Saturday, November 23, 2013

Update part 10 - Off season and start into the new training season

After the hill climb champs my season was well and truly over and I took great advantage of that. With racing as far off as March I stuffed my face with all the comfort food that I had given up during the season, just to make sure I put on those lost kg again... In fact, the 6 weeks before the Worlds, when I was loosing weight, I passed by this bakery with the most delicious looking cakes on my way to my grocery shop and all that I could do to not break off my diet was to dream that I would try every cake on display in the month of off-season. I didn't get through them all, but I got close ;)

In the off-season, Ryan and I spent our first real non-biking, non-working and non-PhDing holiday in Berlin for 6 days, exploring the city and enjoying the culinary scene (that includes kebabs). It was just what we both needed.
Enjoying the last of the good weather with friends
But after Berlin I became a little lost and restless. I had no training to do, no job to work, no PhD to study, nowhere to go and nothing to do. Yes, of course there was always something to do, like cleaning the house and tidying the bikeroom and all those things that are on the long-finger list, but eventually I ran out of any of the more obvious and pertinent tasks. I wasn't happy. I've realized I'm not good with nothing to do. In fact, when I have nothing to do I get nothing done. I also had no idea of what my options would be for next year team-wise, and I still don't know now. Ideally I would like to race lots in European big-bunch-small-roads races, to learn the craft of effortlessly surfing the peloton. So I thought that if I don't get to race with a team, or if I get to race with a small club team, then I'll have to fund myself, and rent also doesn't pay itself anyway, so I had to get a job and earn some money. A little perk up was the CI Awards Ceremoney, where Ryan and I received our National Champs medals.

Receiving my medals at the CI Awards night from Stephen Roche (photo: Black Umbrella)
After some time a suitable option that allows me to keep training finally came through, so that I will work part-time this winter to earn money for me to travel next year for races. This year has been such a massive learning curve, and taking the option with TIBCO was like jumping into the deep end with sharks. Maybe with TIBCO I was biting more than I could chew, but the experience I gained can only help me next year. Stay tuned for my plans for next year!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Update part 9 - Irish Hill Climb Champs

After the World Champs my off-season more or less started. I still had one race, the Irish National Hill Climb Champs in Tralee, but it wasn't actually an official championship for women, so competition would be expected to be few for me - I was mainly going along to support Ryan who was hoping to defend his title. So all I had to do was try and not over indulge in all the nice foods that I had abstained from in order to loose weight and keep my legs moving. As predicted, there were very few women at the hill climb champs (3) and I decided to use my power tap in the race (I don't usually because of the weight penalty, and because it's on a wheel built for sturdyness and not aerodynamics) to get some measurements. I won the women's race with a time of 14min 18sec and an average power of 343W. The courses 3.9km long and climbed 295m with an average gradient of 8%, levelling off in the middle for a bit, but then ramping up with about 1km to go. In contrast to the sunshine and beautiful views when we recce'd the course the day before we now had misty fog and a massive headwind to battle. It was interesting to see the power - I included the file below, again I went out too hard at the start, dropping power towards the end. Ryan came 2nd with only 0.7 of a second behind the winner, Mark Dowling, who had beaten him already 2 years ago (Ryan blames me for having taken him a bag of delicious Cantucci home from Florence - ooops!).

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Update part 8 - Road World Championships

After a couple of days (mental) recovery I resumed straight back into my training for the Road Worlds. I felt surprisingly good after the Ras and not as tired as I had expected to, so I was happy about that. To keep my race skills sharp I took part in the Leinster Road Race Champs on a great little course in Dunlavin. Unfortunately the ladies bunch were not interested in a hard race but rather were happy to potter along at a speed that was in active recovery range. There were a couple of futile attacks until Orla Hendron managed to get away. I had planned to get away on the hills on the 3rd side of the triangular course and bided my time until then. But come the hills, I was off the front like a rocket. I felt great and rode hard until I had chased down Orla. I took Orla with me until we hit the hill at the start-finish line and I dropped her, riding the last two laps of the 72km course by myself. I hadn't planned on doing a 50km TT effort, but I need to get my training in! In the end I finished over three minutes ahead of the women. Oh yes, form was coming along very nicely indeed.

Leinster Road Champs Podium
 Now to the professional highlight of my season, the Road World Championships in Florence. I already published my first attempt at doing a video diary on the lead up to the women's race in previous posts, but I'll provide a summary here and also a report about the race itself. So, just to recap, I flew to Florence with some of the juniors on the Tuesday before the race. We all stayed in this fantastic Italian apartment set up with our own private courtyard. We had several fully furnished apartments inclusive of little kitchenettes and I was to room with Olivia and Sam Bennett and Matt Brammeier were to occupy the other bedroom. The mechanic's apartment became the workshop and bike room, our soigneurs (Stacey (AnPost) and Alyssa (Garmin)) apartment became the massage parlour and the kitchen in our chef's apartment became our dining room. Oh yes, we had our own chef, Sean Fowler from Garmin, and he was so worth it. He was so good that we were all disappointed when we were told that we are going to GO OUT for dinner on the last night to celebrate. The managers and logistics officers apartments became HQ and organizations office, respectively. We were also situated right in the centre of Florence, making it easy for us to get to the circuit part of the course. On Wednesday I rode around the circuit with the juniors and then watched the men's TT with our own Nicolas Roche placing a very respectible 13th place, reflecting his bigger focus on TT this year. On Thursday Olivia arrived and we went on an easy recovery ride around the circuit. Friday was my openers day, and I did my intervals on the long climb on the circuit. My session was hard and long, the hardest and longest I would have done ever before a race (over 140 TSS points!), but with the length of our race of 140km I felt I needed a good bit of pressure in my legs. I was in such amazing form, probably the best form of my life, the training felt easy.
Team Ireland!

