Tuesday, 17 April 2012

I have to admit, I really really wanted to win...

Sunday was the 2nd round of the Shutt Velo Rapide Women’s Team Series in Virginia Water. The race was put on by Twickenham CC, my club and run in memory of Dave Peck our chairman who sadly died last year while out riding his bike to Paris. The event was a fitting tribute to Dave who was so encouraging to everyone who cycled and was always there at the TCC ladies races with a big smile and enthusiasm.

I have to admit, I really really wanted to win but with the combined forces of Matrix Fitness, Scott Contessa and For Viored, all strong teams, and Lucy Garner, the junior world champion on the start line it was never going to be easy. No-one else had the MuleBar Girls around them though. My awesome team mates Sarah, Lou and V all fuelled up on MuleBars and kitted out in our new Ana Nichoola mitts were as ready to fight as anyone else.

The course at least was a familiar one to me, albeit from a different perspective as a red flag waving marshall for TCC’s Ottershaw series. 13 laps round Valley End with one longish drag and then 5 laps of Staple Hill which had a more significant kick up to the finish line, I loved it! Going uphill and into the wind was bound to test everyone’s legs on the first women’s road race of the season.

It was fantastic to see Sol Findley, Dave’s partner and the other TCC girls Selina, Emma and Kate leading out the peleton at the start. I have huge respect for Sol who was going strong on what must have been such an emotional day for her, she’s an inspiration.

Meanwhile, I was hanging about at the back as my bottle kept falling out of my bottle cage and I knew I needed to ditch it before it caused an accident but couldn’t seem to get over to the left hand side of the road to put it somewhere safe. Finally I managed, just as we approached the left turn into the first drag, right when I need to be up the front as that was when the action was going to hot up. Somehow I pegged it forward and took the corner in about 4th wheel with Rebecca Curley (For Viored) keeping the pace high on the front.

image courtesy of Twickenham CC

Annie Simpson (Matrix Fitness) made the first attack of the day and I jumped over to her wheel. At the top I looked round expecting to see the bunch strung out behind us and there was only air. I don’t think making a break of only two people about 3 miles in to a 53 mile race was on either of our race plans but we were both committed so down our heads went and the effort began.

We worked well together and our team mates did a grand job patrolling the bunch although no one seemed to be able to get in the way of Corrine Hall (Node 4, another old TCCer) who with the bit between her teeth put in huge efforts to bring the break back for her team mate Lucy Garner. Amy Roberts (Scott Contessa) also spent a few laps in no man’s land in an attempt to get across to us but didn’t quite make it. Our gap hovered around 30 seconds and both Annie and I will admit to seeing the lap board read 17 laps to go and thinking ‘Er, was this a little ambitious?!’

As the course switched to the second circuit our advantage had been whittled down to 15 seconds. Turning the corner onto Staple Hill I could see the bunch hot on our heels, touching distance away. Even with the small gap I knew I wasn’t going to capitulate, they were only going to bring me back when I’d left every single part of me out on that road. I put a massive effort up Staple Hill (which is a lot longer and windier than I remember) and hoped that would gain me a little time. Unfortunately my breakaway partner Annie lost touch and was swallowed up in the bunch.

All I could do was grit my teeth and keep pushing helped along by the very friendly marshals and spectators. It’s good to race on home turf! I don’t really remember much of the last five laps, I think they’re well consigned to a distant memory but I didn’t want to let up the pace even when getting time checks from the motorbike outrider that my gap was extending. The lesson I learnt last week at Hog Hill when I punctured on a solo break on the bell lap, never think you might win until you actually win, was firmly etched in my memory (along with the brand new tyres firmly on my wheels!).

Coming up the hill for the last time it seemed I wasn’t going to get caught and I started to grin. A huge smile on my face I crossed the line with arm aloft – I really must learn to ride no hands – and promptly fell on the grass by the side of the road.

Sarah and Lou came through in the bunch with Sarah getting blocked in at the finish after being expertly brought to the front by Lou. We were all pretty excited after good day out as the MuleBar Girls. Not content with that we all hopped over to Herne Hill in the afternoon to run our Women’s track sessions (If you’ve never been you should, every Sunday at 4pm!). I lasted about 5 laps of the warm up with novices but I’ve got a good excuse this week.

Big thanks to Lisa West and her team of TCC for making the race such a good one, more of the same next year please!

