Sunday, February 27, 2011

Taking deep breaths at Afxentia Stage Race, Cyprus

Well, the 3-day stage of the Cyprus Sunshine Cup is just over. And what a mixed bag it was. First up, on Friday, was the time trial: one loop of the XC course. The course was different this year, with more singletrack, more steep climbs and more speed changes. They did keep the super steep descents from last year though. The other difference was that the weather this year was a lot more true to the races' title, it was actually reasonable warm and the sun was out! In fact, due to the rain overnight the course conditions were perfect, the ground was really nice and very grippy.

Stage 1: Time Trial

After last week's shock to the system and my realization that I may not have enough racing fitness as I had hoped to have, I knew that this short, sharp effort would be a tough one. It's always hard to judge how well one did in comparison to others before you see the times, but I was happy enough with my ride - my heart rate was pegged throughout and I found I rode the first half really well on the technical parts, but lost concentration on the second half of the ride and started making small mistakes on the singletrack. Unfortunately about half the girls were sent the wrong (time-wise shorter) way, so that the times are not all correct. In the end I was down as 20th, a good while off Annika Langvad, who again showed off all the girls with an amazing performance.

Stage 2: Point to Point

Then it was just resting up for the XC point-to-point loop on Saturday, one of my favourite courses. The only annoying thing is that you have to endure lots of fast and hard fireroad riding before you can finally indulge in the nicest and longest singletrack climb and descent here in Cyprus. This year we also started further down the mountain in the village Kapedes and the climb up on the tarmac to the start of the fireroad was hairy, to say the least. Some girls really don't know how to ride their bike in a bunch. People were barging through everywhere in a fight for positions and almost pushing you into the ditch, erratically changing positions from one side of the road to the other and not staying in their line. So to stay out of trouble I went to the front. The pace was actually not very fast, and Ryan thinks with all my road training I should have attacked off the front to try and get a bit of space before entering the fireroad - now that would have been an interesting move! We hit the fireroad still together, but the pace soon picked up and the bunch started splitting up. I overshot on one corner and had to break really hard and lost a few positions. But my aim was to not go too hard at the start anyway, so that I don't blow up on the long singletrack climb, like last year. And it mostly paid off. On the climb I was able to overtake a few girls and was working my way up the rankings. Unfortunately I got stuck behind a slow Ukranian girl who really didn't want to let me pass (of course this was at a stretch where the track was too tight and the sides too steep to pass without pushing her into the ditch), so I did my best to control my anger and finally passed her at the first opportunity. I passed more girls on the way to the top and when I came out on on the top on the bit of road that connects the two singletrack sections I could see Anne Terpstra and Laura Turpjin in front of me - I knew then that I was going well! I felt great too, feeling that I had paced myself well up to the top, possibly even left too much in the tank. I absolutely loved the singletrack descent, but lost a bit of concentration when I came off the bike in one loose corner. I knew the girls I had overtaken on the climb couldn't be too much behind me, so I kept the pressure on and kept up the speed on the last 5km towards the finish. I was very happy when I saw the 500m sign and went underneath the bridge. I prepared myself for the last short steep climb - but wait, why is Mike at the top gesturing me to go into the middle loop of the XC course? It was an extra 1.5km that we had to do that I had not expected! Finally I finished in 12th position, which I was really happy with.

However, when I stopped after the race to chat to a few people before I went on my cool down, my chest started tightening up and I couldn't get any air. I started panicking which made it worse, so people called a lady from the ambulance. She tried to get me to go to the ambulance, but I didn't want to move because I had to concentrate hard to get my breathing back. After a while the heaving and wheezing died down and my breathing went back to mostly normal. This was now the third time I had this happening, so I will get it checked out when I come back to Ireland. Another thing I was unhappy with was that again some girls were sent went the wrong way, with some girls having done the very short loop that I had expected, the middle loop of the XC course or even the outer loop of the XC course.

Stage 3: Cross Country

Then on Sunday was the last of the stages, a regular XC race on the same course as the time trial. The pace was blistering from the start. It was so fast and hard in fact that my breathing problems that had plagued me after the race yesterday returned and got so bad that I had to stop for a rest after the start loop. I could barely get any air and had to let all the riders pass one by one. I told the marshal that I wanted to pull out of the race, but he didn't want to take that and told me to take a rest and catch my breath. I was weighing up my options in my head. I would have stopped if it had not been part of a stage race and counted for the overall cup. So I waited until I my breathing returned back to normal and decided to try and finish this lap and re-evaluate then. Unfortunately the course with all it's steep ups and downs and speed and acceleration changes was not suitable for riding easy. But I got around and decided to keep going and finish the race. I focused on getting into a rhythm and stay at that speed for the rest of it. It felt like I was going only at 80%, so I was surprised then that I could pick up a few more riders. In the end I finished the race in 16th position and 11th in the overall - thanks to my good time from the point-to-point race I didn't loose too many positions. But needless to say that this race is ranking high on the list of most frustrating races. But it could have been worse, I could have been the strongest rider and leader of the race and missed the start, therefore missing out on 160 UCI points in the only HC stage race, a heap of prize money (Some blank looks were exchanged when the race leader, Annika Langvad, was called to the start line but didn't turn up! Anyhow, the race was started without it's leader and it turned out that Annika Langvad simply arrived too late to the race due to not being aware of the change in start times that was communicated on the manager's meeting but not updated on the website (luckily I heard about it!) - see here for her emotional blog entry).

Until I got the breathing problems during the race in stage 3 I had been in denial about having any problem at all - sure, who cares about breathing problems AFTER the race is over and sure a bit of heavy breathing and gasping for air, isn't that normal after a hard race effort...? But today, when I went out on my training ride today with Frederik and my house guest Henrique, I couldn't keep up with them and go my own pace because of my breathing again - I felt like I was dying to keep up with them and they were not going very hard....

Obviously I am now a bit more concerned about this, especially since it has started to affect my performance. The obvious guess is that it's exercise-induced asthma, something that seems to afflict half of the professional cycling community, so I'm planning to get tested for that.

All the results can be found on cyclingnews.

Big thanks is due to the Orange Monkey Team for helping me out in the feed zones!

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