Sunday, March 16, 2008

Women's Tour of Wellington Part 2

Due to the Golden Shears competition (or the "Shaving of the Sheeps", as Jorge Sandoval called it!), the race was unable to secure it's usual accommodation in the Wairarapa. This meant that the bulk of the riders were to be transferred from the Angus Inn over the Rimutakas to the stage starts in buses or team vehicles. We woke early, with a big day ahead. No time for breakfast (just a quick coffee) then I loaded up the van. This is where the limitations of my Nissan Prairie became apparent - nominally a 7 seater, it rapidly filled up once Chris, myself and three women with all our assorted bags, spare wheels and tools etc were aboard. It was actually lucky that Susy and Malindi weren't there or we'd have been stuffed!

After a long drive over the hill to the historic Wairarapa town of Martinborough, we unpacked and I pumped tyres and did last minute checks on the bikes, then Chris and I wandered to a cafe and got the mandatory coffees and pies.

Due to our finishing positions in the crit, we were allocated number 15 in the convoy, so we had a long day with next to no view of the race to look forward to. I climbed in the back seat with my tools and wheels, while Chris taped GC and race info over every spare inch of the dashboard and took the drivers seat. We rolled out at 10am for a day of mainly rolling hills with one decent climb near the end with QOM points, then a long and fast descent followed by flat into the finish in Masterton.

2004 World Champion Judith Arndt (Germany) makes her way back through the convoy after a "natural break"

Unfortunately, the terrain wasn't really Aurélie's scene this early in her season, and she fought bravely but was dropped on the climb. Meanwhile Sharon and Ruth were up at the sharp end of the race, with Sharon getting 3rd on the QOM and both women making the split at the front.

As we were running into Masterton the roads were pretty narrow and the Commissaires wouldn't let the convoy through to the large break containing the surviving riders. All the other teams were in the same boat, which was almost disastrous for High Road. With 7 or 8 kilometres to go we had just bullied our way through when we heard over race radio that Australian Road Champion Oenone Wood had punctured. I was privileged to see my friend Benny (Aucklander and High Road Mechanic) perform one of the quickest wheel changes I've ever seen, so Oenone was swiftly able to make her way back to the front and actually win the stage! Incredible! Also we were stoked to hear that Ruth had sprinted her way to 5th place on the stage!

Benny Delux doing what he does so well

The local church had laid on a massive lunch for the riders and race personnel, so we scoffed what we could then took Sharon and Ruth for a drive to recce the next day's dreaded Admirals Hill, while Aurélie took the rider's bus back home, feeling a little glum I think about not being able to hang on during the stage...

After driving up Admirals Sharon and Ruth were pumped - this was their territory and they excitedly plotted and schemed how they would tackle the next day's stage. We drove home via Martinborough for yet another coffee. As we got back to the Angus I was told by Benny (among several others!) that my wife Jacq was desperate to get hold of me, as we'd been out of cellphone coverage for the bulk of the day.

I rang Jacq who told me that Harry had been admitted to hospital. I was deeply concerned, but we decided that before I left the race I had to wash the bikes for the next day, so I still had some daylight to work in. The second that was done I drove into town to Wellington Hospital to spend a few hours with Harry while Jacq organised care for my other two boys and some gear for herself and him.

At this stage, Harry had a badly swollen arm but the Doctor thought he'd just need a day or two on an anti-biotic IV drip to sort him out, so Jacq and I agreed I should stay on the race. Harry himself told me in no uncertain terms that I wasn't to let the Team down, and so I left him in Jacq's care and drove back to the Hutt.

By now it was nearly midnight, so I serviced the bikes in my hotel room while Chris and I watched TV and drank a couple of quiet beers.

Up early again the next day to repeat the drive over the Rimutakas, this time to Masterton for the start outside the Solway Park Copthorne Hotel, where we would have been based for the Wairarapa stages if not for the "Shaving of the Sheeps". I have fond memories of my time there during my time working with Sarah Ulmer and the NZ Team last year, but there would be no washing bikes by the pool this year, dammit...

The third beautiful day in a row greeted the riders as we filled the bidons, pumped the tyres, pinned race numbers on and performed all the other little tasks that precede a race. I had to do a last minute tube swap, as Sharon's front tyre inexplicably went down with 20 minutes to go, as well as helping Paul with a wheel issue for one of the South Africa girls. Thanks to Ruth's great sprint on the previous stage putting her high up the GC we were up to 5th place in the convoy, so I knew we'd have a much better view of the day's racing as I taped our numbers to the windscreens and settled into my position in the back seat for the day.

Oli ready to race...

After a longish neutralised start, the racing began with an endless procession of ups and downs, designed it seemed to completely sap the strength in the women's legs well before they even got to Admirals Hill.