Natalie xx

Monday, 16 April 2012

My First National Road Race

Having raced at Herne Hill the previous day, with mixed success, I arrived at Lou’s to go to the race a bit tired and with a very uncomfortable saddle, having left mine on my bike at the velodrome after the race! This was the first time I've raced on open roads and I had heard some horror stories about crashes in previous years so I was pretty nervous but eager to do my best to help Natalie, having seen her in action at Hog Hill at the first team series race.

Natalie was away within minutes of the race starting so in a way I felt I could relax a bit as, barring a puncture, Natalie has the legs to stay away. The Matrix girls were doing a good job controlling the pace as they had a teammate up the road too, so for me it was just a matter of staying in the bunch and trying to improve my position. I was really lucky to have Lou and V around as by this point, being sat a the back and having to really push out of every corner to hang onto the group, my legs were feeling pretty weak and my head wasn’t quite in it, but they kept moving me up and telling me to eat and drink, and once we got onto the second circuit I started to get into the swing of things a bit more.

We were getting told that the gap had increased to 2 minutes, then 3, and by this point Natalie was alone, and nearing the end, and both me and Lou were pretty confident she had it in the bag, so now we had the bunch sprint with a world champion and several big teams of really strong girls to contend with. With a lap to go Lou gave me a little pep talk and a big shove onto Lucy Garners wheel (a bit star struck…), where I stayed for about 30 seconds before getting shoved off! Coming up to the final climb to the finish the bunch spread right across the road and the pace slowly ramped up, I was sat in the second line of riders, in the middle of the road when the sprint went off, I reacted as fast as I could and held on for a good while, sitting in about 6th position until the girls getting led out started jumping and I started going backwards, I crossed the line 15th, absolutely shattered, until Lou rolled past and reminded me our team had won!

Obviously I still have a lot to learn but I think that will come with time and having such an amazing, experienced and supportive team around is helping. It also set my mind at rest to see that the standard of riding was really good all round, there were no crashes, the course was great and the marshalling was great and it was a really good experience, we even got some sunshine! I woke up this morning aching all over but suddenly looking forward to racing in Cheshire next week.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Where the hell are the Maltesers?

After a winter of riding for not much longer than an hour round a muddy field I decided I needed to find my road legs. What better way to start the road season than with a 4 day stage race in a foreign country. What an earth was I thinking?

At about 6 weeks to go till Malta I was seriously contemplating not going. A month of training had gone down the drain with a chest infection, heavy snow fall and stresses at work. I could not have possibly felt less prepared. I am pretty new to cycling and extremely new to road racing let alone stage racing. Despite this I had a stern word with myself and decided to just go for the experience, do my best and if it all went wrong I could at least look after the rest of the team off the bike. There isn’t much road racing where I live so I travelled to some circuit races to try and get some speed in the legs. I am not at all sure how useful this is for stage racing but it did give me confidence in riding fast corners in a bunch.

Before I knew it, it was time to have some sort of mental breakdown whilst trying to pack and catch a flight to Malta. Thankfully my friend Di was coming with me. She’s a super strong rider but like me has little experience of road racing. We arrived in Malta and met the rest of the team! Thank god for the Mule Bar girls. Our team is wonderful. V was organising us and making sure we didn’t get lost, Lou was keeping our nervous moral high and Sarah was ready to prepare us for every stage of the race.
The race it’s self was hard but thankfully the stages are not long, I shall give you a brief summary of each day.

Day 1 – arrive at hotel, build bikes, swear a lot realise I have brought no tools what so ever. Borrow stuff off everyone else. Ride out and view the TT course, eat and sleep!

Stage 1 – 25km TT I was relatively calm about this stage as at least TT is simple ride as hard as you can but pace yourself for 25km. I was also quite excited to start on a ramp under a banner. I had rather let the side down though as I was probably the least aero person ever to ride a TT, my only bit of aero kit being my skinsuit. After sunbathing for a couple of hours it was my turn to go – 4 laps of a rolling windy costal road. The first two laps seemed to go rather too well, despite towing a Dutch girl round most of the course. As I started to tire she jumped ship to Lou’s wheel. Cheating foreigners. Retching and totally spent I finished – not last! This was to be my first major achievement. Post TT we rode out to view the road race circuit. A 10km circuit with a 2km climb. Somehow with rather too much excitement I managed to slide off on a corner at the top of the climb leaving half a bum cheek on the road and giving myself an impressive bruise. Thankfully the only think I damaged really was my pride and because of this I launched myself straight off the floor and on to the bike to catch the other girls. “yeh yeh I’m fine I mean I fall off the time, well not all the time obviously but you know I’m proper hard! I’m northern! I race cross! No my er massive bruise doesn’t hurt at all, bleeding? It’s just a flesh wound!” O the bravado! Later that evening I limped to bed wearing compression tights to reduce the swelling.

