December 10, 2014

Tour of Bright 2014 (Nick Liau on Men's C Grade)

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When it comes to hilly bike races in Victoria, few carry the same prestige as the Tour of Bright. Held over three days the race begins with an individual time trial before concluding with two road races, both with a summit finish. Nick Liau, who wrote about his experience of Men’s C Grade at last year’s race, returns with his story of this year’s race, held last weekend.

Stage 1: Individual Time Trial

The Tour of Bright is the highlight of my racing calendar, so I suppose it’s only natural to feel nervous when the day finally arrives. I roll up to the start line sporting my shiny new skinsuit and aero helmet. There’s a short burst of heavy rain just before I start and this just means it’s hot, humid and slippery out on the course.

Image: Jarrod Partridge

Image: JXP Photography

I put in the best 20-minute effort I can muster, and cross the finish line in 20:10:19, with an average speed of over 40km/h. My heart rate is up in the stratosphere – I average 185bpm for the stage! The numbers tell me that I’m more powerful and half a minute faster than last year. This is a fairly good result, and yet I’m left feeling like I did no better than one of the training sessions I put in a few weeks ago. The time trial is a demon that I’m yet to overcome.

Jared McClintock and Damien Bovalino, riding mates of mine, take first and third in the stage respectively. It looks like they’re in for a good weekend! I’m down in 23rd place out of 71 riders, a minute down on the leader and hoping that I can put in a much stronger stage 2 tomorrow morning.

Stage placing: 23rd
GC: 23rd
Time gap: 1:02

Click here to see Nick’s Strava file from stage 1.

Stage 2: The Gaps Loop

A friend of mine always tells me that I do too much work on the front. “Get off the front. If they swear at you and tell you to pull a turn, just look at them and say ‘no thanks’.” Today, I’ve got Wayne’s voice in my ear. I’m just going to sit in the pack, waiting to unleash with everything I have on the final climb up Tawonga Gap. Chasing the breaks can be someone else’s job.

Aside from the final climb, today’s stage is largely flat. We roll out of Bright. The first break of the day, with about six riders, goes up the road. A stupid decision. The peloton is huge. There’s too much adrenaline around, and too many people willing to chase. I hide in the middle of the pack as we chase them down.

This cycle repeats itself a few times, but aside from a brief effort over Rosewhite Gap, the first 90% of this race is just a warm up for the final climb up Tawonga Gap.

We turn onto Tawonga Gap Road, and the climbing starts immediately. I’m pushing hard, but I feel comfortable. I’m sitting in the line of riders, just trying to stay out of the wind to save as much energy as possible.

There are no violent attacks. Rather, we just raise the pace little by little, slowly turning the screws on all the other riders. Some are just working too hard to keep up the pace, and drop off one by one. Every now and again, I look behind me to see that there are fewer and fewer riders hanging on to our group.

We’re down to about 15 riders now. The screws keep turning. Normally when I race, there are a thousand things racing through my head: how far until the finish? How fresh do my legs feel? But today, there are no distractions in my mind. I’m focused on nothing but the riders around me, and the wheel in front. I can vaguely feel my heart rate going through the roof, and I can hear myself breathing heavily. Physically, I feel nothing.

About 3km from the finish, Craig O’Sullivan, a tall and skinny young rider, attacks. I get up out of the saddle and follow him. We gap the group by a few metres. He rolls over for me to pull a turn, but I just sit right in behind him. I know that I’ve probably only got one shot at this, and I want to make it count. We settle back down and return to the main group.

Right now, I feel like I’ve got everything under control. Whenever someone pushes the pace a little, I’ve got something in the tank to respond with. The others around me look like they’re suffering, but I feel good.

Nick in the lead group on Tawonga Gap. He's wearing the blue Tenax kit just to the left of centre. (Image: JXP Photography)

Nick in the lead group on Tawonga Gap. He’s wearing the blue Tenax kit just to the left of centre. (Image: JXP Photography)

At 1km to go, Bovalino gets out of the saddle and attacks violently, the first real snap attack of the whole climb. I went for a ride with Bovalino a few weeks ago, and I know that he’s got an uphill sprint like nobody else. I figure the smartest move is to let him go, and bide my time. He pulls off a few metres up the road. I figure he won’t be able to hold us off to the finish.

