita tells the story of her first NRS race, the Sam Miranda Tour of the King Valley, where she competed against some of Australia’s strongest female cyclists.

I felt like I had woken from a dream. It was Friday, race day, and I was feeling the pressure. There I was with my new team, being briefed by our team manager Rebecca McConnell. She was prepping us for the next three days of racing. It was our first team meeting after coming together about six months ago as “Team Breeze”, Cycling Victoria’s Women’s Development Squad.

The team consists of myself, Chrystal Weymiss, Minda Murray, Georgina Beech and Tessa Fabry. We are a brand new team, fresh out of the wrapper so to speak. The team was put together to give us an opportunity to race at the national level while developing our skills and abilities as female cyclists.

So there I was about to embark on my first National Road Series race – the Sam Miranda Tour of the King Valley — with my new team. It was going to be tough. Four stages over three days of racing in the King Valley in northeast Victoria, near my home town of Wangaratta. There was a criterium on Stage 1, an individual time trial for Stage 2, a “climbing” stage which incorporated the ‘Strade Nero’ dirt climb on Stage 3 and a pinchy undulating Stage 4 loop.

I had spent the days leading up to the Sam Miranda psyching myself up (or stressing myself out), and doing the usual stuff, like buying gels, ironing my socks and getting Napoleon (my bike) tuned.

Napoleon was probably more prepared than me really — it had the royal treatment the day before at Total Rush, dressed up with the Rovals, a spa treatment – the works. I was too busy stressing, staying awake at night having nightmares about being dropped after six minutes. I did make time to go through my pre-race ritual of getting my nails painted, this time in team blue … and of course, pink.

Team Breeze, with Verita on the far left.

Team Breeze, with Verita on the far left.

I was feeling physically ready. I mean, I had been training for months. I’d been smashing repeats of Walmer St with my supercoach for months and racing cyclocross to train for the dirt Strade Nero. But I was apprehensive about the unknown. Was I going to be fit enough for NRS? I was about to race in the National Road Series for the first time! The thought was daunting. I was scared. I had never raced against this calibre of women before. I had barely raced in A grade at all before now.

Stage 1 criterium (32km)

It was raining and I was nervous. But, I had a job to do: get on my bike and ride it.

We (the team) set up the Specialized marquee and huddled underneath, looking at our new blue kits and procrastinating as much as possible before starting our warm ups. It was time. I reluctantly climbed onto the wind trainer. I was fighting a lot of self-doubt in my mind as I looked out at the windy and soggy course (it had drizzled all night and still was now).

It was miserable out there. Our team manager Bec gave us some simple instructions “ride hard and hang on for as long as possible”. An easy instruction to follow. I suppose. It gave me something other than the conditions to focus on.

The criterium course was located on the airstrip at Wangaratta Airfield. It was dead flat, with two hotdog style corners and a “pit area” that deviated from the straight. These were going to be difficult to navigate with 60-ish other riders fighting for positions.

Before I knew it I was on the start line. It was still raining, and the wind had picked up. And boom!, it was on like Donkey Kong. I was not ready for the intensity. Let’s just say that the neutral lap did not turn out to be very neutral and the fact that my heart rate went from about 80bpm to 200bpm in 30 seconds may have caused me to vomit a little.

The surface, although smooth, had loose gravel on the top. I found myself spooked, sliding around on my slick turbos. I blinked and I was off the back. I was simply not fast or confident enough. I was dropped.

I was riding as hard as I could, stomping the pedals and seemingly going nowhere. Thankfully, there were a few others in the same position as me, we worked together for a few laps, then were pulled from the course early. I was disappointed. I did not hold on. I only completed eight of the 12 laps.

I sulked under cover and got on my trainer out of the rain to warm down. I had a perfect viewing position to watch the sprint finish: Katrin Garfoot (Pensar) first, Kate Finegan (Building Champions Squad) second and Ruth Corset (Pensar) third. The rest of my team had a great race and all finished around the main bunch.

It was time to focus on the next job of the day, the individual time trial.

Click here to see Verita’s Strava file from stage 1. Click here to see the stage results.

Stage 2: ITT (16km)

I was feeling deflated about my performance in the criterium, so coming into the ITT I told myself that I had something to prove. I was channelling my disappointment into motivation. Realistically though, I was up against some heavy hitters and ex-champions. So I was not expecting to do a time even close to absolute TT stars like Flick Wardlaw (Bicycle Superstore), Bridie O’Donnell (Total Rush Hyster) and Ruth Corsett. My goal was simple: to leave it, snot and all, on the road.