Stage 2 – 60km hilly road race -the stage we had all been dreading, a massive hill 6 times, a terrifying bumpy decent and some corners that would have been better placed in a mtb race. Somehow I made it to the start without vomiting. I was so nervous, we all were. The other girls rode beautifully. Unfortunately for me I got caught up in a crash and lost my chain. V waited and we worked hard to catch the bunch but it wasn’t to be. However we didn’t give up. We rode hard and worked our way through the stragglers. We made it up that bloody hill 6 times, we weren’t lapped, we weren’t last – yet another major Sneddon achievement and even better Di won and Sarah came third. Post race celebrations in the Jacuzzi!

Stage 3 – hilly 40km crit race thingy, basically a free for all in with the men, masters and pro men. I rode well for me and I hung on in the bunch. I was starting to feel almost confident. Unfortunately as we were overtaken by the pro men, the girls at the front jumped on Michael Rassmusen’s wheel. All of a sudden we were going uphill at a rather uncomfortable speed with a lot of professional men. Needless to say my legs went pop and I disappeared out the back. However continuing on from yesterday I worked hard with some other dropped ladies and men and picked off the stragglers, Di finished a superb 2nd! Post race pizza and pasta, more compression wear and recovery drinks then off to bed.

Stage 4 – the worst day – 13km TT. I’m really starting to hate TTing, for a start we didn’t even get to go down the ramp. We rode out to the start of the TT and it seemed to take forever. In our slow procession we went up and down a large amount of hills. My legs, arms, arse and back were all aching and I was feeling less than OK. I had really struggled to manage breakfast and if my only aim hadn’t been to try and finish the tour I could have easily stayed at the hotel. However I rolled up and rode the TT, probably the slowest TT I’ll ever ride. I was shattered but I squeezed out everything I had got. I had finished!

Despite the overwhelming relief at finishing my first ever stage race and an overwhelming desire to party as hard as possible, we all found ourselves in bed at 10.30pm. The racing had certainly taken its toll, even on the ultimate party animal – V.
Reflecting on Malta I am so glad I went, it really helped me get to know my team mates and it also made me hugely grateful that they have given me a place on a team based solely on enjoying yourself and getting the best out of yourself. Hopefully the 4 days have made me stronger and fitter but I have also learnt a great deal. I am comfortable racing in the bunch, I know where I need to be and when. I also know that no matter how tired I feel or how much my legs hurt I can always push them just that little bit further. My main aim this summer is now to work on my many weaknesses and get strong enough to be able to support some of my far superior team mates.

Unfortunately as my so called holiday/torture camp is over I have had to go back to work. I am now working as a doctor in health care of the elderly, which is pretty grim. At least I can escape on the bike at the weekends....O yeh except I can’t because I’m on nights!

Love Phoebe xxx

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

This must be what Cav feels like...

The Tour Ta Malta was our first team race of the season. On board we had Lou, Phoebe, Sarah, myself and new recruit Di. It started with a 3.30am alarm call to catch are ridiculously early flight from Gatwick. Bleary eyed we crawled out of bed and set off on our exciting adventure, which actually wasn't that exciting to begin with as it involved lugging our ridiculously overweight bike bags and boxes on to trains, off of trains and through Gatwick airport.

The flight left on time and we managed to catch a few winks of sleep between nervously chatting about the racing ahead of us. On landing the conversation then turned to who's bike would have actually made it to Malta and if any went astray would we able to share bikes for the TT. I did think it would be a funny sight watching Lou attempting to TT on my tiny little Argon.

Luckily enough all our bikes arrived safely. We were greeted by Phoebe and Di who looked a tad nervous to say the least. We loaded all our bikes onto a Green's Supermarket lorry and then jumped on the bus to the hotel. Arriving slightly before the bikes there was a sudden spread of panic as the question was raised whether the Green's lorry was actually connected to the Tour or a guy who has just walked away with thousands of pounds worth of bikes. A few minutes later all our bikes turned up and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The rest of the day consisted of settling into our new home, which was very pleasant and then a trip to check out the TT course for the following day. Tactics weren't really on the mind as we decided to see how we all went in stage one.

And so the racing and ahem, cheating commences...