Road World Championship Race day: The weather stayed as nice for our race as it had been in the days leading up to it. Sunny and warm with just a little breeze. Olivia and I were driven out to Montecatini, where the race was to start and where the Irish tent was set up. After a good warm-up, some last minute feeding and a last second toilet trip we were lined up with helicopters buzzing above. After a short while waiting for the time to count down we were off on the about 60km to Florence. Olivia and I didn't actually get to see the full course, but the first 60km were pretty straightforward on big open and mostly straight roads. There was only one short sharp climb about 6km into the race, but too short to let anything get away. I started off a the back and after seeing Claudia, my Team TIBCO teammate riding for the German national team also riding at the back I thought it would be a safe enough place to be. Because I knew that Claudia would know exactly when it is important to go to the front. Our advice had been to preserve as much power as possible and hide in the bunch, so that suited me well. Because I was nervous, very nervous. What if I crash and take someone out and it's going to be shown live on TV? So I decided I'll just stay on Claudia's wheel and move up when she does. It also increasingly looked like that nobody was going to get away on the long stretch to Florence, although there were plenty of attempts.

Up and up and up the long climb to Fiesole

However, when we came closer to Florence the pace became more frantic and I lost her out of my eye. Unfortunately neither Olivia nor I had recc'ed the part of the course that went through the historical part of Florence before we hit the circuit. We had largely been of the understanding that there was nothing technical on the course until we hit the circuit in Florence, and so had only looked at the cuicuit, because it made no sense to drive to Montecatini and sit in the car for 3hours the day before the race to see mostly non-technical roads. What got lost in communication was that before we hit the circuit, we would hit a very technical section through the historical quarters of Florence, with tiny narrow roads covered in hundreds of years old flag stones. It would have been hard to recce this part anyway as that part of town is overrun by tourists or the course was closed for racing. But we had neither anticipated this part of the course to be so technical nor that the Americans and the Russians would use this to their advantage. As soon as came close to the historic part the Americans and Russians pushed up the pace, lining out the complete bunch and lead the line crit style through the Piazza della Repubblica, the Piazza del Duomo and by other historic sites. In hindsight it was so obvious - these girls would know every corner of the course by heart, having practiced and raced the TTT and ITT, which covered the same stretch on it. Well, long story short, I was nearly at the very back of the 144 rider strong peloton and there was no way to move up once the bunch was strung out at full gas speed around those corners. I did all I could do then, which was to stay on the next persons wheel ahead of me, but of course splits appeared in the bunch. Once we hit the climb I did my very best to climb up as many positions as possible and arrived at the top of the hill with the front of what then became the 3rd group on the road. I was hoping my group would try and chase, but we were too far down and nobody was interested in working, since most riders would have teammates up front. Unfortunately Olivia, who had been much better positioned when the speed went up had been pinched in corners at critical points and we both ended up in the same group. When I saw that nobody was interested in chasing I knew our race was over. Not without frustration I surrendered to the fact and rode around the circuit with my group until we were pulled with one lap to go. Olivia and I waited at the finish to see the amazing Marianne Vos do what she does best, win a bike race!

Descending again after the long climb

I was a little disappointed that we didn't get placed, only 46 riders out of 144 starters finished the race and quite frustrated at having been so nervous and stayed so far back. I am still not quite comfortable racing at close quarters in the big bunches and it shows when I'm super nervous. I know physically I was in the best place I could have been in, but I just need to work more on my bunch skills, something that does not yet come natural to me, but requires a lot of effort. I do hope to be able to address this shortfall next year though, but more about that later.

What I do want to say though about the World Champs was how well we were taken care off by Cycling Ireland and how much support we received from the Irish fan contingent in Florence. It was easily the least stressful week from a professional cyclist's perspective, since everything was taken care off from taking care of the bike, our body, our food, our clothes and our aministrative stuff. All we needed to do was keep the legs ticking over until the race, be there for our massage, enjoy amazing food and get lots of rest. Bliss!

Olivia and I keeping the pace up

And with the weather holding up nicely for our race the Irish were out in force all along the course, it was amazing to see all the Irish flags and yes, I could hear yas!

My flight back from Florence was only on Monday evening, so I could enjoy watching our men race, who were much more unfortunate with atrocious weather, making the amazingly smooth roads as slippery as an icerink after torrential rain, destroying the hopes of an Irish medal when one after the other our men were wiped out in the many many crashes. Luckily they all stayed unharmed and we enjoyed a nice dinner together on the last night.

Monday morning I spent eating my way through Florence (oh, the Cantucci!) before returning home on an almost completely Irish-fan filled flight.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Update part 7 - Ras na mBan

Back in Ireland I soon found out that I would also get the chance to represent Ireland in Road World Championships for the first time in my life. Wow, what an honour! Those news and the fact that I had been selected for the Irish National Team to race in the Ras na mBan gave me just the right amount of motivation and reason to refocus. And focussed I was! For once I had good bodily feelings - I could finally push myself again in training and wasn't intimidated by 3hour intensive sessions. My training was going better and better, my power numbers were creeping up and stayed consistently high, I felt great and I was super disciplined with my training and focussed a lot on my eating to try and get as lean as healthily possible for the Road World Champs, which would feature about 1600m of climb. During this about 6 week preparation period Ryan was out of the country for racing himself in Belgium and when he came back the day before I left for the Worlds even he couldn't believe how lean I had become. The Worlds were such a big thing for me, I did everything to keep my training going well, to drop weight and to stay healthy, including avoiding birthday parties and other gatherings of people to avoid catching a cold.
Ras na mBan Team

Already for the Ras na mBan I was in amazing form. This year the RnB took place in Clare for a change. I was sad to see the Ras leave Kerry, because I loved the set up and the stages, but I needn't have worried, because Clare proved to be just as epic a scenery with just as tough roads. The RnB this year had 6 stages with the new addition of a TTT stage (no ITT), for which our team was specifically chosen, and a circuit type stage on the same day. Stage 1 went well enough, although it was apparent that there was a huge difference in ability in the peloton. I was off the front in the end, but messed up by getting confused at which way we had to turn for the finish and hesitated, only to be caught up by the bunch again. It was too late to get going again and I just finished with the bunch.

