Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Golden South

My good friend Bridie O'Donnell had asked me several months ago if I would help her in her attempt to defend her back-to-back Oceania Time Trial titles. On this occasion Bridie was racing independently as a VIS rider rather than as a part of the Australian National Team, so would be lacking Team support. Thanks to our association through a mutual good friend my name came up and I was honoured to be asked by her to assist. Ever since, I had been fizzing to be once again taking the Roadworks show on the road and Thursday was spent happily packing my tools and running around getting organised for the evening trip to Invercargill for the Oceania Road and Time Trial Championships.

Knowing I would only have Bridie's two Cervelos to tend to made packing a bit easier than usual, but I like to be prepared for any eventuality so was packed to the limits of my excess baggage allowance.

Unfortunately, my Supercheap Auto tool case gave up the ghost immediately after I took this photo - I went to pick it up and the handle broke clean off!! Luckily this didn't happen in the airport sending 18kg of tools all over the conveyor belt, but it did mean a slightly hurried repack of my trusty Black and Decker tool bag, followed by a dash to the airport and the two hour flight to Invers.

After a typically bumpy landing on an equally typical windy Southland day I arrived to be met at the airport by Bridie who drove us in her hire car the short distance to the Livingspace Hotel we were to be based in for the weekend. The hotel with it's small but clean and comfortable rooms was situated on Tay Street right next to the Cycle Surgery whose owners Glen Thomson and Ryan Cull were kindly helping us out when needed with such things as rollers...

Bride had been in Invers since Tuesday and had already reccied the TT course and conditions, as well as getting us all the supplies we would need for the weekend. As I settled into my room she very kindly presented me with some gifts - a pin from the 2010 Geelong World Champs launch, and a stunning commemorative jersey from a shop in Lucca, Italy, near Bridie's National Team base for the season. Cheers, Bridie!

After Bridie cooked us both some delicious pesto pasta and we'd shared a glass of wine and a good catch up I headed down to the secure lock-up where her bikes were stashed. I wanted to give them both a good look over, as well as deal to a couple of specific issues her TT bike was experiencing.

I was stoked to find her bikes were already stickered up with my logo - nice to know I had a presence in the Tour de France and World Champs without ever leaving the comfort of my own home! The P3C needed it's SRM sensor rejigged so Bridie could get consistent readings, and her new 3T TT bars needed sorting out to prevent them moving on the coarse and bumpy Southland roads. As well I freed up the brake cable friction a bit and tickled up the gears - naturally, I checked the rest of the bike over from stem to stern including tyres.

I also gave the road bike some love. The S2 just needed a quick look over for now - it would get the full deal on Saturday afternoon before the Road Race Sunday morning. I was very impressed with the Cervelos, and the Sram Red kit is light and functions beautifully. Once the Zipp 404 race wheels are on this bike is bang on the UCI minimum weight limit of 6.8kg...

It took about an hour for me to be happy that both bikes were ready for the TT next morning. I made sure tools, rollers, stand and spares were packed up and ready to go for the early morning start.

Back up to the room for a beer and some last minute details discussion then it was off to bed. The weather outside had turned from bad to worse, so we were both anticipating a freezing cold windy TT at Winton. Neither of us slept well - I can only imagine what was going through Bridie's mind, but I was having my usual pre-race fitful sleep filled with frustrating dreams of Cadel-style fluffed wheelchanges and catastrophic mechanicals without the tools to solve them. Eventually sleep came...

...and I woke up at 6.30 without even needing my alarm. A quick breakfast of toast and instant coffee (poor effort on my part to forget to bring some of my sponsors product!) then we were good to go. Bridie brought the car around the front in the driving rain and we loaded it up before she handed me the keys for the drive to Winton and the TT course.

We were among the first to arrive at the race HQ at Fowler Park, so were able to stake our claim for a prime park and ideal warm-up possie. The rain had stopped and despite some looming clouds and the ever-present strong wind it appeared our luck might be in...

Bridie chilled out to some music after we had unloaded the bikes, rollers and wheels as I pumped the tyres and wandered around trying to get in everyone's way asking stupid questions. I also had the pleasure of meeting one of the characters I'd just been reading about in Tino Tabak's book, Mr Tony Ineson - a great character as I'd discover over the weekend...

Then it was time for Bridie to jump on the rollers to begin her structured and focussed warm-up.

