Thursday, 17 November 2016

2016 Road nationals: Part 3 - my bike and in the space-time continuum

If you haven't already, read part 1 and part 2 before proceeding.

Morning of the race:
The road race was scheduled to take place at 7:30AM the next morning. I woke up at 6:30AM and took account of my physical state. There were no improvements compared to last night but I was eager to get out on the road and give it all I had, considering that the world was ending the very next day.

I ended up not riding the previous night and was curious to see how my legs felt. They felt quite okay in the 4km commute from the hotel to the start line. To me, not having bad legs was a major positive sign, actually the only positive sign and I cling onto that till I got to the start line. But while waiting for the race to begin I mentioned to a good friend of mine, Parashuram Chenji, that I might not be able to finish the race.

I lined up at the start line and eyed across the field to figure whom I was racing against. There were about 70 cyclists and three of the strongest teams had turned up with 6 riders each.

While, waiting at the start and almost being on my knees, I kept reminding myself of Mark "Manxman" Cavendish's ride at this year's British national championships. Many people know he finished second that day, but only a few know that he was suffering from a flu and he was racing without teammates that day. I've been following "Cav" since 2010 and I hugely admire his positioning skills and tactical agility. In the 10mins before the race, I kept telling and asking myself - "What would Cav do? Think Sarvesh, What would Cav do?"

The answer was:
- He would race smart

Q. How would he do so if he were in my place?
- He would stay off the wind for as much as possible and pinch the bunch at the right time. And maybe flip a birdie or two when crossing the finish line.

Q. Okay, let's do not do the latter bit. When will the right time be to attack?
- I don't know right now but definitely not in the first 60kms.

Q. Good. Keep that and Cav-speed to you!

Looking for a rent-a-Renshaw for my next race!

The race: 
After the usual 30 minute delay, the 120km long U23 road race was flagged off. The first 5kms of the 20km-lap consisted of 3 flyovers. As we hit the first flyover, I positioned myself well and moved up to 5th wheel without having to face any wind.

I spent the next 15kms, trying to out-wit the workhorses in the big teams so as to not face the wind but still manage to stay in the first 7 wheels. Several times when there were micro accelerations in the pace, my throat reminded me that it was on the verge of a breakdown. This had me worried because this was the very first of the 6 laps and I was not sure if I would be able to hold onto the kamikaze attacks in the final lap.

Q. What would Cav do?
- He would take it one lap at a time.

Q. Right, let's do that.. 

Lap #2:

In the first half of the second lap, there were a couple of sections of where the pace was hurting the most uncomfortable. I made a note to myself that these would be good detonation points in the final lap to force a split with the strongest guys in the race.

At the 27kms mark, I was on fourth wheel, when I noticed that the bunch had stopped chasing us! The four of us had a slender gap of 3 to 4 seconds.

Q. Isn't it too early?
- I wanna try out something

I went to the front and yelled at the other three to start rotating. I put in a turn and so did another guy but the 3rd guy, who was from the strongest team came around and said - "There's no point, Sarvesh. They will chase us down."

He was right. I looked back to see 4 of his teammates chasing us down. "Oh, you idiots. Don't none of you know how to use a strong team?" I thought to myself.

The curse continues:
In the 2013 U18 road national championships, my front wheel hit a stone at the 32kms mark and I suffered a pinch flat. 200 meters before that, a massive crash had blocked off the support vehicles and I ended up pulling out of the 40kmrace.

In the 2015 U23 road national championships, my front wheel hit a stone at the 29kms mark and I suffered a pinch flat. Click here to read about how that race proceeded.

This time around, I'd borrowed the best tyres available and I had pumped up the pressure to 100psi on the morning of the race. I was absolutely sure that I would not get a puncture and opted to not take on the headache of finding a support crew to carry spare wheels. Absolutely sure.

Guess what happens at the 34kms mark? Take a guess,it's easy!
My front wheel hits a stone and I get a flat!!

We were traveling at over 40kmph at that moment and my first instinct was of safety. I began yelling to look out and signal to the cyclists behind me to move around my sides.When the bunch of 20-odd guys, passed me, I pulled over to the side, helplessly looking on as the support vehicles of the bigger teams passed by. At first, I was slightly relieved to not having to race being so sick, but the very next microsecond, disappointment kicked in for two reasons - first, because I did not plan ahead and get a support vehicle and second, because I did not manage to give it a 100% in the race, which was my plan.

I began walking back and a couple of minutes or so later, a good friend of mine, Prashant, who'd gotten dropped from the bunch, came up to me, stopped and began removing his front wheel. Instinct took over, as I reached down and grabbed off my front wheel, replaced it with his and asked him to give me a push.