Winner winner chicken dinner!

Stage 2 greeted us with forebording grey skies and the rain set in soon. The course was technical from the start, passing through the dramatic landscape of the Burren with its rough exposed slate stone. We were also down a team member due to injury, so we had our work cut out. My teammate Caroline got into a break with another rider and we let them get a gap. With a few QOM points shortly following each other there were a lot of attacks. On one of the last ones an attack went again, and Olivia, Jenny Fay, a Danish girl and I followed, with the peloton close on our heels. The Danish girl unfortunately washed out on a tight left hand downhill corner on the very slippery road. I narrowly managed to avoid the girl because she out of my trajectory path. Olivia, Jenny and I kept riding hard trying to make it across to Caroline and her breakaway companion. After a hard chase we finally caught them and worked together hard over the Burren hills. We dropped the other rider and finally Caroline before the Corkscrew climb, leaving Olivia, Jenny and me in the breakaway group. We still had about 60km to go and kept working hard. Our hard work paid off with the time difference to the peloton creeping up an up as the kilometers went by. The day was rainy and the scenery amazing going by the sea and riding in our little group was actually much more relaxing and straightforward than having to battle for position in the bunch and being in danger of being brought down by people crashing around you. The finish for today was uphill and at the start of the hill Olivia attacked and went off the front. Jenny didn't try to follow, so I also attacked and rode across to Olivia. Olivia and I worked together until about 200m to go, where she openened up the uphill sprint. After short deliberation I decided to sprint myself and overtook her just before the line. I had won the stage and Olivia was in pink due to countback from stage 1 - happy days! In addition, Jenny Fay managed to stay ahead of the bunch, so we had an all Irish podium for that day.

Smooth TTT - photo by  Black Umbrella Productions

Stage 3 was the TTT, which the Irish team won in a breeze. For our first time riding as a group we were doing really well and I felt very comfortable during the stage. Stage 4 in the afternoon was the circuit race, which was hard if you don't keep doing crits regularly, the sprinting out of the corners and chasing after the many attacks for my teammate Olivia was tiring me out and I finished with the bunch.

Stage 4 started in Lisdoornvarna and took in some amazing scenery on a smashingly beautiful and summery warm day next to the cliffs of Moher. The sun shone and the wind blew and we raced up and down the green and barren countryside around the town of the matchmaker. Our team did our very best to control the race in front, following every dangerous attack, which was taking its toll on my legs, but luckily Olivia managed to follow them when the groups splintered on the last few climbs on the last approach into Lisdoornvarna. I used as many wheels I could find to get back up to the front group and rolled in just a wheel behind Olivia, since I had to protect her lead and make sure she stayed in pink.

Leading the peloton through the techy parts of town (photo: Black Umbrella)

The last stage was another horribly wet day with gusty strong winds. The course led us up some tough climbs where the peloton started to splinter - stage race fatigue seemed to be setting in. I managed to crest the top with the front group as sole representative of my team and started on the technical downhill descent with the front few people. Then there was a crash on a tight right hand corner with a waterfilled pothole and the group split even more. I hung onto the front group who were going easy, waiting for some of their riders to catch back on. Finally, I could see Olivia and Jenny Fay working together and dropped back shortly to help them catch on. After getting some of the time splits our group decided to work hard because of they could improve their respective GC positions and Olivia and I just hung on. Unfortunately we had a massive headwind all the way back to Ennis and progress was painfully slow and boring. There were a few late attacks, but I stayed with Olivia and rolled in a wheel behind her, finishing in 2nd place overall, on the same time as my teammate Olivia.

For me the Ras na mBan this year was quite an emotional experience. I was proud and honoured to have had the opportunity to represent my adopted home country so well, with an Irish 1-2 in GC. And I was similarly proud of the success of the DID Ladies Team, who won 3 of the 6 stages. On a personal level the tactics that were directed did not align with my personal aims - this is the 2nd time that I'm coming 2nd behind Olivia in this race - but this time I was on the same team as Olivia and road cycling it is after all a team sport. I did my job and I am very happy that the Irish National Team put in such a good performance in the face of toughest and highest level competition in years. And there is always next year, right?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Update part 6 - Lotto Tour in Belgium

After Sweden we had a long transfer to the Lotto Decca Tour in Belgium, with a stopover in Denmark. Since we were going to pass through Northern Germany and to get a break from the intense atmosphere, I thought to take the train up to visit my dad and his wife for a few relaxed days of training. It was a welcome change and I enjoyed a few very nice and chilled days with good food, quality training and great company. My dad and I even got to share a swim in the beautifully relaxing sea. Oh how I miss the sea swims! Also, for the first time in a long time I found that I could actually push myself again in training, able to push out some high intensity.

