This year I revisited the Tour de Waterloo 76km Gran Fondo. Last year when I rode this event it was my first organized race. At the time I was hoping to finish with a speed over 32km/h average. I met that goal and broke away from my group with about 5 km to go to move up a few places, finishing 85th out of 205. I've had a great year on the bike so I was hoping for more.
The punchline: I was 24th out of 220 and I finished in under two hours. The process was interesting (at least for me). I woke up at my friend's house, ate, prepped, and rolled out at 7am in order to make it to registration. I got to ride through the stretch where I had made my move last year and familiarize myself with the last roads. I felt much faster and stronger as I did it and was feeling good going into the day. Strava told me that my comfortable warm-up was actually faster than my race effort from last year (I had a feeling about this but didn't get it confirmed until later). I rode past the final corner, which was covered in gravel and realized that the end of the race was going to be hairy. It seemed as though they moved the starting line too. Surely they wouldn't have moved the finish line, that was a highlight.
The morning glory team was registered almost entirely in the 133km edition. I found a few of them at the registration area and hung out until race time. We did a bit of warming up and rode past the final corner together and commiserated about the impending crashes. I got some advice to Kim about what I should do, and it lined up with my intuitions. There are two big teams here: one wants to do a leadout train like they did last year, and the other team was going to try and create a breakaway. The plan was to try and figure out which team would win and ride their coattails, but without spending any energy. I can wheelsuck with the best of them, so I was feeling good. By the time we got to the starting line my race was lined up so I tried to move my way to the front group. First mistake. I should have been there earlier. As it was I got up to about 70th or 80th before people would stop letting me though. I ended up starting with a friendly face, Katrina King. Excellent.
The race started and the neutral start meant we had an opportunity to move up through the group into the front pack. It took a bit more work than I had intended but once we were onto the first real road I was up with what I thought was going to be the front pack. So, now I sat in and waited for the pace to turn up. There was a lot of nervous shuffling and braking. We approached the first corner and caught sight of a breakaway forming. People started talking but none of the teams felt like chasing. It was about this time that I noticed that there was a really strong youth team and another team that I didn't know. Now there were four teams and a few individuals in the front pack.
There was a lot of push and pull and the breakaway team (Speed River) had a go off the front. I was well sheltered in the pack but it meant that I had to be careful to pick wheels that were riding strong and not about to go off the back. I was noticing that from my position I couldn't get involved in moves. I had missed the Speed River break, though I wasn't quite sure that they had the numbers to last, though they were moving away from us quickly. Until... they missed a turn. They quickly recovered and caught up to the pack and almost effortlessly moved back to the front. I was not moving well through the pack. I could move up a few positions on the hills but I wasn't aggressive enough to keep those spots through the straights.
It was about this time when I realized I wasn't having much fun. I didn't have any teammates to scheme with or to protect. I didn't have much to do except bide my time and watch the others fall away. A bigger breakaway escaped with enough representation that the pack sat up. We slowed down for awhile and then when the terrain got interesting we'd rip through a straight, shell a few more riders, catch a glimpse of the break and the lead riders would sit up. While I totally understood the tactic, it was a frustrating ride.
The break was eventually caught and we approached the finish with the sketchy corner. The penultimate straight was where I had planned to move up, so I did. There wasn't a lot of space and riders were crossing the yellow line for position. I wasn't willing to do this. It became clear to me that I don't have the nerve or aggression to win, though I have the drive. Maybe I should start time trialling? We got to the second last corner where last year the sprint train started. The rider in front of me took a terrible line and cut me off. Karma kicked in and they dropped their chain, but I had lost some momentum and I asked if they were OK (hoping to further up my own karma, not that I believe in it). The pace kicked up and I was steadily moving up. Not to the front but a few positions.
The corner. It was clear. No crashes. Now I had to sprint. Not my forte. I gave it everything and caught two or three more places to finish 24th, averaging over 38km/h and in the top pack. I was disappointed and embarrassed. I was 4th in my age category and mostly unhappy. I didn't finish as high as I wanted. I rode with people who didn't have each other's safety as their primary objective and although I did follow through the plan fairly well, it meant that I hadn't done any real work, so I didn't get much of a workout that day. I ended up wishing that I had just done a good old Sunday ride with the club.
I abstained from alcohol for a few weeks prior to the race. No snacks. Eating clean, enough to annoy my wife and to make my friends think I was a party poop. In the end it didn't really matter and wasn't really worth it. I'm not done with road racing but the sprint finish races will never be mine. Next year I'll enter the 133km version and ride with the team. This year I'll try the tour de terra cotta, which features a big hill in the middle of the loop that should play a bit better to my strengths, or the least of my weaknesses.
Here's the results from this year. All tolled, it is a huge improvement in just one year. I learned a lot. Hopefully I can learn to put it to use.