Another weekend another adventure, this time 3 days of road racing in Ardara at the Ras Donegal. Mel and I loaded up the car and drove through a day of rare scorching heat in Ireland on Friday afternoon to find the 1% of the country that was covered in cloud. After seeing a physio during the week my lack of recent form was put down to knots in my calf muscles to be solved by massage and ice baths. The problem was still there but I was told racing shouldn’t do more harm so thought I might as well do it for training.
We began on Friday evening with a 60km hilly loop, and with a separate women’s category we had a slightly ridiculous situation of 8 of us setting off 5 minutes in front of the men’s bunch of 140 riders. We coasted along for a while, and with nobody willing to assert themselves on the race it was a case of waiting for the tsunami of the men’s race to catch us. Eventually they did and as soon as one of the girls said ‘I’m going’, we all jumped in. Thank god, I was getting bored and it was suddenly into high pace, close wheeled, rubber smelling bunch racing. With attack after attack going at the front it was tough going at times, and having survived for a while I suddenly found myself badly positioned towards the back on one of the descents, not having done a road race this season I’d forgotten that descents are way harder than climbs and as the bunch slowly pulled away from me my legs couldn’t respond so I was left in no man’s land.
I chased for a while but had to give in, riding for 20km alone where I spent a lot of the time questioning what I was doing and making myself suffer through painfully sore calf muscles so that by the end of the day I’d almost decided to quit the race that evening. I always see road races as a chance to prove myself against roadies but my legs felt terrible so there was no hope of that and to be riding way below my abilities was no fun at all.
I was caught from behind by another bunch as we approached the finish making life a lots easier, and since there were a few women in it I resolved to using the race as a bit of tactical practice for bunch finishes. As the pace picked up in the final km’s I got into a good position towards the front and started to sprint towards the finish. Unfortunately there was chaos around the finish line in the village with cars everywhere and I had to jam on the brakes and start again as a car blocked my line. In the end one of the other girls got half a wheel on me and I ended up 4th. It would have been a good race but with legs the way they were and confidence low I didn’t enjoy it much.
Stage 2 was a 4km uphill time trial early on Saturday morning. My calves were still sore but no worse than the day before so I decided to do the TT and then decide whether to continue the race. As it turned out it went ok and I only lost 7 seconds to Mel and 20 to winner Heather Wilson so I had to keep going – might have won with a skinsuit, overshoes & carbon wheels . 8 minutes 20 seconds of pain up a steep but spectacular mountain road was pretty horrible at the time but within minutes of finishing I was already thinking I quite enjoyed it.
After breakfast and a lie down it was back for more on Saturday afternoon with an 80km race, and boosted by the TT I went into it feeling a bit more confident. The women set off in front again, sharing the work until the guys came from behind and we jumped into the bunch. Once again attack after attack came in but I seemed to have cracked bunch riding, feeling confident moving up and getting into a good position. We hit a big climb and I started passing riders and felt good, but once again on the decent got dragged towards the back and straight into another fast paced climb I couldn’t hold on and was shelled out the back. Mel was just behind me and we rode hard with a few other riders for a while until my legs suddenly gave in as they sprinted out of a corner so once again I was out alone. The difference in effort required to ride alone rather than in a group is unbelievable, as they coasted along I was suffering yet going far slower. I spent the last 30km catching guys along the road hoping to find someone I could ride with and share the work until the finish but each time I made it to someone ahead they dropped off and I was out alone again. At least it was sunny and I had time to look at the spectacular scenery. Tough day but much better than yesterday and I was now up to 3rd in the GC.
Woke up to thick black clouds and pissing rain sliding down the window panes as Donegal lived up to childhood memories of wet family holidays. With a slight sense of dread we dragged ourselves out for the final tough 100km. The women set off in front again but we picked up the pace slightly and after the first hill were reduced to a group of 5 riders, managing to hold off the guys for well over an hour. I think there is a screw loose in my head because as the rain and wind drove into our faces and water sprayed up off the road soaking everything, I was in my element having a great time. My legs were finally feeling pretty good and I was enjoying the hilly course.
Eventually a breakaway group of 3 guys caught us and Heather, Mel and I jumped on. I put in flat out effort but there pace was nuts and after a while Mel and I lost it. For the next while loads of small groups caught us and we put in effort after effort to cling on to one of them. Its very difficult to judge the point at which you should give in and sit back rather than wasting energy chasing in the hope that you might just have enough energy to cling on and I don’t think I got it right. On the road you simply have to go at the pace of those around you, meaning you often have to go beyond your own limits and the point where you have nothing left to give can catch you out very suddenly.
Mel managed to get onto a group giving a slightly easier route to the finish whereas I couldn’t find enough to hold on and once again was out alone. Until then there had been loads of riders on the road but they turned out to be the last so I had another 35km solo with strong headwinds until 2 guys caught me 8km from the end. The finish was a gruelling 4km climb up the Glengesh pass road, which looked like a wall in front of us. By that stage I was running out of energy and with some of the corners feeling near vertical I was regretting my pre-race decision that a small cassette would make me strong, having to heave pedals around to stick with the guys until the end.
I made eventually made it, finishing 3rd on the stage and in the GC with Mel 2nd and Heather Wilson 1st. Once we finished the cold and wet quickly got to me and it was suddenly freezing. Huge thanks to Darragh for a lifesaving appearance with hot coffee and a lift back for Mel and I, riding down would definitely have resulted in hypothermia! (why is it that every stage race I’ve done has finished this way?!).
The scenery and spectacular roads made for a great race, hilly stage races are the only way to go for road racing and if it was a few days longer I might have got my legs up to full speed. Hopefully next year more girls will enter. Thank you to Think Bike for the amazingly light and fast Trek Madone, racing on a nice bike is so much more enjoyable!