North Island Series. From the blunt end - Tony Levaggi

I couldn’t race this series last year so I was really keen to join in when asked if I fancied it after the KCC Winter Series. I’m quite a target oriented person, and after a fairly random, lazy, injured, absent and slow 2018, this was it, something to train for.

Race 1 – round Lake Wairarapa

A month or so later there we were, in Featherston, freezing cold and ready(ish) for action. I hadn’t made quite as much use of the last few weeks as I’d hoped, and the start bunch had quite a few strong riders in it. I’ve only done this course once before, on the fun ride about four years ago, and I mainly remember it as windy. I like neutral starts, reduced start line  panic, more time to clip in and settle yourself. But once the flag dropped, we were on. Or, not really on. Heading into a harsh headwind the pace was low. I was near the back and slightly intimidated by the size of the bunch – over 60 riders. I’ve never been in a racing bunch of this size before. At events like Taupo, the bunches aren’t really racing, more of a big TTT, and usually split down pretty quickly. This was different. I was almost a spectator at the back. Riders pretty much occupying the whole width of the road, hopeful that the motorbike marshals had stopped oncoming traffic, minor panics at the many one way bridges as the bunch squeezed down to one lane, and then those at the back had to sprint back on.  After 20-30 k’s of this, I realised that I wasn’t here to watch and needed to get into the bunch. From the back, if there had been a split there would have been no chance of staying with the front bunch.

Intimidating as the bunch looked from the rear, it was hard work to be in it. 3 or 4 abreast, if you were on the middle or inside line your ability to get forward was limited. Unless you’re Paul Rawlinson who I saw advance on the inside, even easing riders out of his way with his hands. I tried following him and got onto one of those rough gravelly spots that are often on the edges of our chip sealed roads. I didn’t crash but did decide the gutter wasn’t for me.

The size of the bunch was itself a challenge, you needed to be constantly aware of the bigger picture - the weird way that you’d think you were holding your position, but you’d find yourself drifting back in the bunch as riders advanced round the sides. And the smaller picture – the wheel in front of you, and the riders on both sides wobbling and weaving for various reasons. It’s amazing there weren’t more crashes.

There were a few attacks off the front, but no-one got a serious gap into the wind. At one point I was leading the bunch to chase a break. It was the only time I fully appreciated how strong the headwind was. If anyone wanted an attack into that wind, they were welcome to it.

Eventually we reached the turn off Western Lake Rd, and nearly a smash. A car coming down the hill, to the junction was a bit of a surprise to some riders taking the corner wide and they ended up passing the car on the right., but somehow didn’t hit it. I got past quite a few riders on the short sharp hill there and was able to sit fairly comfortably in what were now decent crosswinds. We rolled round to Lake Ferry Rd, with the bunch still largely intact and flew up to Martinborough with the winds now definitely at our tails. I spun out my compact gears a couple of times, the pace was that furious, but it was also too fast for anyone to get away. As we approached Martinborough, I made a big advance up the wrong side of the road, determined to be near the front for the sharp left and right hand turns I knew were ahead. But yet again, you had to watch your position, as we got closer to the first corner, I realised that I was now back in 30-40th wheel – in just a few seconds, lots of riders had rolled through.

Out of Martinborough and we were into serious crosswinds from the left, not helped by the leading riders hogging the white line in the middle of the road to prevent any echelons forming. I was on the inside of the bunch, in the wind and getting absolutely destroyed. Paul helpfully suggested I fight myself into the line as he rolled past, but I couldn’t even jump om to the back once it appeared. I buried myself over the bridge and past the wreckage of where a breakaway group had crashed and hit the little climb. I then realised the crosswinds weren’t the main reason I was now dropped, it was because I was totally done. I even ignored a possible cheeky tow back onto to the convoy as a local bus crawled past. All in all, a tough and educational morning on the bike.

Race 2 – Ngawi

Windy and cold again, but dry. Considering the downpour over the Rimutaka hill on the way, dry was good. Again, a solid headwind for the way out, with the odd crosswind section to keep people on their toes. I was now better acquainted with the racing, and worked to keep my position in the front third. Until Leon got hung out to dry on the front. After far too long, I got to the front and faced the headwind. I could feel the pace leaking out of my legs but eased off, waiting for the inevitable attack, only too happy when it came so I could grab tenth wheel or so and get my breath back. Eventually we turned left for Ngawi and hit the hill. I was feeling pretty good on the climb and rolled over the top with the first few riders before facing my descending nemesis. I could see the lead riders and a few vehicles from M1 heading back towards us, and I wasn’t too keen to do most of the descent on the wrong side of the road. By the bottom I was back in 50th or more and we were now getting a decent crosswind exam. I failed it. By the turnaround I was properly dropped. I was inclined to sit up then and cruise back, but Phil caught me up and we started putting in some effort and collecting a few riders. At one point on Lake Ferry Rd we could see the main bunch ahead, but it wasn’t to be.

