Photo: UCI Tour of Qatar

Photo: UCI Tour of Qatar

Cycling is amazing because it’s so true that as a team you are stronger then the sum of its parts. You thrive off of each other’s energy and drive – it’s pretty awesome. I am excited and hugely proud that I was able to do my job for the team at my first worlds and deliver the sprinters in the best fashion possible in the last several kms.

Still Doha, Qatar… it was certainly the best of times and it was the worst of times – but and how I did love it ;)

Ready To Race

This was my first time representing Canada at worlds. After spending almost three weeks (two in Israel and one in Qatar) in the Middle East at a pre-worlds training camp to acclimatizing to the extreme heat, I was feeling ready to race; I was feeling confident in the team. Confident that if we worked together, we had what it takes to win – which is so cool! Under the direction of Zach Bell, the women’s Director, the whole team was incredibly motivated and committed to this goal.

The team was a pretty amazing group and included the second ranked cyclist in the world Leah Kirchmann; the three-time TTT world Champion Karol-Ann Canuel; the powerhouse Joelle Numainville, alongside Alison Jackson, Annie Foreman-Mackey and myself. I was so excited to have the opportunity to contribute to the possibility of a win and to lay it all down in support of the team.

A Note on Riding for the Team

Cycling is a unique sport for many reasons, notably the variety and specialization of the athletes. You have climbers, sprinters, time trial specialists, and all-rounders. The peloton, and each team for that matter, is a patchwork of these different riding styles. It’s pretty magical how all these different specialties can come together in a team and race in support of one rider. It’s a bit of organized chaos but that’s why I love this sport. As a member of a team, you ride for the team. You support the strongest rider who is best suited to that specific racecourse and who has the best chance to win. This is notably interesting and somewhat confusing because at team presentation, before you race, everyone stands on the stage together and the team is introduced, then you race together as a team. However, there can only be one winner who gets to step up on the top step of the podium.

The Plan and My Role

The plan in brief was to win the sprint by delivering Leah and Joelle to the line via a world class lead-out. The hope with a lead-out is that you give your sprinters a clear path to do what they do best. It’s not uncommon for a world class sprinter to get boxed in and not be able to fully contest the sprint, but how you try to ensure a clear line for your sprinter is by protecting them from the wind and bringing them around and ramping up the speed so that when you deliver them to the line, they are already up to a very high speed and then they just need to deliver that final ~250m effort.

With a lead-out the idea is that the members in the lead-out train are completely emptying themselves before the end of the race. For example, in a train of six the first rider’s job would be done at perhaps 3 km to go, the second rider would be done at 2 km to go and then onward until the sprinter is within a good distance of the line. The beauty of a lead-out is that you are really are burning through teammates; each person in the lead-out is going 100% out in support of that sprinter and the team result. My role as second in the lead-out train was to deliver my teammates within the 2 km mark, then let my other teammates take the sprinter in. This would prove much easier said than done on this fast technical course.

Take a Feed all the Feeds

I would be lying if I said the extreme temperatures (~38 degrees C) were not wearing on the athletes. The course was a 135 kilometers, composed of a 15 km technical circuit that we did seven laps of. This circuit was complete with at least nice roundabouts and two 180 turns. The course was technical and fast, it was mayhem yet fun, aggressive and fast - very much my style.

There were two feed zones at either end of the circuit and it was critical due to the temperatures that you took a feed every lap in each feed zone to ward off heat exhaustion - that meant two bottles a lap. The only trouble with this was you were kinda stuck as an athlete; it takes effort to jump out of the peloton and grab a feed and get back to your previous position. You have to slow down to take a feed and that leaves you having to fight your way back up to the front time and time again. Such fighting over seven laps starts to wear on you. However, if you don’t drink or dump cold water on yourself you risk heat exhaustion and not being able to contribute to the team, and even perhaps being forced to abandon the race.

Adjust the Plan

As with bike racing, you always need to be ready for things not to go as planned and you need to be ready to adjust your plan to whatever the race throws your way. We can communicate with each other and our follow car through our race radios and this gives us the ability to adjust the plan to some degree. However, sometimes things just happen and you need to react on instinct.

