Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Irish National Road Race Championships

Part 2!

Winning the Irish National Champs Road Race (photo by Barry from
Irish National Road Race Champs:
After my silver medal at the National TT Champs, I had already achieved my aim and could go into the road race relaxed. I still consider road racing a bit more of a lottery, you not only have to be fit and strong, but you also have to be able to take the right decision at the right time, making use of opportunities as they arise. I guess with experience you become better at recognizing and using these opportunities, but I am not kidding myself, I know I still have a lot to learn on that side when surrounded by seasoned professionals.

Women's Championships starting off (photo by Nadia Gativa)
Anyhow, a total of 28 women started the race, with all three TT medallists at the startline too. So I at least knew I needed to watch those two. Then there were girls I raced against during the year, so I knew their strengths and weaknesses, and then there were those that live further away and I have not raced against much or ever, so I decided to keep an eye on those too as there could be a few surprises.

The course was seven laps of a 12.5km loop (total 88km), about 6km of a bumpy/hilly road on the way out along the Suir, over a bridge, then a pretty flat and fast way back to the town along the river with the finish on the middle of the bridge. The weather was blustery with a headwind on the way out and there were some strong showers.

Olivia pushing the pace up the hills (photo by Nadia Gativa)
I was hoping for a hard race and I was not disappointed. The first lap was a bit like a warm-up lap until Orla Hendron started the first attack in style and got into an early breakaway with an ever improving Amy Brice and Roisin Kennedy. Then, Olivia Dillon and Siobhan Horgan started up the fireworks on the hills in the second lap, where we caught the early breakaway. There was a particularly nasty double hill, both pretty steep, before a fast descent down to the river and bridge and the headwind meant that if you got dropped on the climb, it would be hard to get back on on the descent. So while Olivia and Siobhan attacked, I made sure that the damage the attacks created stuck by driving the pace over the crest of the second hill and down to the bridge and around the corner (Ryan kindly allowed me to use his new Leightweight Meilenstein wheels on my Specialized Venge - having used my heavy powertap wheel and a generic front wheel in most other races I could not believe how well the Leightweights ride and corner - it was easier up the hill and I had so much fun descending and cornering, I always went full gas down the hill and into that corner). A few people got dropped every lap, but we didn't get a good rhythm going to stay away in the beginning and more and more of the people we had dropped were able to get back on through the cavalcade. At one stage I attacked and got a gap going around the corners of the far bridge, hoping to have a few strong riders coming across to me, but nobody followed and it was too early for any solo effort, so I sat back up. Then, a few more laps down, with increasing rain, the bunch was whittled down to eight people after the last hill and we got a good enough rhythm going, working well enough together to not be caught again by the main bunch.

Suffering in the rain (Photo by Nadia Gativa)
Then, in the penultimate lap, the pace on the climbs again was ferocious, with a very active Olivia, so that half of our group got dropped, so that it was only four of us left: the three TT medalists Olivia, Siobhan and me and Lydia Boylan, a track sprint specialist that lives in London. That was almost the perfect group - I had hoped to be in a three women breakaway with Siobhan and Olivia; having Lydia in the mix made it even more exciting. Going into the last lap, I thought that there was a chance of the four of us staying together until the end and that it may come down to a sprint. So I had a good look at the finishing area, to be prepared for a sprint if it came to it (I was actually thinking: "What would Fiona do?" - Fiona Meade is an amazing sprinter who has given me advice before on sprinting technique and timing) and decided if it came down to it, the 200m sign would be a good place to go (Fiona said later that that would have been where she would have gone too - so the advice helped!)

Up and over along the river Suir (photo by Nadia Gativa)
I also thought that I would be happy enough if it came down to a sprint, four people is a small enough group to keep an overview of who is doing what, and I thought I should have a good chance of getting at least into the medals (I had plenty of opportunities recently of honing in on my sprint skills against my biggest rival in Irish women's racing, Spaniard Sara Ortiz, who is providing me with a sprint challenge in almost every race!). I also didn't think I could get away from the other girls before that, so my plan was to stay conservative for the last few km, follow whatever move went and hope to still be there with them at the finish.

