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Monday
May232011

Gael Force

Stage 2 - Portumna - Kilrush 164k

I cycle all the way around the world and end up having my hardest ever day on a bike in Ireland. The winds were insane, 60kph like. The crosswinds destroyed the field and a lot of riders lost the race today. I managed to bridge with my team-mate and six other riders to the front group. Happy days! Then Mick and I got dropped over the top of Corkscrew Hill. We got back on through the cars but the crosswinds were too much of an opportunity for the pros to pass up on. I could see the stress before it happened. Line-outs and echelons galore. I'm just not at the level to mix it with the pros. We got shelled again and had to tow it home in a group of 6 in the gale. I was almost in tears but kept the head. Thankfully the team car was with us to feed me or I would have bonked. It was a brutal day and I lost a lot of time in the wind to the front group but I managed to take control of the B prize.

Marco

Sunday
May222011

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Stage 1 – Dunboyne-Portumna 148k

Being Sunday the bell for Sunday mass tolled ominously for the riders each hour as we went through the motions of pinning race numbers on and sorting out what to wear for the conditions. The weather was changeable but the most important factor was that there was a fairly strong westerly wind blowing. This was good news for me as it would keep a lid on the attacks as nobody would fancy jumping straight into a gale all the way to County Galway. Still, the course had plenty of narrow roads and twists and turns meaning that crosswinds could play a key role in the outcome. The first big split came about half-way through Portarlington when suddenly 20 riders up front got themselves into a quasi-echelon. I was about 6oth place so missed out on the split. However, my team-mate Anthony came up to me and asked whether we were the only two SDCC riders up here. I was thinking what do you mean, we're not up, we're behind a move. Then I looked over my shoulder and realised I was fourth rider from the back. The main bunch was 200 yards further back the road. Nobody in our group was keen on closing to the front group, which would have made a dangerous split of about 60 riders and so the lads behind managed to close the gap after about ten minutes. Thus, I learned that the race can suddenly split and that you can find yourself in a group with an advantage for no reason. Hmm, I must make sure to stay up the front. It all came back together and with about 20k to go everybody was getting itchy for the finish. No one team was prepared to set tempo for their sprinter so it started getting stressful as the wind was keeping the pace down at the front but riders further back in the draft of the bunch were trying to move up for the finish thereby putting on a squeeze in the middle. Inevitably a crash happened, two guys went down on the left and then fifty of us piled on top of them. I slammed on the breaks but it wasn't enough and so I went over the bars on top of a couple of bodies and bikes. They broke my fall but the whole road was blocked meaning about 20 riders sneaked away at the front with about 7k to go. Once I disentangled my bike and climbed out of the bush I had to pick my way through the carnage on the road. It's funny, crashes are a part of bike-racing but I always feel like a moto-gp rider when I go down, my hand is always still attached to the throttle and I jump straight back on automatically without thinking about me or my bike. All I can think about is not losing time to other riders. Once I got through the debris and checked on my team-mate Anthony who came down hard in the crash, I pedalled on up the road. But when you scream to a halt in the middle of a pedal-stroke your muscles lock up and so it was horrible just getting going again. A few of us worked up to groups but a little later the race was stopped by the race director to allow everyone back on. It wasn't fair for 85% of the bunch to lose time on GC due to a huge pile-up. When it restarted I just kept trying to move forward. The pace was fast now and riders where all over the place. I wasn't sure what would happen, I thought they might neutralise the overall time but leave the race for the stage. Luckily I didn't risk that call as in the end our time on the stage would indeed count. On the finishing straight there was another crash to my left. People just exhaust their concentration and touch wheels. I just kept pedaling and trying to go around tiring wheels. I wasn't up for the sprint but I think I managed to get onto the back on the front group by the time I crossed the line.  In the end I was 41st on the stage 4 seconds off the stage-winner and the new yellow jersey.

I was delighted just to get the first one over with as the yellow jersey team will have responsibility to control the race tomorrow so things may be a little bit calmer. Still, the wind makes tomorrows stage very dangerous as there is a potential for huge splits with the crosswinds that can absolutely blow a race apart with the line-outs as the wind forces us all into the same gutter. I was happy enough with my bunch positioning although I need to hold a position slightly further up. I'm also happy to have come down and peeled myself off the deck without any damage to either me or my steed. Crashing is part of bike-racing and while my team-mate is currently in hospital waiting to be stitched up, most of the time you suffer nothing but scrapes and bruises. Hopefully he'll pull through and can start tomorrow. Otherwise the rest of the team is tired but grand. The scramble at the finish was disappointing as we would all have finished together otherwise.

I have to say the whole day was fantastic, it's cool realising that you are sitting on the former U23 world champion's wheel. However, I was a little dismayed to find out that I'm not the only dude in the bunch. One of the kiwi lads is also sporting the hair but I'm one up on the dude-stakes because of my beard. Still, he'll be plenty up on me by the time we finish the race – he's a pursuit champion on the track ... possibly a commonwealth champion. If I wasn't so tired I'd google it.

Anyway, tomorrow's stage to Kilrush could be crucial. It has an unmarked climb right at the start and then a proper climb up the infamous Corkscrew Hill 60k from the finish. The main thing will be the crosswinds though. They can make or break the GC for the whole race in one split second.

More tomorrow if I have the beans.

marco

Sunday
May222011

Gone racing ....

... right, I'll be at the races until the 29th. The first stage starts today in Dunboyne and finishes 148kms later in Portumna.