Stage One - 25k Time Trial
Each day we met at the hotel and rode down in a group to the start line. This was a really nice touch as it gave us a chance to chat to other riders. We were kitted out in our lovely new Bell aero helmets and sexy Pearl Izumi overshoes courtesy of Madison, so we certainly felt the part, The course was tough, I was told it was flat but this was a big fat lie. It was severely undulating and on a costal road so bloody windy. Each lap was just over 7k so we had to do four, apart from Lou who as you probably know decided that she was special and decided to do five laps. We had no rollers or space to warm up and as I was off near the end had plenty of time to watch the other riders and have a little sunbathe. It came apparent pretty quickly that rules in the Tour Ta Malta were there to broken. Riders were drafting all over the place, there were some small attempts from the support cars to stop it but no one seemed to care as riders would pass the start line in front of the judges with a line of riders on their wheel.

With no warm i found this so tough, the start was down a ramp straight up a drag. I was given a few wise words from Tracy Corbett from Dynamo which stayed with me... 'attack, attack, attack, rhythm'. This worked for the first few minutes until I hit that hill and started going backwards. I knew that Lou was starting one minute back from me so would be hot on my wheels so I pushed on and rode my little heart out. Needless to say within a couple of laps she came flying past me shouting 'move it V, move it!'. Having just finished my base training I wasn't used to doing efforts over 20 mins so the final few laps were hell. I rode into the home straight relieved to be almost home when I saw Lou go again, my heart sank thinking that I had to ride another lap. I shouted to anyone I passed asking how long the TT was but no one answered. I rode up to the turning for the finish line rather slowly and confused as my Garmin clocked 25K and I was sure that was the distance. Thankfully I decided that I was right turned in and rode into the finish. I was greeted my the other girls who weren't impressed that I could hold a conversation comfortably, in truth it was because I had eased up slightly on the final straight thinking I needed to do another lap. So Lou came in one lap later, a rather upset young lady, it was a real shame as I think there would have been a good chance she would have podiumed.

It was a successful first day, bar Lou's idiocy. Sarah and Di stormed it on the TT leaving them in good positions on the GC going into day two. After the presentations, which included a lot of booing from the UK riders we slowly rolled back to the hotel for some lunch and to freshen ourselves up.

We took a gentle spin out to recce the rod course for the second stage, it the dawned on me that Malta in fact was not a flat island and that this whole tour was going to be bloody hilly. I was then trying to work out what idiot tricked me into entering this race, until I realised it was me. The route consisted of a long climb, similar to Box Hill, it wasn't too steep, just very long. James who kindly escorted us to recce the route warned us about the conditions of the roads. Shortly after he had said to be careful on the corners as the surface is really slippy, Phoebe went down on the same corner and did a very impressive belly slide. She was fine, just bruised. We rode the remainder of the course very cautiously and then back to the hotel. To say we were nervous was an understatement.

Stage Two - Road Race
Once again, we met at the hotel and then all rode together down to the start time. We were starting to get used to Maltese ways, which meant that you would generally leave about 30mins after the scheduled time. The worst part of this for me was having to climb that bloody hill one more time than necessary as the start was at the top of the hill. I rode up slowly telling people that I wa saving my legs, when in fact I couldn't get my fat arse up it any quicker.

The start was hectic, the Dutch girls were off like a shot, pushing the pace at a frantic rate. I had to fight to make sure that I stayed with the bunch as I knew I needed to be in a good position for the hill at the end of the lap. To be honest the whole thing was a blur, I know that when the group split after the climb that I pulled a group of riders back onto the bunch and then had to do it again after there was a crash on one of the corners but that is about all I can remember. All I focused on was working my arse off on the descents and the flat, where I was generally towing along stray riders and then trying not to blow up on the hills. I was out on my own for a lot of the race so just tried to maintain a relatively high heart rate so I was at least getting a good work out from the whole thing. Highlight of the lap was having TC from London Dynamo telling me I was fabulous every lap. She was fricking amazing. It was a delight to finish the final climb and find out that Di and Sarah had both finished on the podium, it was a very proud moment for the team. I stupidly decided to share with the girls that whilst I was fighting to stay with the group on the climbs, the thought went through my head that this must be what Cav feels like on his climbs. Stupid I know, but it made sense at the time :-)

We were familiar with stage 3 route so just chilled out for the afternoon with a bit of sunbathing and lots of eating and then early to bed.

