Verita Stewart

Writer, blogger, social media | Racer of bikes with Specialized Women's Racing Team|

Welcome to B grade. There are no mountains, but we’re going to blow you away, then bury you in a riverside grave.

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I have had the fantastic opportunity to write some guest post for The Climbing Cyclist ‘s blog. Click here to read the post. It is the same as the one below, just so that you know….

I’m new to cycling so most of my cycling goals are small. But one of my big goals for 2013 was to be promoted from C to B grade by the end of the season. The end of the season. I was promoted on Wednesday. I think it will be one of those moments that I’ll remember forever.

I was sitting at my desk, at about 8:30am, and bing bing, a text message. Someone was congratulating me on my promotion. Huh?! I had read the final start list the night before but that had obviously been changed. I hadn’t been informed, until the text message came through, which was fine, because I was stoked! I had reached my end-of-year goal, only four months into the year. But, I also felt as if I had all eyes watching me this weekend, questioning my elevation to B grade.

I have been riding well, feeling strong, and I’ve got some good results under my belt. I can understand why I was promoted, but I’m a stress-head so with news of the promotion came a heap of worry. For two reasons:

  1. My past two road races (my only road races) finished at the top of mountains. I like mountains. The Tour of South West is flat. Do I like the flat?
  2. My race prep was stalled. In the lead-up to the tour I had a week off the bike after injuring my knee. So I had not ridden my bike for the whole week.

Was I really ready for B grade? Fast forward to Friday.

I sat in the car on the way to Warrnambool with my super coach’s voice ringing in my ears: “You’ve nothing to lose, so stop stressing and just go and ride your bike.” My fellow Hawthorn Cycling Club (HCC) B Graders had been offering me reassurance and advice. They were just what I needed; a reality check. It was true, I had nothing to lose. I was just going to get on my bike and ride it, with my friends.

Stage one. The road race.

I’ve done a road race before, twice. Up a mountain. Not on the flat, so a 65km road race on the flat was a daunting prospect. The race started at Wangoom, 15 minutes from Warrnambool where we were to do four laps of a 17km course. The profile showed a few pinchy “little” climbs, one of which had QOM points on offer. A tiny hill, phew; something familiar!

The warm up was fast, because we arrived later than planned. Before I knew it, we were leaping off the trainers and I was on the start line with 15 other riders. We were racing.

We hit the road and hit a wall, of wind. My lord, the wind. I don’t like it. Who does? It pushes lightweights like me around like a schoolyard bully. I tried to find shelter in the bunch, but it was hard; everyone else had the same idea. I kept HCC ladies in sight — they were my “great wall” windbreakers.

It was my first B grade race and I could see that the dynamics were very different to C grade. I knew the HCC ladies were going to try and shake things up a bit throughout the race. I had to be alert to what was going on. Bam. They went for a break early. But the bunch responded and chased.

I got the feeling early on that these B grade ladies knew exactly what was going on. They were tuned in, something that I wasn’t. I just needed to keep up. I was feeling a little out of my depth. Was the wind getting stronger?

20130501-221848.jpg
Photo Credit: Jo Upton Photography

Before I knew it we were 7km into the loop. The QOM – a 700m climb at 3.8%. My HCC ladies rode with me, one alongside and one at the front, protecting me from the fierce headwind. We had a loose plan to get me up and it was coming together, or so we thought.

We were powering along with the bunch. I stood up out of the saddle to sprint and … I was a kite caught in the wind. I think my bike actually lifted off the ground for a second. I felt like my lycra was catching the wind like a sail, but I was not on a boat. The wind was ferocious and coming straight at us, up the road and over the crest of the hill – right into us.

I sat back down, shocked. I could not pedal like this, being blown backwards. I felt defeated while the others powered up grabbing QOM points. The race rolled on and we continued to battle the wind. I tried to move around, to get out of the wind, but I always seemed to end up near the front, or in the wind. Before I knew it, we were going for sprint points — lap one was over.

