Stage 1: Molls Gap

Stage details:

Miles: 35.6

Winner’s Time: approx 1hour 30min +/- a few minutes

2 climbs: Category 3 climb (2.5 km), Category 2 climb (6.5 km)

Results: 2, 10, 35, 41, 44

Team Position: 4th

* * * * *

The nerves leading up to a long event is one of the most challenging aspects of a stage race.  Mainly, months of preparation has gone in to prepare for a multi-day, grinding, unpredictable event that requires not only fitness, but also an ability to manage exhaustion, rest properly, and deal with unexpected challenges.  For Anna, this has meant dealing with a minor calf injury three weeks ago that took rest for her to be able to compete.  She, however, had to compensate by giving up some high end fitness, which is the key ingredient to be able to push those few seconds during an attack.  In the end, the multi-day bike race becomes a game of being able manage every unexpected hurdle that comes your way, and many times in a race like this, there’s no way to predict what might go wrong or what opportunities will appear.  I think this is why managing pre-race nerves is the worst part of a stage race.  I also think this is why the first stage is the most crash heavy.

Anna’s initial disappointment in Stage 1, a feeling that she couldn’t quite do what she knows she is capable of doing, was made up for with a strong performance by Jo’s podium result: a result from a 20 person sprint finish.  Jo explained later that she played her cards perfectly during the windy and hilly miles into the finish.  She was patient – and confident enough to be patient- about the attacks coming off the last hill, knowing that if she spent too much energy covering all of them, she’d have nothing for the flat, windy sprint finish.  So instead, she let the teams work off one another, and fought for a perfect position coming into the sprint finish.  Another lesson from racing: skills and tactics are many times as important, and sometimes more important, that fitness.  At the level of racing offered here at the Ras, it becomes clear that bike racing is a sport characterized by dualism, not just pure power and endurance.

Louise and Helen both had strong results from Molls Gap, which for me, was expected.   Louise was in the front split of the race, which came down to the field sprint.  Helen, after initial struggles with a nervous bunch was able to find her own rhythm and overcome her own worst fears (which will remain unspoken of since this is public), holding her own (i.e. leading and pulling the entire way) her chase group, which was caught by a third group a few kilometers to the finish.  One of my favorite memories during the stage was witnessing Helen – from the deep pit of her being – scream (in a very low, manly, and frightening voice) at a girl who had very dangerously cut her off.  I was sitting a few feet to the left of her, and when I heard “the voice”, I immediately shifted a few spots even further left, feeling that perhaps Helen needed some “quiet time” by herself.

As for myself: My body was pretty shocked that it was being put through what it had to go through to finish the stage with a small group in the back (although, we chased hard, damnit).   My greatest anxieties were riding in a pack again after taking so many months off, but as the race carried on, I remembered a distinct point right before Molls Gap when I found myself naturally moving closer to the front, calmly and thinking, “Oh, here we go.  This is what I remember it was like now.”  I remember smiling.  Then we hit the climb.

* * * * *

The race is beautifully managed, and it has been my first time riding with girls from Ireland, England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and France…all in the same race.  Working with girls in the group has been especially rewarding given the diverse background, and I always find myself quite pleased once we’re able to get organized despite all the initial barriers (i.e., during particularly “confused” moments in the peloton, it’s always pleasant to hear someone say – with some sort of accent – “What is THIS?!”).

* * * * *

 One thing we were pleasantly surprised by is the level of care we have been given: (1) our apartments are beautifully furnished, and the hotel staff are amazing.   (2) We have a wonderful team manager, Ger, along with a team mechanic, Tim, and additional support, Mik.  Ger offers not only emotional and mental support, but he also stuffs a recovery drink in our hands post-race, gives us food and buys our milk, makes the best cup of tea with a mysteriously perfect ratio of tea to milk, offers massages, and pretty much makes sure we don’t need to lift a finger before and after races.  (3) I finish the race, sign an autograph (no really, this happened…even though I was about 7th from last), throw my bike on the ground for someone to pick up, check and clean, and then sit in my recovery tights with food being brought to me.  I keep thinking, “never in my life will I ever feel so professional”. (4) We are greeted by schools of little children in uniform screaming their lungs out for us when the race weaves through the town.  I wave each time.

* * * * *

What is it to blow up in a race?  Cyclists often use this term to describe a moment when you exert yourself past a certain limit and your body fills with lactic acid and your lungs can’t recover from it quickly enough.  Suddenly, you find that no matter how much you try to push through the pain, your body will not move forward.  Anna described the moment she lost the split on Molls Gap as feeling that someone was trying to throw her a rope to pull her onto the boat, but that no matter how she tried, the rope slipped through her hands.  I would describe it as a point when it is no longer about managing pain but trying to get your body to move.  You near the point of exhaustion, and all you keep thinking is, “when will this be it?  When will my legs just stop going?”

Everyone’s exhaustion point is different, and the source of it is different.  For some, managing a position in the peloton is just as stressful as an attack up the hill. We come into the race with different talents and weakness, and all of a sudden, we find that we’re in a pack of 55 (a small group by most standards), and this pack has become an organic thing that changes form, shifts, and moves along to music of its own.

Our biggest challenges the first day was to establish ourselves in the race – to understand the feel of the race and to position ourselves for the next day.  The anxiety itself stems from a fear of underperformance, regardless of what the standard is (whether we are contending for overall GC winner or just to finish the five stages), but I suppose that’s the fear of most anything people put effort into.  And of course, we’re afraid of the unknown, afraid of not being able to cope with unexpected challenges, and in a bike race, your window of time to decide and cope is very small.  But that’s stage racing, and it’s like anything else in life, I suppose.

Next stage: Valentia Island.

Take care, good night, rest those legs and I’ll get back to you if I survive.

Pan Pan Fan


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