My first Pro race where I actually felt like I was in a race and competing for position. After going through the process of St Pölten 70.3, this was another step in the right direction.
Taking a spot in the top 10 pro men was a big milestone for me personally, especially after the first race of the year, but it was the competing for the first time that has stuck with me the most and driven my motivation since.
I race to race. That’s why I’m here and this weekend only re-enforced why I’ve taken this step into professional sport.
After so successfully staying on feet in St Pölten, this swim didn’t actually go so smoothly. A deep water start here did take out a complication from the previous two races and began with a hard sprint towards the first buoy. I was around the middle towards the back of the pack and surprised myself by staying in contact through this initial phase until it began to relent, but we did seem to be quite strung out.
The group in its current formation also began to start snaking from side to side and I could feel it breaking up and knew I HAD to get on feet, any feet, RIGHT NOW or I’d be out of it. It took a couple of attempts, but I locked on to someone, just so I wasn’t shelled out the back into no man’s land.
It was still a bit of a mess though and before I’d realised early enough, the guy I was sitting on had lost contact and we’d been cut adrift. His pace was way too comfortable, for being in the draft, probably similar to my own individual pace. I was trying to work out where we were in respect to everyone else, but the gap had got too big and I wouldn’t be able to bridge across. It wasn’t worth sharing the work either to maybe gain 30 seconds, so I sat in for the remainder.
In hindsight, I should have used my freshness over the last 400m to get a gap and a buffer to ensure I came out of T1 in contact with someone. As it was, I left transition slightly too far behind and lost contact on the horrific road out of the country park.
The first part of the ride was a real low point as the realisation set in that I was out the back of the race. My legs were heavy and flat from the heavy training over the last weeks and a short taper. That, combined with the incredibly dangerous first 15 miles of bike course felt very negative and I really questioned what I was doing there and whether it was worth continuing.
As with any hard day, you manage yourself through each building block, until it comes good again. This came around halfway through the bike when all of a sudden the race came back to me. It took a few seconds for me to realise what was happening and realise the opportunity that was opening up. A combination of riders recovering from mechanicals and riders going out too hard, brought a group of four and later five of us together.
Suddenly I was racing for the first time. I almost realised too late, but I made a big redline effort to grab on to the two riders trying to blow straight past me and as it formed, we quickly caught another rider who also managed to get into the group. It was taking a few big efforts to stick to the back of them and the new guy had slotted in, in front of me, but was clearly still struggling and I didn’t trust he was going to maintain the gap.
I spotted it, before it really opened up and managed to come round him to hold it together as the two at the front pressed on.
It was a case of really concentrating to hold the gap, responding to the pace changes, holding my position, staying in the group, staying in contention.
I knew that if we came into T2 together, we would be fighting it out for the final spots in the top 10. The rest of the race was too far up the road so I didn’t feel any need to push the group and I’m confident in my run against anyone so I wasn’t going to try and break us up.
It did temporarily fall apart on the longest climb on the course where I pressed on to give myself a buffer – I didn’t think it was worth slowing my rhythm on the climb down artificially and it meant I could recover at the top as it came back together if necessary.
Then the threatening overcast sky finally let go and the rain started coming down. Now thankful for one of the learning points from the Mallorca 70.3 I was staying warm and comfortable. Although I was warm, there was one scary moment right after an aid station.
A combination of now wet roads, water streaming across my visor, being preoccupied with taking a bottle from the aid station and refilling my own bottle and shortly after a sharp hairpin corner almost ended everything. That was definitely close.
The buffer I’d built on the hill was used up recovering from this error and everything came back together and although there were still attacks, all five of us rode the lane into T2 together. Again, I didn’t stay in touch through transition and came out of the tent last out of our group, but I could see all but one up ahead. It turned out that I’d never see him again, but there was one spot left in the top 10 and three up ahead to chase down – time to get in the hurt box.
My legs aren’t used to the repeated short redline efforts that were necessary to maintain my position in the group on the bike yet, and on a very heavy course, so it was a bit of an unknown how they’d hold up on the run. I could feel straight away that this wasn’t going to be a fast, flowing run and I could feel some worrying twinges in hamstrings and calf muscles which were an alarm bell for potentially cramping up. So despite attempting to make up three places, I had to run fairly defensive. The three were starting to spread out up ahead and I’d have to take them one by one, tactfully so I could take the position and then hold on to it and move on to the next one. It was a case of doing what I needed to do to take that final top 10 spot and not risking anything more.
The run course was 3 laps, with a decent sized hill roughly half way round the loop. The first guy was coming back to me quite quickly and didn’t look in great shape and I conveniently got to him just as we started going up the hill. I really wanted to it to feel easy on this first lap though as I knew the final 5km would be tough, so I held my pace, slowly caught up to him and then just slowly moved away in front. He seemed to try and raise his pace, but it ony lasted a moment and it seemed like he was spent so I wouldn’t have to worry about seeing him again later on if I could just hold this pace.
I was feeling pretty rubbish compared to flying on the run a couple of weeks ago in St Pölten, but it was much more interesting being in a race!
The next couple of guys were going to require a bit more work though, but it wasn’t impossible. I was just really conscious of keeping the pace feeling very easy while I was still making progress. Once again I made the catch at the foot of the hill, but this time it wasn’t so straight forward. He raised his pace and stuck with me as we climbed. No need to panic yet, I’m comfortable, let’s see if he can maintain it for a few minutes.
Just as we were getting to the top of the hill he dropped off as I held pace and I tried to run well down the hill to create a gap. After the downhill, you turn a corner on to a long straight section, so he’d be able to see me for a while. I needed to create a demoralising gap as the course was now starting to bite. Although I wasn’t running amazingly well, it wasn’t that bad, so if my legs were beginning to hurt, surely theirs must too. There was a lone spectator up ahead and I shouted to him for an estimate of the gap – he reckoned I’d got about 200m. Ok, job done, keep rolling, next one. One more. I’m coming for you.
This final pass for the top 10 would be the toughest of course and I was now definitely thankful I’d started out so ‘easy’ on the first two laps. Holding this pace now was hard going, legs full of pain, I took my last High5 caffeine gel down ready for the final push.
Again it was taking longer to get to him, but the gap was closing. I kept calm and tried to keep my legs going. They were shutting down, right on the limit of cramping. I’d have to be really careful on the hill or I was going to be stopped at the side of the road.
I got to around 100m behind him as we approached the end of the second lap. My condition meant I didn’t really have much choice on tactics now; there was no way I could make a big surge past without risking ending my race. He still looked in reasonable condition. I decided to do the opposite. I slowed right down, the slowest I could run and still be closing on him.
I was sure he’d fight me for it, so I needed the potential to be able to pick it back up if we were running together for the final lap. It might come right down to the last two kilometres so I wanted something in reserve.
He knew I was getting to him, but he looked strong. I knew I was going to go past him, it was whether my legs would hold out. A gap went straight out, slowly, but surely. I felt really terrible now, heavy failing legs. Just keep it going. Step by step by bloody step. It seemed like he’d let me go, but all I feared for the last 5km was him coming back, I had nothing left to respond. Keep extending that gap while I can keep moving.
If I’d got this right and I was really now top 10, I couldn’t let this go.
I didn’t. I held.
I know this is a small milestone, but it was such a relief to be moving in the right direction. I know this is where I belong now. I loved competing.
I love to race.