Saturday, December 17, 2011
My excursion into track cycling...
... was unfortunately short-lived. But I'll start at the beginning:
After my decent performance in the Ras na mBan and the news that I turned Irish, I was approached by the Cunga track team to "test" as a rider for the women's team pursuit. There already was a full team of Irish riders, i.e. 3 riders, that were trying to qualify for the London Olympics next year: Caroline Ryan, Ciara Horne and Sinead Jennings, but their situation was that if any one of them was put out due to injury or sickness, their chances for qualification would be destroyed. Thus, to strengthen the set-up, they were always on the look out for extra riders that could become part of the team and help towards Olympic qualification. And so it was that on a very short notice I joined the girls on their pre-European champs track camp in Newport, Wales, UK (the closest track to me as there is not (yet!) one in Dublin).
Thankfully, I did not have to invest into a track bike right then, and I got a lend of one of theirs, so it was easy to just turn up to Newport. There are frequent and cheap flights to Bristol with Ryanair (less frequent and less cheap to Cardiff with Aer lingus), from where the public transport connection to Newport is also good and frequent (airport bus and then train). But on my first trip I got a lift with the team's coach, Brian Nugent (who in his main job is the Irish Paracycling track coach, at which he has been very successful) and arrived at "track team camp central", better known as the Newport Central Travelodge (right across from Newport train station and near to a Tesco and Starbucks and the main Newport bus station, very convenient).
The next morning it was straight onto the track. I was a little bit intimidated and nervous as I've never been on a proper track before (I did a one-day introductory track session on Sundrive track, Dublin's outdoor concrete track on a crappy old rental track bike), so I had a bit of an idea of what to expect, but in no way it compared to what a real proper wooden indoor track is like, especially not on a much better track bike.
Not being used to riding a fixie, the first challenge was to get going and clipped in on one. You either clip in holding onto the railing or manage to clip in while the pedals are turning..... The next challenge was to get onto the track. Oh my god, it was even steeper than I had imagined! I think I almost got a heart attack just riding on the Cote d'Azure (the blue bit that's not even the track proper) and was ecstatic when I dared to make it up onto the black line and around. In no time I was brought up by the very patient resident track coach Chris Davis (who probably had already lost all hope of me as a future track rider at that stage) onto the next line up, the red line. Oh my god - I kinda lost all hope right then. Let's say I was just happy to be off the track again and having even floor under my feet. I was so afraid that I would slide down the track!
Luckily for me there was a short break and I could get onto the track completely by myself, riding around as I liked without endangering any of the other riders that probably wondered who was riding around like a complete fool. Anyhow, I have to say that this time on the track by myself helped me so much, I went completely crazy, riding slaloms up and down the track like a snake and ventured up to the very top so that in the end I was able to ride even to the most steepest bit of the track at the highest point! Wohoo!
But to think that this would be the only fear I had to conquer that day was too early. Next my track bike was equipped with proper team pursuit bars - you know, the type one uses on TT bikes. Apart from a 5min stint on Ryan's TT bike at home before, I have never ridden TT bars - let alone on a fixie around a steep track! Again my heart rate soared when I transitioned from the outside bars onto the TT extension bits (I'm sure there's a proper name for these things too). At least now I wasn't afraid of riding the black line any more. I learned a few technical things about pursuit line and position on the bike, looking into the corners etc. and had a few laps around the track, doing up and over changes too.
So I had conquered the fixie, the steepness of the track and the TT bars, but my last fear to conquer was to get closer to the riders in front of me. And while I was inching closer each time out on the track, I was still very scared to trust the person in front. I know, the person in front also does not have breaks and thus cannot come to a sudden stop, and thus my fear of riding into him/her was mostly irrational, but I just couldn't let go and get closer. Well, another day for that I thought.