Crossing the finish line first! (photo by

The four of us worked fairly well together into the last lap, with Olivia trying to get away a few times, but we didn't let her go. Olivia attacked with about 3km to go, but we were on her wheel, then she tried again at 1km to go, which is about 600m before the last corner onto the bridge, but again we didn't let her get away. We rode around the left-hand corner onto the wide bridge and the three girls went onto the right side of the road, but I stayed on the left. I had thought that one of the girls would attack out of the corner, with 400m to go and wanted to be on the shorter route, but nobody went and I found myself alone on the left. I kept travelling the same speed, on my side of the road, waiting for one of them to start sprinting to the line, so that I would start too, but when the 200m sign came up and they still hadn't started their sprint, I decided I might as well go myself and sprinted like a possessed mad cow, head bopping, eyes crossing, hoping I can keep it up before someone comes around me. I knew I had won when I crossed the line.

I won! (Photo by Nadia Gativa)
I still find it hard to believe that I won. I am very happy that I was given that opportunity and that I was able to see it as such. As I said at the start, it sometimes comes down to just taking the right decision at the right time, recognizing opportunities and making the most of it. It could just as well have been a mistake to be on the left side, because the wind came from the left, so generally, this would have been the "wrong" side to be on. I also didn't get any shelter because I was on my own and would have been too far away to quickly get onto anyone's wheel if they had started sprinting. So it could easily have gone wrong. But at the same time, maybe if they had watched me more closely or if they had been on my wheel I would not have had this chance. Anyone of the four of us were strong enough to win, but fortune was on my side and right timing meant it was me who won in the end :) I am very happy with how everything went and even though the course wasn't possibly as long as it would be on the continent, it was long enough to force a selection, so that the strongest riders were there at the end. And even though I've got no other national road race champs to compare to, but I thought the race was super exciting!
Elite women's podium: Siobhan Horgan (2nd), Mel Spath (1st), Olivia Dillon (3rd) (photo by Nadia Gativa)
As usual, I would not have been able to achieve what I did without the huge amount of help and support that I am getting. First of all I want to thank my husband and coach, for being who you are and for getting me into cycling and always believing in me - my success is your success. Poor him actually had to endure a hissy fit a few days before the champs, when I complained about the training not preparing me well enough for the big day - yes, honey, I'll admit: You were right! And how many people can say they have coached multiple national champions?
Secondly, I want to thank my friend, bike mechanic, masseur, soigneur, organizer and mental supporter Stewart Carr (yes, all in one person!), who tirelessly helps out at races, making sure that I have a world class set up, so that the only thing I need to do is to pedal. He's one of the most valuable people to have around in a race - doesn't matter what happens or breaks, Stew can sort it out.
On top of a world class coach and set up, I am also lucky to have the support of my sponsors who make it possible for me to ride on world class equipment. First and foremost I want to thank Cycleways/Specialized for their ongoing, growing and loyal support. Thank you for providing me with a world class road frame to ride this year - I bet you didn't think it'll be a champions frame by the end of it! Now I just have to make sure that the mountain bike gets the same honour.
I would also like to thank my nutrition sponsor ZipVit for their ongoing support. You play a big part in my success.

ROARRRR!!!! (Photo by Nadia Gativa)
Thank you to my PhD supervisor who has supported me in my cycling endeavors from the start.
Thanks also to all the people in Cycling Ireland who have supported me in the process of declaring to ride for Ireland. I have lived in Ireland for the past twelve years - it is such an honor for me to be able to wear the Irish Champions jersey and I'll wear it with pride both in Ireland and internationally. I may have been born in Germany, but my cycling is 100% Irish born!
I am so overwhelmed by the support of the Irish Cycling community, I have never before felt so many people being happy for me at winning this race - this completely reassures me that my decision to declare for Ireland was right.
Finally, I'd like to thank the race organization and Clonmel CC for putting on such a well organized, great and very safe event. I thoroughly enjoyed the race and I am already looking forward to the Suir Valley 3 day on the August Bank Holiday Weekend, another great event in beautiful countryside.

See, I really only played a small part in it!

My Strava file from the road race champs:

Live updates:





Fiona Cooke said...

I enjoyed reading that Mel, thanks! Your insights, and your foresight are especially interesting. And your humility is admirable.

Anonymous said...

Loved reading your article, your dedication to cycling jumps out. Congratulations on your win, best of luck for the rest of the season - Fran Roche