June 13, 2013

Guest post: Verita Stewart's Three Day Tour

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In recent months Verita Stewart has blogged for The Climbing Cyclist about racing at Mt. Baw Baw and at the Tour of the South West. Last weekend she raced in the Northern Suburbs Three Day Tour and here’s how her weekend unfolded.

It’s Friday. I’m standing at the door to my apartment tipping water out of my cycling shoes. I’ve just been caught out on Beach Rd by torrential rain. I’m hoping my shoes are going to dry in time for tomorrow’s Northern Suburbs Three Day Tour. I’m also hoping there won’t be any rain around tomorrow.

Despite a lack of motivation in the weeks leading up to the Tour, I feel prepared. I’ve been training hard for weeks. I’ve read the 10-page set of instructions from the Supercoach that flew into my email inbox the day before. I’ve studied the profiles. I’ve got my clip-on aero bars. I’ve packed my weight in gels, bars, bananas, pasta and Sukkie. I’m ready and I’m excited.

Stage 1: Lancefield Road Race (60km)

Check out the course here.

I arrived at the course bright and early, ready to warm up … or at least to try to. It was brisk to say the least — 0°C — and there was a thick, crunchy layer of frost on the ground (see photo below). At least it wasn’t raining like it had been the day before in Melbourne. And even better my shoes had dried. I was feeling fresh and I was excited for my first Three Day Tour.

I fumbled around with numb fingers trying to set up my trainer next to the other ladies. I was procrastinating as usual, thanks to a mix of excitement and nerves. I had been dropped on this same course a few weeks earlier, and I was only slightly scarred. Afraid, I guess, that it could happen again.

On coach’s orders we went for a quick roll of the final corner of the course. The wind in my face was so icy that I felt like I had “brain freeze” and my toes were numb.

Fast forward about 30 minutes.

I lined up with 15 ladies to race in Women’s B Grade, freezing. I was lathered in embrocation, wearing two pairs of socks, shoes covers and still shivering. It was cold; the frost still hadn’t melted. We sat on the start line for what seemed like forever. But the briefing was eventually over and we were rolling. Finally!

Time to get warm.

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I was surprised to see our bunch get organised so quickly. We began rolling fast, fast turns almost straight away. Did I mention they were fast!? I felt like I was pedalling for dear life and we were only 1km into the race. The fear of being dropped, like last time I rode this course, kept me going.

We were to do two laps. The first 1/2 of the course was flat-ish, uphill-ish until the first little climb after Newham, then the course became lumpy, until the descent to the start-finish line. The first lap was fast, but fairly uneventful, at least until we turned the second corner at Newham General Store and nearly got run over by a ute that was reversing out.

Our bunch skidded almost to a halt as the corner marshal screamed at the ute to stop! There goes one of my nine lives! We gathered momentum again and just as we recovered the first really pinchy Newham climb was underneath us, with a couple more to look forward to, including the QOM.

That first climb is where we started to split up. I hung on to the front bunch and kept thinking “this is where you got dropped last time, do not let it happen again!” I was feeling calm, but not feeling my toes. The hills were short and pinchy — not my style. But I knew the QOM was coming up and just ignored my legs. We were riding uphill, it felt like we should have been riding slower, but instead we were riding faster and faster. My heart was beating through my mouth.

The “1000m to QOM” sign flashed past and the speed ramped up again. The interesting thing about this QOM was that it was beyond the crest of the hill, on a flat section. The strong climbers started to go off the front. In the distance I could see some cars and people and clicked up a few gears … and misjudged my run completly. The QOM was not for another 250m.

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I sat back down. Boom. The stronger riders darted into the distance and grabbed the QOM: Suzanne Ternel (St Kilda), Tessa Fabry (Brunswick) and Jen Brown (St Kilda).

The next few kilometers were fast as we were chasing the three off the front after the QOM. Stay calm, breathe, stay calm, breathe. What was my max heart rate again? The steep 70km/h descent that soon came along brought the front bunch back together. Before I knew it lap one over.

We got back into a rhythm and the front bunch of nine kept rolling super-fast turns. There were a few who were separated on the climb, that made it back on, but we lost them soon after.  Before we knew it we were back to the Newham corner, with no ute thankfully, so we turned smoothly and darted up that pinchy Newham climb.

