I was a sorry sight at the top of Mount Majura.
Dead last and all alone, I rounded the final corner 26 minutes behind the race leaders. Indeed, the A Grade riders – who had raced a full 30 kilometres more – had just about caught me by the top.
Elbows and knees bleeding, handlebars crooked and parched of thirst, I limped off my battered bike, gulped down a litre of water, and reflected on how Canberra had served up – yet again – one of my hardest days of bicycle racing.
Stage one: Individual Time Trial
My race began modestly enough. As I wrote in my National Capital Tour preview, stage one would be my first ever time trial.
Due to that inexperience, some things threw me off (almost literally), like being held upright by a handler on the start line. After nearly toppling over, I managed to clip in just before the commissaire finished her countdown.
I didn’t hit my target power of 280 watts, nor did I get anywhere near my target speed of 43kph. My speedometer seemed stuck below 40, and I just couldn’t get increase the power. It wasn’t for lack of trying – when I crossed the line, streams of saliva and mucus were dripping horrendously from my face.
I finished in a time of 18:13.41, averaging 38.9kph and placing 19th out of 39 starters, just over a minute behind the race leader. I was slightly disappointed not to hit my target numbers, but finishing mid-field was an acceptable result. “At least,” I thought to myself, “nobody caught and passed me.”
Stage two: Road Race
The road race was always going to be the main event of the 2018 National Capital Tour. After last year’s calamity, my aim was to survive the four flat laps and reach the base of Mount Majura with the front group. From the beginning, I immediately improved on last year’s performance. This time, I wasn’t dropped in the first 200 metres.
The first lap was steady. With cross-headwinds blowing and the steep final climb in everyone’s minds, we all seemed content to cruise at a steady tempo. A couple of riders attacked in search of sprint points, but I sat merrily in the bunch.
My clubmate, former Cycling NSW CEO Kevin Young, had given me some tips about positioning in the crosswinds. I followed his advice, keeping near the front, sheltering on the leeward side after the turnaround point. I have to say, my positioning was spot on, and my legs felt good.
If the race had carried on in that way, I would have been happy. The group would have hit the climb together, and I’d finally have the chance to test myself against others uphill.
Alas, that wasn’t to be.
On lap two, I was well-placed near the front of the bunch. Riders started to move up on both sides of the bunch, improving their position. That dropped me back towards the back half of the peloton, but it was no cause for concern. The pace was steady, it was an innocuous section of straight road, and I was protected from the wind.
Suddenly, about two riders ahead of me, someone fell.
There was no warning, no shouting, just the sight of LACC’s red-helmeted Dugald Spenceley turning sideways and falling straight down. The rider behind him crashed, too.
I was barrelling straight towards them at 40kph, and in that split second, my mind was looking for some way to avoid the inevitable. I don’t remember braking, though I must have done so. Instead, I was hoping to evade the pile-up by passing on the left hand side. Unfortunately, there were riders already on my left, blocking my escape route. With nowhere to go, I plowed into one of the fallen riders’ wheels and took a trip onto the pavement.
I must have rolled to dissipate the impact, because I got up quickly and found no serious pain. My knees and elbows were bleeding, but I was still mobile. I’ll put that down to years of sliding and rolling around the cricket field and soccer pitch. About five other riders at hit the deck, and all of them seemed worse off than me.
After disentangling my brake levers from somebody’s spokes, I checked my bike. Amazingly, the wheels still spun freely. My Garmin and camera were still attached. One of my drink bottles had shattered, leaving me with just an empty bidon.
My brake levers had been smashed out of position, but a few hard strikes soon remedied that. There was one thing I couldn’t fix: the handlebars were misaligned with the front wheel, meaning I’d have to ride with my arms at an angle.
The question entered my head: “should I chase?”
I had stopped for over a minute. The peloton, still over 30 riders strong, was well up the road and out of sight. Unless they waited for me, I had an almost zero chance of catching up. It would be a solo effort; all of the others who crashed would either leave the race in an ambulance or walk back with a broken bike.
Now, I watch a lot of professional bike racing. And in that moment, I remembered an image that I’ve seen many times on television. The pros, when they crash, get straight back up and chase. There’s no hesitation, no second-guessing, no time to inspect your wounds. When the peloton is riding away, every second counts. You don’t waste time; you get back on your bike and try to chase.