I need to stay as rested as possible during the week but I do hope to blog the gist of each day if I can. If I don't have the energy or the www access then please read between the lines of the results. The official race website is www.anpostras.com and all the news, results and photos will appear on www.irishcycling.com. I think Shane Stokes will be back from working on the Giro d'Italia to run the live text reporting on the irishcycling.com website. I do not plan to put my nose into the breeze in this race so I'd be very surprised to see my name ever mentioned as I'll pay for any acts of bravado. It is also possible that RTE will have a highlights show one night and that there will be brief footage of each stage in the sports bulletin of the daily news. Despite all my hair you'll likely miss me as I plan to be tucked safely into the obscurity of the bunch.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the race.

mind how you go

Marco

Sunday
May222011

The Bionic Dude p/b SDCC

The Team

I had accepted an offer to ride for a Rás team immediately after the Tour of Ulster. I was delighted just to be riding but I was not aware of the transfer market that takes place in cycling at this time of year. I ended up feeling like a bit of a football player learning of his own transfer in the papers. A manager of another team that I initially asked for a spot ended up being short a rider and so he negotiated my transfer to his team unbeknownst to me. When I got the call after the deal was done, I was delighted despite the lack of a sign-on fee for me (I wish). It suited me as the team had come to adopt me at races even though I wasn't a member. I hadn't joined initially because I knew competition for places would be plentiful for the Rás as the club has some very strong riders. In the end real life and injuries got in the way meaning a spot opened up for me unexpectedly. Thus, I'm very happy to be representing South Dublin Cycling Club and riding for a super back-room team that includes the great legend of Irish cycling Mick Lawless. This means another new team-strip for me, one that is effectively the same as that of Lance Armstrong's Astana Team in the 2009 Tour de France.

Of course, there is no 'I' in Team. Hopefully I'll get to introduce you to the rest of the lads during the week.

The Bike

Getting ready for the Rás is exhausting, the training now seems the easy bit. Thus, I'm really looking forward to getting on the road now that all the preparations are done. The only thing I dread are the post-Rás blues as I will have a huge void in my life after the race. Absolutely all my focus for the last number of months has been on cycling, something that I will never be able to justify but something that I can't seem to tear myself away from either. The whole season has come down to this moment, so I have to ensure that I am fully prepared to have the best race I can.

When the bike is finally race ready it is such a relief. There was some initial disappointment last week when I peeled my punctured tubular tyre off my rear Zipp 404 (go-fast wheels) to discover a crack on the rim. The impact that caused the crack was what lead to my pinch-flat in Rás Mumhan, something that is hard to come-by on a tubular but such is life on Irish roads with fragile wheels. I left it up to the mechanic in the bike-shop to make a call on it and he said it wasn't rideable. The crack is only superficial but it is across the bridge of the rim and naturally I can't take the risk of the wheel exploding in the middle of a race. I was a bit annoyed as they are some seriously light and fast wheels, albeit from 2005. To replace the rear-wheel with a new one would cost at best €1150 ... obviously, that wasn't going to happen. It's a sign of how expensive the sport is and by now I'm just totally fed up shelling out cash on cycling. I feel like Al Bundy in the opening credits of 'Married with Children'. There is a scene where he is so used to handing over money non-stop to Peggy and the kids that he becomes oblivious to the fact he is giving money to his dog. I run a modest Aluminium Cannondale Caad 8 frame from 2006. My HED Ardennes race-wheels are from 2009 and are a nice mid-range wheel. The DurAce components are from 2006 also. Even though my ride is far from pimped it still costs a lot of money to tick her over. Thus, it is absolutely imperative that I don't look at or pick up a pro's bike during the week. If I do then my legs will stare up at me and say 'are you having a laugh?' as they curse me for the fact that they have so much more weight to pull over the same course as the pros. Then, I end up getting sandwiched by the inevitable thoughts in my head which go 'ooh, you'd have a much better chance of winning if you ran a pro's set-up'. Before you know it you are between a rock and a hard place, your legs mutiny and your head won't get them onside until you sign a a peace-treaty to buy a new lighter and faster race horse.

Aspirations

I'm a rookie so it's very difficult to know what to expect. To simply finish is the stated and main goal. The standard of this race gets incrementally higher every year, so much so that it scars people and scares good riders away. In addition, the course this year is particularly tough. The only benefit of being a rookie is that I have no sense of perspective. It is important to note that this race can end an amateur rider's career as he ends up with panic attacks at the sight of any gap opening up to the wheel in front ... even on a training spin. Such is the stress of the infamous line-outs, where all hell breaks loose for ten minutes as the bunch tries to close the gap to the break, that people are turned off the sport competitively for good. It is even possible to have nightmares about the line-outs. It is also common to use up 8 of your 9 lives during this race. There is so much suffering that you'll die at least 8 times (a thousand more like) meaning that when you finish you become born again in an effort to cherish your ninth and final life. You desert the sport for a normal life, a girlfriend and a proper job - one that doesn't entail waking up with sweats every night and throwing your body blindly down mountains.

I want to have as good a race as I can. I'm not riding this for the holiday, although I want the experience to be as fun and relaxed as it can be. Of course, I can't reasonably expect to dominate pros when the lads that beat me every week will be getting their asses kicked for a change. As I'm neither a specialist climber nor a sprinter I can't focus on any particular stage. Thus, I'll be trying to get as high up the GC as is possible – whatever that ends up being. If things are going well it would be nice to feature in the races within the race, the B prize in my case. I know my legs are good and without trying I'm weighing in at a lightish 73.5kgs (light for me, I'm 6'2” - I'd be lighter if I ever cut my hair and beard). I can't have prepared any better for this race so it ultimately comes down to my head, the one thing which I never doubt. Thus, in a bizarre way I feel very relaxed about what is to come. When I throw my leg over a bike it all feels very automatic for me. I engage a deeper part of my consciousness that makes racing feel very much like auto-pilot. Of course, it is not possible that I'll end up back in Dublin after a savage eight days and 1247kms of racing wondering how I got here. However, once I'm on the bike I outsource everything to my racing brain and if I couldn't trust my racing instincts then I wouldn't be in this sport. It's too hard already without saddling your bike computer with a slow processor.

