637 Days To Go is my blog, which was originally started with exactly 637 days until the start of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. And now it's been re-started with 637 days until the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Mid-Season Review. This time with more hardware.

The saga continues...

This year, less writing and more riding. And the results are starting to show up because of it. I've chosen to focus less on my blog, and spend more time training. Although I'm still regularly found tweeting nonsense on Twitter!

But I'm back here again briefly to update everyone on how the season is going so far. And the news is good. When I last posted I was still struggling to get my TT bike set-up correctly. This has now been resolved and I find myself going faster than before and am much more comfortable than at the start of the season. This is due to the work of my coach and his partner - Ric Stern and Xavier Disley of RST Sports. Not only can I now ride the bike, but I'm much more aero than before. A win-win situation.

I've just returned from 3 weeks on the road. First up was back-to-back World Cup competitions in Italy and Spain. These are the first international races I've done since the Games in London. Crucial for determining where my form is in relation to the competition. And to see how much more work needs to be done to achieve my goal of winning the World's in September.

So... first up was Italy. Tucked away in the north-east corner of the country, nearly on the border of Austria was the little towns of Marlengo and Merano. More Austrian than Italian (possibly because it used to be part of Austria), it is located on the doorstep of the Dolomite mountains. Beautiful scenery and warm temperatures were in abundance.

The time trial was far from traditional. The course snaked it's way through an olive orchard (on paved farming roads), cutting left and right at 90° angles with great frequency before re-joining the main road. At one point we were even routed through a local garden centre car park en route to completing the second lap! And to finish it off – 1km almost straight up. A 15% climb to the finish line made it less of a time trial and more of a hill climb competition!

Climbing, especially on a TT bike, is not my strong suit. The goal for me in the TT was to try and make some time on the flat sections and limit my losses on the climb. I hoped to finish in the top 5, within 30 seconds of the leaders. After blasting my way around the course and pushing myself up the massive incline, I crossed the finish line in first place. This wasn't a huge surprise as I was only the 5th rider to start, with the riders before me being less-experienced than me. But as I sat there at the finish line, watching the leader board as each following rider came across the line, what WAS a surprise was that none of them were faster than me. FInally, one rider managed to beat my time (by a hefty margin). But that was it. None of the other riders beat me, leaving me with the silver medal.

All the riders that had beat me in London (and all of last year) were behind me. The only rider to beat me was a new rider from the USA. I had never competed against him before – and so went to introduce myself to him. Aaron was a true gent. He was genuinely pleased to meet me and a really nice guy to talk to. I hate it when your competition turns out to be so nice!  I could tell that he is definitely the guy to beat this year and without a doubt the toughest opponent I have faced. 

The next day we were off in the road race. This was a mostly flat but very technical circuit of the city streets of Merano. Constantly throwing yourself in and out of tight corners made passing very difficult. There was an uphill drag towards the finish as well to sap your energy before making the final turn into the start-finish straight which was all cobbled. You really had to be on top of your bike-handling skills for this one.

Lap after lap we blasted away. It felt like the race never let up. I was constantly battling to stay up with the lead group which I managed for most of the race. I also (thankfully) managed to avoid all the crashes – usually in the tight corners. In the end, I was overtaken on the final drag towards the finish but managed a very respectable 5th place. The American Aaron, who had beaten me convincingly in the TT, crashed into the barriers on the final corner – most likely on his way to winning the race. Last I heard, he had a broken wrist which will hamper his preparations for the World's a little, but I have no doubt that he will be there in fine form and will be on that podium with me. I just hope I'm on the top step!

That was it for Italy. We packed up and moved on to Spain. A familiar location as this would be my 4th year of racing there. This time there was the added bonus of having my parents and my girlfriend join me to see me race. Unlike previous years, this year would feature a new time trial course. And it was a course that suited me perfectly. Mostly flat, very little to deal with technically and good roads. I was definitely looking forward to this one!