Team presentation at the Lotto Tour in Belgium

After this break I made the two day trip by train to the camping site in France, where the team was staying for the duration of the Lotto Decca Tour. The tour started with another TTT and though some good signs were coming from my legs, one week of relaxation and good training did not magically make my form reappear to what it should be. So again I was nervous and the course was quite technical too. In short, I got dropped again at about the 5km mark. The rest of the tour was 3 road stages. I started the next stage and was doing OK until there was a big crash at a bridge just before the major climb of the course that I got caught behind. A settled into one of the chase groups and we nearly got back on, but my legs were not going as hard as I wanted them too and I got dropped on the climb, forming another little chase group with 2 girls. But then I hit one of the cobbled sections at high speed into a corner and washed out, getting dropped from those girls too. I was swallowed up by the largest dropped group on the road and came home with them. We were pulled one lap to go, but got a placing. Obviously I was not impressed with my performance, and I was very frustrated. My form wasn't there and I shouldn't be racing.
Caught behind a crash at the bottom of the climb

Stage 3 was a flat stage and I was instructed to attack to try and get away. I tried a few fruitless attempts and nearly made it over to one of the girls that successfully stayed away for most of the race, but I didn't have the power to make it across before the chasing bunch swallowed me again. Then I was caught again behind a crash and I think my mind just broke then and there. I wasn't even able to pull together the power to chase back on after all my breakaway attempts. I never made it back on and was pulled with a lap to go, DNF. This meant I wasn't going to start the last stage that went up the famous Koppenberg, but to be honest, I don't think I would have made it up it. I felt I had let myself and my team down and all I wanted to do was go home and curl myself up under my duvet cover and cry. I discussed things with my team director and thought it was best to go home early and skip the next few races I was down to do so that I don't drag the team down with my frustration. I wished my team luck and left the next day to spend the day in Brussels where I spent the night before my flight home the next day. In Brussels I made the best of my situation and played indulging tourist, I think I had Belgian chocolate, Belgian icecream AND Belgian waffles all in one day. And I loved it. Walking around Brussels also did wonders for my head and everything already looked a little less bleak by the time I went back home to Ireland.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Update part 5 - Sweden World Cup

Anyhow, the reason why I was so hesitant to give myself a proper break now was the fact that I was down to do the World Cup in Vargarda, Sweden and then the Lotto Decca Tour in Belgium with my regular racing team TIBCO. I thought it was too close now to take a break and just forced myself to go on training. To be honest, I wasn't sure if it was just all in my head or not, because I did have good days too, like in the Ballinrobe, but just somehow everything I did felt so much harder than it should have.

Training with my team in Sweden

However, I managed to put in some half decent training and hoped it would all somehow come back together for the racing with my team. I travelled to Sweden to be reunited with my team and we cracked on with our first TTT training together. It didn't go too bad for a first time, but I felt the speed and pain in my legs and was the first to get dropped in training. This did not bode well for my confidence, normally I would be the strong one that can keep up the power and drop people. For the TTT race so I was very nervous. On top of that I had a bad start and had to chase onto the rest of the girls, then, just when I was trying to recover, I had to avoid one of the girls nearly binning herself in a right hand corner. For the second time within a couple of minutes I had to chase on hard to the fast disappearing TTT train. I was racing in dark-red before I even put in a pull myself. This was not going well. Finally, about 10min and only 5km into the TTT, I couldn't suffer any more and had to let go. Frustrated and disappointed at my embarressing performance I rode shamefully to the finish. Yes, we hadn't ridden together well at the start, but nothing hide the fact that my form had not returned.

After a day recovery spent on an easy ride, the Word Cup Road Race was on the plan. All the big teams were here and the course was hard with some tough climbs and strong winds on the day. I tried my best to stay protected wherever I could, but was struggling from the start. My legs didn't allow me to get to the front to attack, as I had been instructed to do. I was feeling shit and was eventually dropped, riding around with another few girls until I was pulled. What a crap experience. My director was obviously not happy either, feeding my feeling of misery and the atmosphere was not great.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Update part 4 - Body says no back in Ireland

Upon return to Ireland I was feeling crap and depressed, but put it down to just being tired from the racing and a severe case of post stage racing blues. I had no motivation and could barely train. To perk me up, I went to do the Tour of Connacht in the west of Ireland. I had a great day on day 1 racing against the men, even though I suffered, but paid for my efforts on day 2, where I suffered even more. I just couldn't understand why I was feeling one day decent and one day so crap.

Racing in Ireland
After the Tour of Connacht Ryan and his team had signed up for the Suir Valley 3 Day. The SV3D is held in the Suir Valley, based in Clonmel, a town that I hold in good memories after winning my first Road Nationals there last year. In addition, the organizers of the race are great friends and always put a huge amount of work into making the SV3D an even bigger and better event, together with Leisure activities and sportive rides for the less competitive. So, I had signed up for it too, hoping that the intensity of the racing against Ireland's top male cyclists would help me break through this block I was experiencing in training. Unfortunately (or maybe luckily?), this race turned out to be the last nail in the coffin. Again I suffered like crazy on day 1, I couldn't push myself and barely got myself over the hills, so I decided to pull the plug and drop out. (I think this is the 2nd time I didn't do this race - the first time round I decided not to start to focus on finishing my PhD - maybe next year will be my 3rd time lucky? I really really want to finish the race one year). On the plus side, Fiona Meade held up the women's flag in the SV3D with a fantastic performance. It was great to watch the crit through the town of Clonmel, and having a chat with local cycling legend Sean Kelly. Unfortunately my husband Ryan crashed in a critical moment in the crit - luckily he could simply take a lap out and rejoin the front group, but his scars are still visible today.

