Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Women's Tour of New Zealand

The leaves are falling from the trees (the deciduous ones, at least...) and in Europe the Classics season is in full swing. Despite some lovely autumn days summer seems a very long time ago, and I thought it was long past time I whacked up some of the pictures I took from my time working for the BikeNZ Team on the 2010 NZCT Women's Tour of New Zealand.

As the New Regime seems to be leaving me less time to write I'm hoping some wordy captions will suffice to tell some kind of a story...

I'll do my best to link to them, but for the full stage and GC results go here and for many interesting articles head to the awesome Roadcycling.co.nz website...

T minus 1: On a glorious and typical Wellington day I head to the Team hotel in Petone and set up shop while waiting for the Team to arrive from various points of the country.

Nice bikes 1: Linda Villumsen's HTC-Columbia Scott, after new handlebar tape.

Nice bikes 2: Jo Kiesanowski's TIBCO Look.

Nice bikes 3: Cath Cheatley's Trek.

Some of the Team head for an easy afternoon roll around the seaside to Eastbourne.

After checking the bikes over I headed home for the night, before returning the following morning to help load up the Team van for the trip over the Rimutakas and the first stage of the Tour.

We set up camp on the grass of the Martinborough Square. Time to check tyre pressures and make sure the athletes are happy.

The riders getting ready to race. L to R: Linda Villumsen, Kaytee Boyd, Team Manager/DS Andy Reid, Soigneur Justin Ralph, Courteney Lowe, (obscured) Jo Kiesanowski and NZ Road Champion Rushlee Buchanan. Cath must be warming up...

With a crackle from the radio, a blare of horns and a screech of tyres we follow the riders out of Martinborough and quickly settle into our position in the race convoy as Stage One gets under way.

Sadly, we drew car 10...

Te Wharau was the advertised obstacle du jour, but it wasn't the only hill to cause the riders difficulty. While our riders were fighting up the front to get Cath some mountain points other riders were fighting just to stay in contact with the rear of the peloton on a climb that was almost forgotten in the pre-stage preamble.

The actual climb helped drag away a large split containing most of the contenders for final honours in this year's race. All our Team were up there, so as soon as it was practical Andy hit up the Commissaires then took us past the chasers and up to the front in time for the stage finish. A slightly mistimed leadout left Jo K as our best finisher in 4th behind the clearly very strong USA Team's designated sprinter Shelley Evans.

After the riders had regrouped we headed for the Team hotel in Masterton, the always hospitable Copthorne Solway Park. As soon as the Team was all unloaded I got straight to work. I began by giving the BikeNZ car a much needed wash.

Then I began cleaning the bikes.

After washing them I let them dry in the late afternoon sun.

The Police are an invaluable help in ensuring the Tour runs smoothly and safely, and their cars make great drying racks when wall space is at a premium.

One of the best things about working on the Tour is the chance to hang around with great friends I rarely see otherwise. My brother from another mother Paul Larkin is always in hot demand and had been snapped up by the Australian NTID Team to help them out.

After the bikes are clean and dry I check them over, check the tyres for nicks and cuts, make any mechanical adjustments necessary and lightly lube the chains. Once that vital work is done it's time for dinner in the buffet then the serious business of chopping a few beers with like-minded individuals...after time was called I blundered back to the staff unit, terrifying poor Team nutritionist Daniel Healey awake as I loomed drunkenly through the chintz curtains.

The next morning dawned wet and cool...my first rainy race day in five years of women's Tours seemed assured.

We set the car up for the day.

The USA Team looked confident of defending their yellow jersey.

But Andy and the Team had a good plan and we were confident were had the ability to wrest the jersey from them, despite the sad overnight loss from the Team of superstar Cath Cheatley due to a niggling injury.

As the riders prepared to roll out it seemed perhaps we would be spared the worst of the threatening rain. Team Handy Rentals wrench Chickenman and I exchanged banter...

...before being comprehensively outclassed by The People's Banter Champion and big Paul Henry fan, Mr Gordon MacCauley.

We headed out of Masterton for Stage Two to Palmerston North through streets filled with irate and insane locals outraged at being held up for a few minutes by the convoy, resulting in a few Dukes of Hazzard moments as we narrowly avoided being rammed.

Thanks to Jo's high place on GC we were today Car 3 so had a much better view of things.

