This is my first ever season racing U23/Elite, therefore my first ever season racing full marathon distance. So let’s start with a 5 day marathon, the Tour of Portugal. In for a penny, in for a pound!
It’s not going to be a problem though cos’ I’ve got Juul van Loon in my corner. What he doesn’t know about marathon racing, you don’t need to know. We arrived three days before the prologue to get used to the weather, the tracks and of course, each other. So far, so good.
The Prologue at Tour of Portugal
Prologue day. I’m as nervous as hell. Five, four, three, two, one, GO!
For three and half km, Juul has been hammering it on the front and I can’t come through to do a turn. I have all on to keep his wheel. The man is flying. Eventually, he pulls across and it’s my job to drag us to the finish. 7km, mixed terrain in 14mins 39secs.
12th place. Mixed feelings. Relieved it’s over, slightly disappointed with the size of the time gaps to the top ten riders. Nerves really have a negative effect on my legs. Juul reassures me we’re fine and in a good position for the days ahead. I’m going to learn a lot over the next five days, that’s for sure.
Day Two Tour of Portugal
Today it starts for real. 80km of hard, steep, dusty, technical racing. The nerves from yesterday seem to have calmed down and I’m ready. Didn’t sleep that well last night but, I generally never sleep well before or after a race. Only problem now is, it’s both before and after a race until Sunday!
Quickly into the stage and I realised my legs felt good. Juul and I were riding well together, sharing the pace and holding our position among the top teams. The bikes were holding up no problems, my Axon Werx fork as reliable as ever and Juul and I had already struck up the kind of understanding, which requires little or no talking. Seeing as how my Dutch is bloody awful, it’s just as well.
Then we went the wrong way. Then we went the wrong way some more. With constant juddering from the lose surfaces, extra klicks is not ideal. This constant battering might cause a problem as the race goes on. Massage will be vital if I can get hold of some.
Chasing back to make up for lost time was a good lesson in damage control. Juul stayed calm and made sure I didn’t go into the red, which would have been easy to on the climbs. Some of them were so steep I had to work hard to keep the front-wheel in a straight line.
We settled down, got back into our rhythm and steadily pulled the day back in our favour. We came over the line in 12th place, importantly still in touch with the top ten, 4.30 minutes off 9th place.
Our post-race routine stops me thinking about how tired I might be. Shower, bike wash, food and feet up.
Day Three Tour of Portugal
Wednesday morning, 9am and I am not sat in an office staring at a screen or a classroom staring at the back of a teacher’s head. The day is already a success.
Instead, I am on the start line of stage 2, day 3 of the MTB Tour of Portugal. A shortish 63km stage, sandwiched between yesterday’s 80km and tomorrow’s 95km. What today lacks in distance, more than makes up for in climbing with 1850m to tackle.
The riders all roll out nice and steady in the neutralised zone … except they don’t. They crash. The subsequent pile up causes a split and I am left separated from Juul. Maybe some people are already fatigued. Juul pulls over, losing his start position, and waits for me to join him.
We start the first major climb down the field but soon enough we drop on our rhythm and pick riders off. By now, we have realised that our ideal pace is suited to riding between and up to groups rather than in groups. It works well. Juul is so quick on the downhill, that I sometimes lose sight of him. He uses this gap to rest a bit and take on some liquids. Very smart.
On the big climb of the day (45 minutes long), Juul allows me to ride as hard as I want and he holds my wheel. As a result, we catch and pass a handful of teams and must be up to 12th place or so. As Juul gets stuck into the downhill, I puncture.
It takes a while for me to get it repaired, and in the end, I use an inner tube. Perhaps it takes longer than we would have liked, but we stay calm and get it done. I am however, determined to pull back the teams we had worked so hard to catch on the climb. It’s full gas with Juul sat in behind directing the effort.
Justice is served and we are back into 14th or 15th pace. The effort is starting to show itself and I can feel myself slowing down. I haven’t drunk for the last thirty minutes as both my bottles are empty and this is compounding the problem.
Juul senses the danger and takes over to the finish. The understanding between us is simply great. He pulled me for the final 10km. Later when he found out I hadn’t been able to drink, he reminded me that ‘sharing is caring in stage racing.’
Day Four Tour of Portugal – Wu Wei
It’s my first marathon stage race and I would be seriously lost without Juul. I would never be ready on time with only two hours to eat, pick up the bike, get changed and be at the start 20 minutes before the off, if it wasn’t for Juul. What’s the cycling equivalent of ‘knowing the ropes’?
Daoists refer to it as Wu Wei. It is the practice of achieving your goals by non-action. That was Juul’s plan in essence for today’s 89km and 3100 of elevation. We would sit tight, keep a steady pace and wait for people to start going backwards, we would not be attacking but we would finish in front of some of our rivals.
We start the day nice and steady, riding as we are now accustomed, which is to say, not in a group. I lead on the climbs and Juul dutifully blazes a trail on the descents. Yes, the descents. It’s no secret, descending is a limiter of mine. I have a fear of falling. This race, however, has helped reduce the limiter, particularly on fast sweeping, gravelly bends. It’s far from perfect but already way quicker than a week ago.
The climbs today are steep and at the half-way stage we are in 16th place with plenty of energy in reserve. I feel like a machine that’s been warming up for 40km. I am ready to race now.
Nevertheless, I follow Juul’s orders, and keep to the plan, waiting for his signal.
The scenery is simply stunning. Totally unspoilt. We crunch through mountain villages where time seems to have stood still for centuries. I resist the pull to stop and explore.
In my meditative state I have to remind myself from time to time that the risk of puncturing is ridiculously high. There are loose shards of slate type rocks everywhere, waiting to slice through tire sidewalls. Fortunately, I escape today’s puncture lottery with my tyres in tact.
With around 20km to go we pick up the pace and close the time gaps. Despite our faster pace and preserved energy, we are not going to get close significantly on the nearest riders. It feels like we we’ve been over cautious in our approach today, but you never know. With about 10km to go I could feel the bonk coming on. Juul gave me food and I didn’t really get into trouble but maybe I would had serious problems if I had gone harder, earlier. A proper bonk with 10kn to go could have cost us buckets of time.
The bike is holding up really well. I accidently pulled the gear cable through today towards the end which left me racing on a 7 speed cassette but other than that, everything is okay. Stage racing is hard on the gear though, and particularly in these conditions.
Tomorrow is an XC day. 30km comprising three 10km laps. Definitely not a stage for Wu Wei. Let’s see if I’ve got my xc legs with me.