Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Women's Tour of Wellington Part 3

Another way too short night's sleep, then we drove into Wellington for the day's stage consisting of 12 laps of the Miramar Peninsular. We breathed a sigh of relief, as despite the scudding grey clouds driven by powerful northerly winds, the dire rain forecast the night before hadn't eventuated.

We got to Miramar in plenty of time to drive a lap to show the girls the course, and for me to use my years of experience in riding on these exact roads to give them some advice on where the wind would be coming from at various times...

After parking up on the finishing straight, I put the bikes together and gave them a last minute check over, then the three women went off for a warm-up. I tidied up the van and loaded up for the day with the usual tools and wheels, as well as the bottles we would be feeding with.

My director Chris Drake and I mulled over who would be feeding in the Scorching Bay feedzone. Initially, it was decided Chris was to do the job while I stayed in the convoy in case of any mechanical service required, but after consultation with my good friend Grant Wall (race Operations Manager and Service 1 driver) we realised that servicing from the convoy would be nigh on impossible, due to the narrow and twisting nature of the parcours, so Chris and I decided that I could drive the first four non-feeding laps, then either toss Chris out or stop and feed together from Scorching Bay. Grant promised me he'd look after my girls before anyone else anyway... ;-)

Before we knew it, it was time for the race to begin. The roads were closed, and a large crowd of curious locals were gathering along with Wellington's cycling community out for a spectate. The race rolled off past my parking place, so I peeled out as soon as there was a slight gap, and quickly accelerated around the first right-hander and into my place in the convoy. Due to Ruth's 3rd on GC we were Car 3 in the convoy, so we had a superb close-up view of the action. Very cool for me to get the chance to drive, and fun to be driving past many of my friends spectating on Awa Road, the only climb of the day.

Awa Road is a wide power climb - no challenge for most of the riders in a single pass, but 12 ascents would sap the legs of all but the most strong. I believe the last time the Men's Tour of Wellington passed over this hill it was only crossed 9 times! Once the hill is crested, it turns left for a fast and straight descent, that spits you at pace into a nasty, off-camber, corkscrew corner/s-bend, then it widens again in time to fling the riders onto the waterfront at Worser Bay. The first time over was taken at a sedate(ish) pace, but still there was a crash on the s-bend. She must have bounced back upright, because by the time we got there the only sign of the crash was a bidon rolling around in the road. I yelled at a bystander to clear it and we kept rolling.

The race is preceded by a lead car and police escort, but the convoy stays behind the last rider in the main peloton, so this meant by the time we got to the bottom of the hill behind the slowest riders, the front riders were disappearing up the road into the distance at warp speed. This is where the fun begins for me. Closed roads and police sanction mean some unlikely speeds as I took the Tabak/Roadworks vehicle back up to the front in short order, just in time to whistle through Scorching Bay for the first time. The women weren't really attacking each other, but the pace was being kept quite high and attrition was causing riders to be dropped at regular intervals. Unfortunately, Aurélie was one of these. She fought back and got on before too long, but the cards were on the table for her it seemed...over successive laps she took longer and longer to get back on, until she was effectively riding on her own.

A funny thing that occurred in these early laps was when the Chief Commissaire called repeatedly for Service 2 to join the convoy, only to be eventually told they had no wheels to perform services with! Not really their fault, as the Teams are supposed to supply wheels to them, but perhaps they should have asked for some prior to the stage depart if none were forthcoming...The Commissaire curtly told them to sit out the race in a voice that left one quite certain she didn't want to know how they had arrived at their predicament!

Another three laps of THE most fun I've ever had in a convoy were brought to an end when we pulled into a carpark at Scorching Bay to unload the bidons and get ready to feed. As the race had only just passed, I knew I had time to get a coffee from the ex Chocolate Fish Cafe. I was delighted to see they served Havana coffee, so a lovely short black was the order of the day, while Chris bought himself the biggest ice-cream I've ever seen!

The road through Scorching Bay has a gentle hump running through it, so Chris and I decided the best place was on the upslope, where the riders would be moving marginally slower. Oddly, the other teams opted to feed on the downward sloping part of the road. I started to wonder if we'd picked the wrong place but Chris's wise head called for chilling out exactly where we were.

It was good to see my friend Marina Duvnjak (NZ) in a break with Natalie Bates (Menikini Selle Italia), who had attacked, and Lauren Franges (USA). The main field keeping them in check came through with Ruth and Sharon safely ensconced, then a procession of dribs and drabs (including a lone Aurélie, unfortunately) grovelled through to raucous encouragement from the two of us. Noone wanted feeding the first couple of times through, but as the laps counted down and the pace hotted up bottles started to be flung out and hands started going up requesting fresh ones. Chris and I had no trouble getting bottles to the girls, and I couldn't help but think how much easier it was feeding two riders rather than the 8 to 10 I was having to feed in Murwillimbah last year!