Stage Three - Road Race
We were now in full swing of things and had kit washing, breakfast and race prep down to a fine art. I would actually say we were starting to enjoy ourselves.

The course was simple. It was on a dual carriage way over a big hill. You started on the top went down the hill sharp hairpin at bottom back up over the hill and then once again hairpin at the bottom. There was NO flat, you are either climbing of descending. My idea of a nightmare as no points where I could chase back on if I got dropped.

Needless to say I got dropped rather early on, the girls said that every time they saw me it looked like I was out on a Sunday ride but I promise I was really trying. As per normal the race was rather controversial, a break from Lou got chased down by girls jumping onto the professional men's race, the race then was about who ever could hang onto the boys wheels. Di once again showed her grit and determination by finishing 2nd with Sarah not far behind in 6th (I think). Lou and Phoebe also did a sterling job.

The mood wasn't too great after the race as there were some seriously pissed of girls. We bitched about it all the way back to hotel until we had nothing left to say.

Stage Four - 12k TT
We had a 6am alarm call for the final day which wasn't welcomed. There were tired legs all around and the last thing we wanted to do was get up and race a TT. Lou looked like sh*t, she pulled herself out of bed for breakfast but was constantly told she looked awful. After some deliberating she decided that she was too ill to race and opted for a day in bed.

The rest of us rode out to the start of the TT which was about a 10k ride away, it felt like a long 10k and we all seemed to be struggling on the climbs. As I was near the bottom of the GC I was off at the beginning. It was a dull course, again on a dual carriage way but this time only 3 laps. To be honest i was struggling to find the motivation to try 100%, I was tired and just wanted a beer! The only thing that helped was that it was only a 20min effort and I knew that I could manage that. And I did, i gave every little bit of energy i could so to earn my beer in the evening.

it was then a lot of waiting around for everything to finish. We got it wrong, completely wrong. We didn't drink enough, eat enough or stay out of the midday sun. Complete schoolboy error! This meant that the ride out for the presentation and the ride home was hideous, I think we moaned every pedal stroke home.

A brief nap and then we were back up for the prize giving dinner which was a bit of an anticlimax. I was so excited about having a few drinks and a good dance but I was too bloody knackered and was in bed by ten.

We were tricked...

We were told we had to depart the hotel at 5.30am Monday morning due to road works but i am sure that was lies, we left at 5.30am so the Dutch could make their early flight. Are flight wasn't until 11.15am so there was a lot of hanging around.

Sat on the airport we were physically and emotionally exhausted, apart from Lou as she had had a nice gets on the Sunday, so was hyper as normal. I feel so lucky to share the experience with such a lovely groups of girls who were so supportive and made it tough but enjoyable experience.

Would I do it again? Yes, definitely!

Things I learnt in Malta about stage racing, by Sarah Brook

Just back from my first ever stage race in Malta so thought I would put together some MBG top tips for stage racing...

1. You can never eat enough, ideally you should try not to be more than 10 feet away from food, have it in your hand if you can

2. You always need more water than you think.

3. Always wear suncream, but don’t put it on your forehead if it’s hot and you are going to be wearing a TT helmet

4. Malta is quite hilly

5. Gels and oil will stain white kit

6. You can wash and dry anything overnight using Lou’s amazing towel trick.

7. Sram front mech’s just don’t really work very well under pressure, they work a bit better if you calm down and stop yelling about it.

8. Bring flip flops to races

9. Travelling with a bike bag is faintly traumatic, getting a trolley at Gatwick is practically impossible, getting a bus back from Clapham after 4 days racing with a bike bag that weighs nearly as much as you do is something you should avoid wherever possible

10. Compression tights are fantastic

11. Someone always cries; it has to be you sometimes

12. Someone will always do something really daft; this is often/usually me

13. I am too much of a geek to deal with a GC situation and retain any sense of perspective

14. However hard you are working in a race, twenty minutes after its over you will feel like you could have worked harder, you are wrong about that

15. Keep count of what lap you are on

16. Its better if you play fair

17. Where dinner is concerned, earlier is better

18. Where bedtime is concerned, earlier is better

19. Share a room with people you are not afraid to fart in front of, and don’t be surprised when people fart in front of you

20. Racing isn’t easy, and the harder you train, and the faster you get, the harder it gets, you only get stronger by going past what you can do, every time you find yourself out on your own – whether pushing from the front or chasing from the back – even if you finish last, you haven’t lost anything because you learn something from doing it

21. Attack Attack Attack, Rhythm.

Love, Sarah xxx