Still smiling after my first Tour of Bright

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A Grade Women’s Peleton.

As usual, I worked myself into a tizz in the lead up my first Tour of Bright. I don’t know why I was so nervous? I had been training all year for this race. On Thursday night as we drove to Bright, it dawned on me that it was real, ToB 13 was finally here. My goal had shifted a bit since I started training for it almost 12 months ago. My original aim was to race C grade. Now I was racing A grade with Total Rush-Hyster’s Women’s team for the first time. Nervous but excited to be racing with Bridie O’Donnell, Kelly Bartlett, Penny Brown and Josie Simpson for the first time!

As you know Tour of Bright, is raced in three stages, over three days. Stage 1, a 13.7km ITT; Stage 2, 91km road race over Rosewhite and finishing on Towonga Gap; and Stage 3, a 58km race up Mt Hotham. The Women’s A grade start list was who’s who of the women’s NRS field. All the big teams and big names were there, Target Trek, BOSS, Bicycle Superstore, Holden Specialized etc etc. with Miranda Griffiths (Holden Specialized) going for back to back wins It was going to be tough.

Stage 1 – The Time Trial

Tizz aside, I diverted my nervous energy into the ITT. It is generally not my strongest point, but I was there and ready to give it a red hot crack. With TT master Bridie O’Donnell on our team, I was following one of the big hitters of the field. My goal was to do a PB time by averaging 215 watts over the distance. It was an achievable goal. I spent hours sitting on the ergo in the lead up, sweating my weight in salt doing TT efforts. I lined up on the start line prepared as I could be, ready to leave it on the road. So I donned my pink skin suit, got on my bike, and rolled down that start ramp gripping those clip-ons like I have never gripped before. To my surprise, did better than I hoped! My time 20.58 put me in 14th position leading into Stage 2. I can’t believe averaged 233 watts over the 14km! Bridie took away 2nd place, behind Flick Wardlaw in 1st setting our team up nicely.

Stage 2, Rosewhite and Towonga Gap

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Top of Towonga

I was relatively calm about Stage 2 – which is quite unusual for me. We had a team meeting the night before, which calmed most of my nerves. The only part of the race I was worried about was the decent of Rosewhite gap, where I potentially would get dropped, though I had a plan of action if that was to happen.

Before I knew it we were racing, the stretch from Bright to Ovens is slightly down hill, so we picked up speed fast. After the first sprint point, there was an early break, with two riders (BOSS and BSS) off the front. The gap got out to 5 minutes at one point, and decision was made to chase the breakaway two riders. We had riders on the front driving the pace, working together to bring it back. The road from Ovens to Rosewhite is very undulating and exposed making it quite tough to be on the front, in the wind. I feeling good, although cautious that this effort was not going to overcook my legs. Before I knew it, the bunch was on  the Rosewhite climb and the QOM was approaching. The pace picked up on the climb and the front runners scrambled for QOM. I was straggling out the back hanging on as we went over the top.

As I had predicted, I was off the back in no time. The speed picked up on the decent and I could not keep up. No need to panic I thought…My team mates had said that after Rosewhite decent the bunch usually slows, so it was just a matter of working hard for a few minutes, knowing that I would get back on. I don’t have the weight or the balls to descend at the speed some of these other women can! Thankfully though, I was not alone on the decent, there was a long string of riders descending almost single file. I just followed the wheel in front and got on with it. So with the few others that were off the back, we chased to get back on. Flash by a few minutes and we were back on and we had made it to the second sprint point, I think the time gap was back to about 3 minutes at this point. A few rolling hills that were hurting the legs later, the pace was kept high as we turned the corner to begin the Towonga Gap climb. For those of you who have not ridden Towonga Gap, it is a grueling 7.6km at 6%, it is tough.

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The bunch was frantic as we turned the corner, everyone was fighting for first wheel. I was squashed out towards the back. I could see the strong climbers dart off up the climb like it was flat. I just settled into tempo and began chewing my handlebars trying my hardest to pick off riders along the way. By this stage of the race my head felt like it was going to explode with the heat, the sun was beating down on us and the heat radiating heat from the road was brutal. We passed the two from the breakaway not long into the climb. At approximately the 3km to go mark I caught up with my team mate Bridie. It was good to have her there to keep me going and focused on finishing at anything other than snails pace, because I was fading fast. Before I knew it, I was over the line. 16th. The team rode a great race, working together well to help bring the time gap back.