Racing with Ryan in the Ballinrobe 2 Day - Photo Credit Pawel Sadowski

After pulling out of the SV3D after stage 1, I took 3 days completely off the bike. Something was seriously wrong. It wasn't that I didn't want to train, it wasn't a motivational issue, I did want to train and go out and ride my bike, but I just couldn't! I was intimidated by even my recovery rides and just didn't feel physically capable of doing any long or hard rides. I went to my doctor and got a blood test done, but at that stage the results didn't show anything too far out of the ordinary. The funny thing was that I WAS able to sometimes push myself and put out the power, but each time it was a HUGE amount of will power and effort required and it always felt like suffering. After the few days off I started back into training, always afraid of loosing too much fitness if I give myself too long of a break. And I did have good days too, as shown in stage 1 of the Ballinrobe 2-day, as described in my blog post here, where, due to the peculiar circumstances of mixed-gender racing I managed to win all 3 jerseys (yellow, sprinter, climber) on the first day and hang on to the sprinter and climbers for the whole stage race, with Ryan nearly holding on to yellow on the last day, but loosing out by a mere 7 seconds.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Update part 3 - French racing - Tour en Limousin

After the Tour de Bretagne, we had a slight reshuffling of teams, to be joined by Kirsten Peetoom and Jessie Walker who we picked up at the Tour de Bretagne, after the departure of Clem and Siobhan. With the cars packed and abused to breaking point (literally), we started on our long trip down south to the department of Limousin for our 2nd stage race, the Tour en Limousin. With a one day overnight adventure in a dead French town we somehow made it to the big farm house we were going to be housed for the duration of the Tour en Limousin. The house was big, but it had only 3 bedrooms, so we girls shared with 4 in one room each and Stew got his own lair. The area around Tour en Limousin was another super amazing beautiful part of France. I thought the cute and rough stone house style of Bretagne couldn't be topped, but Limousin was coming close. With a few days off between the area was a perfect training ground with an abundance of tiny roads and climbs and such a picturesque country side. I absolutely loved riding down there. With the heat not abating a bit, we also made extensive use of the lukewarm river flowing at the bottom of the small village. I am also not sure where it started, but there were some water (and other) fights - in locations you would not necessarily expect. That's all I'm going to say about this.

Does my bum look big in this? - Photo credit Caroline Martinez

The Tour en Limousin had a similar stage make up as the Tour de Bretagne: 3 long and hard road stages and one ITT stage. The stages also seem to follow the same pattern as in the Tour de Bretagne: all have a long loop followed by a variable number of repeats of a smaller finishing circuit. Only the bunch was smaller and every team stayed in a different place.

How I got on: My stomach had returned to normal, but my suffering had not. On top of that I had probably the worst day ever on a bike on stage 1 after receiving some news the morning before the stage from home that emotionally made me very upset. I had a really shit day that day and got dropped on a long climb. I had no desire to race. I just tried to pull myself together as much as I could and finished the stage a long way down. Stage 2 ITT was a very technical course with a surprising amount of climb and I finished in the top half. Stages 3 and 4 were again two long road stages, with stage 3 on an uphill finish and stage 4 another blistering hot day, speeding tickets and an unfortunate pidgeon (not during the race, but after, long story for the book). I came in with the bunch on stage 3 and on stage 4 had such bad hot spots on my feet that I was in agony for most of the last hour. I'm a bit frustrated I got dropped from the bunch only 2 km from the finish after making a mistake in a moment of distraction.

Building pyramids - Photo credit Stewart Carr

That was it! The French stage racing survived. But that wasn't the end of our French adventure, we still had a looooong drive ahead of us to the ferry, in our more and more battered team car. Let's just say we made it, with a few tense moments following a flat at 2am in the morning in a completely overloaded car stranded in the middle of nowhere, an ill-fitting spare wheel and popping bolts on the highway...... Anyhow, we even survived this and were greeted back in Ireland with beautiful summer weather, icecream on the bike, nutella in the face and a dip in the sea in Brittas Bay. Sorry to speak in riddles, but I've been sworn to secrecy. Let's just say that France was one hell of a trip with memories that will hopefully last a life-time.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Update part 2 - French racing - Tour de Bretagne

Anyhow, trying to largely ignore that I was sick I got ready for my highlights of the year, the Tour de Bretagne and the Tour de Limousin. I had been planning on doing these races since before I was riding for TIBCO: I was doing these with the DID Ladies Racing Team, the first Irish women's Elite racing team that I had helped get off the ground at the beginning of this year, for which, ironically, I was now guest riding for in these two races. The trip to France with my teammates was so eventful, I could nearly write a blog post for every single day, but we've agreed that "what happened in France stays in France". So I'll keep this blog civil and keep all the rest for my tell-all, no-holds-barred book ;)

Hmm, how can I fit more bikes onto the car - Photo Credit Stewart Carr
So, our adventure started with loading the trusty DID Team car with Amy, Mary and I as riders, Stew as man for everything (mechanic/director/soigneur all in one go) and Amanda as our soigneur and as many bikes as we could fit onto the custom roof rack to take the ferry from Wexford to France. At the harbour I got re-educated on the geography of Europe, and found out that we were not just a couple of hours from France, but up for an overnight ferry trip..... Well, lets just say my stomach wasn't happy, still struggling to get rid of that stomach bug.....

van Garderen TdF TT - Photo Credit Stewart Carr

We made it to France and started our long drive that incidentally led us straight across the Tour de France TT stage that was on that day. Add screaming girls upon that revelation and of course we had to stop and have look at how the pros do it. Trying to tease the girls away from the TdF buzz was like telling a kid its time to go home from the playground, we made it to our very own stage race HQ. There we were joined by the scotswoman Julie "guns" Erskine and Siobhan McNamara and French Woman Clemence Copie for our team and Caroline Martinez as our 2nd driver and media person. The whole race and entourage stayed in a French boarding school, complete with French food in the French canteen (road racers know what that means - baguette and nutella and sugary cereal for breakfast, EVERY DAY!!!). Grand so, so far so good, the team was complete, we were all signed up and ready to race. The race itself was 4 stages: 3 long road stages and 1 ITT. Oh, and allow me to mention that we were there at the height of summer, at about 37 degrees heat during the day.