The following three laps played out much the same: crosswind, headwind, QOM, crosswind, headwind, crosswind, sort-of tailwind, sprint. The HCC ladies continued to shake things up, trying to make breaks, and trying to get me up that QOM without me being blown sky high. No matter what we tried, it did not work. The bunch always responded and always stayed together.

Road Race

I don’t know whether it was that my legs just didn’t have the power to get up, whether the wind was throwing me around too much, or whether I just going too early. Perhaps the first of those — I was definitely outclassed on the power stakes. But it was fun trying to have an impact.

The last lap was fast, we all stayed together and I rolled over the line 7th, behind Grace Phang (SKCC), Nicole Schneller (SKCC) and Maartje Munsterman (SKCC).

Click here to see my Strava file from stage 1.

Stage 2. The Individual Time Trial.

ITT 1

Fast forward 3 hours and it was time for the individual time trial. My first ITT. The wind had picked up, if that was even possible. Riders were taking deep ‘section’ wheels off their TT bikes. The organisers had done away with the start ramp because of the wind. I was worried.

There was going to be a crosswind, tailwind, short headwind up a climb and then a crosswind home. I was looking around for bricks; I needed something to weigh me down. Collectively, my bike and I were way too light for 65km/h gusts. How was I going to stay upright?

While other riders were taking TT bars and deep-dish wheels off their bikes I was putting them on (well, the Total Rush mechanic was). Was this a good idea in the wind? Coupled with the fact I’d never ridden with TT bars before, and the fact the semi-deep-dish back wheel was bound to catch the wind. I was probably mad. Was I going to stay upright, or end up with the cows in the paddock? Oh well, at least my Amira looked fast, even if I wasn’t.

I was pumped. I sat on the trainer. My legs felt good. The TT position, which I had never ridden in, felt good. My goal: focus on riding a constant tempo, even up the slight climb.

So, there I was, on my pimped-out bike, being held up on the start line. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 … I was off. Once I passed the shelter of the start line the crosswind hit. I gripped those TT bars tighter than before. Stay upright. Focus. Pedal.

ITT 2

I had broken the 12.7km into three chunks, so I could manage my energy levels. I kept glancing down at my Garmin to check the distance, speed and cadence. Things were going well. I was hitting my targets. The next time I looked down, my cadence had dropped out! I could not believe it. What was I going to do now?

Ignore it. I didn’t need cadence anyway. Just keep peddling. Don’t grind. Pedal. Then I heard a noise, a loud noise. I glanced right and I was being overtaken by … a harvester! Only in the country could I be doing a TT and a harvester overtakes, blowing hay and what-not into my face. I stopped laughing and closed my mouth — it was too dry already to be filled with hay.

I turned the corner and the tailwind came, finally. I knew this was where I needed to make up some time. I picked up a heap of speed … and managed to overtake the rider who was let off before me. About 1km later the pinchy little 7% climb rudely appeared and there I was climbing and grinding in the saddle, into the headwind. I heard a familiar Garmin beep; I was being overtaken by Grace Phang (SKCC), riding faster than ever! She rolled over the crest of that hill, and faded into the distance.

Before too long there was only 1km to go. I rode hard and then I was done. Spent. Finito. The taste of lung was in my mouth and my chest hurt. Job done.

The results were predictable, with Grace Phang (SKCC) first, Carolyn Phillips (Southern Masters) second, Elizabeth Douueal (Warrnambool) third … then me… 6th. What?! I was absolutely stoked with my time (23:03) considering I’ve never done a TT before.

Why did my cadence drop out? Because the magnet blew around the opposite way in the wind!

Click here to see my Strava file from stage 2.

Stage three. The crit.

Crit hill

The criterium course took us around a local cemetery which was rather spooky. It was also well played by the organisers because they didn’t have far to go to bury riders after the race! We rocked up to the course early, set up the Hawthorn Cycling Club tent and trainers and started our warm up.