Best of luck to all the riders, especially the amateur ones who must work and play the family-man too. They really deserve a lot of respect. And with that I'm off ...

may the Irish sky not fall on my head

his dudeness

Saturday
May212011

Final Prep Race - Shay Elliot 140k

The Shay Elliott memorial is regarded as the hardest one-day race in the country after the national championships. Shay was the first Irish wearer of the maillot jaune as well as one of the first English speaking riders to gain success in the continental peloton. As the national champs course is not location specific the Elliott assumes the status of an Irish 'classic'. The Des Hanlon course in Carlow is arguably as hard a day, if not harder with its 40 minutes of climbing each lap. However, it consists of laps and appears much earlier in the calendar. Any race that features circuits ruins the chances of those who slyly reconnoiter courses in training (a key component of any important race). In addition, the fact that the Elliott appears in close proximity on the calendar to a series of major Irish stage-races means a higher level of competition as everybody is in form. Make no mistake, winning the Elliott is a big deal.

This was my maiden Elliott and I was really looking forward to it as the race is virtually in my back garden. It had been a while since I had been over those roads in training though (courtesy of my traveling), so I made sure to pop out during the week to reacquaint myself with the main part of the course. I was eager to revisit the 3k climb and see how the corners flowed on the descent. I was particularly keen to preview the last 40k of the race as it is a long day in the saddle and knowing the final sections could prove crucial to protect tiring legs.

It is common for a break to get away on the fast opening section to Ashford on the dual-carraigeway. I was alert to the possibilities and trying to go with moves that seemed strong. The stiff breeze was countering any advantage and after the prime line we turned off the main road into a series of roundabouts. Just as we took the exit road down to the first roundabout some strong guys popped off the front to get ahead of the bunch. This was a smart move as we were coming out of the wind and it is always possible to steal ten yards by just leaning that bit harder into a turn. I was alert to it. I was well positioned and ready to jump but just as I was about to launch after Timmy Barry one of the favourites right in front of me seemed to sit up. I had no idea what he was thinking as it was clear that this was going to be the break of the day. As he moved over he boxed me in. I was hoping to go on the outside of his wheel heading onto the roundabout but now I was feathering the breaks to get on the inside of him. I couldn't believe my luck. I delayed thinking about it until I got through the technical section and for sure, this break was getting clear. Now I wanted to attack, not to join up with the front lads but to jump off my bike so I could clothes-line this guy as he came through. I was really bullin' that I had missed the move. But best to try close it when it is 200ms as opposed to 2mins ahead. I tried in vain with some other lads but the bunch closed our chase down without seeming to care much about the fact that we were all losing the same race. All I could do was wait to see who was eager to organise the chase. Various heads made an appearance at the front but as ever, everybody was looking to sit on Irvine's wheel in the hope that he would charitably close the gap for us. Of course, Irvine had other ideas and we continued to leak time as nobody in the bunch wanted to commit themselves too early in the race. The break was galloping clear and before we knew it they had a two-minute safety net. In the midst of my gloom I decided to eject from the front of the bunch to eat. I went down the back to find that the strong guys had also decided to take a time-out. I had my picnic and mulled over my choices. It was still early and it didn't look like the bunch was letting anything away. Thus, it made sense to ride conservatively until the next big moment of the race, the Dromgoff climb to the Shay Elliott memorial.

Having completed 95k we were on the approach to the climb and I was moving up to the front to monitor the action. On the run in a group of about 8 seemed to clip clear and I'm still unsure as to how I missed it. I quickly went in pursuit after Anto, Javen and Art who were in between. I bridged up to them but the road unkindly ushered us into a goddam gale. The 8 men up front had the advantage on us into the breeze by virtue of their number and while we hit the climb ahead of the bunch, the bunch was fresher for their delay. The first kilo of the climb is out of the saddle and then it steadies out a lot for the last 2k. If the road surface wasn't so rough you'd be able to spin up it but as it is you have no choice but to put it in gear. I knew if I could get to the steady section I'd be fine as it's the kind of gradient I could climb all day. Anto told me to sit on his wheel as he tried to drag us up but I couldn't hold it on the steeper lower slopes and so it was down to myself and Art to tag-team it. Art was caught unawares by the length of the climb and didn't come around me to take his turn. I didn't know what had befallen him but a quick look over the shoulder suggested the bunch wasn't too far behind. Soon guys were launching from the bunch ... if 16kph can be considered a launch. Griffen came around, as did Paidi and while I wasn't going with them it didn't seem like the group ahead was all that far away. I was pretty confident I could get them on the descent if I buried myself since I had checked out the drop earlier in the week. Another few lads came around but with 1k to go until the top nobody was really losing or gaining any ground. Over the summit I kept the pressure on to get ahead of some riders. I wanted to make sure I was leading into the corners on the descent as the last thing I needed was for guys to be blocking my progress through the corners. Unfortunately I didn't really nail the descent as the breeze necessitated a fair amount of work down the mountain. As we came into Laragh the lads were only only 200 yards ahead and other people had rejoined with me to form a chase. This only confirmed to me that I hadn't gone fast enough down the mountain but it was good to see Art again. However, the chase wasn't enough to close the gap right down and the lack of concentrated effort allowed them to sneak clear on the twisting roads meaning that they were now out-of-sight again. While there was still another 30k left to race it was pretty much game over. I continued to cooperate with the willing but it wasn't enough. As we came back onto the dual-carraigeway the group started to split up a bit. There were a lot of Bs around me, which suggested to me that I had totally missed out on the B prize I wanted. Their conspicuousness suggested the climb was where that particular showdown happened. By failing to bridge to the group ahead on the climb I had missed out on the B prize. The guy who won it was behind me at the bottom of the climb but came through me after Griffen and then did a good job closing out the race.

Back on the dualer Halpin decided to pull at the front of my group for the last 2k thereby granting me a perfect lead-out to jump with 500ms to go. Of course, nobody cared about the minor placings and so I finished alone, slightly ahead of some riders but behind too many to count ... total obscurity basically.

