Tuesday, April 14, 2009

2009 UCI World Cup - Round 1 - Pietermaritzburg - South Africa

Mel and I wrote a little piece about our trip for spoke.ie here and here, it covers more of the details surrounding the trip, in this post I'll really only be talking about the World Cup race itself.

Finally, the morning of the race arrived – my first Cross Country World Cup. Looking out the window I saw blue skies – damn, it was going to be another scorcher. As Mel was racing at 10:30am (lucky devil), I would have to hang around the race course a few hours before my race – not the best preparation, but it was cool to see her race start and watch the first few laps. My warmup went well, my heart rate responded to my efforts and I felt okay – I spent a bit more time than usual on the warmup, 45 minutes, but knew that the race would be explosive from the second the gun went so wanted to be prepared. 20 minutes before our race started, we started to line up in our starting pens. I was gridded 94th of the 140+ riders – a lot in front, but also a lot behind me. We all fought (well, not really) for any bit of shade as the temperatures soared and we all started to cook in the holding pens.

The course profile

A birds eye view

At exactly 1pm the gun went off and chaos began. I held my position well (actually, I think I made positions) but 15 seconds into the race, about 20 meters in front of me I heard a huge pop and the sound of carbon breaking. There was a pileup with a few broken bikes and one broken carbon wheel (the cause of the impressively loud explosion). 15 seconds into the race and already a few riders races was over. This was one thing I was very careful about – I didn't want to travel all this way and have it end before it really started. Fortunately, I was able to dismount and get around the carnage safely and chase on up the following climb. Passing riders was tricky, and much of the climbing I had to run on the first lap (one person makes a mistake and everyone has to dismount – the climbs were very very steep and getting on and riding again would be impossible). The single track descent was completed at a crawling pace as well as most of the climbing on the first lap. By the start of the second lap, the field has spread out a lot and you were able to ride your own race a little more.

3rd placed Burry Stander

The second lap seemed to go by in a flash and I was on to my third. The heat and humidity, was really hitting me at this point, every effort seemed to take 3 or 4 times more out of me than usual, and each time I saw the steep climbs, I didn't know how I would climb it. I was drinking 500ml per lap but it didn't seem enough. Indeed, by the top of the main climb on my third lap, my fingers were tingling and I started to feel cold (a very bad thing when you have been going as hard as you can in 30C+ with humidity at 98%!) By the bottom of the descent (only a couple of minutes – it was very fast, flowy and fun) I felt okay and grabbed another bottle from Alan (my housemate from Ireland who also made the trip over) to start another loop. Going around the fourth lap, again my body felt weird – I actually hopped to get pulled as I had no idea how I would ride another lap.

One of the 'flat' climbs lined with spectators

Midway through the fifth lap, the lead motor bike came around me and I knew my race was numbered. A few minutes later, Jose Hermida, Julien Absalon and then Burry Stander rode by. The speed they went past was not particularly unbelievable, but the smoothness and fluidity that they did it was so impressive. I could hear they were on the edge from their breathing but you wouldn't know it from looking at them. As they passed, I cheered them on and then tried to hang on as best I could – I didn't last very long but on the descent, they didn't gap me (much) which I was pretty happy about. I reached the end of the lap and pulled off the course. My first reaction, after almost falling to the ground with exhaustion, was having a big smile on my face. I really really enjoyed the race. With 6,000 spectators lining the course, the atmosphere was amazing – people screamed your name as you suffered up the climbs and horns blew as you wizzed by on the descents. The course was probably the toughest I have ridden, no where near the most technical but the climbs were so hard that it would take an expert level rider to even try and complete a lap! Many of the Olympic riders compared the course to Beijing except with longer climbs but less technical descents. Then there was the heat, humidity and altitude – all things that I was not used to which were trying to hold me back (and succeeding!). My finishing position of 97 (140+ started) was so-so, but yet I was very happy after the race – my heart rate was pegged from the start, and on the day, I couldn't give it anything more (feeling cold at the top of climbs told me that one). I felt spent.

Julien Absalon

Almost finished for the day

Pietermaritzburg is holding World Cups at the same venue for another 2 years and assuming I'm fit, I'm already planning for my trip next year – it was amazing. This time though, I'll be heading out earlier – anyone want to join me for a go at the Cape Epic?

So – this is a little bit of a postmortem. Both Mel and I rode the course on the Monday after the race (race was on Saturday). It was back to training before our long flight home, and as part of it I did three laps of the course focusing on certain things – at the end of the session I decided to do one more hardish effort on the course, basically, I would go 100% on the steep climbs, tempo on the not so steep climbs and cruise the flatish sections (downhills are always flatout!). After completing the lap, I looked down to see I just completed the lap 50 seconds faster than the fastest lap in my race, my average heart rate was even 20 beats lower than the race average. Sorta tells me something was up in the race. After meeting Mel afterwards, she had the same opinion, she was consistently riding laps much faster than in her race (course conditions were almost identical). What I'm taking from it is that next year I'll be travelling out much earlier for it giving more time to get over the long haul flights and more importantly getting used to the heat and humidity.

I have to give a thank you to our sponsors and especially both Specialized and Cycleways for looking after us in South Africa. A few hiccups appeared along the trip and they were amazing at sorting everything out so that I could focus on the race. Thanks for the support and for getting us on the best race bikes available. Both Mel and I would also like to thank Alan Donnelly for making the trip out and helping out with the feed and technical zones, photo taking and lots of other things.


Anonymous said...

Hi Ryan,
sounds like fantastic racing, and a good write up too.
See you soon,
Andy, Clee Cycles

Ryan Sherlock said...

It was amazing racing - as I said, I have never ridden a course like it.

I really wish I was travelling with Mel to Germany for the WC, but alas, work has its commitements.

Also, the number of elite riders using KCNC bits - very very popular. Absalon, Sauser (,me :P) etc...