I have been riding bikes for years, but as a relative newbie to gravel biking, and certainly gravel racing, its fair to say I was somewhat surprised to take 3" place for my age category, at the UCI World qualifying round at Gatehouse of Fleet this May.
A podium position earned me a place at the UCI World Gravel Championships in Veneto, Italy, to race against the best women in the world later in the year, wearing a GBR shirt. I was excited, apprehensive and daunted by the enormity of the challenge, but very much up for it. Time to up the training schedule.
The intervening months rolled by very quickly. I took every opportunity to get extra miles into my legs and spend as much time as I could on the bike. We are lucky to have access to some great gravelling trails, and by the time we got to the end of the summer, I felt strong and prepared. It was time to pack the bike up and head off to the Prosecco Hills in Italy.
Arriving a day early gave me the chance to pull my kit together, re-build my bike and have a ride down to the start area at Lago di Bandie. There was a lot of activity, riders from all over the world, analysing, tweaking bikes, looking for lines out of the start gate. A lot of talk about tyre choice, feed zones and race strategy. It was all a bit overwhelming and I was beginning to think I had bitten of more than I could chew!
The forecast was good, it was dry, hot and very dusty. In hindsight, I should have been drinking more pre-race, after all I had my VOOM electrolyte sachets with me. A rookie error as I discovered later, hydration was going to play a big part in my race. There wasn't time to recce the course, but word around the venue was that there were some very big climbs, and some very sketchy descents. The nerves were kicking in. One more sleep.
Race Day. The start area was buzzing, the atmosphere electric, music blasting from speakers, announcers welcoming the Pro Elite riders, flags from countries all around the world. It was certainly a venue worthy of a World Championship event. The National Anthem started proceedings, the Pro women were off, straight into a hill. The dust settled, we shuffled forward in our age category starting pen, the next group were of. Adrenaline started, we edged forward, 15 seconds, clipped in, go go go....the start was fast, crowded, dusty and of course, uphill. The pace was on fire and already a group were pulling away at the front. I didn't want to get drawn into something I couldn't maintain.
The first section of the course was fairly flat as we left Lago de Bandi. A mixture of tarmac and gravel trails wound there way north into the Prosecco Hills and it wasn't long before we were climbing. Some gravel, but mainly concrete slab roads, ridiculously steep and punishing on your legs, as the morning temperature began to rise. Of the climbs, gravel trails took you through grape vineyards, traversing hillsides and through river beds, tiny roads with connecting rough stuff. It was a spectacular course, diverse and challenging from the start.
With 60km in my legs I passed through the town of Pieve di Soligo to begin the last loop before returning to the finish line. I was beginning to feel tired in my legs, and with two of the steepest climbs still to go and a very technical decent, the hope of catching the girls in front was slipping away. The huge crowds that lined the roads really helped to lift my spirits, but I knew I was in trouble. The legs got progressively worse, and climbs that I normally would have ridden became pushes.
It wasn't going to be my day. I crossed the finish line, pleased to have made it round in one piece, but slightly deflated at not being able to push harder due to some cramp. Sitting on the side of the road near the finish line, watching other riders complete their race, I had time to reflect.
My race hadn't gone entirely to plan, but that's racing. I had qualified for a World Championship event, I had just raced 96km of insatiable gravel, at the very highest level, wearing a Team GB cycling jersey. It doesn't get much better than that and there's definitely lessons learnt.
A big thank you to my support team for getting me and my kit to Italy and to VOOM Nutrition for keeping me going on the day. I couldn't have got round with out you.
I need to work on my pre-race preparation next time, and who knows, maybe l'll be back in 2024!