It all started when I got tied up in a crash on the 180 on maybe lap four. The crash was at a relatively slow speed yet I went down hard. Despite this I was able to get back on my bike and with working with other riders, catch back on to the lead group within 1/3 of a lap. This didn’t really affect the plan too much, all it meant is that I had already exerted some effort chasing back on to the group.

Once back in the group I needed to be sure I recovered as fast as possible and regained my position from the last lap. I won’t lie, it’s really, really hard not to panic when you crash and get dropped from the pack. You need to be calm and believe you will catch back on. You also need to start working hard, if possible work with other dropped riders, and use the follow cars to bring you back up as quickly as possible.

The Last Lap: 100% Focus, 100% Chaos

The last lap was probably the most intensely focused I have ever been in my life, it was so cool. For lack of a better term, I was “in the zone”!! Crash aside, I knew I needed to perform my job for the team. I needed to be there for them in those critical last 5 km. Coming into the final lap I heard Zach over the radio “Annie’s out Sara move up, this is why you are here, we got this”. He was right, I was too far back. I had about 10 km to make up the position and grab everyone on my way up to the front. We had to organize and get ready for the lead-out. As soon as Zach said “Sara move up” I was off. I think I moved up over half the peloton in 1 km.

Side note, in bike racing you need to react instantly if someone says move this way or that way and you have to do it right then. This is incredibly important in a lead-out.

Over the next couple of kilometers I went by my teammates and yelled at them to get on my wheel. Since Annie had to end her race due to heat exhaustion, I was now the first in our lead-out train. Once I got up to Joelle (which was a fight and a half in its self) things got real. We were now within 6 km of the finish we still had to move up. I knew those last 4 km were so crucial but the amount of gutter riding, fence riding, pushing and squeezing into gaps, and forcing people out of the way was insane.

Joelle kept the pressure up, it was exactly what I needed. ”Sara go now, go left, hold it, wait, wait, now go”. Her experience truly showed in those last 5 km she was driving that train. It was awesome. We managed to claw our way into a better position coming up on 4 km and caught up to Leah right then. I yelled at Leah to jump on and she did.

OK sweet, I thought to myself, we have the pieces of the train now to lead this mother out. From 4 km to 3 km we needed to be top ten wheels I knew this. The fight for positioning was insane going into the 180 corner. I fought so hard for the position of those sprinters. Since we were only three of us (the others had been unable to connect) the fight was comprised of using other teams’ trains to shelter us from the wind before moving up.

The highlight of my race was these last 4 km. I literally remember every meter of those last 4 km. Once we grabbed Leah, we tagged onto the Great Britain train then jumped to the Dutch train. Leah now took over driving the lead out telling me when to go when to stop, to wait, or to get on a wheel. After the 180 corner and all the fighting we were still just over 3 km out. The group of three of us where sitting in the top ten perfect position – stoked!

The peloton was getting strung out behind us as riders struggled to match the top ten’s acceleration out of the 180 corner. Now within the 3 km it was my job to keep the sprinters as free and clear as possible and to take them as far as possible. Since there was only three of us, we knew it was going to be a bit of chaos and they would have to fend for themselves in the last 1km. This wasn’t ideal, yet both Leah and Joelle are crafty seasoned riders and are well suited to do just that.

Looking back on it, this was one of the highlights of my race. After we took the fast left I was moving them up, literally pull up along the Dutch lead-out train, I knew my race was over soon because I was exhausted from the effort to that point. I just needed to get them within 2 km.

Until then the pace had been fast and the field was strung out, which is great for keeping the sprinters out of trouble. But as soon as you feel the pace slowing the wave of riders - “the swarm” - will quickly engulf you and ruin all that effort you spent setting up the sprinters.

So when they said go! I went with every last drop I had to keep the pace fast, to keep the field strung out, and give them the best fighting chance possible. As soon as you feel yourself crack (max effort done) you have to get out of the way so your teammates can continue on.

It’s really intense burning out like that 1.5 km from the finish. The whole pack blows by you like you’re standing still. You can’t breathe, your legs are dead weight, but you hope your efforts set your teammates up for success.

We may not have achieved the win we believed we could, but due to the team’s efforts Joelle was able to achieve a top ten result, which is fantastic, and Leah was 14th. Having two in the top 15 was outstanding and very telling on how strong the Canadian team is.

In my opinion the future for Canadians Women’s Cycling is most certainly bright!

Sara Out ;)