There were several crashes in the early stages as nervous riders touched wheels. Despite Kaytee and Courteney being caught up in some of the incidents they luckily escaped physical or mechanical damage, although many riders weren't so lucky. Here is Penny Cycles Tracy Clarke chasing back on after some misfortune or other.

Suddenly the radio uttered Jo's name as our luck ran out. Thanks to other cars and riders all over the road it took us a relatively long time to get to her and discover her Zipp had had several spokes torn out by an errant riders pedal. I changed her rear wheel rapidly and shoved back into the fray...

She collected some bottles for the Team and headed back up to the field, but not before I nearly took her out by dropping a bottle into her front wheel. She never even noticed it, but I was so relieved it hadn't caused the crash it so easily could have - I don't know if I could forgive myself for a lapse like that!

As I settled back into my seat in the car the rain decided to settle in as well...we waited for the inevitable punctures as we fervently hoped there wouldn't be more crashes.

The race took the riders over the Pahiatua Track, a road I haven't been over since a ride (race?) in the late 1970s. The road is sealed now but still a tough climb in places.

We crested it with all our women up at the sharp end of the race...

...and luckily avoiding the utter carnage that ensued on the twisty and wet descent. In one of several awful crashes we saw, the defending Tour champion Amber Halliday was taken out by a kamikaze descender and taken away in an ambulance.

The bulk of the field came together as they thundered into Palmy for another bunch sprint. Kaytee, Courteney and Linda finished 4th, 5th and 6th behind the USA's Evans taking her second stage, and Courteney was the first U23 rider on the day.

The stage finish is a good place for the media to catch some early comments from the athletes. Here Sarah from Roadcycling.co.nz catches early breakaway Rushlee for her thoughts. DS Andy and New Zealand track cycling assistant coach Dayle Cheatley exchange views, and my good friend and ex-Jazz Apples teammate Ruth Corset (Nashua) is visible in her mountains jersey to the right.

Our accommodation for the next couple of nights was the Kingsgate Hotel - I can't speak for the whole hotel but our wing was less than salubrious. Nevermind, all we need is a place to hang our hats or, in this case, bike...

Nice bikes 4: Courteney Lowe's Wilier

Their was a lot of cowshit to clean from the bikes...

It was a busy afternoon cleaning all the bikes and fettling the ones that had been decked, but sadly my powers weren't sufficient to restore Jo's Zipp. Several spokes had been torn out and replacements were impossible to find in Palmy. Her spare carbon Dura-Ace wheel made a fine replacement though.

Once the bikes were finally sorted it was off to the buffet, where the Team (and rest of the race) were confronted by greasy vats of some total muck that wasn't suitable for lard-loving pie-eaters, let alone elite athletes. After making the best of a bad situation, the Team staff and some friends repaired to the nearest Irish pub to wash the taste of the vile victuals out of our mouths while spoiling quiz night for the locals by audibly blurting out the (often wrong) answers between ourselves.

The day dawned wet again, so after scoffing down a buffet breakfast that was thankfully a lot more edible than dinner we got ready to roll out from the hotel carpark.

Here I snapped timing dudes and Rotorua MTB moguls Marcus Diprose and Dean Watson discussing vital singlespeed matters with the Man of Chicken...either that or they're checking out iPhone porn.

Ruth Corset (Australia) gets ready to go. She is aboard the Look she will ride (alongside our own Jo K) in the USA and Europe on the TIBCO Team.

The lovely and fast Cherise Taylor is always a welcome visitor to our fair shores.

Linda and Courteney flank the maillot jaune as the field gathers.

While mechanic to the stars Benny Devcich (DS for Lotto) catches up with Kaytee, and Jo gets organised.

My friend Pete Bruggeman takes superb race photos, many from this precarious position on the back of a moto.

Todays stage 3 takes us out of Palmy for some circuits in the rolling countryside surrounding Ashurst. We exited the urbs under Police escort as the rain fell in fits and starts.

I relaxed in my accustomed position in the back seat and listened to Andy and Daniel chat as the stage progressed...

The stage was essentially flat...

...until immediately after the first sprint of the day, where a nasty little KOM hill...

...meant we had the odd sight of the winner of the sprint (AIS Australia's Kirsty Broun in the green jersey) being spat clean out the back 500 metres later!