By now the clubrooms were starting to fill up with other competitors, both male and female. It appeared the fields weren't going to be big, but still high quality - in the women's field were such luminaries as 1992 Olympic RR and 2006 Australian TT Champion Kathy Watt, 2008 Aussie National TT bronze (behind Bridie) medalist Alexis Rhodes, 2008 NZ Road and TT champ Meshy Holt, and of course Bridie herself - 2008 Australian National TT Champion and 2008/2009 Oceania TT Champion.

Soon enough it was time for Bridie to brave the biting wind and warm up on the road. She had made the call to race with her 404 front wheel rather than the 808, as the effort to fight the crosswinds with the deeper section wheel would negate the aero benefits it would have in calmer conditions. I gingerly carried her bike across the gravel, gave her tyres one last check for flints and she headed up the road.

Kathy Watt warms up.

Before long it was time for Bridie to fight her way through the throng and mount the start ramp. I would be following her in the car, ready to do a lightning wheel change in the unlikely event she'd need one.

She started fast and seemed to get into her rhythm swiftly, as the rain began to fall.

No radio and ability to do a time check meant it was difficult for me to gauge her progress, but she was closing on her minute rider. I did my best (not very good, judging by my pained expression) to contain my nerves, grateful as Hell I wasn't the one trying to eke out every last erg in these tough and trying conditions...

The crosswinds were pushing the competitors around, but Bridie was still moving along at a good clip - the speedo in the rental was showing about 40kph most of the time.

Before hitting the 50kph mark as the 3/4 head wind on the outward leg became a 3/4 tailwind in the last few kilometres...

One kilometre to go with no disasters and what seemed to me from my comfy vantage point to have been a great ride.

I pulled up and leaped out of the car to hand Bridie a bottle and some warm clothes, but already it appeared she may have missed out on the gold threepeat. We moved back to the warmth of the clubrooms so she could warm down as I tried to find out for sure what the results were. Sadly for us Bridie had failed to secure the win, and had been bumped into the bronze medal position by 12 seconds to silver medalist Meshy Holt (Waikato/BOP) and a further 4 seconds to victor Alexis Rhodes (AIS-Australia).

Bridie seemed disappointed but philosophical, knowing that her recent motorpaced hill training hadn't really been geared towards a flat TT. As the organisers prepared for the medal presentations Bridie changed into warm clothes and made us both some grouse ham rolls, while I loaded up the car for the drive home.

The medals were presented by Tour Down Under organiser Mike Turtur. L-R in my terrible grainy pic: Silver - Meshy Holt (WBP), Gold - Alexis Rhodes (AIS) and Bridie O'Donnell (VIS). BikeNZ report here.

We drove back to base quite subdued. Bridie told me her Sram Red TT shifter had come completely loose in the last couple of km leaving her stuck in the 54x14, and although she made it plain that it wasn't my fault and it hadn't cost her the win I still felt gutted to have let her down by failing to predict it.

It also turned out I totally wasn't aware at all of the ramifications of her failure; I had thought the disappointment was just at the loss itself, but I was unaware that for her to be guaranteed a spot in the Australian Team for the 2010 World Championships in Geelong Bride she had to win the Oceanias - now she was now relying on a hard to guarantee win in Sunday's road race or at the Australian Nationals to secure a place in the team for what are her home Worlds, making the path to selection that much harder.

Naturally Bridie was now questioning the self-funded expense of coming all this way and paying for me to come and help when her goal hadn't even been achieved, so the frustration welled up within her. As she struggled with her emotions I felt stupid for not having understood the importance of victory, pissed off she had had a mechanical I might have been able to prevent, and powerless to help as my heart went out to her for the selection struggle that now awaited her...

We got back to our digs and Bride showered and hit Skype to connect with her support network in Aussie and China, as I headed down to sort the bikes. Even though the TT bike was no longer required and would be packed up soon I decided I had to find out what had happened to the shifter, so I chucked the Cervelo up in the stand and set to work. It was some small relief to find that the RC2 shifter had been set up wrong from the start and my checking wouldn't have picked it up unless I'd stripped it down initially, but with the gears adjusted there was no real need to do that. It was a simple matter to install it correctly and hopefully that's the last time Bride will have that kind of thing potentially messing up a race. The keen-eyed among you will notice the extra Roadworks sticker I added for the sake of symmetry...

I love the Cancellara sticker on the top tube - inspiration if it's ever needed, I'm sure!

I also gave the road bike a quick check - it would get another proper check after Bridie went training the following day.

