Lessons Learned in Bike Racing

I’ve waited a week to write a race report from my last Cyclosportive in Grand Bornand (“La Grand Bo”) for several reasons. The main one being that I simply didn’t enjoy it. It came two weeks after  a crash on the bike path that left me covered in bruises and road rash, as well as an AC injury and some tooth trauma. I hadn’t recovered. Yet I think it is important to look at these experiences as lessons learned. About cycling, about racing, and about myself. That said, I will try to keep the moaning to a minimum in the post.

Lagrandbo.png

Yellow = 93km; White = 113km; Orange 135km

La Grand Bo was only my second race, and my first “real” race in that it didn’t feature the long neutralised sections that characterise the Time Megève. If my preparation for the Time Megève had been an exercise in doing everything right – a combination of crash training and tapering – then this time around was the antithesis. I was recovering from a crash and hadn’t ridden more than 50km in three weeks. I hadn’t done much research of the route and was aiming to simply finish the 113km route (2620m elevation). But I lined up at the start with my friends and set off with the pack.

I knew there was a short descent followed by a punchy climb and I aimed to stay with the main group as long as possible. No doubt I went out too hard but I was worried about my form and ignored common sense. My legs already felt tired. I look down at my Garmin. 10km. How is that even possible, I asked myself?! Only 100km to go. This was going to be a horrible day.

The first real climb was up to Col de la Croix Fry, from the easier side of La Clusaz. It is a fairly consistent 6 km, averaging 6%. The strongest had long since pulled away by this point. Which is fine.

Lesson one: ride within your limits, particularly when you aren’t competing against those who have left you behind. Conserve your energy for the long, tough climb at the end of the day. 

Again, my limited race experience told me to try and keep up with a group on the descent so that I would have someone to ride with one what was no doubt a flat-ish section coming up. I did my best but I could have done a better job.

Note to self: Must improve descending in groups so I feel more comfortable staying close to the leaders. 

By the time I hit the next climb – really just a small lump by Alps standards – I was very unhappy. The 5km only averaged 4.6% but I couldn’t focus. I felt increasingly low as every new group caught up and then proceeded to drop me. As each new grupetto went past, I laughed to myself a little as I started recognising each one. The old-but-still-fit guys, who couldn’t quite keep up with the front of the peloton but were still giving the younger guys a run for their money. The slightly-and-more-than-slightly-overweight guys who at least dropped behind me on the hills. And then my favourite: the hairy-legs-compression-socks-tri-bikes grupetto. You really feel like you’ve reached the back once those guys pass you by.

But perhaps the most humbling was being passed by older women. To be fair, France has a history of churning out seriously fast older women – female professional cyclists are still racing in the national championships into their 40s and 50s. But it still stung. The worst, however, was finding myself on a long section, first rolling and then completely flat, with limited assistance as I got dropped by the smaller groups going by. I know that my strength is in the hills and that I am relatively weak on rollers and flats.Yet if I had known the route a little better, I would also have made an even greater effort to stick with a group, knowing I was going to face the struggle alone. Having to stop at a train crossing felt like just another blow in my race run.

I remember at one point looking down and seeing the Garmin was still only at 55km. And it just wouldn’t budge. How had I only gone 55km?! How could I be going so slowly?! Why am I doing this race at all?!

Lesson two:  know the route so you can play to your strengths and mitigate the impact of your weaknesses. 

By the time I hit the long, flat main road I was utterly miserableColcolombiereScionzier. I was in pain. My legs were screaming. I wanted the race to be over and yet I knew I still had to get over Col de la Colombière. I had done the climb once from each side and I remembered that this way was long, with a steep final couple of kilometres.

On the plus side, I knew that once I was at the summit, it was all downhill to the finish. I just had to make it to the top. I pass a man, vomiting on the lower end of the climb. At least someone out there was having a worse day than me, I thought to myself. I also stopped for water – my only stop on the route – and another lesson learned.

Lesson learned: take enough water so you don’t need to stop. If possible. 

I generally despise flat sections in long climbs, I’d rather get the suffering over and done with. But today, I was grateful for the relief as I slogged up the road. My heart rate hovered around 163 – under normal conditions this would be a chatting, endurance pace for a long climb but today it felt like torture. A young woman came around me, spinning and smiling as she called out a cheerful “salut”. That’s normally me, I thought! Christ, and she has already completed the longer course and overtaken me! I was ready to quit but as I neared the top, I caught a friend of mine, who gave me the little bit of encouragement I needed to hit the summit.

I had made it. A fast descent and I crossed the line at 4:37. I was exhausted, in pain, and miserable. I had come third, scratch, in the women’s 113km and first in the women’s A category. Unbelievable really but a small turnout. I learned a lot about racing and the course cemented what I already knew 1. I struggle with the rollers and the flats 2. knowledge of the course is critical. 3. think about waterstops in advance. And perhaps there’s no need to race when injured.

Until next time…

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