The convoy is an ad hoc dance, with vehicles moving up and down in a constant semi-organised shuffle. Here Gordy and Chickenman are on their way up front to feed one of their riders and to try and get an advantage on the tractor game, a daily battle which the NZ Team were winning for the first time.

Not sure if Steve Elden and Richard Aitken (Mercedes Benz) even saw a tractor all day, certainly they didn't trouble the leaderboard with a score.

Shortly after that the first break of the day got away. You can see them going away in the distance, and we soon heard it was initiated by my old teammate Yvette Hill-Willis who was rapidly joined by Prime Estate's Irene Digenis and two of Gordy's Handy Rentals women, Gayle Brownlee and Sia Svendsen, who had been egged on by some superb MacCauley team talking to get involved with the racing rather than just follow along.

The field were content to keep the break in check, collectively figuring on reeling them in well before the finish.

The course twisted around the small hills in the area...

...which made getting back on after being dropped or puncturing more difficult than some riders might have liked.

Once the Ashurst circuit had been covered several times the peloton headed back towards the finish in Palmerston North. By now the field were in some disarray as it was becoming apparent that the break weren't going to lie down quietly. Our Team were among the Teams driving hard to pull them back.

Stunningly, the break stayed away! Aussie rider Digenis took the sprint from Hill-Willis, with the plucky Handy Rentals girls barely holding off the galloping bunch sprinters to collect 3rd and 4th places. This Tour of firsts continued for me, as since 2006 I don't think I've seen one non-mountain finish breakaway stick...

Andy ponders how the chase failed and what our next moves might be while Justin readies the bidons and jet planes for the athletes.

Kaytee and Linda were stoked for the break but disappointed for the Team's sake.

As soon as was prudent we zipped back to the Kingsgate for the riders to rest up and refuel, while I readied the bikes for the evening's time trial. As only normal road bikes are allowed in this Tour my job is relatively straightforward - apart from a quick clean (more cow pooh)...

...and the usual brake and gear tune the only issue I had to deal with was gluing a tyre on Rush's spare wheel, as her several year old well-used Zipp had developed some rapidly worsening cracks and I had decided to go for a safety-first approach.

Soon it was time to head to the TT course on Fitzherbert Street to set up. Andy and I drove the car around and set up the trainers, while Justin and Daniel brought the van around.

The TT was set to start at 5pm, but perhaps closing two lanes of the main exit route from town to run a bike race wasn't the best idea? It soon became apparent that the good people desperately trying to get home for the weekend weren't best pleased about their commute being slowed by a race they didn't even know was supposed to be happening, and I saw cars beeping, u-turning, and just plain ignoring the closed off lanes by running down the cones. It was clear the race wouldn't be able to start under these dangerous conditions...

The Team alternated warming up with relaxing in the sun while panicked race workers and city officials tried to figure out a plan that didn't involve cancelling the stage.

Once a new start time of 5.30pm had been established (although it was to be nearly 6pm by the time it was eventally deemed safe to start!) Jo, Rush and Courteney headed out to warm up on the road, unfortunately incurring more ire from the incensed locals...

Luckily, the rush hour passed and the race was able to get under way. Due to the sad demise of Jo's Zipp we had arranged with a girl from another Team to borrow an aero wheel, but this involved having to grab it off Kerri-Anne Torkler the minute she crossed the line to chuck it quickly in Jo's Look in time for her to race! Jo and I waited on the street for a fully spent Kerri-Anne to finish, whereupon I mugged her and stole her rear wheel...

The wheel swap went smoothly and so did Jo's ride. Andy and I were only able to follow one rider, so as Linda was the highest on GC she was deemed most worthy of our attentions. She warmed up on the trainer until the last possible moment, then climbed off and I pulled her bike out of the trainer and handed it to Andy. He was wheeling it away when something made him check the tyre pressure and it was going down fast! All I could do in the time available was whack in one of our non-aero spares and send her off to the start house...despite them being among the very best wheels around I'm totally not feeling the Zipp love this trip.

Luckily, Linda is made of stern stuff and was totally unphased as she quickly knuckled down to work.

Linda's prodigious power was evident as she stomped around the tough little circuit for a solid 7th place @ 50 seconds behind winner and new yellow jersey, USA's 2008 World TT Champion Amber Neben.