O’Sullivan and Michael Stringer are still beside me, then there’s a bit of a gap to the rest of the field. At the start of the year, I remember Stringer taking on the peloton single-handedly up Mount Buller, and again up Mount Baw Baw a few weeks later. He danced on the pedals like a man who had escaped gravity’s pull. I fully expect him to launch past me at any second.

But he doesn’t. 200m to go. I’ve got a little bit left in reserve. I still haven’t used my “one shot” today. It’s now or never. I get down in the drops, dump the chain up a few gears, get out of the saddle, and launch with everything I have. I know that if I get caught here on a counter-attack, I won’t have anything left to respond with. All the more reason to keep the pedal to the metal.

I pass O’Sullivan, and in front of me I can see Bovalino turning himself inside out so hard that he’s swerving from side to side. But he’s too far away, and the stage is his. Nobody behind has the legs left to respond. As soon as I go past O’Sullivan, I can feel that second place is mine. But the work isn’t quite done yet. I’m spinning my heart out, still out of the saddle. I approach the cheering spectators lining the road on the last 100m before the finish.

I look back, and O’Sullivan and Stringer are gaining on me. My world starts closing in. I begin to lose my peripheral vision, and everything turns black and white. All I can see is a blurry line in front of me at the end of a dark tunnel. I keep powering towards the line. I cross the line just a second ahead of O’Sullivan and roll to a stop, ready to vomit.

I close my eyes. I can feel a few people patting me on the back as they cross the line. But all I can do right now is suck down oxygen. I open my eyes, and the world slowly regains its colour. I’ve just put in the best performance of my racing career, and I feel like I’ve risen to the challenge of what is the biggest race of the year for me.

I’m very happy with second place in a race as competitive as the Tour of Bright. I’ve rocketed to 6th place on GC. I soon realise that I’ve got a stupid grin spread from ear to ear.

Stage placing: 2nd
GC: 6th
Time gap: 1:08

Click here to see Nick’s Strava file from stage 2.

Stage 3: Mount Hotham

Today’s stage up Mount Hotham has been shortened because of the atrocious weather at the top, and finishes just after the ticket box. This means that there’s about seven kilometres of climbing, followed by about eight kilometres of false flat. For anyone left at this point, it will be a one kilometre drag race up one last pinch to the revised finish line.

The relatively flat trip out to Harrietville plays out much like yesterday, with a few surges here and there, but no attacks that have any real chance of getting away.

The climbing begins. The pace is pretty high, but a few kilometres later, I’m surprised to see that probably half the field is still with us. Paul Speed from R33, currently sitting second on GC, is leading the pace line on his own.

We approach The Meg, a short but sharp pinch which should be burned into the memory of anyone who has climbed Hotham before. There are some KOM points available at the top of the pinch. Stringer attacks early. He’s a good rider, but copped a flat tire on the time trial course on Friday, and so is about 6 minutes down on GC. (It seems someone spread tacks all over the time trial course on Friday. Apparently the police have arrested someone who had purchased three packets of tacks at the local hardware store the day before.) Without any hopes of a GC result, Stringer’s on the war path for the KOM jersey.

Bovalino, Speed and I cross the line not far behind. Stringer is just up the road soft pedalling, clearly waiting for a couple of people to tackle the upcoming false-flat with. Speed rolls past all of us at full gas. There is a small but significant gap to the rest of the peloton, about 30m back and just cresting The Meg.

“Let’s go!” Stringer yells. We hesitate. Speed pulls away, clearly not waiting for anybody. The moment of indecision costs us the chance we might have had for a four-man breakaway. By the time we get rolling, the peloton has caught us, and there’s over 20 riders together. Speed has a small gap on his own.

“Work together, let’s chase him down!” someone yells.

“No, let him burn out there on his own,” I reply. I figure we’ll easily catch Speed on the false flat, by which time he’ll be so burned out that he’ll fall off the back, netting me an easy step up on the GC podium.

In a small group of riders, everyone tends to work together for the common good. But in a group this big, there’s plenty of room for passengers. Everybody is looking to preserve their energy for the finish. We’re not pushing particularly hard on the false-flat, and Speed is increasing his gap.

