An Ironman Impression
The race is staged over six days with several days including double stages. Our base for the week would be in Invercargill baring one night spent in Te Anau.
It was an opportunity I was looking forward to both with excitement and trepidation. Lining up against the top cyclists in the country for six days in a row would be a great test of both fitness and skill but the nagging worry about dropping off the back only a few kilometres into each day was a serious concern. The race is usually known for wind, rain and even snow so with the prior week spent in Maui I had packed every warm piece of kit I owned in preparation for combating the cold. Flying in to Invercargill I was met by our team manager Robin King and was introduced to the team members I hadn't previously met, Will Dickeson and Micheal Culpitt from Australia along with Alex Meenhorst from NZ. Our remaining two team mates were Karl Moore who'd raced earlier in the year with our AR team in China and George Bennett who is also from my home town Nelson. George was our main GC hope and the others were all up to speed already with their roles - mine was to be decided upon each day depending on if I was able to hang on to the peloton or not! The race is staged over six days with several days including double stages. Our base for the week would be in Invercargill baring one night spent in Te Anau.
Stage 1 - Team Time Trial (morning stage) 8.42km
The TTT was a quick affair although one of the most painful of the whole race. Right from the start the pace was 100% and the hardest thing was staying on the wheel as the team powered out of the start gate. The intensity was far higher than what I was used to and with the 8.4km course taking us 10min 20sec it was obvious why that was the reason. On the final lap I just about hit the deck as I overcooked the final corner and took out some of the cones but fortunately kept it upright and crossed with the team. We slotted into 8th place, 30 seconds down on the fastest team Caulder Stewart.
Stage 2 - Invercargill to Bluff (afternoon stage) 81.63 km
This was my first taste of the peloton and I was in survival mode. The pace and noise of 114 riders racing around the streets of Invercargill was mind blowing. Being more used to riding solo and having to constantly drive against the wind, it was incredible to be sitting in amongst the other riders as we sped along at 60km/hr with seemingly little effort. I was near the back for the first half where there was a little more space between riders but Alex had made into the break and was racking up the sprint and K.O.M points. The nerves were starting to settle as we approached the 10km mark to go but as I moved up the line there was suddenly the horrid noise of bodies and bikes hitting the ground and each other at over 50km/hr. I could see the carnage right in front of me as I slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt centimetres from the last rider to have gone down. Thankfully I didnt get taken out from behind either and as I unclipped and jumped around the mess of bodies and bikes to rejoin the race. I couldnt tell if anyone of our team had been caught up in the crash but I could see a team mate up ahead chasing onto the back of the reforming pack. I finally made it onto the bunch myself only a few kilometres shy of Bluff and then settled in for the 2 kilometre climb to the top of Bluff hill and the finish of the stage. Hitting the climb some riders attacked but the majority settled into their rhythm with the intent of just making the top. I gradually moved up the field and the 27 rear sprocket proved its worth on the steepest sections. Unfortunately George our main GC hope, had been caught in the crash and had lost over 9 minutes by the time he crossed the finish line. A small consolation was Alex had won the KOM jersey.
Stage 3 - Invercargill to Gore 165 km
Its fair to say the crash on the first day had really put me on edge and I again found myself searching for space from the start. Over our radios Robin was constantly updating us on upcoming turns and obstacles as well as any breaks going off the front. Several of our guys had a dig including myself when I found my way up to the front. It was a great to be off the front even if for only a few minutes before we were chased back down and started changing the attitude from survival to that of being involved in the race. When a break finally stuck Team Share the Road moved to the front to control the gap and protect the yellow jersey of Jeremy Yates and the pace was a little more settled. With 35 kilometres to go the break was caught and the intensity increased once again. Again a small break got away and despite the tempo getting really ramped up over the last 10 kilometres two guys stayed away for the win. It was pretty frantic through the last kilometres as people jostled for position and I was more than content with finishing safely in the bunch.
Stage 4 - Invercargill to Tuatapere (morning stage) 88.4 km
The stage to Tuatapere and the following one in the afternoon had been the stage for some of the toughest sections of the Tour in past years according to many of the riders but the day dawned fine and with relatively little wind in the morning. As usual the pace was high leaving town but George managed to get up the road in a break and Share the Road seemed to be happy to keep them at around a minute. Again with around 30 kilometres to go the pace was ramped up and the gap started to plummet. Almost within sight of the finish line the break was caught and Greg Henderson took the stage win. George had done enough to take the KOM jersey.
The next few hours we relaxed in a motel and recharged for the afternoon stage back to Winton.
