Wednesday, 13 December 2017

2017 U23 National Championships Road Race: Re-entering the tunnel

Day 3: The Road Race

I lined up at the start line at 11:30AM, along with 80 other U23 cyclists. We were to tackle the 120km long road race. The race had no major climbs and I was half certain that it would end up in a bunch sprint. There was a quarter-certainty that a long range attack would survive and a final quarter that a breakaway emerging from the messy, chaotic and fast attacks in the final 10-kilometres would survive. I was hoping for the race to play out like the latter scenario.

After waiting for the Indian equivalent of 5 minutes, we were flagged off at 12:20PM.

I had not raced with most of the field earlier. So I borrowed a page off of Gino Bartali's playbook and memorized the race numbers of the top-10 finishers in the ITT - 352, 449, 116, 161, 117, 542, 385, 293, 395 & 444. My strategy for the first 110kms of the race was to follow any moves made by the first 3 guys, or any move consisting of 2 or more from the ITT top ten.

We exit the city after 3kms in and we hit a kilometre long riser. I see 116 moving up, so I jump on his wheel and stay there all the way till the summit of the climb.

Over the next 10 kilometres, there were a flurry of attacks going off the front. Usually a group of 4 or 5 guys try to get away, but then a couple of guys try to bridge the gap and bring the whole field with them. During this time, I stay near the front narrowing my eyes to figure out the race number of the guys who are attacking and cross-referencing it with the list in my mind.

".uhh..that's 358 and 414 attacking..not a good time to eat the wind, time to just stay in the bunch."

"Who's that going up ahead? Looks like 243, 76, aaaannndd 122. Are they in the list? Nope. I'll just rest up."

At the 20km mark, I notice that we are riding into a headwind and a right-hand turn beckoned us in 500 metres. A quick lesson in geometry reminded me of the crosswinds coming up ahead and my spidey-senses tingled on realizing the chances of echelons.

I take the turn at about 20th wheel. A far way back, when I see 449 and 116 attacking up the road. I realized that this was a good move and I couldn't afford to sit out. I shift down a gear, then an another. And another. I bridged up to the guys and head directly to the front to keep a high pace.

"IT'S A CROSSWIND! LET'S EFFIN SPLIT IT!", I yell at Aman (449) and Punay (116). Aman nods in agreement and takes a turn. But then Punay comes to the front and rides his way into the wind, bringing along the entire field with him!

"What the.."

Frustrated by what just happened, I attack again, slightly panicking that I am burning too many matches. But this time too, the guy who followed me takes a pull into the wind rather than against. I was writhing in anger and had a huge urge to stop the race, sit everyone down and give them a lesson in 'Physics of Bike racing 101'.

I regained my composure thinking about what Dravid would do in such a situation, and went back to the previous pattern of sighting race numbers from a comfortable vantage point.

40kms in, we hit the town of Mahalingapura where the road-side was lined up with the residents cheering us. Always a great feeling to race in crowds.
At this point, I am all the way at the back of the peloton,which is now down to about 60 guys.

We hit a couple of corners and I see guys panicking while taking the corners at a speed above 30kmph. I mildly panic looking at the small gap that has opened to the front of the race. I put in a small effort and join the front bunch. I see the U-tun approaching in 500 metres, and I go all the way to the front to avoid any crashes.

We return to Mahalingapura and I gamble to try and take advantage of the same corners from earlier. I attack hard and two guys follow me. We start working together and I decided to increase my chances by doing the lion's share in the front. But we were riding into a headwind at this point, and we could never get more than 15 seconds.

As soon as we were caught, I put in another attack to try and filter the field and take the strongest guys with me. But nobody follows and a quick probability calculation revealed that I was better off staying in the bunch, what with over 45kms remaining and into a headwind.

I look around and realize that 116 is chilling all the way at the back of the bunch. Now this guy had all the makings of winning today's race - a big engine, strong teammates and suitable course. So I figured my best chances of a good result would come by watching him till the final parts of the race, and I slotted behind him.

80 kilometres into the race, the mercury had soared past the 38 degrees mark and salt lined up alongside many cyclists' jerseys. We began taking in feeds from the team mechs and also from the race organizers who were handing out disposable water bottles. So many water bottles thrown over the countryside, tens, hundreds this day, one of the real contradictions of our sport. Not that anyone cares much now, it’s just survival, watch the potholes, clear the debris by the edge of the battered road, watch for those attacks.