1st Miranda Griffiths (2:52:22), 2nd Tessa Fabry and 3rd Sam DeRiter. Full results here

Stage 3, Mt Hotham

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It was stage 3, and I was feeling pumped because of how well the team rode the day before. Today it was about getting up the mountain, though I had in the back of my mind that I would like to maintain my 15th position on GC.

Mt Hotham, the brutal 30km climb with notable pinches including The Meg and CRB hill. We rolled off and almost immediately there were attacks. This was not going to be the Sunday coffee ride I was longing for! Riders were attacking, the bunch kept responding as to not let them get away. The 10km sprint point came and went. The second sprint point Bridie went early which launched her into the climb. I was not too far behind. I must say that these girls can climb! They again darted off like the road was flat!

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There was no way that I could climb at their pace!!! I made it my mission to suck wheels and not let them go. I knew that I had to pull my all out for this one, stay with them and at least get over The Meg with the bunch. I needed to be in the false flat section with the bunch so that I could maintain a good pace. There is not much to say about Hotham, other than I chewed my handlebars and got over The Meg, straggling to keep up with the pace.

I managed to stay with them, and began the false flat section. We were strung out in single file for most of the next 10 or so kms, until the toll booth. The gradient rudely picked up. My legs said no. This is where I got spat out the back. I could not keep up with the pace. From the toll booth, to the end of the race, just gritted my teeth, wished for a few extra gears and made it my goal that I’ll be faster next year! Miranda won of course, followed by Jo Hogan and Felicity Wardlaw in 3rd.

I finished 15th in GC. I certainly did not expect that result. My (super) coach had me peaking at the right time for sure. For the first time, I felt strong all weekend. I’m most proud with my Time Trial result. It was totally unexpected especially for a 5” something with clip-ons! But all round I felt like I climbed better than I have in a long time and in general just got on my bike and rode it!

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Finish line in sight!

GC results can be found here. Miranda 1st, Flick 2nd and Sam 3rd

If I was going to sum up my Tour of Bright for 2013 it would be “consistent”. I’m still smiling two days later – I could not be happier!

Thanks to Total Rush for the continued support, my super coach, friends, team mates, room mates, Cycling Victoria, Alpine Cycling Club, and the 40 or so A grade women and everyone that made racing the great weekend it was. I had a fantastic time racing with my new Total Rush team mates. It was awesome to have a podium finish in the TT, overall we raced well together all weekend and I can’t wait for 2014 – bring it on!

You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram @lowercasev or on Strava, Verita Stewart.

Strava files can be viewed here: Stage 1, Stage 2 and, Stage 3

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Still smiling!

Get on your bike and ride it, up some of the toughest climbs in Victoria and smile your way to the top!

Testing the ‘pain’ face at the Baw Baw Road Race

“Ask most Victorian cyclists what the toughest climb in the state is and they’ll probably say Mt. Baw Baw. And fair enough: the climb’s final 6.8km rise at an average gradient of more than 10% and just getting up the climb is a great effort. Racing up it is something else entirely.” Matt DeNeef – The Climbing Cyclist

I wrote a version of this post for The Climbing Cyclist about my recent win at the Mt Baw Baw Alpine Classic, which is part of Cycling Victoria’s National Road Series.

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I’m relatively new to cycling and still finding my legs. But, after my recent win in C Grade at the Mt. Buller Road Race (the first race in the Victorian Road Series), I’ve reluctantly come to terms with the idea that I might… cough… actually… like… climbing. Don’t judge me!

As I’m sure you are well aware climbing is bloody hard … but apparently I tick all the right boxes to make a good climber: the right physique, the right power-to-weight ratio, a high pain threshold (I think). So, I better make the most of my ability. I better take it and run (ride) … uphill.

Enter the Mt. Baw Baw Alipne Classic.