Recently, at the World Championships, Belgium wonderkid Remco Evenepoel was caught in a crash. He chased to the peloton, closing down a two minute gap by himself, then attacked to win by over a minute. In the elite women’s race, Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten crashed, chased back to the peloton, and finished in 7th place – with a broken knee!
So for me, standing by the side of the road, faced with this decision – there could only be one answer. My bike still worked, my limbs still moved, and I’m a cyclist. So I did what cyclists do. I got back on and chased.
The choice to continue
As expected, the chase was unsuccessful. Due to the out-and-back nature of the circuit, I passed the peloton several times going the other way, and cheekily asked them to slow down. They didn’t.
After the third lap, I gave up the chase. My knee was stiffening up and the peloton were stretching further and further away. I pulled out the parachute and coasted down to a slow, gentle spin.
At that point, there was little to gain from continuing. My body hurt. I had no water left and my knees were aching. I’d no idea whether my bike was safe to ride; if the carbon had been damaged in the crash, it could have collapsed under me at any moment. My morale was battered: I’d trained hard to get to Mount Majura with the peloton, and for the second year in a row, I’d failed.
A wise choice would have been to roll back to the car and rest up for the next day. There’d be no shame in that. A lot of pros DNF after they’ve been dropped.
But for some reason, I kept riding. I had a lot of time on the bike to think about it, and I came up with a few reasons why I pressed on:
- Frugality – I’d paid good money to race here, so I was going to get my money’s worth by completing the course.
- A result – I didn’t come all this way just to register a ‘DNF’ next to my name, like I did last year. If I wanted to DNF, I would have stayed home.
- Pride – the National Capital Tour hasn’t been kind to me. In my head, stopping would mean surrender. I wasn’t going to let that happen. The race would not defeat me.
Let me explain that last point.
For me, sport reflects human character. At its worst, that character is ugly – like when ‘sandpapergate’ exposed the Australian cricket team as cheaters. At its best, however, sport showcases strength of will, the importance of discipline, and the joy of achievement. Just look at this weekend’s Invictus Games in Sydney: wounded war veterans will overcome their physical and mental barriers to compete on the world stage. Those athletes’ stories are inspirational.
Look, I don’t want to overdramatise my race. It was just a C-Grade State Open down in Canberra. There was a hundred bucks’ prizemoney on the line, about three spectators and a dog were watching, and my injuries were just scrapes and bruises. It’s nothing in the scheme of things.
For me, however, in that moment – with pain in my knees and bitter disappointment in my mouth – I considered it a test of character. I asked myself some questions:
“Am I a quitter?”
“Did my parents raise me to give up at the slightest setback?”
“What example would I want to set my kids?”
For some reason, Romans 3 popped into my head: “we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Yes, it wasn’t a life-or-death situation by any means. The “suffering” was trivial. In context, it was just a grassroots bike race. But as a reflection of my character, this was a test. If I persevered and finished the race, perhaps I’d grow in resilience. This was a chance to develop in character, just a little bit. Sport can do that.
So, I plodded on alone, completing my fourth lap before crawling slowly up the steep slopes of Mount Majura. With my left knee particularly bruised, at times I was pedalling with just one leg, almost at a standstill. A few spectators spoke some encouraging words. Riders from my race, having summited the climb long ago, descended past me in the opposite direction.
As I reached the final five hundred metres, I heard the front of the A Grade race approaching from behind. With a glance over the shoulder at two hundred metres to go, I could see them coming. Wanting to avoid being caught up in their sprint, and the ignominy of being passed by another race, I pushed hard around that final bend, crossed the line with head bowed, and pulled over to the side of the road, the struggle complete.
Stage three: Kermesse
I won’t write too much about the kermesse. Hopefully, I’ll have time to put out a video summary of stage three.
Conclusion: finishing the race
The important thing was that I finished the race. I may have finished in 26th place, over 19 minutes behind my nearest competitor, but there would be no DNF beside my name this year.
So, another year, another National Capital Tour, another poor result. I’m disappointed by this, but I’m glad I pressed on and completed the course.
This blog is not intended as a platform for proselytising, but another Bible verse comes to mind. The Apostle Paul wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness”.
Perhaps the lessons learnt at National Capital Tour will strengthen me to persevere not just in other bike races, but in other trials of life.
Click here for full general classification results. I wish Dugald and everyone else involved in the crash a speedy recovery.
Feature image © capstone rouge photography, used under license.