Photo Credit Stewart Carr

Stage 1: We were all dropped eventually. I still wasn't feeling to well and suffered all day, finally getting dropped the 2nd time round the finishing circuit. I found a groupetto to ride with until we were finished, somehow managing to ride an extra lap.... The next day was the ITT, a technical enough course, again in super hot conditions. I had an alright time, placing in the the first third, but not really anything to write home about. Day 3 and 4 were again two long and hard stages, on tiny roads with a huge bunch, up and down and lots of corners and the sun burning down relentlessly. It was crazy! I finished with the bunch both days, but only just about.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Update part 1 - Post Nationals local racing

A week after the Road Nationals in June I finally graduated, putting an end (for now!) to my academic commitments. So yes, I'm a Dr. now - no, not that kind of doctor, not a REAL doctor as some people may say... Anyhow, it was great to graduate and finish that chapter of my life.

Instead of taking a well-deserved break after the nationals I did some local racing: I won a Corkagh Park Ladies crit as the freshly crowned road champ.

Racing in Corkagh Park - Photo Credit: Brendan Culleton
I also tried my luck in the Stephen Roche GP - mainly because I could show my dad what racing is all about (the first time he's watched me racing!) and because it is a crit and I really started liking crit style racing since my experience in the US and because it was just down the road from where I live. I was still tired from the weekend's racing, and racing against the men was just turning out to be too much. I started off in the A3 group and was able to stay with them for a couple of laps. But the course with only three corners and the two long straights did not play into my favours. I did well in the courners, but I couldn't keep up with the lads in the long straights. Eventually I got dropped and pulled out even though I was still ahead of the A1 and A2s, but my legs just said no.

I also started the Mullingar GP on a horrendous day with pouring rain, low temps and a super strong wind. I let a few people go in the race before attacking numerous times myself to get away as did Fran Meehan and eventually Fran and I got away and made it across to Fiona Guihen and Anne Dalton. We worked well together from then on, Fiona got dropped and then, about 10km from the finish I punctured. So I had to wait for neutral service which was behind the bunch who were several minutes behind us - race over for me.

After the disaster of a race in Mullingar I got sick with a stomach bug. I should really have taken it as a sign, because in hindsight I could just see how tiredness had been building up since the start of the season what with all that travelling and racing all over the world. But no, instead of taking it easy, Mel kept trucking on. I kept on training (on the indoor trainer, to be close to the toilet) and even stupidly enough thought I could try and race the Eddie Tobin Memorial men's A1/A2 race in Bunclody. Deep down I knew that I wasn't well enough to race, but somehow I'm very good at ignoring these things. However, even riding to the start of the race I felt something was horribly wrong and I knew within the first few minutes of the race that I had to stop. Note to self - don't start racing when you're sick.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Stay tuned for my update marathon!

Wow, where has the time gone? I'm now already two weeks into my training for next season and I have really been slacking off on my planned blog posts about all the racing and traveling that I've done since the Road Nationals in June, oops. So I've decided to provide a summary about all that happenend since then - so get yourself a cup of coffee and make yourself comfortable :)

After having written everything down I noticed I had a massive blog post, so I've decided to cut it into individual posts and publish one every day until I'm at now. These posts will cover the following:

1 - Post Nationals local racing
2 - French racing - Tour de Bretagne
3 - French racing - Tour en Limousin
4 - Body says no back in Ireland
5 - Sweden World Cup
6 - Lotto Tour in Belgium
7 - Ras na mBan
8 - Road World Championships
9 - Irish Hill Climb Champs
10 - Off season and start into the new training season


Wicklow Mountains Training Ground

Friday, September 27, 2013

World Championships Video Diary #4

Apologies about the bad acoustics.....

Thursday, September 26, 2013

World Championships Video Diary #3

Oh, and I forgot to mention that one of the riders put chocolate sauce over his dinner instead of gravy by accident.... ;)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

World Road Race Championship Video Diary # 1

For the World Champs I'm going to try and put on a little video diary every day. Today was just a travel day, so not much happening, but I hope the next few will be a bit more interesting :)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The day I beat the men elite :)

Right, it is seldom that the stars align so perfectly in cycling, so when they do, it's all about making the most of it. Ryan and I had actually joked around on a ride at Christmas when I was doing some "motor pacing" behind Ryan about how we would pull something like this off should the opportunity ever arise. We did not think that we would get this opportunity so soon in this year's Ballinrobe 2-day stage race:

First off, the Ballinrobe 2-day is a handicapped stage race with 3 stages in the beautiful west of Ireland, just north of Galway.

Stage 1: hilly 80km loop
Stage 2: 7km flat TT
Stage 3: flat-ish 120km (8 x 15km loop)

The special circumstance allowing for this opportunity is that the Ballinrobe 2day combines both men's and women's racing by giving the women a headstart over the Cat 1/2/3 men. So on stage 1 the women got a 10min headstart over the Cat 3 men/Juniors who got another 3min headstart over the Cat 1/2 men.