I began riding and as I approached the first roundabout, I pointed at my race numbers and yelled at them to note down my race numbers, to avoid the confusion that took place in the previous national championships.

A couple of hundred meters later, frustration kicked in. Frustrated at suffering a puncture. Frustrated at the throat infection I had that day. Frustration at not having planned for a support vehicle. Frustrated at having this season turn out to be worse than last year. I began screaming in anger and momentarily got distracted.

"Focus, Sarvesh. Just focus on the riding for now and worry about everything else later..." 

"...and if you haven't already noticed, your throat's in a bad shape, so STOP SCREAMING!!"

I had a powermeter on and I decided to stick to a an appropriate power range which I was confident that I could hold for the next 80+ kilometres and stayed in an aerodynamic position with my arms outstretched and back low. There's a lot of debate about the use of powermeters, but for me they provide a great objective to focus on.

"Come on, man. If anyone can ride their way back to a peloton, it's you! You've done this before! Just focus and dig deep."
I knew I had very low odds compared to the previous time because of the flat terrain but I forced myself to think positive to help stay in the zone. 

Lap #3:
I crossed the start/finish line for the second time and signaled a friend of mine standing by the side to give me time gaps when I crossed him next.

I passed by several riders, who'd gotten dropped. When I got near them, I yelled at and signaled at them to start working with me, despite a protest from my throat. Alas, none were up for it.

As I approached the next roundabout at the 45kms mark, I was sticking to the left hand side of the road. I looked up ahead to see a breakaway of 10 or 12 guys, riding on the wrong side of the road, heading straight to me. A quick calculation revealed:

My speed               = 39kmph
Their speed            = 38kmph.
Relative velocity    = 38 + 39 = 77kmph
Aftermath              = Horrific crash + severe action against me from the officials.

I found an alternative method to tackle the problem by first, stepping off the throttle. Then I started screaming and waving my hands frantically at them to move away from my line. I hit my brakes when they were just 20metres and my rear wheel began to go into a skid. With less than 10 metres to go, they edged away from me. One of the officials on a motorbike began yelling at me. Not wanting to get into trouble, I swerved to the other side. Stopped completely and waited for about 20 seconds to let the bunch to pass. Phew! That was close.

The next roundabout too had me involved yelling at the officials to note down my race number.
Halfway through the lap, I got news that the time gap was down to 160 seconds.

"That's encouraging to hear. Keep it up, Sarvesh."

As earlier, I kept catching up with stragglers but did not have any success to get them working with me to close the gap. At the 52km mark, one of the spectators signaled at me to "work together". I was surprised to look back and see one guy in my slipstream. I waved my elbow (which is racing lingo for "do your work") at him, but he refused. Infuriated, I attacked and shook him off. But, every time I moved out of my target powerzone, my respiratory system was hurting a lot and the thought of when, and not if, it would give in was haunting in the back of my mind.

At the 55km mark, I noticed that the gap had come down to 150 seconds.

Lap #4:

With 3 laps to go, the gap was at 2.5mins. It was quite big but seeing that it was decreasing helped me stay focused.
In the next roundabout too, I noticed that the lead bunch was on the wrong side of the road. I quickly moved to the opposite edge of the road and had a heart-in-the-mouth moment when I was nearly taken out by a support vehicle.

I caught up with a bunch of 4 guys at the 67km mark, and went immediately to the front to try and get them working together. But only one of the four would work with me and I had to launch an attack with him to ditch the lazy other 3.
The agony of my throat had reached a new level by this point. I told myself to take it one lap at a time and tried to trick myself by saying I would pull out in the next lap.

Lap #5:

As I crossed the 80km mark, I gave myself a pat on the back when I heard that the gap was down to 2 minutes. Unfortunately, I found myself alone again as the pace I was setting turned out to be too high for me compatriot.

At the 85kms marks, I noticed the gap had come down to about 100 seconds. The lead bunch had come down to just 12 or 13 guys now, so getting a top 15 finish was also a positive sign.

So close, yet..

The longest 30 kilometers:

Up to the 90 kilometers mark, I felt pretty much in control of the effort I wanted to was putting out. It was hurting and downright uncomfortable doing so, but the neurons directed the muscles to operate at a certain rate and they responded promptly.

However, disaster struck with 1.5laps remaining. My throat just gave in.

I had severe trouble breathing and felt a wave of tiredness and discomfort swept my body.

Disorientation and confusion kicked in. I stopped pedaling and was unable to breathe properly.
All sorts of weird thoughts kept popping into my head -

"How far is it to the hotel from here?"

"Why are LOOK cleats smaller than Shimano cleats?"

"If light doesn't have mass, why can't they escape a black hole's gravitational field?" 