When I finished I realised how angry I was. It is always good to be angry in bike-racing as it means you are hungry. You need the hunger to see past the suffering and to make up for what you lack in class. Although the race was frustrating and the result was disappointing it was good to know that my legs were getting better. I had been a little unsure of them as I had taken a 4-day trip to the UK for a family Christening the weekend before. After you take your legs on vacation they tend to behave like distracted kids during their first week back at school after the summer holidays. It is always risky for a cyclist to give his legs a hint of the easy life but thankfully, mine weren't too grumpy on their return to work.

Roll on the Rás

Marco 

Friday
May202011

Stage Race Fever

As Easter fell so late this year it meant that I would ride Rás Mumhan and the Tour of Ulster on back-to-back long weekends. If I could come through the other side of this tough block of stage-racing all would bode well in terms of my aspirations of riding the Rás. It is important to seriously challenge both the head and the legs before doing the Rás and these two races would be perfect to see what level I was at.

For convenience I include below my race reports from both races below. Rás Mumhan took place first followed by the Tour of Ulster. There is plenty of reading there if you fancy it ... up to you etc.

Final preparations up next

Marco

Friday
May202011

Ras Mumhan - 4 Day Stage-Race in Kerry

the dude shares the tempo up the Connor Pass. Photo © Kieran Clancy www.kieranclancy.ieStage one: Killorglin – 105k

I punctured my rear go-fast wheel (404 carbon tub) after 20k of the start. The first hour of the first stage of a stage-race is nuts as everyone is fresh and doesn't want to miss an early move that may decide the overall race. I punctured on the run-in to the first KOH (climb). We had already dropped a load of riders ... including 3 in the neutralised section so the pace was very fast. It was the worst possible place for me to puncture and although I was horsing it back to the group I wasn't quite getting there. The problem with being an unattached rider is that I have no car in the cavalcade to look after me. The wheel-change from neutral service wasn't slow but the narrow and bumpy roads made it impossible to ride the cavalcade up as there were 800m gaps between cars ... and the cars coming around me wouldn't tow me.  Normal practice is to tow a punctured rider but not somebody who got shelled.  Frustrating, but all I could do was to maintain my composure. It was too much of an ask to get back when the race was on but I collected some shelled riders and we worked it home. I was pulling for 85k of the 1st stage ... this was effectively a breakaway at the wrong end of the race. We caught a group 4k from home and left it at that. Rolling in only 13mins down wasn't a disaster but it was effectively the end of any GC (General Classification) aspirations.

Stage two: Dingle - 126k

This stage suited me. The Connor Pass is a continental-style climb with a very steady gradient. It's not that long but it's not something you can steam-roll over either. Whereas my bunch positioning was spot-on on stage one before the puncture this time I couldn't move up. I was first behind the neutralised car when we left the school but by the time I was at the ceremonial start I was second row from the back. Godammit, they all jumped me on the pavement.  The start felt faster than the first stage. We then hit a water-crossing on the road around by Slea Head. This was over cobble-stones and on a sharp turn causing everyone to brake hard. Being down the back I had to really accelerate to catch the line-out. I was struggling to make contact but I eventually got back on. Then, there was a crash. Riders all over the road. A guy had reached for a gel on a bumpy descent and took people down. We had to carry our bikes through the mayhem and then straight into another murderous line-out to catch the riders ahead of the crash. We got back on just before the KOH but I was hurting and struggling to stay with the bunch. I couldn't understand what was going on. Guys who don't trouble me in Leinster races were moving around me and the bunch was always going 2kph faster than I could handle. I couldn't move up ahead of the dangerous sections as just hanging on was as good as I could give. After getting shelled by the bunch over a couple of KOH's I was managing to claw my way back through the cars. It was at the bottom of another KOH that I coudn't get on top of the gear. We had just come through a drag with a super rough piece of road which had required a lot of pushing to maintain momentum. I was pushing for every inch of road and having a horrible time. The legs were delivering but it wasn't enough. I just couldn't understand what was going on as I normally love the rough stuff. It felt like the whole bunch was on drugs but for me. After 80k I had to let them go. I worked up to another small group of riders having a hard day and we pedaled through without stressing too much. I was just happy to be in company as I was not far from bonking and it was the first time I had a chance to catch my breath all day. My head was in a bad place as I was hoping for a good stage and then all of a sudden aspirations of riding the Rás were out the window; if I couldn't hold onto the bunch in Kerry, what chance did I have in the Rás?  We finally hit the bottom of the Connor Pass and the summit finish. A Dungarvan lad and I moved to the front and shared the tempo up it. Nobody could come around us so we were riding up reasonably well without destroying anybody. In the end we came in 16mins down on the stage winner but only 8mins down on a handy group including the yellow jersey and some race favourites.  I was just happy to have maintained my composure and kept the bad thoughts bottled until after the stage. When you are suffering in a bike race it is very easy to have an existential crisis and almost quit the sport. I had succeeded in keeping my cool but I couldn't understand what had happened as my legs and head were good. The standard just seemed to be that little bit higher. Then I spun my front wheel and it only turned 6 revolutions. I did it again ... dude, u are such an eejit! The brakes had been rubbing the rim the whole day. It's the oldest excuse in the book so nobody will believe me!