The day was eventful, with several nasty crashes splitting the field early, and riders getting dropped almost from the start. There were also some hilarious events within the convoy. With such narrow roads, and in such hot temperatures, feeding the riders was both a priority and extremely difficult. The day before many riders had reached Masterton dehydrated, and we didn't want a repeat, so the Commissaires were calling up the cars in order one at a time.

I won't mention any names, but one team car in particular made us both amused and frustrated in equal measures. The idea is to drive up on the right-hand side of the road, with the convoy on the left, hand out bidons and/or food to the riders from the left side of the vehicle, then drop back as soon as the feeding is done.

This works best if the usual pattern is followed with the manager/directeur driving, and either the mechanic in the back or the soigneur in the left front doing the feeding. For some reason, this team had the inexperienced soigneur driving and the manager feeding. This had a couple of effects, with the poor driving blocking other teams from feeding for an extended period, not to mention being erratic at best and dangerous at worst. This culminated in a stern telling off from one of the motorcycle cops charged with looking after the race!

That was the frustrating part to watch, but the amusing part was said manager handing up Coke to one of his riders without having flattened it! The poor woman was trying to negotiate curves in the road while Coke frothed all over her and her bike - all this in 29 degree heat and with 70km to go! Ugly! Also seeing Service 2 drifting sideways to a stop in gravel almost taking out the rider they were servicing and a parked car caused a wry chuckle or two in the Tabak vehicle...

I spent the bulk of the stage with both the Prairie's rear sliding doors zip-tied wide open, sitting strapped into the middle seat with my tools and spare wheels on one side of me, and bidons for feeding on the other. Handing up bottles was much easier this way, especially as the electric windows had decided not to work! Paul said I looked like a doorgunner in a Huey helicopter! It was a great way to see the race unfold, and also to keep cool in the hot temperatures...

Doorgunner's view

As the race continued, Denmark's Linda Villumsen (High Road) escaped and was joined by Aussie Olympic Champion Sara Carrigan (Lotto-Belisol). They pushed forward until Sara dropped back approaching Admirals. Linda persisted, but the chase was on and she was caught halfway up the climb with 6km to go by the front of the field being driven by American ex-World Time Trial Champion Kristin Armstrong (Cervelo-Lifeforce) and Oenone Wood. Suddenly we heard over the radio that the two of them had forced the split, but that Ruth was up there with her with Sharon just behind in the chasing group! This is where things get really exciting in the following car - Chris and I were willing Ruth on. Armstrong was too strong, however, and another powerful attack saw her shed Ruth and Oenone and solo to the stage win and the yellow jersey.

The break on Admirals Hill

Ruth cleverly rolled Oenone for 2nd place 27 seconds down, much to our delight. This also pushed her up into a great 3rd place overall. At the top of the hill she was interviewed by several media people and she received warm congratulations from everyone around for this awesome result.

Ruth post-stage

Sharon didn't have the day she wanted, but still got a great 10th place giving her 10th on GC too. Aurélie hung tough and managed to hit the climb before the cut-off that would have meant she wouldn't have been able to even begin the climb, and would have ended up with a pro-rated time. Great effort.

Sharon warms down and Aurélie rehydrates

The summit of the climb was very exposed and the wind was powerful, but not as powerful as the sun. We noticed the Japan team showing great concern for a rider lying down by her team vehicle, so Chris and I went to see if they needed any help. I called over the ambulance and grabbed a full wheelbag to hold over her as a sunshade. She seemed completely unresponsive, even when I accidentally trod on her leg, so we were very concerned. But as soon as the ambo turned up and the Japanese manager yelled at the girl, she sat up as if nothing was wrong at all! Apparently she'd crashed earlier in the day and was just (not surprisingly) shattered from her much for my Sir Galahad impulses!

We then did the drive back over the hill, via Greytown for the coffee this time. I again washed the bikes before zooming into town to see my boy for a few hours, then returned to service the bikes in the room again...Nothing really wrong with them, although Sharon's Mavic R-Sys had been touched by another rider's pedal, shattering one of the carbon spokes. I swapped her wheel for one of my spare American Classics. Ruth had also been bashed into by a rider, so her Corima carbon deep needed a quick fettle too.

The rest was just tuning and checking, before sliding off to have a beer and shoot the shit with Paul, Benny, Nicko and Meninkini team mechanic Klas (02-03 World Champion Suzanne Lungskog's husband) in the bike room the Angus lets the race occupy. I should really have taken a picture of this room, as it's always packed to the gunnels with the latest bikes, wheels and fruity bits...Oh well, I'll remember next year!

Thanks for reading - I'll post the rest of the story soon...Cheers, Oli

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