The next thing I knew there were four or five girls off the front — Tessa, Jen, Suzanne, Elizabeth Douel (St Kilda) and Emma Payne (Brunswick) — who darted past the QOM. There were four or five of us chasing them, my legs were burning, my heart was beating out of my mouth, again.

Just as we were getting them back within sight, we were swamped by the A grade men. The race was neutralised briefly as I tried to hold my line with what seemed like millions of giant men hurtling down the road at what looked like 100km/h.

All of a sudden I looked up and we were descending, the group split clean in two. Four or five off the front, in the distance. Darn it. I tried my hardest to catch them. I pedalled as fast as I could all the way down that descent, 70km/h, holding on for dear life. I came around the final corner fast, and smashed the last 650m. My legs were spent as I went over the line.

I finished 8th, behind Elizabeth Doueal (St Kilda), Emma Pane (Brunswick) and Suzanne Ternel (St Kilda). Our average speed was 34km/hr and we had completed the course in a time of 1:46:50. I was not last and had not been dropped. The Newham course is not that bad after all!

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Then again, I was worried I was about to develop frost bite because my feet were still frozen post-race. Someone shared with me their Pro Tip for keeping feet warm: “Put Embrocation on your feet!” Bang! I wish I’d thought of it myself!

Stage 2: Kyneton ITT (6km)

Check out the course here.

The temperature dropped to a balmy -1°C en route to the Kyneton Showgrounds. It was bloody cold, colder than the day before. I jumped out of the car and quickly found myself sitting on the ground lathering embro on my feet like a mad woman. “I hope this works!”, I thought to myself.

I got on the trainer, wearing every piece of clothing I had and tried to focus on the task ahead. Only 6km. 6km of pain. 6km of lungs in the mouth. 6km of … just get on your bike and ride it. Sweating like I was in a sauna, I rode to the ITT start. After a few wise words from the coach — “38km/h average” — and a few minutes I was off.

I grabbed those aero bars and found every piece of energy I had and pushed it into the pedals. I thought to myself, “I’ve got no excuses this time; it’s not windy, it’s only 6km.” There was no time for thinking, I just pedalled. Then it was over.

In hindsight, I wish I had ridden the course so I actually knew how steep the pinchy little climbs were. Perhaps I should have got out of the saddle? Either way I placed 5th rolling through with an average of just under 36km/hr for the 6km. No way could I have got 38km/h. Next year. I’m pretty happy with that result considering the ITT is probably not my strongest point. I can only get faster, right?

The winner, Emma, held an average speed of 36.6km/h and clocked a time of 10:39:05. Me, well, 11:12:49 isn’t too shabby, is it?

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With the ITT over it was time to get prepared for the road race that afternoon.

Stage 3: Kyneton Road Race (85km)

Check out the course here.

After a nutritious lunch of an Up & Go and a jam sandwich it was time to get back on the trainer and get warm for the road race. I was feeling good. My legs felt good. After racing with the girls the day before, I knew who the strong ones were, who could climb, who was a steady wheel, who to watch out for. In a strange way, I was kind of looking forward to it. I also knew it was going to be fast.

We had lost two riders from the first day, so this time we lined up with 13 starters. We rolled out, and again rolled turns. We picked up the pace fairly quickly as the first 1/3 of the course was relatively downhill. The speed picked up again as we began to descend a steep section at about the 10km mark. All of a sudden, Skippy almost skittled us all.

A massive man of a kangaroo bounced down from a cutting and directly in front of our peloton, narrowly missing the first rider by about 20m. We all screamed “kangaroo!”, swerved and, thankfully, stayed upright. There goes another one of my 9 lives! We barely had time to recover from that shock before we were turning the corner and about to hit the first QOM.

The QOM was at the 25km point, and this is where I began to slowly fall apart, mentally. Naturally the QOM split the bunch, with three riding quite comfortably off the front: Elizabeth, Harriet, and Tessa. It was amazing — they rode over the top of that climb and rolled off into the distance. That left six or so of us chasing, trying to pull them back.

All of a sudden this awful wave of self-doubt overwhelmed me. Was I working harder than I have ever had to? We were chasing these three girls like our lives depended on it. We wanted to get them back. I wanted to get them back.

