Wednesday, 3 May 2017

First race in Spain - Part 1 - Crowds, nerves and Descents!

A week late, but I can remember everything that happened like it was this morning.

On 23rd of April, I signed up for my first race in Spain at a town called "Durana".
I couldn't have asked for a better race for my first race of the year -- the start was just 5kms away from my UMC apartment and it was my "home course" - I had trained extensively on the route and knew exactly what to expect.

Once I reached the start line of the race, I went through my entire usual pre-race ritual:
  • Collect my race numbers
  • Shove energy bars & gels into my jersey pocket
  • Meet and greet my teammates
  • Check if I have enough bars & gels for the race
  • Pump up my tires
  • Move gels & bars into the right pockets
  • Go to team car to pin the numbers
  • Remove bars & gels from pockets to pin the numbers.
  • Put the bars & gels back in
  • Head out for a 20mins warm up spin
  • Rearrange bars & gels in the pockets
  • Pee
  • Check if I have enough time to grab another energy bar. I don't.
  • Locate teammates and head to the line.

Pre-race prep work with the team!

When all was said and done, the knowledge of having nailed the planning of my race nutrition gave me that extra bit of comfort at the start line.

Race profile:

The race was 120km long with a total elevation gain of 1160m.  There were a 122 Under-23 riders who had signed up for the race with the big hitters being - Team Lizarte, Caja Rural Development Team and the Quickstep development team.

We would cover 2 laps in the race with each lap having two loops. The first loop was 17kms in length and was relatively flat. The second loop was 44kms long and slightly techincal - with 6kms descent (avg 5%) followed by the toughest part of the race - a 2.8km long climb averaging 10% and hitting a maximum of (a leg crunching) 23%!

Climb Profile.PNG
The climb of the race that turns legs into Opera singers!
Approach to the race:

At the team meeting, the instructions were quite simple -
"This is going to be a tough and dangerous race. Everyone needs to be at the front before we begin the descent. Stay safe and give 'em hell, boys."

It had been over 6 months since my last race of which I spent almost 4 months training alone. I was quite nervous going into the race. Unless you’re racing regularly, it’s hard to gauge your actual level of physical fitness and what goals to set. Drawing inspiration from the recipe of the Plain Dosa, I decided to keep my goals simple and two-fold:
1. Stay in the first 30% of the bunch at all times.
2. Stay as far away from the wind as possible.

Race start:

Once the gun went off, I clipped into my pedals on the first attempt Phew! and latched onto a wheel ahead of me. About 500 metres later, we approached a tight left hand corner. Unlike Belgium racing, there wasn't a massive surge in the speed and I had no difficulty holding my position exiting the turn.
I spent the next 15 kilometres trying to stay in the sweet spot of the peloton -- a position which was third row from the front and first column from the right. This turned out to be tougher than I had anticipated when the road narrowed to half its width in certain sections and I got squished into the middle. And when the going got tough, my inner cornerman woke up..

"Macha, Sarvesh, you gotta move up. If you are in the middle you will get pushed to the back of the bunch before you can shout ALLEZ!".
As the shape of the peloton alternated between a baguette - when attacks flew up the road, and a loaf of bread - when the attacks were caught, novice-named-Sarvesh, focused on staying in the sweet spot.


23mins into the race, we finished the first loop.
Avg speed                           : 43kmph
Crashes                                   : 0
Indians surviving in the race    :1

Loop 2-
The moment we started the 2nd loop, I was in about 10th wheel, and a rider from the Lizarte team went on an attack from the far left hand side of the bunch. As soon as he crossed the tip of the bunch, there were loud yells in Spanish coming from the other riders calling their teammates to the front to mark him.

"Okay, then. Lizarte is the strongest team here. When the race approaches the difficult sections, get onto the Lizarte team's slipstream to get a tactical advantage."
Once, that move was shut down, there was a counterattack and I managed to get into that move. While I was not eating any wind, I couldn't help but worry about the extra energy I would spend.

