For me, the culmination of the season had always been planned to be the World Masters races, this year taking place in Slovenia. At the beginning of the season I hadn't anticipated spending two lengthy spells of the season off the road, so in the end even getting to the start line was a mini achievement.
After last years results I had high expectations of myself, not helped by seeing that last years double champion in my age group wasn't returning to defend her titles.
In the run up to travelling, a frantic few days were had with a phone call a day to the lovely Glynn and Guy at Geoffrey Butlers as I had decided to pimp up my Cello Elliot before I went with brand spanking new 11speed Shimano ultegra group set. It eventually arrived with me on Thursday, when I was leaving on Friday. We got it fitted, just, despite the peculiarities of indexing an 11speed front derailleur. Couldn't have done it without my new best mate Adam Sayer!
I had decided I wanted to travel plenty of days in advance to get a chance to ride both courses in full before race day. What we experienced in those first few days was some of the most beautiful and peaceful riding ever, although for me it was mostly seen from the driving seat of a car supporting Chris on his longer rides that he could do. I don't generally do resting very well, but managed it without driving either myself or Chris up the wall too much.
Soon enough it was Wednesday, and there were practical things to do like registration, rider briefing and the time trial course recce. It was our first trip into Ljubljana itself (we had chosen to stay in a historical town Skofja Loka 45 minutes north of Ljubljana). My instant impression was of a very well organised event, streets ahead of last years championships in Trento. The TT recce was an interesting concept, as it was essentially a closed road bubble. I was surprised that most people were happy to just ride it in a peloton, but I wanted to see all the racing lines, bumps and so on whilst minimising the build up of lactic acid in my legs. The course was as pan-flat as they had promised, an out and back with risk of crosswinds through exposed field sections. Not really a course to suit me, but my time trialling has come on leaps and bounds in the last 18 months, so I was still confident that with the right focus I could put in a good performance.
Thursday morning came round and it was race day. I calmly and systematically got myself ready, not panicking about the bike check as I knew my set up was comfortably within the new UCI regs. There wasn't a decent stretch of Tarmac to warm up on which is my preference, so I had to subject myself to putting my bike into a bank of 12 turbo trainers immediately adjacent to the start. There was a lot of hustle and bustle going on, but I just zoned out and concentrated on doing my own thing. Then it was into pre-start and at 11:02:30 I was off. At 30s intervals you can see a lot of other riders, and immediately I could see the Dane who had set off 30s in front of me. My first thought was 'maybe I can catch her', and probably went a tiny bit too hard in the vain hope of doing so. But it became very quickly apparent that she was actually pulling away from me.
There was a slight headwind on the way out which made it hard work. I kept having to switch gears to find a cadence and power output that felt efficient. At the half way point it became apparent that I wasn't making progress on catching anyone, and was in fact losing ground on most of the other girls. Then to see Mary-Claire Aquilana from Malta (one of the teams arch-rivals) catching me for a minute at that point and passing me like I was standing still destroyed my self belief altogether. It's hard to tell from my Garmin data whether I gave up at that point. I don't think I did, but on time trials when things don't go to plan the hardest thing is to keep pushing and hurting yourself. One more rider caught and passed me before I reached the finish. It turned out that she was the eventual winner, but only 7 tenths of a second faster than the Dane. I ended up in 10th place, 2min30s or so down, and feeling completely demoralised by the whole thing.
I now had 3 days to get my brain and body back in shape for the road race on Sunday. Sorting the
body out was the easy bit, with a short recovery ride on Friday and a slightly longer and harder ride
on Saturday. Mentally though, it was a huge challenge. A Facebook messenger exchange with coach Garry Palmer, some checking of results from other races and lots of positive encouragement from Chris and teammate Jo Blakeley all helped, and I got myself to a place where I was starting to believe in myself again.
It was an early start on Sunday morning, but it was a beautiful morning again so all was good. We were surprised to get one of the best parking spots in the arena, yards away from where I needed to go to enter the start box. Confusion over starting arrangements continued through to Sunday morning. Was there a neutralised zone? Were we even going to stop outside of the city before the race proper? Which age groups were grouped together? In the end the organisers made absolutely the right decision; racing from the gun and all the women starting together at 9:30. I knew it wouldn't go hard from the gun with a long flat roll-out and over 4 hours of racing ahead, so my warm up simply consisted of turning the legs over at very low intensity for 15 or so minutes. Then it was into the start box with about 15 minutes to go to the start. I wasn't stressed about being at the front of the box as I knew it wouldn't matter in such a small peloton (72 riders) over such a long course on completely closed roads.