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We worked together rolling turns, quick turns. My legs felt like they were about to self combust. A combination of burning feet from embro and burning legs from lactic. I think I was oxygen deprived. With every kilometre we rode, my mind was playing games with me. All I could think about was how I was going to hold on to this pace. Could I hold on for much longer? I started to doubt my ability.

My brain was telling me that I was going to blow up one minute, then I felt fine the next. My heart rate was through the roof. I was not calm; I should have been. How did I go from calm to not-so-calm in such a short period of time? The awful roller coaster of self-doubt and elation started. I spent the next 40km thinking and then trying to not think.

To distract myself from the pain, I’d go through a cycle of random thoughts. I planned my next set of custom Oakley – Holbrooks with the Iridium lens and a pink icon. I totally deserved a new pair. Maybe I would take up cross country skiing — I’m sure it would be more pleasant than this?

My feet were burning because of the embro. I needed a cup of tea. I’d count the novelty letterboxes, count the gel wrappers, pot holes. The surface was like a cheese grater. I love cheese. I hope I don’t get a flat. Pizza and beer, pizza and beer.

Back in the real world, we weren’t gaining any time on the three in the lead, but we were riding like crazy to catch them. At the 60km mark I looked down at my Garmin and nearly cried out of pure exhaustion. I thought to myself “how have I held on this long?” I took this as a positive for a second. Then I started to feel good again. I was hanging on!

I was not going to drop off. Jen Brown nudged me with a reminder. With all this random stuff going through my head, I clearly hadn’t had enough to eat or drink. I had one full bottle of water, and had only eaten one gel.

Just before Metcalfe we passed Simon the commissaire who told us that the three in front were strung out, with Elizabeth in front of Harriet, who was now in front of Tessa. If we keep at this pace to try and catch them, I thought, surely I’m going to blow up. Again, we rode faster.

Someone had told me that the final climb was a crucial point in the race. That you needed to be fast on the descent and steady in the climb, because that is where a breakaway could form. Before we knew it we passed Tessa — she had lost touch with Harriet and Elizabeth, they were just too strong.

I was exhausted, but so was everyone else. I could only think “how are they keeping it together? Why did I feel so awful?” My heart rate was through the roof. Again. I thought to myself “Ha, as if anyone is going to try a move here.” But you know what? That’s exactly what happened. Two strong hill climbers were off the front — Jen and Suzanne — leaving us as a group of four, with the others somewhere behind us, nowhere in sight.

We were getting closer to the finish and it was just Katherine Taylor, Michelle McMahon, Emma Payne (in yellow) and myself chasing. We tried to work together to bring them closer. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. 1km to go. I was just hanging on. 500m to go. Emma said something like “let’s go”.

She clicked her gears, got out of the saddle and off she went, with Michelle and Katherine in tow. I watched them ride three abreast across the road into the distance, and over the line. I tried to follow. My brain said “no”, and my legs said “no freaking way”.

I got over that line in 8th position. I felt a wave of emotion come over me. I wanted to cry. It was a mix of happiness that I had finished and physical exhaustion. You know what? That was probably the most mentally and physically tough thing I have ever done. My average heart rate was 170 bpm and our average speed was close to 32km/h. Considering the hilly profile of the course and the strength of the riders in Women’s B, I’m not surprised.

After heading back to our accommodation it was all about recovery. An ice bath perhaps? Nah, bed. The bikes could have the ice bath.

Stage 4: Pastoria (42km)

Check out the course here.

Getting out of bed on Monday morning was a struggle. I was not enthused. It was not even as cold as the day before — a balmy 5°C! — so I had no excuses.

I hadn’t slept well at all. I woke up constantly, thinking of custom Oakleys and other random things. I was stressing, as usual, that I would feel like I did yesterday during the road race. Suck it up. I needed a pep talk. I needed to be snapped out of it. I needed to get pumped.

There was a layer of fog over Kyneton Showgrounds when I arrived. It was so foggy that our race was delayed by an hour to let it clear, and we were only going to race 40km instead of 60km. This course would suit the climbers, which was most of the ladies racing.