I couldn't feel my legs because the main signals going into my head was how sick I was feeling and I wanted to stop riding.
"Always keep riding" - That morning, I spent a few minutes watching the 2016 Paris Roubaix Baskstage Pass and in those seconds of disorientation I was facing, it was those words of advice from Matt Hayman, the winner of that race, that kept playing in my mind.

I pushed my right leg..

and then the left..

and then the right..

I was going at maybe 7 or 8kmph, but I wanted to keep going.

Soon enough, one of the cyclists whom I was previously riding with caught up and told me to stay with him. He too was in the hurt box, and we trudged along at 22-23kmph. We took turns of about a minute in the front, each encouraging the other to finish the race.

I was on the hoods which turned out to be the least intolerable position at that time. Any time there was a surge in effort, which needed me to breathe harder, my throat began to burn and I had to settle down to a slower pace. I kept alternating between watching the road and looking at the "Distance" display in my GPS device.

I kept calculating how long. How long it would take to finish at that current speed. How much longer till I can stop pedaling and sit on a chair and burst into tears in how disappointing a race I had. How much longer before I can say - "I laid out all I had on the road and I'm happy with that regardless of the result". How much longer before I can reach out to my Dad, who was at the start line, give him a hug and thank him for supporting me so much. How much longer before I could call my friends and tell them how I gave it all I had. 

3 hours 22 minutes and 40 seconds. After 3hrs and 22mins, I crossed the finish line and I didn't care. I did not care in what position I had finished in. I did not care how I was going to approach prospective team managers. I did not care about how what I was going to do the next week when I had to being planning for the 2017 season.

All I cared was being at that moment. And at that moment, I was absolutely satisfied that I had given the race a 100% and to me, that was all that mattered to me.

P. S. Parashuram rode a brilliant race and grabbed a silver! Congrats dude!

P. P. S. I finally found the answer to the most important question of the day -

Thats' why!

Monday, 14 November 2016

Road nationals: Part 2 - How the world ends and firey snot!

TT day:
The next day was the 40km Individual Time Trial.Like with most things in life,I have a love-hate relationship with Time Trials. The aspect I dislike about TTs is that I find it boring. It's one hour of being in the hurt locker and the only source of excitement is when you catch your minute-man (assuming you are strong enough to do). The other face of the coin is that I love the perceived sense of control involved in executing a time trial and not having the race result depends on any other rider.

Come TT day, I put on my pollution mask (whom I have a love-hate relationships with too) and waited in the car till it was time to start the warm up. Warmed up on time. Lined up on time. And started the race on time. A bunch of things I did right in the race, and a bunch I didn't. In the end, I was best able to manage an 8th place finish on the day.

Awaiting my turn to enter the hurt box. (That's smog in the background, not to be confused with his clean cousin, fog)

Adventures in recovery:
As soon as I got off the bike after the TT ride, there was an irritation in the back of my throat. A few hours later, that had developed into a full blown throat infection. I could barely manage to speak more than 10 words at a stretch (good thing I like listening more than talking) and the only thing I could swallow that dinner were soup and steamed rice.
The next morning looked unpromising, as I spent a good part of my first woken hour in the bathroom clearing out the mucus into the sink. The next few hours I laid in bed, in a dark room surrounded by piles of balled up and snotty tissues and an array of half-full mugs of tea and glasses of water, binging on Orica-Bikeexchange's Backstage passes, hoping that I would recover enough to log in a trainer session in the evening to keep the legs fresh for the next days's 120kms road race.

Alas, my throat had turned wretched by nightfall and the occasional cough and sneeze which would send a burning sensation down my throat and lungs kept me off the bike

That night, after a bowl of vegetable broth and rice, I hit the bed feeling feverish and absolute shite.

"What am I going to tell all those who stood by and supported me?"

"What am I going to tell prospective team managers when they ask how I did at the nationals?"

"I'm going to suck so badly tomorrow. I almost don't feel like lining up. What's the point anyways, it's a flat course and the big team will bring it down to a bunch sprint"
"This throat infection feels like a petty excuse. I hate being so powerless."

After a few minutes spent talking and reassessing the situation with my mentor, I decided to adopt a different outlook on the situation. I told myself - "The world is literally going to end on the 9th of November, 2016. I don't know how. But it will."

Bleak it might seem, but this approach did help me silence the voices in my mind.

"What am I going to tell all those who stood by and supported me?" - They'll be gone.

"What am I going to tell prospective team managers when they ask how I did at the nationals?" - Them too.

"I'm going to suck so badly tomorrow. I almost don't feel like lining up. What's the point anyways, it's a flat course and the big team will bring it down to a bunch sprint" - Well, it's the last road race on the face of planet Earth. Might as well give it all and go down with a bang.