30kms from the line, we hit a small hill of 800 metres at 5%. I move to the very front of the bunch to place well going into the 2 kilometre long descent that followed. I move up on the right hand side of the road and there's a nasty crash on the left side of the road. Phew! Good decision to move up there.

In the descent, 116 puts in a massive attack. I scramble to follow his wheel, but momentum is working against my slender 58kilo frame and for his 70+ kilo frame. I grit my teeth and with the help of a couple of Karnataka riders, we shut him down. Close call!

 With 25 kilometres to go, we cross the finish line, heading out for 12.5kms and back. At this point, everyone is on the limit and trudging along at 27kmph. I had a craving to attack now, but I knew that it would be suicidal and the last 10kms were when the serious moves would stick.

With 17kiloetres from the finish, the pace picks up and there's one guy dangling 200 metres ahead of the peloton. Having him there is good for the bunch, good for me and bad for him, as he provides the motivational carrot to race for.

However, with 10kms to go he has extended his lead to 20seconds and posed a serious threat to the race. Realizing that the carrot had turned into a stick, the pace in the peloton picks up and we are storming at over 42kmph. It also helped that we had a tailwind all the way to the finish from this point.

With 8 kilometres to go, the gap was at 16 seconds.

With 6 kilometrtes to go, the gap was at 14 seconds.

I was neatly tucked in behind Punay's (116) wheel at this point and I expected him to -
1) Attack in the last kilometres OR
2) Sprint for the win

To which I had intended to
1) Counter his attack when he got caught OR
2) Stick in his draft and come out at the latest time as possible.

With 5 kilometres to go, he moves up alongside Aman (449) and says a word or two. I guessed that he was calling on him to attack together. I quickly jump on Aman's wheel, ready to follow the move. But I am surprised when I see that Aman holds his position while Punay went all the way to the front and raises the speed. By over 4kmph!

I felt the heat of the race over the next couple of kilometres when I had to battle against 3 guys, all of whom coveted Aman's wheel which I was dead set on sticking on to. After a few elbow-bumps and short bursts of angry grunts, I managed to dissuade everyone else from attempting to steal my position.

In the final 2 kilometres, I entered tunnel-vision mode. All the thoughts and calculations in my head were focused solely on getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. This was an incredible feeling which I had not felt in a long time, and I was glad it was back!

As soon as we touched the final kilometre, there was a massive crash on my right. I thank the alignment of stars that had me riding in the left-hand side of the road.
With 500 metres to go, I realizing I am sitting in about 12th wheel, waiting for Aman to start his sprint.

I knew that he was a better sprinter than me, but I was determined to empty my tank to the finish line and get the best possible result.

With 300 metres to go, a few lead-out guys have pulled off and we are now in the top 10 wheels. I see the barriers on the edges of the road and wonder if Aman is starting the sprint too late. I see the banner on top of the finish lone approaching soon. I have one finger one my shifter ready to launch me for the final 8 seconds burst of speed and energy. And two fingers on the brakes, if the need arises.

150 metres to go and Aman jumps. Time to go! He launches his sprint towards to left side of the road. On any other day I would have followed his wheel because he was a sprinter. But at that moment a voice in my head said "Go right!". So, I swerve slightly to the right.

0.2 seconds later I witness the horrible sight of Aman crashing into 2 or 3 guys ahead of him. We were going at well over 50kmph and I was well aware that that would have been an awful crash.

No time to ponder though, I see the finish line just seconds away but also worryingly notice the huge swarm of spectators who were spilling onto the middle of the street at the finish line. A cold fear approached me at this point as I wondered if I would accidentally sprint into the crowd. I quickly glance under my let elbow and noticed I don't have anyone behind. I swerve slightly away from the crowd.

In the final 100 metres of the race, all the energy I had managed to conserve over the previous 119 kilometres came into play and I crossed the line feeling absolutely exhausted and not sure where I had finished.

Despite exhausted, I managed to look up ahead and I counted 5 guys ahead of me.

At the start of the race, I was worried that I was not strong enough to finish in the top-20. Compared to that a 6th place finish had me elated and I was overcome with joy and relief.

I go back to the hotel still reeling from the effort of the race and soaking in the 'race high'. While I would have liked a podium finish, under the conditions, I was more than happy to have finished 6th.

I was all set to pack up my bags when I got the metaphorical motivational slap from my flatmate and former teammate to line up for the elite Criterium race tomorrow.

To be continued..

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