It was fairly lumpy with some short 5-6% climbs to contend with. The QOM was a short 2km at 5%, over the top of Bald Hill, followed by a steep 2.5km descent to the finish line.

Another cold morning in Kyneton, albeit above freezing.

A foggy morning in Kyneton delayed the start.

Enter Supercoach, who swiftly gave me a kick in the behind — the reality check I needed — and I was sent to the trainer to warm up. The rational voice in my head told me that I was going to be fine, the other half of me was worried. I needed to psych myself up, so I played some Lana Del Ray and and got myself to that start line with embro on my toes and a smile on my face. What’s the worst that could happen?

You could tell we were all feeling a little fatigued. We were a little lethargic to start off with and the pace seemed to have backed off compared to the last few days. I was feeling good, surprisingly. I was calm. I was just going to get on my bike and ride it. Like I always do. I think the pep talk worked!

This race was not as eventful or as exciting as the first two road races. There was no-one off the front, there was no real chasing and there was no Skippy wanting to join us. The bunch stayed together throughout most of the race, losing only a couple here and there on the climbs. We rolled the course, in a sort of rhythm, up, down, up. The strong climbers — Tessa, Elizabeth and Harriet — darted for the QOM as usual. I trailed along behind, and caught up on the descent. Lap one over, one lap to go.

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The chatter started. We slowed right down and probably forgot that it was a race. Everyone was tired. Blink and before we knew it we were at the base of the Bald Hill, approaching the QOM again. All of a sudden we heard “riders!” being called and B Grade Men started to overtake us.

The commissaire announced from the car “neutral until told otherwise”. Bloody hell! At the crucial point of the race, we were being overtaken. We were neutral and we were crawling at about 10km/h on the crest of the QOM. But then it was race on again.

Click, click, click went the gears and we were descending to the finish line. We were battling it out, three/four abreast across the road. It was exhilarating, we were going fast, handlebar to handlebar. All of a sudden I found myself next to Katherine, sprinting for the line.

In the end it was Elizabeth, Fiona Neuwirth (St Kilda) and Katherine across the line in first, second and third. I was fourth, half a wheel behind Katherine. It was a little disappointing to have neutral called on our last lap, at the crucial moment of the race. But that’s racing, isn’t it?

It was my first Northern Suburbs Three Day Tour and it definitely won’t be my last. I ended up coming 6th in the general classification 5:51 behind the winner and I’m particularly happy with my 5th in the ITT.

I wouldn’t have survived without the help of my fellow Women’s B Grade team mates, my supercoach, friends, Hawthorn CC and Total Rush. Thanks especially to Manuella who became our soigneur.

I’m going to have to get back into the hills that I love. I need to get stronger to keep up with these B Grade Women — they’re all climbers! The weekend’s racing nearly broke me, it messed with my head, but I still laughed, I learned a lot, I lost a couple of my 9 lives, I made a lot of new friends, I used a tub of embro, I ate my weight in gels, bars, banana’s, pasta and Sukkie and …

I got on my bike and rode it, in the freezing cold, and despite the pain, I came 6th. And most important of all, I had an awesome time.

All photos courtesy of Jo Upton Photography and Michael McRitchie. You can read more of Verita’s work on The Climbing Cyclist here. You can check out her terrific blog here. You can follow here on Twitter here and on Instagram here.

4 Comments

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  1. Hamish / Jun 14 2013

    “I was feeling calm, but not feeling my toes.” Quote of the year! Well done, enjoyed the write-up.

  2. Robert Merkel / Jun 14 2013

    Great to see all the women racing hard at the 3DT this year, from Flick Wardlaw down.

    Women’s racing has come along in leaps and bounds over the past few years; not so long ago women would show up to their first crit and be immediately competing against the likes of Jenny MacPherson. Now there are solid entry numbers across several grades and women can have the same chance to race against similarly capable peers as the men can. Thanks should to to the likes of Gaelene Snelling who’ve encouraged the development of women’s racing in the Combine.

  3. David / Jun 13 2013

    Loving Verita’s posts. We all know about Tessa Fabry’s climbing ability from DD13 (9QOMs): http://www.strava.com/activities/41202398

    Keep up the good work and we are sure that they will be tales from a-grade soon enough.

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