The second day I was meant to try and hang on with the girls (talking about jumping in the deep end) but couldn't - they were flying!!! - but mainly also because again I just couldn't get close enough onto their wheel to get the full advantage of the draft. With a final session on how to do a standing start I had learned all the basics needed for team pursuit. In the afternoon I watched the girls do some bunch racing with the Vets while I wondered what I had got myself in for....
Lucky for me I could combine this trip with some family time and I made my way over to Swansea to visit my little sister and my brother in law where we spent a short night and watched the Wales vs. Ireland (Wales won) and then the England vs. France (France won) rugby games in the morning before taking a train back to Bristol and flying home.
Back in Ireland I thought about this opportunity of supporting the track team and decided to go for it. Such a chance seldom comes your way and it would be a dream come true. The chance for Olympic qualification for the team would be so tight that there would be many stages on the way that would decide if they are still in the running for an Olympic spot, so every race would count and I knew that this adventure could be over for me before it even started, I was just hoping that the decision either way would be obvious! After some serious talks with my husband and my supervisor we came to a solution on how I could work around the finances and time investment (since I'm still a full-time PhD student) and so I signed up for the next track camp.
In the mean-time the girls had finished 7th in the European champs, a decent result, but not quite indicative of the improvement that they have undoubtedly made since they've started training for this season.
After a few days visiting my family in Germany (this is off-season, the only time I am not bound by strict training and eating regimes!), a few hours back in Ireland (the night Dublin got flooded) to see our apartment block and car park under water and therefore a very short night I was back on my way to the airport again heading to the Newport track for a second time.
The 2nd time round was a lot less scary. Getting onto the bike and onto the track was fine, this time no nervousness was involved. I had a nice morning session with Chris and rode with the group on the track, returning to watch the evening races as I was too tired to race myself. Then the next three days I did some of the same training as the girls, watching them do their efforts, trying out Caroline's super cool TT bars (more expensive than I thought was ever possible - and I thought I was used to the cost of high end equipment), trying to hang on to them in their efforts (without much luck, dying after about a kilometer - after 4 weeks of off-season my legs just didn't want to follow). On the last day I also learned how to do standing starts out of the machine and was happy that my start times were fast enough to be able to slot in with the girls. Personally, my greatest achievement was when we did our final effort, with all of us doing a half a lap each and I was happy to be able to do a good change-over (in my opinion) - at that moment I knew I had taken the right decision to do this! It just felt so good how it all came together in this effort for us. Then, in the evening I did the Vet session, which included a lot of riding around in circles (as you do on a track) with a large group, with some pursuiting work and a final 10mile TT. This one finally felt like a real work-out after the very short but full-out pursuit and standing start efforts.
Now it was just time to go back to Ireland to actual training after the off-season and to wait and see how the girls would do in the first of four World Cups. There are only 6 events (Continental Champs, 4 World Cups, World Champs) in this qualification period, and for the girls to have a chance every world cup would count as they urgently needed those points. I tentatively booked my flight for the next track camp that would be on just after the girls' first world cup in in Astana, Kazakhstan, hoping the girls would do well.
On the day of the competition I was crossing both my fingers and my toes and my eyes for the girls to do well - they had to come at least 7th to realistically stay in contention. Excitedly I followed the live-timing and live-twitter feeds, but huh, what is that? The girls are down as DNF??? After some waiting, exchange of text messages and some more waiting there was clarity, the girls had DNF'd after a puncture (and a false start before that, thus using up their two allowed starts).
This meant the girls were most effectively out of reach for a spot for London (bar some highly unlikely scenarios). I was sad, because I really started enjoying the track cycling and it was a very exciting and interesting experience, but I can only imagine what a blow it must have been for the girls who had already invested so much of their time, money and energy into this adventure (here's a link to Ciara Horne's blog recounting the scenes of the event).
Given the same situation I would take the chance again in an instant. As I was only very shortly involved with the track team, it was all gain and very little loss for me (a bit of money spent and time lost on PhD), so all in all a great experience. And who knows - maybe I'll give track a proper try at a later stage... :)