After watching a debacle of a prizegiving where the yellow jersey was presented to the wrong rider at first, we made our way back to the hotel where I got straight to work gluing a new tyre onto Linda's wheel.

As I mentioned earlier, the NZ Academy of Sport had lent the Team a nutritionist to help the athletes learn to maximise their fuel and hydration needs. Daniel is a top bloke and he had taken it into his hands to educate the hotel chefs as to the nutritional needs of a field of elite cyclists. This meant the menu was allegedly much better tonight, but Paul Larkin and I decided to give it a swerve in favour of a nice Malaysian meal nearby. We were joined by his Directeur Ben, and while we were eating I received this cryptic text;
Your presence is required at the 1st ever board meeting of Gordons Gourmet Groomed Grundles next door at the Irish bar...As you're a founding member you're being very conspicuous by your absence.
Naturally, I was appalled at myself and as soon as was possible we repaired to said bar to imbibe of a couple of refreshing ales along with the other GGGG board members.

Saturday morning dawned fine and still. Stage 5 took us back over the Pahiatua Track and back to Masterton the way we had come on Thursday. As always, Andy was a man with a plan. Every day as far as I could see he had read the race very well, and really the racing just hadn't gone our way more due to the strengths of the USA Team than our failings. Even the best plans take some luck to enact in bike racing...

Another gathering in the Kingsgate carpark...

...was followed by a neutralised roll out along a thankfully quiet Fitzherbert Street.

Up the hill past Massey University past the tifosi...

...and it wasn't long before we hit the early slopes of the Pahiatua Track. Here the Champion of Luxembourg, Nathalie Lamborelle, is one of many riders who found the torrid pace set on the hill too much too soon.

The gradient was made much harder for some riders by a nasty crash from a touch of wheels just as it kicked up. We drove past the grisly mess hoping the athletes weren't too badly hurt. Before long the hill was past and the terrain settled into the gently rolling roads of the Wairarapa.

There were some fireworks on the hill, as Ruthie fought off the pretenders to her KOM crown and cemented her hold on the Mountains jersey for the second straight year. After the twisty downhill a series of hard attacks were launched and quickly brought back, before a break eventually slipped off the front and soon established a gap - a break containing Rushlee. Car 4 was soon allowed to pass the main field and slot in behind the escapees.

After a fun time chatting up front with Rush as the break worked hard and the gap opened out a bit, the USA decided it was too risky to let go and the pace went on, closing the gap right back up and forcing us to pull over and wait for the peloton to re-pass us.

An exciting chase followed with Jo managing to bridge up and the break almost staying away again, only to be shut down in the finish straight setting Shelley Evans to take yet another stage win for the USA, reclaiming the yellow from her own teammate Neben.

Andy had had the genius idea of renting us a room back at the Solway for an hour or two, so while other teams were being ferried back over the Rimutakas to the Angus Inn still sweaty and dirty from racing, our girls were able to have ice-baths and showers and a bloody good feed while I washed and serviced the bikes fully hours before hitting the race hotel! Outstanding service from the DS, and another part of why this job went so smoothly from my perspective. Of course, this also meant we were able to take plenty of time to stop off in Greytown for gelati and espressos...

After ensuring the Team was sorted race-wise we repaired to Justin's room to partake of a lovely wine that the athletes brought the staff. Much hilarity and banter ensued, as well as some classic inadvertent eavesdropping that I'm afraid I won't share. I then zipped back home to catch up briefly with my lovely family, even though Bodhi was fast asleep.

Sunday was a stunning Wellington day - not as hot as the stifling Wairarapa heat, but a pleasant warmth indeed. Reading the morning news though sent a chill down my spine - a massive earthquake had devastated Chile, the home country of Tour organiser Jorge Sandoval. Andy swung by and collected me and we headed out to the Angus to rendezvous with the others and pack up the bikes for the drive back into town. I took the opportunity to give Jorge my condolences - he was understandably very concerned as his family live close to the worst affected area and at that time he still hadn't been able to get hold of them (he found out later that they were safe). He was adamant that the race should go ahead though, so once everyone was sorted out we headed to Andy's place where we once again unloaded the bikes...

...before partaking of a delectable al fresco meal prepared by Andy's wife, mum and aunt. Lovely food, great hospitality and delightful company (including Andy and Eva's beautiful children Kea and Lilly!) made for one of the most pleasant race briefings I've attended.

Soon enough though it was time to don helmets and head off towards the days race, an afternoon criterium around Lambton Quay. Andy gave the riders some last directions...

...and the girls were off, with us in hot pursuit in the Team vehicles.

We caught them up eventually and were able to kind of shepherd them to where we decided to park the vehicles in Stout Street.

I unloaded my spare wheels and we all got ready for the stage as the girls hit the circuit to warm up.

Soon enough the stage started. A criterium is a thrilling event to spectate, but my job is to ready myself for crashes and quick wheel changes rather than just watch. The pace was on from the gun, with Jo and Linda in the thick of it.

Photo courtesy of Malcolm Gunn

Daniel watched the start of the crit then had to dash to make his flight. Kaytee had a training camp for the track worlds squad beginning the following day, so had opted not to start. She joined Andy and me at my station on the corner of Ballance and Stout Streets and barracked superbly.

Courteney found the pace a bit torrid on the back of a hard week and was sadly lapped out. Rushlee too was eventually pulled, but we had been led to believe that lapped riders would get a pro-rated time and a GC finish - this was erroneous info as we were to discover later...

The race went on with Linda covering all the moves on Jo's behalf.

Photo courtesy of Malcolm Gunn

Jo looked super strong the whole race...

Photo courtesy of Malcolm Gunn

...but was unable to grab the win we had been so badly hoping to get out of the Tour. A fine third place behind the dominant Shelley Evans (USA) and Maillot Vert Kirsty Broun (AIS) was some reward for the hard yards she and the others had put in over the week.

Photo courtesy of Malcolm Gunn

Linda and Jo warm down.

Photo courtesy of Malcolm Gunn

The usual post-stage chaos ensued, with much packing and redistribution of goods. Much to my chagrin I managed to stuff up and give Jo's munted Zipp to Rushlee's Dad, who promptly departed Wellington with it. Of course that meant that Jo had Rush's munted Zipp, which I offered to post away as penance. Everything else went well though, and we headed to Andy's place again for the girls to clean up and pack their bikes. Despite the annoying mix-up the girls were still kind enough to sign Jo's race jersey for me.

Once everyone was sorted out we loaded up (again!), and I then drove the van and some of the Team to the airport while Andy drove the BikeNZ car with the rest of the crew. Fond farewells at the airport and (after dropping the van off) it was back to normal life for me as the riders took off again to parts unknown to prepare for and begin their International seasons proper, as I unpacked and eased back into home life...

Another year, another Tour down. Like my previous Tours with Wholly Bagels, NZ or the Jazz Apples things didn't perhaps go as well as the class of the riders on the Team might have suggested, but I long ago learned that that's bike racing - no matter what riders are there and what plan you might have, there's always a stronger team and/or set of circumstances that can conspire to thwart said plans. The positives as I see them are that the Team rode superbly on the whole, the riders and staff had a harmonious and supportive synergy moving forward, and we were led by a top DS who ran the crew very well I thought...

We were disappointed to discover that Rush and Courteney were listed as DNFs despite being told by a Commissaire that lapped riders would have their times pro-rated. To add salt to our wounds, the surviving two finishers weren't enough riders to give us a Team GC result either, although I'd hope that wouldn't be some kind of a scam to avoid paying out any prizemoney. Sad to only see two Teams registered as finishing on GC, it really doesn't seem like much reward for the Teams that travelled all the way here only to end up with nothing.

For myself, I thoroughly enjoyed my latest tenure with the BikeNZ HP Team. I think I did an okay job on the whole (dropped bidons and mixed up wheels aside!) and I felt I did my best to ensure the Team functioned to the best of it's abilities. I'd like to thank Andy Reid for the job and the laughs, Daniel and Justin for the help and camaraderie but most of all Jo, Kaytee, Courteney, Linda, Rushlee and Cath for their efforts - watching these guys bust their asses on their bikes is inspiring and very, very cool. Also a shout out to all the other passionate and slightly crazy folk on the Tour who gave their time and help to this old fan boy wrench-wielder, you know who you are...

P.S. The tractor game was won at a canter by the Handy Rentals lads - despite our best efforts we were sadly only able to win one stage.

As always, thanks for reading.


Wei said...

Great write up and photos Oli, nice to see some familiar Palmy hills in there.

Oli said...

Thanks Wei! Some lovely countryside up thurr...