"Oh shit! Did he just say it's a 20km hill, i thought it was 10!"
I wanted to clarify, but I didn't want to ask for clarification. So I decided to wait till after the meeting and to have a look at the race book by myself. I thought, "Hopefully he just stuffed up with his English and meant to say 10".
I casually picked up the race book and opened the race profile. "Ok, let's suss this out, ok 3km neutral, then the race starts, 116 km of relatively flat roads, looks fast, yep, then the climb starts. Up up up up, oh that looks pretty big, ok, yep that's the top, now down to the bottom of the graph and.... 136km! Hmmm, that would make it 20km! Ooh, that's a big hill! Then 40km to the finish with another 2 5km climbs! Oh boy this is going to be a hard race to finish.
The first 60km of the race was fast, 50km/h avg. Lots of attacks and groups trying to get off the front. Eventually a group of 25 riders got a gap. We didn't have anyone in it. It took us a while to get sorted and the break was at 1min by the time we had the whole team on the front and were chasing. We had 5 riders swapping off turns and soon it was at 30sec. Then, all was back together.
From here there was maybe 30km till the climb started. So hopefully enough time to recover and try to get up the damn thing. Another break got up the road and this time we had two riders in it. So all I had to worry about was being in a good position by the base of the climb.
With 160 riders in the race, positioning into a climb is important. And, is often overlooked. Everyone knows the final kms coming into the sprint are hectic, riders are taking all kinds of risks trying to get to the final 200m in a position where they can actually sprint from. You don't just have to be fast in a sprint, you have to get yourself in a position so when you use that speed you actually have a chance at crossing the line first. If you are in 30th wheel, you can be the fastest man alive, but you will not win.
Climbs are similar, if you are not in a good position when you hit the climb, you just have too many people to come around. You also have to deal with riders that can no longer hold the pace. This means gaps open up and you have to use lots of energy to move around them. You don't want that. You want to climb as efficiently as possible. So, all this to say that the last 10km coming into the base of a climb is similar to the final 10km of a sprint stage.
I'm not the best at this, constantly fighting to move forward, hold your position, move forward again. Don't touch the breaks, be happy to bump some riders, move forward, fight, hold, fight, move forward.
We know the top sprinters have lead out men for the sprints, helping their sprinters be in a good position. The GC riders in the tours also have supporters, and in my books, one of the most useful things they can do is put their riders in a good position for the climb.
For me, I hit the climb in about 30th place. This is pretty good for me, but still not great. You really want to be in the top 15. Nonetheless, I was happy with this. I knew the first 2km were the steepest. So getting over these was the first focus. A lot of the peloton was gone before this point, I'd say more than half the starters. I held position well and tried to rely on a high cadence and some good aerobic form. If I tried to push a big gear and muscle over the climb, I might make 4km before it was all over. After a slow start to the year, I've now got some good aerobic ability. I thought "you just might be good enough to get over this climb with them".
Climbs like this are a strange thing for me, theoretically, they suit me. In that, with good form, aerobically I can be good, it suits my physiology. But, since coming back to the sport I've rarely been able to string together enough training to realise this ability. And I've rarely focused on getting the weight down either. I've had too many other things to focus on first. But this year, I'm down a bit on previous years. I'm still on the upper end compared to other riders, probably around 11-12% body fat. The top guys are maybe 5 or 6%. So that would be another 5kg or so for me - crazy stuff. It's a strange sport. But all this to say I still have the potential to be lighter, to improve my capacity and be faster, much faster. My body is made to be good at this kind of effort when tuned right.
On the flip side however, these climbs are the worst type of effort in the world for me. The absolute worst. This is due to my issues with anxiety. An effort like this requires you to relax as much as possible. It's a hard effort, you have to hold high watts for an extended period of time. You have to look at the wheel in front of you and keep going. It's an environment prone to questioning your ability "this is freaking hard, I can't hold this for 30mins. I'm already stressed out of my brain and you want me to lump this physical stress on top! and survive? you're crazy, insane, there is a cotton ball where your brain should be.
Trying to relax in these instances, when you know the effort is long, that you are struggling, that the pressure and anxiety is building. It's the hardest part of racing. I'm often heading into races with my body in the physiological state of panic. I may not be anxious about anything in particular but that response is there and I have to try and manage that, that's my burden, that's what I'm trying to figure out how to navigate. So it makes the physical stress and mental stress of holding a wheel up a mountain ridiculous. So there you have my catch-22. Physiology = good. Physiological state = not good. Balance and survive - go!
I did get over the climb, there was perhaps 40 riders left by the time we crested the top. Then we hit some sketchy descents. I was not handling them well today. They had ruts all through them, potholes, gravel on corners. Then for good measure, they would reduce down to just wide enough for one car, throw in some switchbacks, off camber of course. I was not flowing well. And was giving up a few meters on lots of corners. However, I still managed to get down with the group.
With 30km to go we hit a 5km climb and the group split here, the winning riders riding into the distance. I did not have the legs to go with these guys but tried to climb within myself and with the group. Finishing this race would be a good achievement in itself. I knew before the race it was going to be a day where maybe only a quarter of the starters would actually make it to the end.
Over the climb a group of 20 riders formed behind the leaders. We looped around and hit the 5km climb again. The legs were pretty dead but I tried to climb with the top guys from this group and managed to stay with the top 5. It was good enough for 28th place. On paper this doesn't look amazing but it's probably one of, if not the best ride I've done in Europe. A very tough day, nowhere to hide. Only 45 finishers.