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!

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