Despite the weather conditions getting progressively worse, I was not nervous this time at all, probably because a TT is just a battle against the clock. All I had to worry about was focusing on my power output and that’s it.

The 16km course ran from Cheshunt (50km from Sam Miranda Winery) to Lake William Hovell. The course was relatively flat for the first 13km, with a little 3km pinch to finish. I was going to have to manage my energy levels well, and ensure I didn’t go out too hard at the start so I still had the legs for the final 3km pinch uphill.

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I was the first off the ramp for the team. Yes a start ramp! I felt so pro. Well, as pro as I could without a sperm helmet or a TT bike. I was wet from the rain, and sweating like anything from the warm up. I felt pumped and excited.

I was rolled up onto the platform. I had the instructions from my supercoach in my head — 200 watts for the first 13km, 220 watts to the finish. Easy. Just get on your bike and ride it.

I rolled down the ramp and I was off. I quickly sat down and got into a rhythm and focused on the job. Don’t drop below 200 watts.

The course was flat, but slightly uphill, it had sweeping bends and a good surface. It was still raining. I was calm, although my heart rate was through the roof. It was pounding. My legs were feeling good.

I kept my eyes on the yellow dots on the road, trying not to let my mind wander. But it was wandering. It always does. I’d get distracted and start to think of stupid things. Like peanut butter. Then I’d glance down to see my power drop. “Must focus”, I told myself.  So I concentrated on my pedal stroke, keeping it smooth.

All of a sudden the gradient kicked up. 3km to go. Already?! I tried my hardest to keep my power constant and on target for the final 3km. My heart felt like it was going to blow up. I stomped through those last 3km and crossed the line drenched, sweaty, and exhausted. I left it all on the road.

I finished a miraculous 30th (of 55) with a time of 29:34.00, 4:33 behind the winner Ruth Corset who posted a time of 25.01.97. Katrin Garfoott was second and Flick Wardlaw was third.

Very happy with that result!

Click here to see Verita’s Strava file from stage 2. Click here to see the stage results.

Stage 3: Oxley Road Race (102km)

My legs were feeling surprisingly good. I was pumped. The team sat down together with Team Manager Bec before the race to discuss the course and set individual goals. Unlike yesterday, we all had specific goals to achieve as well as a team goal, which was to be conscious of our positioning throughout and try to stay top 15 in the peloton. So if we found ourselves at the back, we had to move back up the front.

I knew the road race was going to test us. It was a tough 102km and probably more suited to the climbers of the bunch, with three QOMs and three sprint point sections.

I had done my course reccie two weeks earlier so I knew what to expect — I knew where my strengths and weaknesses would lie. I was particularly nervous about the first sprint point, worried that I would not be able to respond and that it might split the bunch early on.

I was also worried about my ability to hang on for the second QOM, which was 4.7% for 1.3km. I struggled to get up it comfortably when I did my reccie. The climb was over before I could settle into a rhythm. Maybe it was just too short for me?

This climb was playing on my mind, especially as it was only a few kilometres from the QOM to the start of the Strade Nero climb. If I was off the back leading up to it, I probably wasn’t going to be able to get back on.

All that aside I sat on the start line feeling excited. We were off.

The bunch was hectic — I have never experienced anything like it. There were riders scattered across the full width of the road. Everyone fighting for wheels and positions. As expected there were attacks, riders trying to make breaks off the front. The first sprint point came and went, Chrystal and Tessa both managed to grab a couple of points, but we all stayed together. I was worried for no reason.

The kilometres seemed to pass quickly — it was definitely not boring. Within the first 40km we heard the awful sound of carbon on asphalt — a number of riders were down. Nicole Whitburn (Pensar) didn’t make it back on, but the other riders managed to scuttle back on their bikes and get back on. Myself and team mates were left shaking heads, thanking our lucky stars that the cyclocross action we did got us around it safely. Soon afterwards Suzuki-Bontrager rider Ailie McDonald went off the front in a solo break.

The course went from flat to rolling hills. I was feeling calm and felt like I was getting over the rollers with the bunch OK and was keeping in a good position. The bunch was still together. The pace picked up as we got over the top of a little pinchy climb before turning onto Benalla-Whitfield Road.

The first QOM was approaching, with McDonald still off the front, and the chase was on. Everyone started to get into position at the front to get over the first QOM .. and it was over in a flash. Tessa managed to grab a QOM point. We got over the top and there was a group of riders off the front.