The main thing was that to improve the front shifting the SRM cranks needed replacing with the dedicated Red cranks/chainrings, and Bride decided she didn't really need the SRM data in the road race anyway.

I also made sure the race wheels were working perfectly in the S2 before pulling them back out and refitting her training wheels. Her Zipps are custom stickered...

After Bridie made us another yummy meal (chicken fajitas!) I left her to chill out while I headed to the famous ILT, Invercargill's world-class indoor velodrome. The Oceania track championships were on so some good racing was guaranteed. After a bit of ticket confusion I eventually made my way in.

There was good racing indeed - in particular I found the mens sprint and madison thrilling, despite the small fields. I grabbed a beer and soaked up the atmosphere with some friends I had bumped into while marvelling at my first look at this impressive facility...I couldn't help but wish I was down in the middle working in the track centre instead of just spectating. Being surrounded by legends like Ali Shanks, Sam Bewley, Jo Keisanowski, Marc Ryan and others is very inspiring.

I took a wander around the track to get some different vantage points and to try to catch up with as many friends as possible. The walls of the ILT are covered with photos, blazers, and memorabilia, along with a couple of cool old bikes.

Hayden Godfrey's 2008 Men's Omnium World Championship rainbow jersey.

I also got to catch up with my friends from the Jazz Apples, Marina Duvnjak and Lauren Ellis. Both are great riders but Lauren's career in particular is going from strength to strength and she was making the women's points race hard for everyone...

If you are more interested in the racing than my waffle click here and scroll down for the results for Friday night as well as the rest of the week's Championships.

After the excitement of the day I headed home in time to watch some quality TV and get some much needed sleep, which tonight came easily.

Up at 8.30 for a leisurely breakfast before Bridie headed out with Alexis for a 90 minute training ride. I took the opportunity to say hi and thanks to the guys from Cycle Surgery, as well as check out the famous Zookeepers Cafe for a cup of their java - mmmmmmm, java.

Once Bridie was back, I grabbed the chance to spend some time doing a final fettle of the S2 for the road race on Sunday. She had a slow puncture in her training wheel so I headed next door to grab a tube and return the rollers to Glen and Ryan. Once I had fixed the training wheel I fitted the 404s, added the race number to my custom mount, then when I was satisfied the bike was mechanically perfect I gave it a clean and added some new Sram handlebar tape - amazing what a psychological boost fresh bar tape can be!

The Cervelo S2 ready to race.

After I went back up to the room and was blown away by how Bride had been dealing with her failure in the TT. She had been disconsolate at first, but not for long as she tapped into her determination to succeed. She had come up with a sound gameplan for the RR and knew if she could succeed there she would still have qualified for the Aussie World's squad, making it that much harder for her to be passed over for selection for the TT. We mulled things over at length, then decided to take our minds off the race for a while by going to a silly movie - the silliest one we could find was the epic disaster movie 2012.

We ate choc tops, laughed out loud and talked inappropriately all the way through the movie, and left in good spirits - that is until we stepped out into a deluge of freezing rain! After tea Bridie headed off to bed with a clear desire to turn things around the next day. I stayed up long enough to watch NZ beat Bahrain to qualify for the football World Cup, then tossed and turned all night long running myriad possible and impossible race scenarios through my mind, while boi racerz revved their shitty cars outside and moronic youth partied hard in the hotel hallways as the wind-driven rain thundered down...

It seemed like only minutes until my alarm dragged me awake, so I blearily shovelled down some fruit toast and jam and swilled another instant coffee before heading out the door, where Bridie pointed out the knife jammed in the wall outside our door by one of last night's revellers. We sidled past the slightly disturbing object and headed downstairs to load up the car again.

The 65km drive to Gore for the road race was a good chance for us to nut out a few final details and get to know a bit more about each other - it's amazing how the crucible of competition can create such strong friendships. By now it was manifestly apparent to me that Bridie meant business today - she had the Eye Of The Tiger, and was busting to get on with what she had to do.

Despite the apocalyptic weather of the entire night before, the further away we got from Invers the nicer the weather became. When we got to Gore and found the race HQ warm sunlight was breaking through the clouds and the wind was slight for the moment. I unpacked Bird's machine, worked out my plan for the day and made sure we were sorted for drink bottles as she got dressed and prepared her race numbers.

Once we were both semi-organised Bridie hit the road for a warm up.