I was feeling relatively calm about the crit. Unlike the road race and ITT, I had a few more C grade crit races under my belt and knew a little more about crit dynamics. In saying that, I was still worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up. One thing I learned from day one of the Tour was that these ladies were strong, and they knew what was going on.

The crit was going to be hard. From the start/finish line there was a short 70m straight, a sharp left, then a 7.5% climb for 300m that might have played to my advantage. With uphill comes down hill, and the crit course veered down into a sharp left, into a fast straight, a sharp left and then a slight incline back to the start/finish line.

The course was only 1.2km in length, but it was pretty technical and could get very fast. The nature of the course meant that the climbers could tackle that hill, and the sprinters could make up ground on the straights. And that is exactly what happened.

Crit 1 cemetary

The race started and we were immediately thrown into the climb. It was not that bad. Imagine the Hawthorn teardrop with a little more pinch and about 100m longer. It was manageable. My heart was jumping out my mouth as we whipped around the course, my legs were burning … but I thought to myself “I’m keeping up, just keep peddling. In fact, why am I on the front again?”

The race had a strange sense of rhythm to it: the climb, the descent, the straight, the corner, repeat. We followed this rhythm for the next 30 minutes.

Two laps to go and I was on the front again. Mistake number one. Bell lap. I turned the corner and I went to get out of my saddle and the gasket blew. Mistake number two. I was rolling backwards instead of bounding uphill with the rest of the field. I watched as the bunch rolled over the crest of the hill and I had to pull something from nowhere and pedal faster. Again, I laughed at myself; “this is what blowing a gasket feels like.”

I gained some speed on the downhill and managed to get over the line. I was probably last; I’m not sure. I was spent.

Click here to see my Strava file from stage 3.

The time on the trainer post crit gave me time to reflect on the weekend’s racing. I tried my hardest in the road race, managed to hold on with the bunch, but could have stayed out of the wind more. I rode the ITT well, considering how windy it was. But far out, that crit broke me, I have never had that feeling before. The blow-out feeling.
Trainers
Photo Credit: Cycling Victoria

I sat on that trainer battling embarrassment about going backwards up the hill and knowing that I should have managed myself a little better. But that is racing and I will take it as a lesson for next time.

I can’t describe how happy I am with my overall performance at the Tour of South West. I placed 6th in the general classification. I could not have asked for a better result. I am in the right grade. Why, was I so worried? I survived the flatter course, my knee held up and I kept up. I will take notes for next time: think position, oh, and manage myself better.

But this Tour was about far more than just me. This weekend represented something very special for women’s cycling. Participation. Eighty-five women entered to race the Tour, which is very impressive indeed. Regardless of results, we did the most we could for women’s cycling this weekend, we participated. We showed that we want to race; that we want to be treated as equal with the men. This weekend, we were.

I’m looking forward to the Northern Combine Women’s Series this season. The first race is a crit on National Boulevard on May 11. Come on ladies, get on to it.

I’m so lucky to have the people in my life that I do. The people that encouraged me to take up cycling in the first place, my mentors at Total Rush and at Hawthorn Cycling Club, my coach Bec Domange and my fabulous friends. They have all contributed in one way or another to get me to where I am now, reaching my personal goals and racing with women from around Victoria and Australia.

And what an introduction to B grade! I rode hard, into the wind, around a cemetery and then blew a gasket … and learnt a lot! Until next time, get a bike and ride it, into the wind, with a bunch of like-minded women. It will change your life.

PS: I must apologise to the rider who I snot-sprayed on during the road race. I’m really, really sorry.

***You can follow me on Strava, Twitter and on Instagram. Click here to see the full results from all grades in the 2013 Tour of the South West. All photos courtesy of JXP Photography, except where noted.***

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Author: Verita Stewart

Cyclist for Specialized, Instagramer, blogger, desk sitter, coffee lover, recycler

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