Stage 3: Waterville - 142k

My stage-race effectively started here. I was a bit nervous about this stage as it had 6 KOH's all within 20k of each other over a long 142k course. The roads were rough and the winds off the coast could cause mayhem. The risk of cross-winds meant that everyone wanted to be up the front.  The legs seemed to be fine so I stayed close to the front but not too close that I'd be expected to be on the front and do work. I was staying with all the accelerations knowing that the riders would be yo-yoing off the back. I was fine but I wasn't sure when the elastic would snap. I wasn't too keen to get into a break as I'd blow my lights out but I wanted to be on the right side of a split and thereby still have strong lads around me.  The winds kept a lid on a lot of the attacks and the changes in tempo allowed dropped riders to rejoin. Heading out to Valentia Island for the stomper up a boreen we hit a cross-wind and there was a crazy line-out. I just kept pushing up the line as I didn't want to be on the wrong side of the gap if somebody let a wheel go. While it hurt a lot at least I was well up the bunch for the boreen. It's a real Flanders climb with riders losing traction on gravel and just not being able to hold the pace. I managed to stay close but I lost some places getting around people. Over the KOH we dropped down a bit and then up to another lift. Riders were in ones and twos and everyone was just shouting to pull. I was on the limit and didn't really want to but I had no choice. Just put the head down and work, it was still possible that we could get back on. We gritted our teeth, inched further up our saddles and gave it everything. Thankfully we managed to rejoin the leaders as we came off the island. There was more risk from the cross-wind but the guys at the front didn't have the legs. There were still two screamers of climbs to come. These were lovely climbs where you just spin, spin, spin and don't ever think about stopping. The first one I was fine on but the second one I was going around riders who were leaving gaps. The guys at the front snapped the elastic and I was moving up amongst shelled riders but I was not closing on the front of the race. The gap to the front-runners got bigger and then too big to close. This was the sixth and final climb of the day. Over the top the riders were again in ones and twos but with only 25k to the finish the split had been made. I managed to make it up to two groups and then, as a big group, we pushed for home 3mins down. Not a disaster by any stretch. I was quite happy as the stage was reputedly harder than a Rás stage. I thought I had managed top 40 but then I saw the results sheet and for all that effort and decent riding I was only 62nd on the stage. Not more mediocrity! No matter how hard I try mediocrity follows me like a bad smell - it's so annoying. But I took consolation from the fact that I was working hard all stage and even with 25k to go I still had the beans to work a lot to tow her home.

Stage 4: Killorglin - 115k

The GC suggested this would be a fast stage. I warmed-up and was well positioned to respond to moves. I didn't fancy going into an early move with 8 or 10 riders. My plan was to let the GC contenders sort it out amongst themselves and just to follow in their wheels. Lots of attacks had been going and I was staying up there but out of trouble. Then ten riders popped, another 10 followed and then twos and threes went. I was thinking this was dangerous but I hesitated as I thought others would bring it back. The yellow jersey of the race leader was here as were other GC riders. Of course, I should have noted that #2, #3 and #4 on GC had stolen a march on the yellow jersey inside 8k and that there was no way they were going to come back. I missed the split. Junior error by me and particularly by the yellow jersey not to watch the one person who had to attack to win.  The yellow jersey had 3 men in the move but they didn't parachute back to pull us along. His team manager seems to have been happy to lose the race in order to teach him a lesson. I just tagged along for the ride and then started moving up on the finishing circuit which we would do 10 times. I love the fast stuff and was well placed on the last lap. I was following the wheels up the front but there was a jammy last corner so it was hard to move into top 5 to take the fast line through it as everyone wanted to be there. I was up but not up far enough. I placed 13th out of our bunch – pretty meaningless but glad at how well I was moving up the bunch in the closing laps. I can't sprint but I can have a go.

All in all, I learnt a lot from my mistakes. It's very reassuring to have the legs and the recovery for these things. I didn't let the head drop after two disastrous stages so very pleased to handle the set-backs with maturity and composure where others would throw the bike into the broom-wagon.  The mishaps make you tougher mentally so it was a well-balanced training weekend both physically and mentally. Hopefully Ulster next weekend will be mishap free and then I'll have a better understanding of where I am really at. I think, I could have had a decent Connor Pass stage but without the puncture and the rubbin' blocks I likely would still have finished 16mins down on GC ... an age away in stage-racing terms.

Friday
May202011

Tour of Ulster - 3 Day Stage-Race in Dungannon

the dude suffers in the hill-sprint totally oblivious to the fact he is flying the tri-colour in loyalist heartlands! Photo © Nadia GativaThe Tour of Ulster was brutal. I knew it would be hard but it definitely rates as being as hard as Mumhan if not harder. They can only have ca. 100 riders in Northern Irish races so the field is a lot smaller to start with. This means there is less shelter and fewer places to hide in both the bunch and the cavalcade. Plus, the quality of the field was seriously impressive. We had perfect weather; lots of sunshine without it being too hot. However, the winds were constant and vicious at times and were a key factor in the racing. I don't think I have ever raced a course with so much wind.

Stage 1 – 141k

My only real mistake was not to arrive on time for the first stage ... I had a google map of it but when we got into town it was difficult to find the sign-on and it cost me a good warm-up. Of course, the first hour of a stage-race can be nuts as nobody wants to miss a move that may decide the overall GC on the first stage. Without a proper warm-up I felt physically blocked for two hours and was struggling just to stay on the back of the bunch. The second chase group screamed clear over the top of the Cat 1 KOH as I was losing contact. I got back on on the descent and the subsequent steadying of pace allowed me to get my second wind meaning I could start my race. I had good legs for the rest of the day but all the teams had guys up the road so the subsequent dropping in the pace by a few kph made life a lot more manageable ... but for the fact that I had missed the move, which always gnaws at what's left of your sanity. I worked on the front to try and keep the time-gap down to some smaller groups but people were largely unco-operative and the bunch pulled the parachute to 18mins by the time we crossed the line. If I hadn't have felt blocked I might have made a group 10mins down but the bunch should have snuffed out everything to at least 15mins.

