Having done some of the world’s toughest marathon stage races, I often underestimate how hard what I think of as ‘mini stage races’ can be. Sure, you’re not on the bike for five or six hours a day, and you’re typically only racing for three or four days, but the pacing is different – racing is more intense, you back up for more than one stage in a day, and you still have the same amount of washing, bottle mixing, eating, and sleeping to do. In short, races like Port to Port can be really friggin’ hard.
There’s often a time in a stage race when I feel utterly broken and happy to give up, even when prize money or podium glory are just within reach. I touched that point last night after stage three. Things had not gone my way with two dropped chains and some bad decision-making and I had conceded about a minute-and-a-half to Em Parkes. She was still in third but our gap had narrowed to just over a minute. The final stage was going to be a fight, but I was mentally and physically broken.
I moped around the hotel room for most of the afternoon. Trying and failing to take a nap, convincing Mike to head out and find some takeaway Thai for dinner so I could mope some more. My legs felt weak and wobbly, my lower back was on fire, my face hot and flushed. I rarely drink but I had a glass of wine with dinner to help me get to sleep, and at about 8:30 I was out. I had a dream that I was in a plane which crashed, only to have a bus land on top of it. I woke up in the darkest hours with screaming joint pain in my lower back. It was a long night.
Day 4 at Port to Port
In the morning I pasted a smile on my face and felt grateful for the little things: it was the last day. For the first time this race, the weather was perfect – sunny, dry, and a bit chilly. I would be in a Dr’s surgery getting treatment for my back pain in a merciful 24 hours. I warmed up and untangled myself from legwarmers, warmup jacket, vest, and armwarmers, and backed my bike into the front row of the startline.
A good warmup was crucial today. We barely had 200 metres of neutral start before the car rolled off and it was full gas into the hills, which quickly turned to skatey, rutted double track. Em was taken out in the fray and I passed her, but she was soon back on my wheel. We didn’t lose sight of each other for the rest of the day.
Tactically, today’s task was pretty simple. All I had to do was watch Em and not let her get away. First place was as good as won by Samara, who is simply a faster rider then either Em or me but, with just a minute between us, my second place on GC was up for grabs. This simple task was a huge mental ask for me, however. Why? Well, this tailing and watching and waiting is the exact opposite of how I like to race. I like a good stretch of daylight between me and my competitors – I like to race on emotions, not rational thoughts. Trying to launch out on my own might have worked today, but it was risky – I could blow up, or get lost, or burn my matches only to be caught and mentally crack. With Em in my sights our fates were tied up in a simple, tricky game. She had to try to get away and I had to try to stop her.
So it was on. I MADE myself sit on Em’s wheel through the crazy climbs, descents and corners, passing some nasty accidents from riders taking the downhills too hot. Sometimes either Em or I would respond to a surge from a passing rider, or jump on a wheel, sometimes not. We both rode with one eye on the trail and the other on each other. I made a few mistakes but managed to chase back on. Em was riding near flawlessly. After 15kms of this we were out and on the bitumen, drafting off a bunch of strong guys, then we reached the neutral zone where we stopped trying to kill each other and had a pleasant chat about our race plans for the coming year and our respective injuries. Then it was back on, and back to trying to kill each other.
We sat in a large bunch with three valiant workers on the front, got epically lost in a golf course, dodged crashes and sand traps, then went back to drafting. We scoffed gels and gulped energy drink, snotted and coughed, drafted some more, and finally reached the 30km mark where, I had been told, drafting advantage was off, the singletrack was coming, and we both knew the race was on for real.
Em got over a fence very smartly and got away, putting a bunch of slower guys between us as we headed up one of today’s big climbs under powerlines, and with the entry to the singletrack just ahead. There was one good line and nowhere to overtake. It was absolutely crucial to me that I at least have Em’s wheel in the singletrack, so I murdered myself to claw my way past these blokes back onto her wheel. Then it was holiday time. Em, as we all know, rides singletrack superbly, and happy with my position I recovered a bit and enjoyed following her lines, amazed that I could do it (I owe a lot to one-on-one coaching from Dylan Cooper at RideTechnics). We emerged, went up a bitumen climb, and Em launched an attack into the next section of trail, bombing a techy decent. I suffered and caught back on. I glanced down. 17km to go. ‘I can do this’ I told myself, but I’m not sure I completely believed it.
I want to pause here and shout out to all the masters men Em and I raced with over the last four days. You were unerringly gentlemanly, chivalrous, competitive, and completely understood that our race was with each other. Many times some you pulled over to let us both pass at once, rather than get between us. You politely ignored our failures to roll through, or indulged us as we rolled crappy turns so we felt included. You offered neutral words of encouragement to us both. Thanks guys, you know who you are.
Em was tough today, and graceful, and skilled. Racing wheel on wheel brings up a weird dynamic. At times we exchanged pleasantries, at others we very nearly murdered one another, but we did so while pointing out obstacles and signpostings. I’m a firm believer that there’s a Shakespeare quote for all occasions and this was pure Richard III: ‘why I can smile, and murder whiles I smile’.
Smiling our way through Glenrock’s superb singletrack, I had some minor stuffups and lost Em’s wheel a couple of times, but each time managed to chase on. We hit the final, final, final bitumen climb where Em very nearly killed me again (I would have done the same to her), then bombed the swooping descent. The finish line in sight we nearly overshot a corner, then I came into a paved staircase into an underpass too hot, overgeared, confused, and locked out. Em probably was too, but the difference was she had the composure to ride the stairs and I stupidly, clumsily dismounted and ran. That was it. She was away like an arrow but I knew I’d done enough. The finish line was 500 metres away. I was very happy for her to take second on the stage – She’d led the whole way through the singletrack, which demands a lot of concentration and is immensely fatiguing – while I sat back and got a free lesson in line choice and cornering. To tell the truth I had imagined a finish where I sat up, applauded her, and was showered with confetti from the sky while the crowd chanted ‘Imo’. It wasn’t quite like that, Em just handed it to me by giving me one further lesson in attacking and tenacity! Still, I was very happy to hang onto second place, even if I did die a thousand deaths in the process. Samara took out the Elite Women’s category in dominating fashion, Bec Locke was fourth, and Jessica Simpson fifth.
In the men’s race Paul Van Der Ploeg used his considerbale watts to get away from the bunch of men for a solo win, with a huge group of elite men giving chase. GC leader Tristan Ward was anguished with a flat tyre, his Torq teammates putting in huge pulls to protect his GC from a charging bunch of rivals from the Trek camp. In spite of his time loss, Tristan and his teammates did enough to protect his overall lead by 15 seconds. Paul stayed away for the win, next Kyle Ward, and Reece Tucknott. In GC Tristan Ward held a dramatic victory, Kyle Ward in second, and Reece Tucknott in third.
I got cleaned up under a cold shower with a complimentary race washcloth, then after presentations it was straight to the airport, still with my hair full of sand. Boarding the plane I had to restrain myself from elbowing and pushing my way up the stairs, so accustomed have I become to fighting and clawing my way up queues of riders on climbs and up echelons on fireroads. This should wear off soon. What I hope stays with me though is the truly high-quality of racing, particularly in the positive, supportive atmosphere out on course. My thanks to all the organisers and racers who made it so.