Nick in the lead group on Mt. Hotham. You can see him in third wheel, in the St. Kilda CC kit. (Image: JXP Photography)

Nick in the lead group on Mt. Hotham. You can see him in third wheel, in the St. Kilda CC kit. (Image: JXP Photography)

Bovalino currently has the GC lead by a minute. But he’s clearly pretty concerned that his lead is slipping away here. McClintock, a smashingly strong flat-land rider, gets on the front and drills the pace to help Bovalino. They try to wave other riders through to help, but nobody else will have a bar of it.

There are about 15 of us here, but with no help, it’s really just McClintock vs Speed. They say that when you’re in the yellow jersey, you’ve got a giant target on your back. We’re all witnessing this first hand today as Bovalino and McClintock receive no love at the front.

The peloton flies to the bottom of the climb together, and then promptly tears itself to shreds. It’s time for everybody to put in the best few minutes they can muster to the finish line.

Jet Turner, a young, tall and skinny rider is the first off the front on his own. He’s only a few seconds behind me on GC, so I can’t let him get too far ahead, or I’ll lose a spot overall.

I push as hard as I can, but I know there’s still hundreds of meters to go, so I don’t want to burn myself out too early. Indiana Michel jumps out of the saddle and launches his own attack. I have to let him go too – I just don’t have enough left to make it to the finish at his pace. Yesterday, I felt robotic and invincible. But right now, I feel distinctly mortal. I enter damage control mode.

200m to go. I hope that I can hold out for fourth on the stage. I get out of the saddle and push, hoping to head off any final attacks. But there’s a sense of inevitability when riders start edging past me.

It’s like my body is playing sick games with me – I watch a line of four riders, led by Stringer, slide past me in slow motion, and I’m helpless to stop my slide down the stage leaderboard. My legs are on fire. I desperately try to dig deeper, but there’s nothing left.

I roll over the line in 8th place, just in front of Bovalino. There were only four seconds between Stringer in 4th and myself in 8th. It doesn’t sound like much, but felt like an eternity.

Luckily I’ve managed to hold off Turner on the GC leaderboard, and moved up a place to 5th place overall. I’m pretty stoked by this result. It’s much better than last year’s performance, and I feel like I’ve proved myself as one of the better climbers in C grade in the Victorian Road Series. It looks like B grade might be on the horizon next year!

Stage placing: 8th
GC: 5th
Time gap: 1:26

Click here to see Nick’s Strava file from stage 3.

Kudos to Speed, Bovalino, McClintock and O’Sullivan for their fantastic results, first to fourth respectively. Well done to McClintock for a smashing time trial performance, and to Bovalino for his classy attack for the stage win up Tawonga. But by far the most kudos should go to Speed for his daring solo attack on the final day. He could have settled for second place so easily, and yet laid it all on the line for the win.

Other Tour of Bright blog posts

Brendan Canty (Men’s A Grade)
Verita Stewart (Women’s A Grade)
Steve at 3FIDI (Men’s B Grade)
Aaron Moffatt (Men’s B Grade)
Shane Miller (Masters A Grade)
Mathew Marques (Masters B Grade)
Allez Alain (Masters C Grade)
DieselRead (lead-car driver for Women’s C Grade)

Click through for full results from the 2014 Tour of Bright. All photos in this post appear courtesy of JXP Photography and have been paid for.

6 Comments

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  1. Michael Dunn / Dec 29 2014

    What a great account of all the action I was missing further up the road. Hopefully I can witness it for my self next year. Awesome work on a well deserved 5th place overall.

  2. jules / Dec 11 2014

    great read – and the linked ones too. my ToB went like this – ride out to hills. get dropped. ride up at my own pace. do it again the next day. look at results to discover how much time the front runners pumped into me. read about what happened at the pointy end during the week afterwards.

  3. Jon Thornton / Dec 11 2014

    Great article. I much prefer reading well written descriptions of grass roots races than dispassionate, dull descriptions of world tour events.

    I love the TOB. I’ll never race it, but I enjoy watching it each year and going for the odd ride around Bright between the racing stages.

  4. JP / Dec 11 2014

    Engaging account & well written Nick, thanks!

  5. Campbell / Dec 10 2014

    nick , another great read . Fantastic result this year congratulations .

  6. Marcus / Dec 10 2014

    It’s been very interesting following your training Nick – largely because it shows me how far off ‘good’ I’m at 😀 Awesome ride, particularly up Tawonga. Just need to find yourself a TT bike for next year :)

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