I wanted to know if I could drive in the convoy, and it turned out I could as long as I didn't get "involved in the racing". Once I was sure she wouldn't need them before the off I handed Bridie's spare wheels to the guys in the AIS vehicle, trusting that either they or the neutral support dudes could look after her if she punctured.

Pre-race favourite and most likely Bridie's main difficulty in winning, Rochelle Gilmore warmed up indoors. If Rochelle was still there at the finish it's unlikely that anyone could out-sprint her, so part of our plan was to ensure she was far behind...

Bridie had identified experienced Kiwi Meshy Holt as being both a threat and someone to key off, so she sussed Meshy's intentions out a bit as they rolled around turning their legs over.

Meshy and Dale Tye have a chat, perhaps laughing in the face of the slowly increasing wind?

Before long it was time to hit the startline. The usual pre-race banter ensued as the athletes try and cope with their nerves.

And off they go - all questions would be answered in a couple of hours...

The course threaded through the outskirts of Gore.

Then the riders ascended a small hill.

Before heading down a short descent...

...and kicking up the only real difficulty of the course - a roughly 300 metre steepish climb.

Then we headed out of town and into the rolling countryside, gruppo compatto.

The biting cold wind whenever the sun went behind the clouds was explained by the snow on the ranges NW of Gore. Lovely views though as the peloton perambulated along...

It was pretty hard to tell what was happening from my position at the very rear of the convoy, but every now and then I'd get a glimpse of the riders - at this stage I was actually a bit worried that Bridie was struggling, as she seemed to be dangling around the rear of the field...

The spectators sadly couldn't help me work out what was happening.

But the cars parted long enough for me to see that Bird was back up the front and actively jumping on the testing little moves the other riders were making - that's her in the red gilet up near the front...

At this stage there seemed to be a bit of activity at the front but not enough for anything to get away...Bridie still attentive and looking very strong now.

The weather didn't seem to know what it was doing - some ugly grey clouds were gathering overhead, broken sporadically by piercing shafts of sunlight, then spots of rain from time to time. The wind would just keep ramping up. Odd.

We finished the first 18km lap of five with the status fully quo, but once we were back into the countryside the action started with various women attempting to snap the shackles of the bunch. I didn't realise at this point that two women (Gabby Vermunt and Rachel Mercer) were up the road, but I did see Bridie key off Meshy's counter-attack...

...whereupon my camera batteries died and I put the camera aside. It was still very hard for me to see what was happening, but I could see flashes of Bridie bridging the gap at what looked like warp speed. She told me later that she got to the two breakaways just as Rachel punctured. Gabby tried to hold Bridie's wheel but she was gone and driving hard in short order, deciding if Vermunt couldn't hold her wheel how could she work with her to stay away? At this point there was still 67km to go and Bridie is feeling good and ready to solo all the way if she has to.

Photo: Pete Bruggeman (hope that's okay Pete!)

As I followed the peloton I realised that the AIS were chasing hard, along with some of the Kiwi women - all potential alliances and promises of support evaporated as the Aussies tried their damnedest to recapture the flying Bird. I realised too this also meant that Bridie was stuck without any spare bidons as I was so far behind and not allowed to "get involved".

While Rachel Mercer made her way back to the the field through the cars I realised I'd just have to sort something out, so as we hit the start/finish I pulled over and asked the commissaires if I could feed from the roadside (I also grabbed the Sram vest she'd chucked as she passed through). The answer was no to the feeding, but apparently I could hand her bidons up to neutral support to take care of her, so I dashed back around the course in the reverse of the race direction to rendezvous as they passed by.

When I saw them coming towards me I stopped, jumped out, yelled encouragement to Bird and held the bidons out to the neutral wagon, only for them to ignore me with some derisive gestures. I jumped back in the car and chased them waving the bottles furiously only to be continually ignored. In their defence, they told me later they had been informed by the Comm that I was trying to feed Vermunt and they didn't see the point in taking on bottles for her when she was way behind them...

Not aware of their misapprehension I was by now majorly pissed, and more importantly starting to worry badly about feeding her - luckily the AIS guys had seen that I was trying to get bottles to her and they pulled up alongside, with AIS coach David Short suggesting I just ignore the Comm and feed from the roadside anyway.

I said cheers, and sped back against the race again to the main climb where I parked up, changed camera batteries and put on my impossible to miss day-glo yellow Showers Pass jacket, and before long I was able to both give Bride a rough timecheck and a fresh bidon. Phew, job done.