Stage two - 140k

This was another really lumpy day with 6 climbs - two cat 3s followed by two cat 2s and two cat 1s. By this stage I never pay attention to the categorisation as it's often difficult to discern the difference when riding. They seem to set the categorisation to effect the racing ... encourage the race to break up at certain times for the yellow and climber's jersey. The gradient and length is most important as that determines the style of the climb and whether it suits a rider. The key thing to note on this stage was that the Cat 2 would be followed immediately by a Cat 1 and that the subsequent Cat 1 in town was only about a mile long and was likely a Cat 1 because it was a hill finish as opposed to being difficult (KOH points scoring etc). My task for the day was to stay up the front and to be on the right side of the split when it came to the double climb. I was positioning myself well all day and was very active in the first hour to get into a break. Some strong riders clipped away at a huge speed that I knew I couldn't follow so I just waited for the main part of the stage to make sure I didn't blow the lights out. When the important climbs came I was fine. Ryan Sherlock set the pace up one and possibly Paul Griffen up the other. I had made it over with a lot of big-name riders including McCann and Irvine even if some lads were already up the road from an earlier break. There was a split on the back but I was surprised to find another climb on the course after these two ... I don't know where it came from but the other lads were finding the going tough too and so it was possible to just sit-in at their pace. I stayed out of the wind as McCann, Sherlock and Griffen tried to pull back the gap to the leaders. McCann was in yellow but seemed to be having punctures and the like. It wasn't coming back but I moved from 10th place up to 4th place for the rise to the finish. Any further back would have required a Gilbert like sprint to get around people. As we came into the corners the bunch went left and I went right to open up my sprint. I saw the final bend and knew that if I could get to that without people coming around me I would hold my position to the finish. I got there 2nd and then just punched the bike up the last 100ms. I was 2nd on what was remaining in the bunch but it was only good enough for 16th on the stage. Still, good to know I'm making all the right moves towards the finish these days and that I can hold my own with the climbers once I'm towards the front heading into them.

Stage 3 - 800m hill-sprint

The course had a lot of corners, some bad road and three proper stompers. It was the kind of course that one should recce but it wasn't possible unless you cut out a lot of recovery from the morning stage. Even then, you'd still need the legs and it was so short that a good recce would only be good for ten seconds maybe. I did a decent warm-up but hit the course blind. I got caught out by the second stomper - I thought this was flattish and the legs didn't know what hit them. The gradient was smack in the middle of my range – I didn't know whether to push the pedals down or pull them up meaning that I was climbing with two different styles and changing my gear selection a few times on the course. I posted a 2:04 but it still hurt. Most of the big guys were pulling 1:52s and then Johnny McEvoy from the English Motorpoint team managed 1:37 - a total screamer.

Stage 4 – 123k

This seemed a lot less tricky on paper than the first two stages because of the absence of climbs, there were 6 categorised climbs on each of the previous two stages. The problem was that the English lads only had a 7sec lead on Andy Roche on GC and so there was a lot still to play for. The stage left Dungannon for an 11 x 7 mile circuit. It was exposed and had about three short stompers on it. The main problem was the amount of corners on the circuit ... and then the speed. The pace was blistering at the start and a lot of people were out the back before they knew what had happened - race over. I was suffering like everyone else but I was in the top half of the bunch to make sure I didn't get caught behind a rider with tired legs leaving a gap open. The pace was so high I didn't have a chance to process how much longer I could keep this going. We were going too fast for anything to get away but for Martin Irvine on his own. The Motorpoint team just set a fast tempo on the front with Andy Roche sitting on their wheels hoping they would tire themselves out in their protection of yellow. Things steadied after 3 laps but the tempo was still high and the amount of corners was cause for a lot of concentration and effort. I was decently positioned but I was struggling to hold onto a better position further up the line. In the closing three laps the pace ramped up again and the line-outs were huge. I was staying on wheels and closing some but the corners were taking a lot out of me. On the third last lap I realised I was struggling on the rises for the first time. Where before I would close-up to the top 30 and not feel it I was now falling backwards on the climbs.  A couple more jammy corners and it was getting really difficult to hold the wheels. Guys were going out the back and while I didn't crack I had used up my all my bullets by the second last time up the hill. I was simply spent as opposed to my head cracking. I fell in a heap into the cavalcade but about 10 riders had blown just in front of me allowing me to join up with them. When I got up to them I realised I was in pretty good company. The trick to that course was the corners but I realised this fact too late - I have never seen anything like the pressure those Motorpoint lads heaped on the bunch. After two difficult stages that was definitely the hardest stage and possibly the hardest of the two stage-racing weekends. I finished 37th on the stage 3mins down. I was hoping to move up in the B prize but could only move up to 4th of the Bs overall, still, that was worth some prize-money.  I was hoping for a top 3, the guy winning it looked too good for me but the other lads are about my level.  As it was I finished 41st overall in a race that only 69 managed to complete out of an original 105 starters.

So I only had two bad hours in what was a brutal race and while that was frustrating in the sense that I made a schoolboy error on stage one, I can feel reasonably assured that my legs are good and that I recover well between stages. It is also nice to learn that while I don't consider myself a climber that I can hold the pace on the climbs. I need to sort my cornering and then the rest is another season away in terms of actually being able to put my nose into the breeze and keep it there. Two hard back-to-back stage-racing weekends gave me enough confidence to knock on doors to see if clubs were looking for a rider for their Rás team.

More tomorrow

marco

Thursday
May192011

Early Season Form

the dude leads a chase group through the technical section in the Jazzer Wherity. Photo © Nadia Gativa.Right, skip ahead to the next paragraph if you already know your cycling as what follows is a little background info. In terms of the sport globally there are different standards of races but there are more or less seven divisions of teams. The Tour de France guys ride what is considered Pro-Tour level. These guys are salaried and ride for fully supported for teams with mulit-million euro budgets. The next level down is Pro-Continental which consists of some very classy riders, some of whom are great champions in their own right. These teams have smaller (but still sizable budgets) and can't access all the top level races. The third tier is Continental, which consists of guys who are effectively pro-am. These riders ride fully supported and they might receive a basic wage. Such squads typically consist of younger riders who are trying to step up to the properly paid pro ranks. Even if they are not top tier these guys train like professionals and some of them actually make it. Of course, within each of these divisions there are stronger and weaker squads. We then have the amateur ranks which consists of four divisions in Ireland. The best riders have what we'll call an A licence, the next category ride as Bs, then there are the Cs and Ds. The level you race at determines the length and severity of the races you can enter and it is typically through the accumulation of points based on results that you move up a level thereby maintaining standards and ensuring that riders are not collecting on prizes in a level beneath their ability. This is the general scheme of things in cycling but in Ireland the B riders typically race with the As, making it harder to get upgraded as you need to be placing in A races to accumulate the requisite number of points for an upgrade. Essentially you need to be an A already before they grant you an A licence. Fair enough. In terms of the Rás, the race is made up of about 170 riders. About 85 of these are from Continental level teams and the remainder are amateurs. The majority of amateurs will be A riders, some of which will have raced the Rás numerous times. There will be about 20 B riders with some rookies like me amongst the ranks.