"This throat infection feels like a petty excuse. I hate being so powerless." - Meh.

One possible scenario!

To be continued..

Friday, 11 November 2016

Road nationals - Part 1: Pollution, rats and TT

Race report - National Championships 2016 - Part 1

6 days to road race:

It had been over 3 years since my last trip to New Delhi and I was excited to return and spend a night there before heading to the town of Aligarh where the national championhips was being held.

"Ladies and Gentleman, this is your captain speaking. We will soon be landing shortly at the Indira Gandhi Airport, New Delhi. The visibly is quite low and the air pollution is quite high but that shouldn't cause any delays. Thank you for flying with us."

Living, training and choking on truck fumes breathing in the "Garden" city of India, I've had a history of asthma and sever dust allergies. On hearing the pilot's announcement, my obvious reaction was-

By that evening, I had a headache and felt nauseous. With a heavy heart (and congested lungs), I decided to skip the trainer ride I had planned. In consolation, I did get to go out in the evening, with a pollution mask on, and try out the local cuisine, without the pollution mask on.

5 days to go:

The next morning, I had booked a cab to Aligarh to leave at 7:15AM. The driver promptly arrived at 9AM and soon we were en route to the most hilarious-and-also-scary place I've been to so far.
I slept fot the first hour of the journey and when I woke up, I was mildly surprised to see clear skies. Phew, no pollution here! 

Looks like I rented the right cab!

 A few minutes later, we exited the highway and entered the smaller country roads. Earlier, I thought driving in Bangalore was an indication of how bad it is throughout the country. I thought so so wrong. While it was hilarious to see people driving without any care for lane discipline or rules of the road, it got scary when overweight trucks passed just half a feet away from us with a relative velocity of over 180kmph. I held on to my seat belts tightly and for the first time ever was glad to get stuck in traffic jams.

Passing through towns where there was a clear lack of sanitation and hygiene served as a harsh reminder to take extra care of my health while there. Good thing I'd packed a hand sanitizer which promised to kill 99.999% of all germs! Adding to the hilarious bit were the signboards a-plenty with creative names like:

1. Bhayanak Thand Videsh Bear ka dukan (Translation; Horrifyingly cold International Beer store)
2. Single eye clinic (I'm guessing it was opened by a doctor either when he got dumped or had a freak accident and lost an eye)
3. Sharma Sweets and Continents (where Brexit halva is their latest addition) 

Once at the hotel, it was great to catch up with my former teammates from SKCT - Loki, Naveen & Naveen. As the day passed by, more cyclists and familiar faces began checking in and it was awesome to be in the same floor filled with people who wouldn't shut up talking about bike racing even if you paid them to.

That evening turned out to be quite an adventure too. Searching for a grocery store took us to the extreme opposite end of the city through the second most narrowest roads I've been in (first being the left turn before the Bangalore town hall that most motorbikers take). After much looking, we arrived at a grocery store. Picked up food, while carefully looking at the expiry date. And stepped out. Only to realize that there were rats walking around in the store!

4 days to go-

The next morning, 5 of us, including up-and-coming talent Samira Abraham, decided to head out and reccee the course.

L-R: Aunty Sam, Mr. Collarbone, 100km ITT man, Speculoos fan and Mr. Wattbombs!
After the 4km in traffic, we arrived onto NH34 where the race was scheduled to take place. The race course was a 10km stretch blocked out from traffic.So, each lap would be out-and-back totaling to 20kms in length. A few days ago, NJ had scoped out the course on strava and the profile was pretty flat with a few risers thrown in. This time of the year also ensured that the winds were negligible.

That evening, we drove down to collect our BIB numbers and were in for a surprise to hear that the start/finish line and the course had been shifted. Later, we found out that that course too had a similar elevation profile, so there were no alarm bells going off in the head.
The U23 40km Individual Time Trial was to take place at 3:30PM the next day. Although a line in the circular had me tense, which mentioned - "The organizers hold the authority to change the schedule of the events as and when felt necessary"

Back at the hotel, it was time to set right all the hardware, switch on "Calm-and-focussed" switch and keep the feet up. All the while praying that the pollution doesn't get blown towards here.

3 days to go:

The next day and came and went but as expected, there were massive delays in the start of events in the morning and that cascaded causing mine to be posponed to the next morning.
Unfortunately, my prayers were not answered and in that morning, the air pollution moved towards Aligarh, reducing the visibility to less than a kilometre!

View at the startline. At 11AM.

Meanwhile, Samira rode an impressive race in the women's ITT and scored a bronze! This helped keep the morale high in the hotel and the rest of us were now hungrier to do well in our own races.

To be continued..