We were riding well as a team, communicating, keeping each other in sight and responding to attacks. The next sprint point blurred past and the next QOM point was coming up. The one I was not looking forward to.

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I tried to work my way to the front of the bunch — that way if I dropped back, it would be through the peloton. I told myself that I needed to get into rhythm quickly and just get over. It was only 1.5km. Just do it. I got over the top well. Towards the front and started to dash to the bottom of the Strade Nero.

We hit the dirt flying. The surface was compacted, but still really bumpy. I could hear my carbon Rovals vibrating. The stronger riders pretty much disappeared in front of me, powering up the climb. I just focused on not vibrating off the road. I looked ahead and set a target to pick someone off. I got out of the saddle and changed gear. Whoops. Bad idea, the chain bounced off!

I stopped pedalling for a second and did the ol’ change-the-big-ring trick and it was back on. But I had lost momentum. I gritted my teeth and got on with it. Five kilometres later I was at the top, beginning to descend. I got over the top in a pretty good position but I realised pretty quickly that I was not going fast enough.

I had Bec and my supercoach screaming out of their support cars at me to go faster, but by the time I got to the bottom I was dropped. While I was off the back, the peloton caught the riders that were off the front at Whitfield.

As I passed through Whitfield, I didn’t know where I was in the placings. I didn’t know if everyone was in front of me or not. But I was stuck in no-man’s-land, home was 40km away and I was pedalling  into a headwind. I kept going, with the hope of catching someone off the back, but about 20km passed and I was still there, still riding into a headwind.

I tried to keep my speed at 33km/hr and focused on that, and tried to block the idea out that since I was alone I would be swooped by magpies. Then all of a sudden I heard Penny from Total Rush yelling “up-up-up!” from a distance. I tried to pick my speed up to get on the back … but I had no chance. They passed me like the wind, being paced by a team car. Bugger. I missed it. I must be the last one now?

While I was in no-man’s-land, there was a lot of action going on in the peloton. Tessa, Georgie and Chrystal were all together. A group of riders attacked and stayed away, including Chrystal! I kept working and kept thinking “nearly there!”. But, I was failing fast. My energy was seriously being depleted and at 10km to go, I was worried that I’d do little more than roll over the line. But thank god my prayers were heard.

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A bunch of six or seven girls, including my teammate Minda caught me. I got on the back of them, sat a couple of turns out to catch my breath, and then we rolled turns together until the end. I tell you now, I nearly cried out of happiness when I got on the back of them. They got me over the line at a pace more than 5km/h!

I crossed the line to cheers from my Wangaratta cheer squad — my family and a heap of friends from my home town had come to watch me finish! I was exhausted, but it was awesome to be able to finish with their cheers ringing in my ears.

I was disappointed that I got dropped on the descent and therefore rode 35 km solo. Especially after riding such a great race in the lead up. I felt strong. I felt like I climbed well, especially up the second QOM that I was worried about, and up the strade nero. I just failed on the descent. Hmmm. Maybe I should have gone for a 53-tooth chainring?

We did a great job as a team: Chrystal got fourth overall, behind Laura Meadley (Suzuki Bontrager) who was first, second-placed Lisa Hanley, and Judith Betts (Bike Bug) who came third. Tessa and Georgina finished with the bunch. Minda and I weren’t last as we thought, so we took that as a personal win too!

Click here to see Verita’s Strava file from stage 3. Click here to see the stage results.

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Stage 4: Oxley road race (89km)

I did not sleep well the night before; I was too excited. This was the final day of racing so I told myself that I had something to prove today. I was not going to get dropped again. The race was going to be fast, because there were only two short QOMs, and the final stretch home along Boggy Creek Road was a steady downhill making for a fast pace. After yesterday, I was hoping my 52-tooth gear would be up to scratch.

We began the routine of team meeting, faffing about, then getting on the trainers to start the warm up. Bec gave us all our personal goals and instructions to follow during the race. Mine was the same as the day before: try and keep towards the front, but this time I was to assist the girls to get towards the front if they found themselves at the back. This was going to be fun!

All of a sudden we were on the start line and I had butterflies in my stomach. We lined up, took a deep breath and were racing.

The first part of the race was fairly orderly, well, that was until we turned the corner at Moyhu when the race director’s car passed us, drove straight through a puddle and kindly sprayed the peloton with a wall of water. It was straight out of a comedy skit. I looked to my right to see a wall of muddy water come over us! To steal a quote from Flick Wardlaw it definitely “woke us from our Sunday coffee ride”.