Having not raced last season I left myself a fair amount of work to do to get to the level required to complete a Rás properly. When I turned out of the Rocky Mountains ahead of the cold weather and used Denver as my winter bolt-hole, the first thing I did was buy a bike. I had had enough of going only 16mph on a fully laden steel mountain-bike, so buying something faster and more suited to asphalt was automatic. There are three fitnesses one needs to train as a bike racer; cardio, strength and leg-speed. I bought a cyclo-cross bike so that I could be on regular sized wheels and maybe train with people. It was a bit of a shock to the system initially and I was terribly disappointed with my form. Despite the 13,905k of loaded bike-touring over some of the roughest terrain and biggest mountains imaginable (and much more unloaded exploratory kilometres besides), I didn't feel particularly fit or strong. It would take me a fair amount of training to find my legs and leg-speed again. The snowfalls and Colorado cold-snaps didn't help with consistency but at least I was trying and laying a base of some sort. I should have bought an indoor-trainer but I couldn't justify the expense as Denver weather was initially mild and it would be one more thing to sell before I came home. I generally rely on indoor-trainers for consistency and interval work. These two things form the bed-rock of a really good racing engine. Once the cyclo-cross season was out of the way, the roadies came out of hibernation and I managed to join in on a couple of group spins around Denver. The standard was very high and I was left with the sinking feeling that I would have a mountain of work to do to get in shape for the Rás.

On my arrival home to Ireland, I wasn't sure what to think. My legs weren't terrible but the heavy road surfaces took some getting used to again. I hooked up with Art for training spins, a good friend and in the same boat as myself in terms of trying to ride the Rás for the first time this year. We had some good sessions and we tried to keep each other honest. While we are similar riders in terms of our hunger and style we are still different horses suited to different courses. We have lots of different ideas about things making for plenty of conversation on spins when Art was not making me gasp up a mountain. I was really enjoying being back in Leinster, which I think has the best training and racing grounds of anywhere I have seen in the world. Being a city boy it is hard to have such proximal access to nature, quiet roads and a variety of terrain for training and still have all the cool things that city-life offers. Dublin provides this in spades and one can ride here for 360 days a year unlike lots of other parts of the world. We lack high-mountains and lots of sunshine but a couple of trips abroad each year with the bike more than make up for this.

My first race of the season was the Newbridge Grand Prix. On the second lap some ass-hole rode me into the ditch.  When I hopped out I had a puncture and as I'm not riding for a team with a support car from which I could take a spare wheel, I was out of the race after only 30k.

Thus, my first proper race of the season was the Lucan Grand Prix. As I was going on a three-day bender to Budapest for a stag (bachelor party) the following weekend and missing some good races I wanted to have a solid race. The only way to find out where I stood was to be aggressive and blow the lights out. We Bs had a one-minute handicap on the A riders and we took full advantage. I was jumping into every move and even when I was being pulled back I was jumping again. I couldn't believe my cardio. I was recovering from each jump ridiculously quickly allowing me to stay up the front and fire a lot of bullets in the hope that one would hit the target. Job done, I got into the break of the day and 8 of us pushed clear. We were all of a similar level and we worked incredibly well together. I don't think anyone skipped a turn until coming into the last lap. We shelled one rider close to the end and another punctured meaning that if I could stay away I would be in the top six and place on the results-sheet. There was a moment of panic as we approached the final corner 1.5k from the line. A slurry truck (only in Ireland!) had pulled out on the course totally oblivious to our escape for glory. Four riders got around but myself and another lad had to skirt the gravel on a roundabout causing the group to split. The front lads kindly stalled the jets for us and we got back on. We still had to keep the pressure on as the bunch was closing in fast. The slurry truck incident disrupted my flow and while I was back in the race I was staring into a head-wind and unsure of myself. I went left, they went right, I followed right and then they switched left. By the time I got on the wheel I wanted I was spinning as fast as I could and not really doing any damage. In any case I chose the wrong wheel and then Odhran came around me meaning I finished 6th with the bunch right on my heels. I was happy with the day but if I had known how good my legs were then I would have popped off on a solo flyer a lot earlier. In the end I realised that I was strong but lacking in confidence.  Still, a good day-out for someone returning to racing after an absence.

The weekend following my Budapest adventure I did three races. The highlight was Friday night's town criterium in Balbriggan where I finished 10th and fastest B rider. I love the speed of crits and this 2k lap suited me perfectly as it had a hill and a super technical section with a few tight corners all in quick succession. Again, I was finding that my recovery in the middle of the race was as good as it has ever been and while I wasn't strong enough to get into the key-move I did a huge amount of work and wasn't too far away at the finish. I was flying, I was very aggressive and I got my tactics right. I attacked on the back-side of the course to hit the technical section in front thereby limiting the chances of riders being able to come around me in the sprint.

Things were going surprisingly well and so I just needed a few more tough races in the legs ahead of the fast approaching stage-races. These stage-races are key to a rider's Rás preparation and it would be my relative success or failure in these that would determine whether I felt I would be able to ride the Rás.