Race 3 – Tora

Although the organisers called race 4 “the queen stage”, this was the toughest. Warm conditions, a bit of wind and some reasonable hills. At the start line I nudged myself up to my team mates near the front. Somehow, during the neutral phase I farted about so much with stuff like gloves, cycle computer and just clipping in, that when the flag dropped, I was at the back. The course led up to a decent hill with a few decent rollers to keep things interesting. On the first uphill roller, there was a split and I was on the wrong side of it. I waited for someone to lead the chase. And waited. And then didn’t wait any more. I expected that having blinked first, I would now be the taxi back to the bunch for a few other riders, but no-one came with me. That at least meant that digging in was the right decision, but it was tough. When I finally latched onto the tail of the bunch, I had burnt pretty much all my matches. It could have been worse though. Shortly after that, on a descent, Dave Downers bike announced a broken spoke with a bell ringing clanging chorus. I was surprised he even stayed upright and assumed his race was over.

We hit the big hill and I tailed off the leading riders before the top. But I was collected over the top by a chase group, who promptly dropped me on the descent, but on narrower roads I was collected by another group. We worked pretty well to the turn around and back to the hill, and I left them. It was warm, and I was tired, but as I looked way back down the hill I thought – that can’t be Dave in the Kapiti top, there’s no way y he’s still riding. On the descent, his group caught me and I jumped on. I held on for a coupe of k, but got dropped again. Over the rollers between there and Martinborough, I got into a group with a couple of riders I recognised from the first climb -the riders who’d missed the very first split.  In moderate cross/headwinds they dropped me The previous 90 minutes seemed like a waste of effort. And then we hit the finishing circuit, with 1 or 2 k of gravel, just for added fun. I resisted the strong temptation to end on the first pass of the finish line, and rolled round again. At least answering the question – the left rutted line was the better line on the gravel.

I have never been dropped so often in one race or been as tired on the finish line. Why do we do this again?

Race 4 - Rangitumau

In theory this would be a good race for me, with an uphill finish. In practise, I’d have to be in the front bunch at the end, and have some climbing form. Something I haven’t really had since my big crash.

I was now more confident in how the racing was working and cruised up Dreyers Rock with the bunch in a blistering, wind-assisted pace. The steeper descent found me near the back as we hit the left hand turn towards Alfredton. The pace surged, the peloton strung out and I saw the gap open up ahead of me. I was dropped. This was far too early, I dug in, but the gap wasn’t closing until I heard the distinctive helicopter whir of a fully motoring Leon. I jumped on, and he dragged us up to the bunch. The ride up to Alfredton was easy enough, except for no-one calling out a horrible pothole at roadworks. One rider hit it with a noise that I would normally associate with crashing or broken forks. He didn’t even puncture.

On the way back, we were heading into the wind which probably dissuaded any attacks. On the return, steeper side of Dreyers rock I couldn’t stick with the front group but was quickly collected on the descent by a few chasing riders, including Paul Rawlinson. We knew we weren’t too far back and the group worked pretty well until a descent before Mauriceville. We were motoring hard, over 50kmh, I don’t know what happened but a rider ahead slammed into the road hard. I swerved a bit, and had a good go at putting myself and the rider on my inside into the ditch. He was strong enough to hold his line thank goodness, whilst using a hand to keep me out of his wheels. Hopefully the crashed guy wasn’t as badly hurt as it looked.

Shortly after that we caught the lead bunch, but it was pretty clear that they’d eased off. No-one wanted to attack into the headwind. I was convinced that an attack would come on the first little climb on Bluff Rangitumau Rd, but it didn’t. So that left the last climb and the greater part of the bunch still there.

I’ve only climbed this hill once before, on Interclub, and we finished at the first plateau. I remember wishing the hill had been longer, it would have shaken more riders out of the finish. I didn’t wish it was longer this time. Later, NZ Road cycling magazine used a picture of me to illustrate how riders found the last hill tough, and the camera wasn’t lying. I was already gapped by the first plateau and I really had to dig deep to get myself going again for the final ascent. Only the normal determination to not be beaten by the riders immediately around me, stopped me sitting up.

What had I learned?

  • · It was tough, but a lot of fun
  • · Racing in a big bunch is mentally tiring
  • · I needed to train more, so I wasn’t just clinging on at the ‘selection’ points (or failing to cling on)
  • · Don’t hang about near the back, the yo-yoing and chasing back on are a waste of energy
  • · I’d definitely do it again. But train better first.