Things were particularly hectic leading up to the first sprint point which came and went and somehow I managed to grab a sprint point! Attacks were aplenty that’s for sure. After the first sprint point Brittany Lindor (Bike Bug) and Emma Viotto (Suzuki-Bontrager) went off the front in an attack and stayed away. They managed to get a good lead.

The first QOM of the day was approaching. The team was riding well together and we were sitting comfortably in the bunch. But for some reason I was finding it hard to stay in a good position towards the front. That said, we were all were responding well to attacks to keep together.

I started the QOM in a terrible position and was stuck on the right hand gutter. I did not get up that climb as I had hoped and was left pedalling for dear life to get back on to the back of the bunch. I hit a bit of a mental wall here — I was disappointed at my effort getting up the climb. But I got on with it.

Sprint points came and went and the bunch seemed to have picked up the pace. The peloton caught Viotto at the top of the second climb before a couple of Pensar ladies attacked and were off the front for a bit. The chase was on and we caught them a few kilometres later on.

I got up the climb okay, but the same thing happened and I was off the back of the front bunch. I fought hard to get back on the descent, but I seemed to be going slower than everyone else. A few riders and support cars started to pass me.

I dug in and Carley Mackay and five or so others passed me, Carley yelling at me to get on her wheel. We worked hard and finally got back up to the front of the bunch and got back into tempo. I breathed a sigh of relief — that was close. I nearly lost it.

There were heaps of attacks along this stretch of road. The bunch was responding and no-one got away for long. Before I knew it we were at Moyhu. We turned straight into a headwind. We had 16km to go and one sprint point.

We were strung out on the road — just because it was windy did not mean that no-one wanted to be on the front. Attacks kept happening, especially up until the final sprint point.

Judith Betts made an attack and got away. We could see her in the distance as we reached the 1km to go mark. I could feel the tension in the bunch as the pace picked up. I just wanted to keep a good position.

We were nearly there. Two corners to go. I looked around and could see all my team members. We were still together! The first corner was fast; I was on the right-hand side and took the final corner wide and fast and rolled over the line with the bunch. Yes! That was all I could ask for. To finish with the bunch. That’s all I wanted out of today.

Judith Betts held on to first, 11 seconds ahead of the main field, led by Ruth Corset in second and Katrin Garfoot in third.

Click here to see Verita’s Strava file from stage 4. Click here to see the stage results.

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The whole Tour was a rollercoaster of emotion from start to finish. I raced in the rain, maxed out my heart rate, raced a crit on an air strip, did a PB in the time trial, climbed the Strade Nero, got dropped, got back on, consumed my weight in gels, sweated, got sunburnt, was sprayed with puddle water, raced NRS for the first time and survived.

Let’s just say that I learned a lot that weekend. After all, I had the opportunity to race with world-class women.

Huge thanks to my teammates at Team Breeze, our mechanic Neil, Lara Zeccola and Rebecca McConnell, our Team Manager. Thanks to my supercoach for getting me up to scratch (yes, you were right regarding the 53).

Thanks to Total Rush for all the support and ensuring my bike is as fast as it can be. Thanks to my Wangaratta cheer squad for cheering me over the line and the post-race hugs, all 12 of them! And thanks to Sam Miranda Winery for supporting women’s cycling … and for running out of prosecco. The racing could have turned out very differently it they hadn’t!

What’s next for me? I’m racing the next women’s NRS  Tour of the Murray starting tomorrow! As a climber, I’m looking forward to the profiles which look something like this:

Start _________________________________ Finish.

Click the links to follow Verita on Strava, Instagram and Twitter. You can read more of Verita’s writing at her blog. Photos appear courtesy of Jo Upton Photography. All the best to Verita at the Tour of the Murray!

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3 Comments

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  1. David / Sep 4 2013

    Loving being along for the ride with Verita, the story so far has been brilliant. It’s amazing to think of the progression from C-Grader to NRS. I am sure that there has been plenty of hard work in between the races to make this all happen.

  2. jules / Sep 4 2013

    lol at the things that go through your mind. i raced too and didn’t get to hydrate enough the previous evening, courtesy of a fatal road crash on the Hume, huge line of traffic and late arrival (that not the funny part). so i drank a lot in the morning <- big mistake. i spent the race debating with myself whether i could make it without stopping to pee.

  3. Jon Thornton / Sep 3 2013

    Really interesting and entertaining article. Thanks Verita.

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