Stage 5 – Tuatapere to Winton (afternoon stage) 101.7 km
By the time the stage got under way there was a decent tail wind. Robin warned us that the pace would likely be high right from the start and he wasnt kidding. Within a few hundred metres we were sitting on 65km/hr and the peloton was strung out in a long line. I was lucky to see a gap forming just a few riders in front of me and was able to jump across before the first major split happened less than 10km in. Will managed to get in a two man break and gradually built a small gap. The only climb of the stage saw a frantic sprint over the hill where I was probably in more pain than I have ever experienced on a bike and just made the split. The peloton was down to only about 30 riders before the lead guys slowed up to answer the call of nature and most of the riders were able to rejoin. Shortly after we hit some cross winds and the peloton was stung out in the gutter and I found out firsthand how important position was as riders in front started dropping off the wheel in front necessitating a frantic sprint to bridge up to the main pack. After making it across several times the legs finally hit the wall and I ended up in a small pack lapping it out with ever decreasing enthusiasm for the last 30km into the finish
Stage 6 – Lumsden – Crown range 133.85 km
Of all the stages this was the one I knew the best from my years living in Queenstown. The weather was still holding although we were into a strong head wind all the way which probably made for an easier time sitting in the protection of the peloton. Alex was again able to get into the break but again Share the Road werent letting the break get too far up the road. At one point Alex had gone into virtual yellow on the road. The pace stayed reasonably easy all the way up Lake Wakatipu to Frankton where the pace started to ramp up with around 35 km to the finish. We were trying to set George up for the final climb and the whole team made it up the steep climb up Littles Road and lined up near the front with George sitting at the back saving him for the final showdown. As we hit the bottom of the crown range he was second wheel and quickly disappeared up the road at the front of the race along with Hayden Roulston and Yellow jersey holder Jeremy Yates. Later on the replays we saw Jeremy getting hit by one of the officials motor bikes only 500m from the finish. George was a bit unsure what to do and he backed off a bit as did Roulston. Yates was quickly back on his bike and surely fired up. He ended up pipping them both for the win. I rode steadily up to the finish and it was great to see a few friends from Queenstown whod made it out to watch the finish of the stage
Stage 7 - Winton to Te Anau 163.6 km
The weather finally broke and we started fully rugged up against the cold and rain that was falling steadily. The first 100 km were reasonably steady but quite cold but with 10km to go until Blackwoods Hill the pace went on and everyone was in the gutter fighting to hold the wheel. As we hit the hill the attacks started and I was straight into survival mode. I made it over the top with a good group only to see the road turning up again shortly after. Unfortunately the legs just wouldnt respond when I needed to make up just a few metres to stay on the back of the group. As we started the descent proper the gaps opened up and I was in a small chase group trying desperately to get across to the front group. We made it to the convoy of support cars but then the legs fell off from the constant surging and I could only watch as the gap started to stretch again. I ended up with four riders lapping it out and with the last 25 kilometres downwind they ticked off at a good rate. Our four had become three but we caught a larger group up in the last few kilometres and crossed very happy to stop pedalling for the day. Roulston had taken the stage win from Bauer after a crash from Yates and there was now only 3 seconds between the top two riders on GC - Bauer in Yellow with Roulston 2nd and Yates in 3rd after losing over a minute.
Stage 8 – Te Anau to Lumsden (morning stage) 79 km
Last day. I think I was almost more nervous about something untoward happening today after having made it through relatively unscathed in the first five days. The stage started off pretty quickly as always and with only three seconds now separating the front two riders &H45; they were being super attentive as to any breaks. The only hill of the day included the compulsory suffering but was thankfully short and I think the whole bunch stayed together. The pace went ballistic at the intermediate sprint and then continued at a solid pace all the way to the finish. The last 10 kilometres were covered at close to 60 kilometres an hour and the average for the stage nearly 46 kilometres an hour. Roulston won the sprint by the narrowest of margins and took over the yellow jersey for the first time with Jack Bauer in second only four seconds back
Stage 9 – Winton to Invercargill (afternoon stage) 64.4 km
A short stage to finish but with so much at stake and such small margins it seemed anything was possible. The pace started out high but a group of three got away which included George. As the pace slowed in the peloton it seemed they might get far enough away to keep away. With time bonuses on the finish line it would be ideal for Rolleston if the break were to succeed but other teams also had their own plans and so the pace was ratcheted up one last time as the peloton sweep through the outskirts of Invercargill. The final 12 km of the race were three circuits of a downtown park where the TTT had taken place on the first day and the pace was quick with a big acceleration needed out of each turn to stay in position. The breakaway was only caught on the final lap and Henderson took the final sprint to deny Bauer the vital bonus seconds he would have needed to win.
All in all it was a great week of racing. Definitely something that raised my level of cycling and appreciation for the intricacies of bike racing. In the peloton the riders travel so closely together that you are often touching bars or bodies and often at 50 or 60 kilometres per hour. That was definitely a thrill in one aspect and just frightening in another.
Our team got along great, the crash on the first day had meant Georges aspirations of a top GC place were effectively over before the end of the first day, but he definitely showed his potential climbing from 99th to 22nd. Alex was prominent in the breakaways every day it seemed and Karl, Mick and Will were all involved in various moves during the week and rode to support the team plans each day.
For me I was simply happy to survive. It was an amazing experience to simply have to ride each day with everything else taken care of. Having the opportunity to ride on fully closed roads was a unique experience, as was the procession of team cars and radio contact we had while riding which made it seem like a mini Tour de France - for me at least.
A huge thanks to the support team of Robin, Kay, Matt and Nick - it was awesome and also to Bobby from SVS for securing the funding and all the encouragement during the week.
Lastly a big thanks to my personal sponsors, in particular SUBWAY RESTURANTS who made it possible for me to race by agreeing for me to ride for SVS, KIA MOTORS (one of the major brands at SVS), R&R SPORT, LEPPIN SPORT and GIANT BIKES who supplied me a bike on short notice for the race.
Written by: Richard Uusher (world champion ironman)
R&R Sport, Kia Motors, Leppin Sport, Thule
Inov8, Tineli, Ems Power Cookies, Blue Seventy wetsuits, Newton, Rudi Project Andrew Martin Kayaks, Legend Paddles, Wildside Travel