As a Cat 2 rider I got the choice to either start with the Cat 1/2 men or with the women. I actually thought my legs needed it a bit of an easier start today, so I decided to start with the women. 

Hanging on for dear life!
From the gun, the 10 women formed an efficient and fast pace line. It was great to see how everyone was working together, with everyone doing their fair share of work at the front. This pace line was only interrupted at the first intermediate sprint which became a drag race between Amy and me and which Amy won and on the first KOM, which I took ahead of Amy. Shortly after the descent from the first KOM we started climbing again, this time up the major climb of the day, the 1st cat Lally's Mountain at around 30km. Playing off my mtb background, I increased the speed on the climb, making it harder for the girls to hang on, with Amy staying on my wheel the longest. I decided to keep the pace up over the climb and was rewarded by a beautiful view of Lough Mask on the other side. The descent was technical and I was happy to be able to take it at my own speed. I kept looking back, but couldn't see any of the women behind me. I wasn't sure if it would be better to conserve my energy and wait for the girls to catch back up or to keep going hard. I decided that I would keep going hard to try and take as many KOM points as possible before being caught by the men, since this was the day where most KOM points were available. So I kept going in TT style, taking one KOM after another. I got word during this time that Amy and Dalia were only 30sec behind me and the men a further 2min back. I took the last KOM and was still not caught, so I kept going anyway. Then, just after the descent from the last KOM I looked back and who did I see? My husband Ryan!!! And more importantly, Ryan by himself without anyone in sight behind. When he passed me he just said: "Get on my wheel and do not leave it!". And that is what I did. 

25km "leadout" by Ryan
Thankfully the last 25km were mostly flat, so I could stick to Ryan's wheel (mind you, going behind Ryan on the flat is like motor pacing behind a motor bike!!!). The only time I went to the front during the next 25km was to take the next intermediate sprint. Ryan was on his limit and I was on mine and I counted down the km to the finish. The closer we came to the finish, the more time Ryan put into the chasing peloton. With 10km to go I knew that we would make it without being caught. Finally, 200m from the line it was my turn again to take up first position and I crossed the finish line with both arms in the air! With that I now lead all classifications: GC (yellow jersey), sprint (green jersey) and climb (polka dot), a first in Irish cycling history in a men's and women's combined race. 
To be fair, this was quite a unique situation, and the circumstances all played in my favour for this to be possible: the course being hilly for the first 50km and then flat for the last 30km, the tailwind in the 2nd part of the race, the women working together well before the big climb, the large handicap and the fact that it was Ryan who broke away from the remnants of the men's peloton and bridged across to me. There is no doubt that Ryan, who was able to drop all of the men could have easily dropped me too, but he made sure I stayed on his wheel and didn't contest me in the sprints (thanks honey!!! women's cycling owes you one!). He also knew that he would take yellow from me after tomorrows morning TT. 

Suffering in the TT
The TT went OK with Ryan winning and taking yellow from me and I only lost about a minute, so I was still 2nd on GC and started the afternoon's stage in virtual yellow with only a 3min head start over the A3/Juniors and another 2min over the A1/A2s, which I felt was too little over the much longer course (pay back for me taking all the jerseys in stage 1??? ;)). It was great though when they presented the jerseys: Ryan got to wear yellow, I got green and Amy who was next in line on the KOM competition got to wear polka dot - all jerseys worn by family and friends :)

We got ALL the jerseys (Mel, Ryan, Amy)
The last stage the women didn't work as well together and we didn't get a good pace line going. Amy went for the sprint very early, so I got on her wheel and got a great lead out to take the first sprint ahead of her. Then, just before the first KOM we got caught by some of the A3s and the speed went up. The A3s had worked hard trying to stay ahead of the A1/2s. The speed was really high with the A3s and I don't remember which lap it was, but a group broke away at the front, just ahead of me. I was tired from my effort the day before and just couldn't hold on to their wheel and had to let them go. Surprisingly they got a really big gap quickly and kept increasing their lead. What I had not been aware off was that there were some A1/A2s in that break that had previously bridged across to our group and they were working very hard and well together pulling out such a large lead. By the time the rest of the A1/2s caught up to us, they were long gone and had about 4min 30 on us. Ryan being in yellow the onus was on Ryan to try and pull as much time back as possible, putting in another superhuman effort. Unfortunately it wasn't enough, and he eventually lost yellow by 5seconds, finishing 2nd on GC. But together with my 7th place overall and having kept both the KOM and sprint jerseys, this was a very successful weekend for team husband and wife and women's cycling in Ireland :)
Certainly, the stage 1 victory created some media attention (see links below). However, while I was going to my limits to pull off stage 1 with Ryan's help, what is more commendable is that several of the women were able to stick with the chasing A1/2/3/junior group on stage 1 and that many women were able to stay with the peloton on stage 3, as the pace was very fast at times. It bodes well for the future of women's cycling in Ireland!!!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Back home for the Road Racing Nationals

A post that has been sitting in the draft folder 'like forever' published now for posterity's sake.....

I had the option to race with TIBCO in the Nature Valley Grand Prix Stage Race before returning to Ireland for the National Champs, my main goal event for the season. I decided against staying on so that I could get home earlier to get over the jetlag and have optimal recovery time. I was very happy that I did, because it took me over a week just to get over the jetlag. I had no power in my legs and was feeling wrecked and tired all the time. On the upside, I was finally united again with my husband, who I had not seen for 3 long and crazy months of racing with Team TIBCO in the USA and Ryan himself racing with Polygon Sweet Nice in Asia.