Race day came and it was blisteringly hot. And while the course was flat, there was wind to contend with. It was a short route of about 5.5km in each direction – and we had to do 2 laps of it (22km in total). The key to doing well is good pacing – don't go too hard on the first lap and leave nothing in the tank for the second lap.

I executed the plan to perfection. Rolled down the start ramp and eased into my ride gently. Out on the open road I kept a watchful eye on my power readings and made sure not to push myself too hard, too soon. As I returned through the start-finish area at the end of lap 1, there were loads of people waving at me to slow down, which was odd I thought, as I was in the middle of a race! I sat up and eased my way past and started lap 2. I managed to catch and pass at least 2 riders, so was pretty sure I was having a good ride. Nevertheless, I keep to steady all the way.

After crossing the finish line it ended up taking a while to get official results. But finally the word came in: I had won! By a slender 2 seconds but a win nonetheless. It turns out the entire start-finish area had blown down shortly before I came through and they were telling me to slow down as the workers were actually holding it up, so we could ride underneath! I hadn't noticed - but it had cost me some time. 3rd place was 50 seconds back, so it had been a 2-horse race.

The road race was a disaster. 5 laps of a long, open course, that ended each time on a 750m, 7% COBBLED climb. The cobbles make it extremely difficult to get out of the saddle to pedal, so you have to sit and push up the hill. The worst possible scenario for me. On lap 2, I made a mistake at the top of the climb, lost the wheel of the person I was following and got dropped. I spent the entire next lap trying to catch up, but once out on the open section of the course – you were into a headwind and it was near impossible to make up any ground on your own. I battled on by myself for the rest (majority) of the race, eventually crossing the finish line in 10th place. This was important as it scored me valuable World Cup points. I now sit comfortably in 2nd place overall and with just one more round to go (in Canada, the week before the World Championships), there is a good chance I can still win the overall title.

And lastly, it was off to Ireland this past weekend for the National Championships. The time trial was held on Thursday night on a 40km-long course. Much longer than I normally race, but the course was (again) fairly flat and vast stretches of straight road. Wind was a huge factor here, and surviving the poor road surface would also be an issue.

I put in a decent ride. The only real hiccup was at about 4km from the finish when I lost my chain. I spent the next 30 seconds trying to get it back on, eventually having to stop the bike and put it back on with my hands! It cost me valuable time and a fair amount of stress. But in the end it didn't matter. I crossed the line only 11 seconds behind teammate Cathal Miller. But because he's in a much higher category than me (C5 vs C2), we use a factoring system to 'even out' the times. With the facored time I won by a healthy margin. Teammate Enda Smyth took up the 3rd step of the podium with an excellent ride of his own. If I hadn't lost my chain, I should have managed to set the fastest time straight up. But that's racing. Proud to add a National title to my palmares.

On the Saturday, I decided to try and race in the Vets (over-40) National Road Race Championships. This proved to be a HUGE mistake. I didn't even last 1 lap. And got dropped on the fast DOWNHILL part of the course of all places! 40mph - and I couldn't keep up. These guys are crazy-strong. But I've always said that road racing isn't my strong suit, especially against the best able-bodied Vets in the country.

So that's it! A good start to the season, followed by an even better middle section. But a massive amount of work to do to get ready for the World Championships now. No letting up!

I want to take this opportunity to once again thank to key sponsors that have supported me this year. I have had several equipment failures/breakages/issues that have been sorted out quickly thanks to the 2 main suppliers, and a few others have just been there to help keep me going!

So to Madison UK - thanks for the Cervelo P5 and Shimano parts (and most of all for sorting out the mech hanger when I was stuck for one in Spain), to Fisher Outdoor for sorting out my Look Pedals and fixing my broken Zipp wheel in a rush, and to the continued support of ZipVit (nutritional supplements and vitamins) and 3T (bars, stems, Aero Bars and wheels). You guys make winning possible!