I was relatively prepared leading up to the race. I had been working on a program of hills, hills and more hills so I was as prepared as I could have been. Well, actually, I don’t think anyone can really train properly for the Mt. Baw Baw climb itself, other than by riding it. A lot. Which I hadn’t. Ever.

I did go out to Mt. Macedon the week earlier to do hill repeats to try and simulate the Baw Baw climb. But I tell you now — it was not even close to a simulation. Mt. Macedon does have some very pinchy 13% sections, but it was nothing like the 20% sections of Baw Baw that I was about to endure.

Everyone was telling me that the course was suited to me: 103km of undulating hills, with a few pinchy sections, like Vesper Hill (4km at 8%), and the final 6km of Baw Baw where my power-to-weight ratio was going to come into play. But, 103 km was a daunting number for me. The longest race I’d ever ridden was the 50km Mt. Buller Road Race a few weeks earlier.

That race was hard. I struggled in the first 35km — the pace was fast and the wind was strong, I just made it to the base of the Mt Buller climb. So I was nervous that Baw Baw was going to be a similar race, that my hardest battle was going to be the 95km before the Mt. Baw Baw climb. I knew that I just had to get to the base and to do that, I would have to listen to my coach’s advice and “race smart.

So I set my goals for this race: to hang in with the bunch, to stay out of the wind, and to preserve as much energy as I could so I could go into the second half of pain … I mean race … in the best physical condition possible. Despite all my hard work and mental preparation, I still sat on the start line, shaking in my proverbial S-Works “boots”.

To my absolute horror A, B and C grades were sent off together. I assumed the grades would split up quickly, but that wasn’t the case at all. We rode together in a fairly (unexpectedly) civilised manner for the majority of the race, although a couple of the stronger riders went off the front early, taking a lead that could not be broken. I was consciously eating and drinking every 45 minutes to keep my energy levels up, which was going to be number-one priority if I was going to make it through to the end.

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Spot the pink!?

I was riding well, the pace was steady and I felt comfortable in the bunch. I tried to ride towards the front keeping Liz Hall (Total Rush-Hyster), Penny Brown (Total Rush-Hyster) and Hawthorn Cycling Club member Deborah Richards in sight. There were a few undulating sections at Buln Buln and Neerim South to keep us on our toes, but I managed to hang in there and before I knew it 50km had flashed by. Before too long we were approaching the feed zone at Noojee, which marked the half-way point of the race.

At this stage I was getting nervous about the approaching feed zone and not concentrating on much else. I was imagining the carnage that was about to happen, with everyone bottlenecking through a sea of soignuers waiting to do the ol’ water bottle swap. Among the “swannies”, I would have to spot mine — my friend Nadia — and grab my bottle off her … without dropping it, and without losing too much time on the bunch. Some three seconds later, I breathed a sigh of relief … phew! I had passed through the feed zone safe and sound, got my water bottle and re-joined the main bunch just before the dreaded climb that they call “Vespers”.

My legs were feeling surprisingly good as we started the climb, but I still wasn’t looking forward to the next 4km at an average of 8% — this was really going to test my climbing ability. Everyone had told me that Vespers was where the peloton would sort itself out. They were right. As soon as we hit the climb all hell broke loose – the stronger A-grade riders darted up like Bambi on red cordial and that was it. I lost the main bunch and was left spinning, alone. Crap!

In about 30 seconds, my plan of sitting in and staying out of the wind was gone.

I was definitely not keen on riding solo, so I had a gel, sipped some water, and turned the legs on. I needed to catch someone, anyone, to ride with. So I climbed at a steady tempo and as I reached the top of Vespers and started the decent I could see a group of four riders in the distance. They were my bait, my carrot on a stick. I told myself I had to reach them; I needed some company. So I spent the next 10km chasing, ascending, descending and generally pedalling my heart out to catch them.

Finally, I caught up to them somewhere after Icy Creek. I breathed a sigh of relief when I realised it was Penny, Deb, (my mates from earlier), Sam De Rita (Holden Cycling Team) and Christal Wemyss (Horsham CC). I absolutely could not believe I caught them! Despite the fact my legs still felt good, I was a bit worried I might have wasted too much energy in the chase. I still had about 30km of climbing to go!