"Damnit, hide from the wind and seek shelter, Sarvesh. Conserve energy. CONSERVE ENERGY!"
A couple of kilometres later, we were caught by the bunch and a large counterattack went ahead, dragging along over 15 riders. I momentarily lost my awareness and got stuck in the bitter-land: 7 or 8 rows from the front and smack in the middle.

To fight off claustrophobia and the disadvantage of that position, I spent the next couple of kilometres moving towards the outer edge and forw-

"AAEEIIIII!" *screeeaaacchh*
*Carbon frames landing on top of each other*
There was a crash just a couple of feet behind me. I did not look behind to check what was the aftermath, but it sounded awful and I thanked the stars for my narrow escape.
As I moved to the first 20 riders of the field, I could see the bunch ahead having gained almost 30 seconds on us. There was no panic in the bunch yet, as there was a steady tempo being set up and everyone anticipated the treacherous climb of the day.

I was hiding in the bunch, so well that this was the only time a photographer caught a glimpse of me! (4th helmet from the left)
We hit the town of Landa and a huge crowd of fans greeted us, yelling encouragements in Spanish or Euskara (the language of the Basque region). This was a new and very pleasant experience for me as there are almost no crowds in Indian or Belgian races. What had me even more excited was when I heard earlier that there would be crowds 2 to 3 people deep in the climb of the race. As a cyclist, few things get us more excited than cheering fans. Big or small, costumed or shirtless, drunk or sober, fans in the race always get us excited.
At the 31 kilometre mark, 4 of my teammates surged to the very front and I realized that the descent was approaching in a very short while. As 3 from Lizarte began to move on the outside, I jumped onto their train and was safely sitting on wheel number 6.

Race goals achieved : 1 of 2


I had trained on that descent earlier. It was 6.5kms long averaging 4.8%. The road surface was fairly good except for a couple of potholes. There were 4 technical turns in the descent, they weren't hairpin curves but tight enough to punish any cyclist who loses concentration. I knew that the speed would never go below 55kmph here.

I had never raced in a descent earlier with more than 5 guys in the bunch. After watching countless pro races with descents, I had assumed that in every race, cyclists would maintain a neat single-line and take the descent caring for each others' safety.

I had assumed so wrong!
As soon as we began the descent, there were guys sprinting to the front, eager to not get stuck behind. The approach to every curve, turned out to be a mad dash to the front and I was quickly back in mid field.

What the..
How the..
Aaargh! Come on, Sarvesh. Get your wits up and figure this out, we need to move up or we are doomed.
Look! Get on the Quickstep devo guy's wheel. He looks like  he can handle himself!
Okay, now take this turn nice and smoothly. WATCH OUT FOR THE GUY DIVEBOMBING ON THE OUTSIDE!!.
The divebomb happens and suddenly the Quickstep guy has to brake and loses momentum. I find myself further back in the bunch.

Okay, we need to revert to the Sweet Spot strategy. Move outwards and forwards. Execute Plan Plain Dosa!
By the next turn, I regain my momentum and take the outer line of the turn. I overtake a couple of guys. Next turn, same formula and I gain a few more positions.

That's it. Outwards and forwards. Keep it up man, we've got less than a kilometre and half in the descent. The nasty climb is 15 minutes away, so don’t forg-
At this point, I feel a hand on my left hip exerting a MASSIVE force pushing me towards the right.
Whhoooaaaaaaaaaaa! What just happened?!
My instincts kick in as I struggle to regain my balance.

I'm gonna crash! I'm gonna crash! I'm gonna crash! Aaaarrggh!
In a terrifying microsecond, I manage to regain my equilibrium and manage to catch a glimpse of the guy who pushed. The next microsecond, my survival instincts were replaced by fight instincts as I wanted to yell at him. I turn my pedal for a quarter of a revolution, convinced I won’t be crashing, when I hear a loud scream behind me. I begin to look back and can make out in the corner of my eye, that the guy behind me is moving faster than me but in my line


To be continued..

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