After lap 7 or 8 we realised poor Aurélie was no longer coming past, but some girls that were behind her were still passing us. We hoped like hell she hadn't had a crash, but after the stage was done we found out that she had pulled out at the start/finish believing she was last rider on the road and that she didn't have a hope of making it the rest of the way on her own. Once the women behind her started going through the finish, Aurélie realised she wasn't last and asked if she could restart and finish the stage with them, but the officials forbade her doing so much to her distress. Aurélie's Tour was over.

As the race passed through on it's 11th lap, it was time to grab our gear and leap back into the van for the remainder of the stage. The last car went past, then I peeled out and fanged it around the point. I was already slotted into my 3rd position by the end of next bay, in a feat of driving that made Chris tell me "Maybe you have a future in this game..." :-D

The promised rain was just starting to fall as we headed around for one more burst of tyre squealing goodness around the Peninsular and over Awa Road, then I had to really gas it just to keep in touch with the peloton as it thundered towards Scorching Bay. As we hit Karaka Bay, we saw a couple of riders slide out on the increasingly greasy surface - no rain for weeks in Welli meant that any rain would turn the roads into ice rinks. I think three women went down, including Olympic Champion Sara Carrigan, who I later saw had sustained a very deep and nasty gash to the forearm. As we were soon to find out, the ambulances were to be kept busy...

We were doing 50-60kph with the tailwind through Shelley Bay towards the Miramar Cutting as the High Road girls and other sprinters tried to set-up for the finale, after reeling in the day's break. Suddenly, as we rode down the finish straight of many a PNP race, there was the horrific sight of wheels and legs flying up into the air - the unmistakeable effect of a high-speed crash. We both yelled in involuntary fright as we screeched to a stop and realised that about 20 riders had gone down, some of them sustaining race ending injuries. Luckily for our depleted Team, neither Ruth nor Sharon were involved. As team personnel, ambos and race officials scraped the victims off the deck, and riders picked themselves up or waded through the carnage, we slowly passed the scene and raced to the finish to find the sprint had been won from the survivors by Oenone Wood (High Road) from the alleged causer of the crash Rochelle Gilmore (Meninkini-Selle Italia). There were some fireworks and bitter recriminations afterwards, as well as protests to the officials, but the result stood...

We parked up while the girls warmed down and we heard Aurélie's tale of woe, and I wandered over to grab my spares from Service 1. We stood around trying to piece together the events of the day, then the rain really started to set in so we packed up and drove out of town. Because of my concern for Harry, who was still in hospital, Chris decided that instead of a Team dinner that night, that we'd grab lunch together instead so I wouldn't miss out. I drove us out to Days Bay again, where we had a lovely lunch at the Chocolate Days Cafe together. It was nice to just be able to chat about non-race related things, and to find out a bit about these cool women. I especially enjoyed hearing about Mauritius from Aurélie - I hope her invitation to stay one day was sincere, because it sounds like Paradise! We then drove back to the Angus, where the girls went for massages arranged by Paul Larkin, while I serviced the bikes. Down to two now, so just helped get Aurélie's ready to pack, then went over the last two thoroughly before heading into the hospital again.

Had an "interesting" time listening to Harry's delirious and feverish ravings, and found out he had been assessed as having cellulitis which required operating under general. This was tentatively scheduled for the next day, also the Tour's final day. I stayed with Harry awhile then wearily drove back out to the Angus.

After checking in with Chris for the next day's schedule (and an advance glimpse of the extensive Jazz Apples schedule for the year!) I schlepped out for the usual post-stage banter in the Bike Room with Paul, Benny, Nicko and Klas, joined also by a local friend Dave Livesey, who was kindly helping out Paul. Nice to have a beer and tell tall tales for a while. Also had to help Paul deal with some of the fallout from the Big Crash - one of his girls had gone down hard and bent her bars. Paul wanted to get her new ones, but time and other issues prevented this, so I ordered the Bike room doors closed so the long queue of riders couldn't see what was going on, then I put the bike on it's side and yanked the bars straight. Definitely not something I'd do if the bars were going to be kept for ever, but I was certain they would be safe for the near future, especially as they were Ritchey WCS bars. Once they were aligned Paul retaped them and they were perfect to all intents and purposes, although I had to laugh later on when Paul told me Cherise won the Cape Argus Pick n Pay in South Africa on them the following week! Hopefully she's replaced them by now...

Off to bed after these shenanigans, ready for the final day - whatever it would bring.

This was a (very!) long post with few photos, sorry, but my camera battery kept going flat, and also the driving put a serious crimp in my am-cam abilities. I'll bring you the end of the race in the next few days.

Thanks for persisting!

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