The five of us rode together, laughed together, cursed Baw Baw together, ran out of water, shared water and kept each other in good spirits for the next 20km of ascending and descending. Before I knew it we were at Tanjil Bren where we were about to begin the final climb, Mt. Baw Baw.

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Photo Credit: Gavin Wright

I blinked (or while Gav was taking this photo) and Penny, Christal and Sam were off — they must have found something else in their tank and were powering off into the distance towards the Gantry at the base of the climb.

At this point Deb reminded me that we still had 6km of pain to go — my little legs needed to make it up Baw Baw, so this time, I was not chasing. We started the climb at the Gantry together.

For the 95km of the race leading up to Baw Baw I was in complete denial about how brutal the climb was going to be. And you know what? It was worse than I ever could have imagined. I was riding up a wall and it felt like it was impossible. But, somehow, I found my rhythm and started to grind away, one pedal in front of another, hauling my butt up that hill.

I found some satisfaction and motivation in passing some grown men, struggling, crying, cramping and even pushing their bikes during the awful climb. This was not going to be me. I kept my eyes to the ground and kept looking for the kilometer markers on the road, counting them down, slowly.

My brain was screaming at me to stop, so I got myself into a routine of going in and out of the saddle, zig-zagging and telling myself I was nearly there. My pain face was in full form as I heaved myself up that mountain. Every now and again I would look up to the sound of strangers and friends screaming my name out their car windows. Just the encouragement I needed but by the 3km-to-go point, I was beginning to fail – my brain was getting the better of me.

That was until I heard a beep — my Garmin had gone onto auto-pause. I laughed out loud, almost hysterically, at the fact that I was riding so slowly. That was the wake up call I needed. I had snoozed for long enough. I needed to focus — the lack of oxygen and my anaerobic state must have been turning me crazy. I was smiling!? I had to. It was what was going to get me through.

I forced myself to smile and to remember that riding my bike is fun. That’s why I love cycling, and that 13% gradient was fun. I was having a great time and I could pedal faster (to stop my Garmin from auto-pausing). So I told my brain to shut up, focused on the road ahead and smiled my way through those last few kilometres of Baw Baw. After losing the bunch at Vespers, and conquering Baw Baw, I rolled across that white line in a world of pain, with a huge smile on my face … and in first place!

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The Baw Baw Classic is by far the hardest race I’ve done in my short cycling career and you know what? I still had fun. I feel that I rode the best race I could have — I hung in with the bunch, I stayed out of the wind and used my energy well. The second half of the race was hard, with the pinchy Vespers testing my limits. But I feel I also raced smart and that is what got me through the painful end. I’m very proud with the result.

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The sick thing is that I’m sitting here recapping the race and I’m thinking Baw Baw was not that bad. I’ll do it again for sure, just not next weekend.

So … what’s next? No rest for the wicked, that’s what! I’ll be trying my hand at Cyclocross next weekend in Beechworth. Then on April 27 I’ll be tacking the next race in the Victorian Road Series — the Tour of the South West. Unlike Baw Baw the Tour of the South West is a much flatter series of races consisting of a crit, a time trial and a road race. I’ll be starting in the state series leader’s yellow jersey and hoping to hold onto it!

To any women out there who are thinking of taking up cycling, recreationally or competitively, just do it! Get a bike and ride it — it’ll change your life. Anyone for any women wanting to join a cycling club, I highly recommend the Women’s Development Program at Hawthorn Cycling Club.

Finally, I’d like to thank my wonderful support crew of Nadia, Gavin (Liz’s husband), the Total Rush Crew and the Hawthorn Cycling Club who all helped to get me through a tough day’s racing.

…a big thank you to my super coach Bec Domange for forcing me to ride up hills!

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Click here to see my Strava file from the 2013 Baw Baw Classic. You can follow me on Twitter (@lowercasev) and on Instagram (@lowercasev there too). All photos courtesy of my black swan Nadia Combe. Click here to see the full results from all grades in the race.