Despite this, it was still a bit skittish in the first few kilometres, and I even touched wheels with one of the Canadians, although we both stayed upright. I was surprised that a couple of the 'favourites' including TT winner in my age group Juanita Venter (South Africa) seemed willing to sit on the front and move the pace along, with 60+ passengers in tow. The first 'hill' on the course came after about 30km, was 4.7km in length with an average gradient of 4%. I had predicted that some of the favourites would make this hill work for them and indeed that was the case. Molly van Houweling from USA went straight to the front and put the hammer down. I was alert to it and got on a good wheel about 5 back, climbing comfortably with the strong girls. I didn't look back to see what carnage the effort had caused, but do know the peloton was down to about 40 in size next time I ended up at the back.
After the steep climb, the course actually carried on climbing much more subtly for another 10km or
so, and then we set off on an awesome descent into the town of Idrija. Again I had made a conscious
decision to position myself near the front so I had good sighting on the descent. I was confident with
my descending, and detected a split in the peloton forming behind me. It didn't stick, but it's good to know I can descend with the best in the world. A long drag along the valley saw the peloton reform, and you started to get the feeling that everyone was preparing themselves for what came next. From the town of Cerkno we had a 7km climb with gradients up to 11%. My plan approaching the climb was to swap bottles at the feed station at the bottom, then go with the leaders pace for as long as I could. There was no doubt in my mind at the time that was the best tactic. I got myself into a good position for grabbing a bottle, but in doing so I slipped back a bit too far in the peloton, so before I even started I was on the back foot and chasing. The steepest part of the hill was the first two km, and whilst I went past a lot of people chasing the leaders in the first km, I was to severely pay for this later. The pace the leaders were setting was just too high and in the end I had to watch them cycling away from me, having put my whole body into severe lactic overload. Hopes of a medal were disappearing up the road.
The next 40km were probably the hardest I have ever ridden in a race. Firstly trying to hold wheels of girls who I should have been able to with no problems, then a frantic and fruitless lone chase on the descent. I was caught from behind by two other girls and a back marker from one of the men's races, but they were being assisted by two locals who had been out spectating. I got some help for a while, but again couldn't hold the wheel when one of the non-racing guys came to the front just after I had done my turn. I was getting a bit pissed off with him as I knew we shouldn't be getting outside help, and also knew if it was just the racers, I wouldn't have been dropped. We were seeing the peloton ahead of us again, and would have caught them under our own steam.
Then, another 20km completely on my own on a subtly rolling road into a slight headwind. I was destroyed, and was nearly in tears, desperate to just climb off my bike and crawl into a hole. But no, I knew that wasn't the correct attitude, so I slaved on, and was actually still pushing out a very respectable average speed.
I was so relieved when a large group came through from behind and welcomed me into their fold.
Once again most were non-racers, but I didn't feel so bad about accepting help this time, partly
because of my mental state and partly as I knew this time there was no chance that anyone would be
dragged back into medal contention. I sat in for a while, and we kept picking up back markers from the men's race as we got closer and closer to Ljubljana. Then the girls who were racing took control and I started rolling through and taking my turn. We kept the pace high all the way to the finish, and I even managed a little sprint to the line to beat the other girl in my age group in our group. It turned out we were only 9 minutes down, and I was 13th from my age group over the line.
Whilst disappointed again, I knew I had done all I could and more. This was proved as I nearly blacked out whilst waiting for some food. I don't get like that often!
In hindsight, some more lessons were learnt tactically, but there were positives as well as negatives. At this stage I don't know whether I will do next years race in Denmark, as it will be much more like a pure (but very long) road race. Now it's time to rest, recover, and get my shoulder properly fixed.
A huge thanks has to go out to the people who have got me through a difficult year - coach Garry Palmer at Sportstest, physio Femke Nauschutz at Finest Physio, all the boys at Geoffrey Butler Cycles and my brilliant husband Chris who has put up with severe amounts of verbal abuse from a frustrated injured athlete.