Upon return I had a light training week and to open up the legs took part in the Bobby Crilly Memorial near Belfast with Ryan. I had done this race before, Ryan likes it because it has a mountain top finish. The race starts handicapped, with the A2s (with me) starting before the A1s/A*s (with Ryan). The weather for the race was nearly the complete opposite of what I had been treated with over the last 3 months: it was freezing cold (single digits) and pouring rain - I was seriously questioning my choice of leaving the USA early.... Anyhow, during the race, the A2s worked together well and we stayed ahead of the A1/*s until we approached the final climb. I had managed to stay with the A2 bunch which fell apart on the drag towards the start of the final climb proper. I caught a lift with two of the A1 guys that had caught us for a bit and then went up the hill on my own pace. I got caught up in a tractor parade up the hill, but finally finished 9th overall, which I was super happy with, especially since Ryan hadn't caught up with me either ;) It's not often that I beat my husband in a road race ;)

Freezing and wet after the Bobby Crilly Memorial
I felt that my legs were finally coming around after the race and that my form was going to be good just in time for the Nationals. My main target was the Road Nationals, but I also wanted to give the TT Nationals a good try. For a while I wasn't sure if there was any point in starting, since it was a long course (40km) and I knew that even an intense week of TT training was not going to make up for my lack of TT training since last year's nationals..... but when my power numbers were finally picking up in the days preceding the TT champs, I decided to give them a go.

Stealth - thanks to Black Umbrella for the pic!
Last year I had finished 2nd to Olivia Dillon in the TT Nationals, who was not going to do them this year. Instead, Caroline Ryan reappeared on the start list after skipping them last year, a TT specialist and world class individual pursuiter. Well, you can only do your best and I gave it a good try. I knew I had to give it all to have a chance for a good placing, but I had trouble staying focused on the technically easy and straightforward course (2 corners and one turn around on a big open flat road). But it was the best I could give that day and good enough for 2nd place, 24seconds behind Caroline Ryan... Same result as last year :( One year I'll have to win this race!

Leading the bunch through the village (photo credit: Toby Watson)
I had one day recovery before heading back for the Nationals road race. I knew that this year the nationals would be a much different story to last year. Last year I was an outside bet, an unknown, to win the nationals against the much more experienced pros, who arguably underestimated me. And I used that fact for my advantage then, banking on the pros watching each other and not me when it came to the final few hundred meters to the finish, when I surprised my breakaway companions by opening up the sprint unwatched and grabbing the win as they reacted too late. I knew I didn't have that card to play this year round. In fact quite the opposite, I knew I was going to be watched by everyone: I had finished my PhD and gone pro with Team TIBCO earlier this year. I had raced abroad for all of the road season until the Nationals and had only just returned. But I had also no idea of the form of the domestic riders. I knew I had improved myself, tactically and physically, especially my ability to accelerate and recover after having done all those crits in the USA, but you always have to be prepared for surprises.

Giving the peloton a world class lead out ;) (pic by Black Umbrella)
I knew my form was good and I went into the race very focused after that kick in the butt of 2nd place at the TT Nationals. The course was 7 laps of a 13km loop in form of a triangle. The course was not as flat as it had been made out to be in the media, with a hilly/draggy section on small roads on one side of the triangle just after leaving the beautiful coastal village of Carlingford. The other two sides of the triangle were flat and on wide roads, especially the run in back into Carlingford. It was windy and raining on and off - a typical Irish summer's day. My plan going into this race was simple: cover any dangerous attacks and maybe get away with a few strong riders myself. I was feeling strong and confident and went into this race wanting to win it again. I was hoping for an aggressive race and took the honour of the first attack up the climb out of the village. Of course I was being chased down. There were plenty of attacks and a few breaks during the race, with the Garda club being particularly active and riding well as a team. After I noticed who was working with whom and finding myself boxed in by members of teams after their teammates attacked, I decided to stay in front to be able to react immediately to any threatening attacks. I had to do a lot of chasing and controlling and riding at the front. It was only a small number of people who tried to get away with most riders opting to sit in the bunch and let the others play. Only one attack build up a decent gap with Lydia Boylan and Caroline Ryan, and a couple of people participated in chasing them back down. In the latter laps it became clear that nothing was going to get away (although others and I tried), so I was preparing myself for a sprint finish.

Only one rider can win (me :P) (pic by Black Umbrella)
The run into Carlingford was on a wide open and exposed street, with a full on head wind. About 20 women had remained in the bunch for the sprint. The bunch spread out the full width of the road as we crawled our way towards the finish line in Carlingford and I was riding smack bang in the middle of the road, keeping an eye on both the left and the right side of me. The headwind was very strong and deterred any last minute attacks. I knew that there was still a lot of fresh riders in the bunch that had been doing nothing but hiding in the bunch all day, so I thought letting it come down to a proper bunch sprint would be too risky. I was feeling confident in my strength and decided to start a long sprint early, at 500m to go. I know I can do long sprints and my plan was to ramp up the effort as we came closer to the finish, to avoid any of the pure sprinters to come by me. And so I kicked hard and rode faster and faster as we approached the line, basically giving the whole bunch a perfect lead out, holding on through legs cramping, but nobody came by me and so I made it again first over the line, just to shut up those that thought my win last year was a fluke ;)

Women's Podium l-r: Siobhan McNamara, Mel Spath, Mary Costelloe
I'm really happy to get to wear my national champs jersey for another year and would like to take this opportunity to thank those that have supported me so much this year, especially my husband Ryan, and my friend Stewart Carr. 

Here are some links to interviews, reports and videos from the race: