The Measuring Stick by
“Any fit 40 something can be fast on a bike” – Random quote I picked up while digesting too much information online about trying to ride a bike fast.
I last wrote a post for this blog about adventures of my first multi-day road race, the Masters Tour of Chiang Mai in October 2016. It was quite an experience that left me wanting more.
In the four months since, I had a couple of transition weeks, two weeks off for surgery, an “early festive 500”, a two week vacation and then 8 weeks of moderately intense training for the next stage race on the local calendar, the Tour de Bintan.
As it is easier to write, let me divide this post up into several shorter parts to tell the story of my Tour de Bintan experience.
The Prep Work:
Returning to training from my 2 week Christmas vacation left me in a world of hurt as I don’t have years of base like some folks do; I jealously marveled at others who were able to take a couple of weeks off and then bang out a fast Saturday ride with what looked to be a regular effort. After reading a bit of The Cyclists Training Bible (Joel Friel) and The Time Crunched Cyclist (Chris Carmichael) along with a free 2 week trial account from Today’s Plan, I hacked together an 8 week plan to get me ready.
I want to go fast. And everything that I read about wanting to make significant gains revolved around intervals. So I traded in my weekday group rides for 5am loops around Lornie and Queensway multiple times a week, first starting with 3×8 minute intervals and eventually ending up with 4×20 minutes. Intervals are a grind and by week 7, I was quite happy to see these disappear from the program as I tapered into the race week.
Let me interlude this post;
The week before Bintan, I had the opportunity to ride in the 35-44 year age group of the Car Free Sunday Criterium race. With 3 laps to go, I was in the thick of things, well, the group chasing the solo breakaway, spending time as the front wheel for a straight away or two (a rookie racing mistake I knew I was committing at the time). Then, with half a lap left and tired of being on the front, I let off in effort for a bit. WHOOSH, the group went by. I got onto the back of the group, but thinking I didn’t have a massive effort left in me for a podium or even top 10 finish, I just maintained the pace while the pack hammered to the finish and dropped some 10+ seconds behind the front of this group. This lack of finishing prowess would become a theme in Bintan.
Tour de Bintan Day 1:
Friday started early with a 25km zone 1 ride to the Tanah Marah ferry terminal. I even got to sleep in compared with a usual training ride. I was so proud of being number one in line, I announced it to my ANZA sub-chat group. Note to self: you can show up at 7:30am and still avoid the long lines. The check-in and bike transfer were seamless. Hats off to the Tour de Bintan folks and their partners for logistics. The ferry was choppy. I saw the vomit bags come out and the ferry staff collecting full bags. I tried to rest with my eyes shut, but then it came. First just a bit more than spit, but then with 10 minutes to go, all the breakfast came out. I was later told that I won the award for loudest vomiting.
Early check-in was done, my bike picked up, race briefing attended and race kit put together, it was time to head over to the 16.7km Individual Time Trial (ITT) course. It was 12:30 and with an hour until the ladies started rolling down the ramp, I’d have to hurry to complete a course recce. As soon as I left the tree-lined street of Nirwana Gardens, I felt the wind. It was STRONG. With dreams of smashing a 43kph ITT effort, I quietly wept inside. I finished the recce just as the first lady rolled down the ramp, happy with knowledge of the final (and largest) hill as well as knowing about some speed humps and other smaller hills etc.
At 14:48, I rolled down the ramp. You can see my first race mistake in this photo (thanks James!). I’m fiddling with my Garmin less than 20 meters from the start (maybe that’s my second mistake as I’m also wearing mismatched kit). Head down but still in the hoods, it is hard to find any rhythm with the buffeting winds. I hit my target heart rate quickly and just keep going. Soon I pass the guy who started in front of me and I just keep on going. Saving energy going down hills and using a bit more energy going up. Around the golf course I ‘flew’. On the way back to the start, the wind is at my back. I’m flying, but know there isn’t enough course to get my average speed to the dream of well above 40kph. Then comes the hill. I know I’m supposed to power up this with every ounce of strength in my body as ‘more watts going up hills’ saves you time compared to ‘more watts on the flats.’ For some reason I don’t do it. I didn’t slack going up, but I didn’t empty my effort either. A bit disappointed with myself, I push on. I cross the line and shut off the Garmin. Generally I’m happy and even let out an energetic grunt or three.
My time, officially 25:06, left me in 5th place of the cat (20 seconds off the podium) and is 19th fastest on the day. As a measuring stick, I was well over a minute off the day’s leaders.
I stick around with the ANZA folk cheering on people we know, consume some calories and then roll back to Nirwana Gardens with dark clouds in the sky.
Tour de Bintan Day 2:
Day two starts with me waking up on the floor, listening to rain. The mattress in my “budget accommodation” was too soft for the liking of my back, so I did what I needed to do to ensure I woke up as healthy as possible. Walking over to breakfast, I thought nothing of the very light sprinkles at the time. Then the sky opened up. The rain radar was checked and it was purple!
As I ate breakfast with James and Sofiane, I lamented about my second rookie mistake, not sending the bike over to the start line and taking the bus over. James and I had planned to ride over. Luckily the purple radar rain moved on and at 6:30 I rolled up under an almost clear sky to meet James. Having been at the hotel lobby for a couple of minutes already, James had seen a couple of people put their bikes in the trunk of a bus. In the name of safety, we smiled at the driver of the next bus, motioned to our bikes and he happily obliged by opening his trunk.
Upon rolling off for the 140km stage, the roads were wet, there was a light drizzle but I imagine the 100+ person peloton and many hundreds more in other waves were happy it wasn’t pouring. After a 2+ km neutral roll-out, the group kept going forward, slowly. We were ‘allowed’ to go faster, but it seems like nobody wanted to. I ‘figured’ on the ‘famed red road’ (some 20km from the race start) the race would ‘start’. It didn’t. I don’t even think anybody even tried to go off the front. Maybe there was a surge, but to say the pace was relaxed would be an understatement. It felt like a coffee ride. In sandals.
At some point, I don’t know when, the pace did pick up, we did finish with a 37.2kph average, but we just kept rolling along. The sun came out, the group separated and eventually there were ~ 20-30 of us with 3 riders off the front in ‘an allowed breakaway’. I wasn’t paying attention so I didn’t know who was in it (my third mistake). Though it felt slow, I was putting out some effort as the cramps came sometime before the 3 hour mark. Nothing major, but just a soreness here and a twinge there to let me know my legs were somewhat hurting. I tried to consume more calories, but not enough as the cramps never really went away over the final 50+ km (my fourth mistake).
At the 100km mark, we were going up a hill. Not fast, just a nice steady pace. I down shifted the rear derailleur with the intent to easily power over the hill and then heard a snap and then chunk-chunk-chunk sound as my RD shifted to the 11t. UH-OH; I’m in the toughest gear on my bike and half way up the hill. My cadence slows down. I stand up. I grind and grind and grind; each rotation is an effort to get my foot around. The lead group goes past me. After probably 20 seconds that felt like 200, I crest the hill and am only 50 meters off the back. I get up to speed and onto the back of the group, thankful that nobody is pushing the pace.
I spend the next 5 minutes figuring things out. I check my front derailleur. It works, but only when there isn’t a lot of pressure on the chain. OK, I have a 39-11t and a 50-11t gear. One for hills (and just drafting in the group) and one for the flats and any surges. At this point in time, I become very thankful for the 20 minute intervals with significant time spent spinning at low RPM.
The group moves on. I sit in. Between my gearing and the minor cramping, I am forced to ride ‘smart’ and just sit-in, well, most of the time. The kilometers pass by. With ~ 10km to go, we absorb two riders from the breakaway. Now there is a bit more life as everyone knows there are two podium spots in the group. Still, there is no impetus to push the pace (except for Ben). The small hills roll on and the rain picks up to more than a steady drizzle. With only a few km to go, the pace picks up, but nothing stupid fast. The one km sign appears and people start jockeying. Given my gearing and not knowing if there were any more ‘up-hill sections’ I just sit in. We round the corner and see the finish line. I see an open line and hammer it, but there are many riders ahead of me. I finish in 10th place, about a second or so behind the 2nd place and nearly 2 minutes behind the stage winner. There were 15 of us left in the chase group at the finish.
A quick visit to the on-site mechanic stand says that they can fix my bike back at the race HQ, so I send the bike for the bike transfer station, consume some calories, share and listen to race stories (like how Frank Reynaerts had a 80km breakaway, got caught and then finished 2nd in his 45-49 age group). We cheer on fellow ANZA members as they go up on the podium and then board the bus back to Nirwana Gardens.
Tour de Bintan Day 3:
I wake up on the floor again but this time with a mosquito buzzing around my ear. Oh well. My bike is fixed, I have enough sleep and am ready to go for another day of racing.
Breakfast is consumed, a brief warm-up is done, everything is packed into the jersey pockets and I’m off to the start-line, this time at Nirwana Gardens. It is time to probe on who is going to do what. I received a tip the night before to watch what number 2 is going to do (from Adam). That was my plan. On the start however, I was given a second option in being told that an unexpected rider would try to make a break. I told them I was in for trying, as long as it wasn’t in the first 20km or so.
The race starts. I thought it would be more lively than day two, but it wasn’t. there were a couple of half hearted surges off the front, but the first 20km went by at a recovery ride pace. The next 20km was also uneventful but for some cursing from one team to another about attacking through a feedzone (I was on the front so got to witness this up close). 40km down and some 70km to go. I’m feeling good, not really wanting to push the pace, but am rotating around in the first 10 wheels of the group.
Somebody goes off the front and then a second. I’m thinking, is this it? They aren’t fully pushing it. Perhaps they’re just probing, but I know one of the guys up there is they guy I was told about. OK. I’m in. I surge off the front, bringing a 4th guy with me (I think this is how it went down). We crest a hill and tuck into a 4 man paceline. After a minute or 2, we are still clear of the group and ED (of 852, Hong Kong) gives the orders: 30 seconds in the front, flip your right elbow and rotate back.
There are 60+km to go. There are four of us, representing four teams, ANZA (your author), Matadors (Romain Barbier), Mavericks (Ruairi Brown) and 852 (Ed Chadwick). As the Mavericks are currently holding yellow, the Maverick rider with us has no interest in helping the break going fast. He is there to mind us. We slow down from 42 to 38 kph whenever he is in the front. Either he isn’t as strong or just wants to slow us down. It doesn’t matter. He has to go. Luckily a bridge comes into sight. After the bridge, he is no longer with us. Did we drop him? Did he sit up? Doesn’t matter. There are now three of us. Camaraderie is formed. Encouragement is given. Each of us wants to win, but for any of us to succeed, we NEED each other to be equals for the next 50+km. We remind each other to eat and drink. The wind is beating down on us. The sun is hot. We go on as my Garmin counts down the distance. It seems like after an hour, we get our first time gap information. I hear 4.5 minutes or so. WOW! My head cannot comprehend it. I’m elated and prematurely start dreaming of yellow (my fifth mistake). We go on. 20 minutes later, or so it seems, we hear that the time gap has closed to under 2 minutes. Time to press on.
Finally, we reach check-point Charlie and know that there is only 15km to the finish, but there are still a few large rolling hills. Going over the speed humps, Ed’s lone bottle falls out. He is spent and shouts to Romain and I to go on. We do. I’m feeling it. There haven’t been any cramps yet, but mindful of how my legs felt the previous day, I don’t go into overdrive and keep things nice and steady. Going up one of the bigger hills, I slow down and stand up. In a momentary lapse, Romain’s front wheel grazes my rear. He stays upright but goes off the road onto the gravel. I peek back, see him still upright and wonder if I should stop and wait or keep pressing. I keep pressing.
I’m last man standing with under 10km to the finish. If the race ended now, I’d have won and maybe even stolen Yellow. But this wasn’t the end. I pressed on. Saving energy on the down hills and tapping out the inclines, always telling myself: don’t cramp, don’t cramp, don’t cramp. I make the right hand turn with 5km to go. Then the left hand turn with 3km to go. I begin to think about the finish. How to handle the cobblestone round-about and the small but non-negligible incline at the last km (tips from Raoul the night before). I get a little confused just before the round-about with the direction of the road, but get to my preferred side and I’m still last man standing.
THEN I SEE YELLOW beside me. I look at the Garmin and see 1.7km left. How long was he stalking me? I see the 2nd place in the GC standing and then a second later 3rd place. I’m deflated. My legs are spent. I try to crack a joke or two as they sit with me over the next 30 seconds. They don’t respond (verbally). Then, Bastian responds with his legs and attacks. The other two follow. I follow too, but not with any vigor (my seventh mistake – later I’d realize my sixth mistake). I’m spent and seeing the three podium spots ride away from me like I’m standing still I just press on at my moderate pace. Just before the finish line, I’m passed by three more riders and finish in 7th, some 15 seconds behind the stage winner Bastian. We stop some 500m past the finish line. Congrats are given, backs are patted, fists are bumped and hands are shaken. That’s racing. Feeling both happy and dejected, the bike gets put against a tree and I go searching for fluids.
Thus ends the racing portion of the weekend. I end up 5th in the GC. I decide that I met my goal of the weekend of ‘racing strong and making some noise’, but unfortunately no podiums.
Calories are consumed. Award ceremonies are watched, my bike is sent to the bike depot for transfer back to Singapore and my room is hastily packed. The ferry ride over is uneventful and no vomiting.
I load my 20kg bag onto my back (my 8th mistake – next year, leave the floor pump, bike lock and half my tools at home) and slowly pedal 25km home for recovery ride 1, thinking about what I learned over the weekend. This is where I realized m 6th mistake: When you’re in a 90+ minute break and know you either commit for [potential] glory or fail early, EAT YOUR CALORIES; ALL OF THEM. I finished stage 3 with over 2 gels left in my gel bottles and a handful of apricots.
Back to the measuring stick. I’m improving, but there is still work to do. There are areas to work on. Back to the quote from the beginning: “Any fit 40 something can be fast on a bike.” This is true (well, I’m not 40 yet…). But now comes the hard part of trying to be a contender: finishing strong.