Stage-race fever tomorrow

Marco

Lucan GP - the dude in an early break that failed. Photo © Peter Purfield www.irishcycling.comthe dude works in the winning break. Photo © Peter Purfield www.irishcycling.com7k to go and the break doesn't have too much of an advantage. Photo © Peter Purfield www.irishcycling.comthe dude checks his gear for the sprint with the bunch finishing fast behind. Photo © Peter Purfield www.irishcycling.comanother defeat but good to know the legs are there. Photo © Peter Purfield www.irishcycling.com

Wednesday
May182011

Introduction to the World of an Average Bike Rider

While I have not done a whole lot of bike-racing in the great scheme of things I am very au-fait with the sport. This is largely thanks to the heroics of an Irishman called Charlie Haughey who managed to stand atop the podium of the Tour de France in Paris back in 1987. I in fact saw nothing of this epic Tour de France but for the ceremonial parade down the Champs Elysees on its final day. Thus, my close study of the sport really began back in 1988. I am no anorak by any means but I do know my cycling post '88. For various reasons I didn't get more intimate with bike-racing until I transitioned from triathlon into cycling in 2006. I had planned on using the bike-racing season as a warm-up for the triathlon season only to realise that triathlon is the biggest load of pants and that at last I had found MY sport. I loved the adrenaline of it all it but my 2006 season was cut horribly short when I was in the best form of my life. I suffered the worst nightmare of every endurance athlete; glandular fever (mono-nucleosis). It would persist leading me to abort a come-back in both 2007 and 2008. My long-awaited return to full health happened in 2009, although my season was tame due to the absence of a proper winter. Of course, I then idiotically disappeared to tour around the world on an expedition mountain-bike thereby skipping the 2010 season. I returned at the end of February just in time for the start of this season.

I will never be able to compute the merits or faults of last year's adventures in terms of race preparation, meaning this season was always going to be a mystery. Needless to say, I will likely be a better or lesser shade of mediocre. However, the fact that I am nothing but an average rider often escapes me. It only ever seems obvious after the brouhaha of a race. Indeed, my ability to con myself into thinking that I can put myself in a position to contend for a high placing in a top race is fairly impressive. It is this kind of delusional thought that allows me to get excited about every race I do even if I rarely feature. Indeed, such conceit is common to all average cyclists as it is a sport where the strongest doesn't necessarily always prevail (even if he does a lot of the time). That there is a chance for an outsider to benefit from a lapse of concentration, a lack of route-intell or a moment of bad luck by the contenders gives us average riders a chance. We try to wriggle free or hang-on as the the strong-men delay and keep tabs on each other thereby granting us a stay of execution. On any given day the favourites might just make the error for a change giving the average rider his shot at victory ... or so the dream goes. This microscopic seed of hope that sits in the back of every average racing cyclist's brain is the only way to justify the amount of physical and mental energy, not to mention money, that we expend on this sport.

It is not every sport where fortune can favour the brave. Herein lies the average racing cyclist's conundrum. If one attacks, one risks blowing the lights out and then looking like an idiot as the strong-men and the cowardly cyclists that follow in their wheels swallow you up and then spit you out the back. As you gasp they chortle at your foolhardiness. If one follows in the wheels, one suffers less and experiences no ignominy. Thus, an average cyclist is always calculating the value of his anonymity. This, is in addition to all the standard calculations he has to compute during a race. How much energy do I have, how good are my legs, what way is the wind blowing, how long is this climb, how far to the group up the road, how many strong-men are here, who here will do the work for me, what is the right position to be in, who is the best wheel to follow for the selection, when will the selection happen, do I really have to attack now, how long until the finish ... oh dear God, how long until the finish? The better the rider the less he has to calculate as he can make up for a moment of poor mental arithmetic with excellent physical prowess. However, for the average rider the game is pure suffering one way or another. You need all your smarts not to miss a key moment and then, when that moment comes all the calculations happen at once. Before you know it you are suffering on your limit drilling home the advantage in a break and hi-fiving it. Or else, you are suffering in pure mental anguish as the break of the day disappears up the road with the lead-car leaving you feeling stupid and in a stressful huff in the bunch of riders behind. Worst case scenario, you miss the key break and in your frustration you panic and try to jump across in a small group only to spend an eternity in no-mans land neither getting the thrill of being at the head of the race nor relaxing in the wind-shadow of the bunch further back. It is all lunacy but no matter where you place behind the winner there are always plenty of hours (yes, hours!) during the race to justify your losing position at the finish. We average riders have an unbelievable knack of calculating everything to a tee except for the one thing that allowed the winner to break free. Excuses are too numerous to mention; I was boxed-in, I was marking the other race-favourite, I was reaching for my water-bottle, I had just done a big pull on the front, that was the one break I didn't follow, I was getting bottles from the team-car, I thought it was too early, I didn't see him attack, he was always too strong etc. Every average rider has heard all these excuses but we've all used them too.

Even in victory there is little cause for celebration as success in the sport is fleeting. The jealousy of the average rider as he watches the victor collect his prize runs very deep and such is our collective contempt that we vow never to let it happen again. Inevitably it doesn't as we mark the hell out of him at the next race and our intense focus on last week's winner allows somebody else to sneak away to victory this time. Few sports are as democratic as cycling.

One thing is for certain, the mental and physical anguish involved in this sport is beyond belief and can only be fathomed by those who actually know the smell of burning rubber as the bunch breaks hard into yet another jammy corner. It is impossible to explain bike-racing to a regular person. The amount of stress, suffering and calculation of tactics is incomprehensible. I can't think of any other sport where it is fun to get your head totally kicked in one day only to get up and do it all over again the next day ... and the day after. The only way I can attempt to explain it is that the sport can make you feel alive inside. I can experience the full gamut of emotions, while riding in the full gamut of weather conditions, while riding over the full gamut of geographical terrain. A race is literally choc-a-bloc with highs and lows. And all this in the space of a few adrenaline-filled hours as I start with a full-tank of gas and optimism and finish with nothing but depleted blood sugars and bitterness. There is so much stimulation to process that I have to take leave of my normal persona for a few hours as I rely purely on instinct to get me through. It's a funny feeling having to switch off to absolutely everything else in life just to switch on to racing, but such is the focus and concentration this sport requires.

The odds are that I will win ... some day, but like a game of poker you have to keep playing for the odds eventually to come around in your favour. It is this delusional thought that cycling is a game of chance that allows me to justify my humble and very average existence in this brutal sport.

My name is Mark Gill and I have a gambling addiction.