3.45 behind came the main field, Kathy Watt and the Aussies chasing hard but already looking a wee bit as if the stuffing had been knocked out of them with two laps still to go...

Once the race had passed by I zipped down to the start finish for a bit, only getting slightly lost, before heading back to the hill to hand up another bidon if required. It wasn't but Bridie was amazingly laughing as she climbed, incredulously informing me that the gap was up to six minutes! I actually waited nearly seven minutes before the beaten peloton passed by, with Meshy flicking me a laconic thumbs up as I gave them the timecheck they totally didn't need or want by now. I then raced back to the finish to wait for Bridie to come in, hoping desperately that she hadn't had a mechanical or a puncture.

She hadn't, and before too long the small crowd were privileged and impressed to see Bridie O'Donnell win the Oceania Road Race Gold medal in the most emphatic way possible. My poor photography doesn't begin to do justice to the emotion and relief in Bridie's finishline celebrations.


Bridie was crying as she rolled towards me, and I am happy to admit I was a bit teary myself! We hugged each other and tried to digest this stunning turnaround and this dominating performance. This win has now secured her an automatic selection for Australia at the 2010 Geelong UCI World Championships, so Bridie will definitely be able to strut her superb stuff on the biggest international stage at the southern hemisphere's first ever Elite Worlds.

I handed her a drink and a warm top just in time for the UCI drug tester to collar her for the obligatory winners test... the salubrious drug testing facilities.

Nine minutes and twenty-three seconds after Bridie crossed the line Nelson's Karen Fulton pulled out a wicked sprint to relegate Australia's Rochelle Gilmore to the bronze - full results here. As Bridie was busy with the UCI woman I was being congratulated by everyone for her success, including some special words from Shorty and the other Aussies. Everyone was unanimous in their unreserved admiration for Bridie's powerful and dominant ride, and I have to admit to spending the hours following this fantastic result floating about a foot off the ground - I've never been so closely involved with an Elite victory before, and I like the feeling quite a lot.

Before long the officials had decided to put the women's medal ceremony on before the men finished their race, to save the mad dash to the airport for the travelling athletes. While we waited I got to here some great anecdotes about racing in the late 60s/early 70s from the legendary Tony Ineson, then it was time for the lavish Medal Ceremony.

Bridie in her rightful and so very well deserved place atop the podium, with silver medalist Karen Fulton on the left and bronze medalist Rochelle Gilmore on the right. Fan-bloody-tastic!!

Sadly, we weren't able to bask in the glory for too long - we had our own mad dash to the airport to do! Here Bridie is admiring the spattered mud my cross country driving exploits had left on the previously pristine hire car.

We headed back to Invercargill delighted and both bubbling with our mutual success. Bridie had the hard job of the day of course, but her bike had performed flawlessly and I'd managed to get her drinks to her so I think I'd done my bit too. We ran over the Tale of the Race (suffering at the start as I'd correctly surmised, the effort of bridging to the break, the looooong solo, the hail, the vomiting, the dread of being chased and the fear of being caught, and the winning feeling for the entire final circuit) and we chattered and laughed all the way back to the hotel, telling stupid stories and laughing for the sake of laughing. Once we were back in town we packed up the bikes and my stuff, loaded them into the car, then headed over to Zookeepers to kill my last few minutes in Invercargill over a decent coffee.

We took some time to reflect on what we'd done this weekend, and making some plans for next year. If all goes well I'll be building Bridie's new Cervelo S3 road bikes and a P4 TT rig sometime in January. I wished Bridie the very best of luck at her Nationals in January, we babbled and laughed some more then it was time for me to go, as Bridie was flying out two hours after me. We drove to the airport then said our final goodbyes and thank yous and it was see you later Bridie and so long Southland.

As I waited for the plane and then the flight home I sat back with a slightly stunned mixture of feelings; elation/satisfaction/admiration/exhaustion/pride as well as the deflating feeling that can sometimes occur when you've just crossed a physical or metaphorical finish line; Is that it? What now? I reassured myself, as I always do, with the thought that I'd soon be with the Team that I love being a part of the most, my family.

It was apposite in light of the four seasons in one hour weather we'd experienced in Southland all weekend that the horizontal rain of take-off gave way to a sun-drenched final view of the Golden South...

Thanks very much to Bridie and Paul for the fantastic opportunity and privilege to have shared in this extraordinary Gold Medal winning exploit.

And thanks very much to you for reading. Cheers, Oli