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Pain in Spain – Hanging On

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Photographs: Tinkoff-Saxo

Some things are never easy. I encourage myself by saying that I’ve done a few. Yet the mental strain of having to mount the TT bike usually overshadows my pre-start pep talk. It’s difficult to explain really. Usually the first couple of minutes are bearable.
“You can do this Chris! As soon as you enter that mythical TT zone the legs will ignore any attempts by the body to remind you of the inevitable pain that is soon to follow. You just have to embrace it’’ – Yeah right.
Unfortunately, this false feeling of comfort, similar to when a parent tells a kid that school won’t be that bad, lasts only momentarily. As the lactate gradually builds up, it swallows up all the false optimism. I want to de-embrace the pain.
During the warm-up, I start to sweat, over-analysing every pedal stroke and increase in heart rate, questioning my own abilities. ‘’Was it this hard the last time? Yesterday didn’t feel as bad when pushing these watts, did it?” “Why the hell is Rogers not even breathing heavily yet?”
Finally it’s over. Done and dusted… Nothing more to do now except step off the home trainer and pin on the numbers.  Maybe it was just the Taxc trainer that was set at maximum? Why is it that these instruments of torture are automatically set on the heaviest gear. I have my suspicions that some mechanics purposely adjust them, so that we push just a bit harder. Home trainer seconds are definitely longer than normal seconds. Warm ups are never easy. Roll on the TTT!
They are incredible events – six man teams depending on each other’s strengths, twelve sets of legs that determine the outcome of 58km of unbearable pain. My shaky hands jeopardising the safety of my fellow team-mates as I wobble off the start ramp. Once the machines are rolling, I’m immediately enthralled by the seductive noise of six disc wheels. Just the noise encourages me to go just that bit faster.  
There are so many physiological elements involved in preparing for a TTT. All bike riders are fierce competitors deep to their core.
As for me, I grew up battling my dad and older brother on the torturous Wicklow mountain roads. Each training spin was concluded with a hill sprint up to our gate. The sprint was never talked about. It was just a natural end to our “friendly” training spin. I may have been floating on air throughout the day, but I still had an uneasy feeling as we approached the final accent up the Little Sugar Loaf.
Regularly my nerves would fail me, even when I felt my chances were quite good against the old man. In our family there were no fatherly handouts in the form of allowing me to win. Oh no.
This only fuelled my determination to stick it to him. Forget the under-12 race coming up on Sunday. I needed this win, and I was certain that eventually he would be the one crying to mum, and so it came to be. That glorious moment is right up there with conquering Arenberg or surviving the Stelvio stage in the Giro.
So you see this competitive streak lies deep in our family DNA. I just can’t help it, like when I try to catch a glimpse of my team-mates during training. Does he look more tired than me? As I drop back from taking a turn at the front, ready to explode as I latch onto the last wheel, hyperventilating, sucking in as much oxygen my punished lungs will allow, I do it as discreetly as possible so that none of the others notice. Wouldn’t want to expose a weakness now, would I?
Sitting at dinner trying to get some feedback on the day’s TTT training:
‘’It was pretty hard going up that last climb wasn’t it ?”
“No, actually I felt pretty good. Just kept it controlled.”
“Yeah me too, I kept it, like, super-controlled as well. Totally…”
Watching Jens Voigt set the hour record didn’t help me much either. He explained it as six ten-minute sprints. Easy. So, okay what would that be for me on Sunday? Um, 130 thirty-second sprints. Ah crap!
Before any journalist latches on to this last piece of info and starts rambling on about destructive mind games between team-mates, let me reassure you that it’s all part of the game. It’s how we motivate one another. Respecting our strengths and weaknesses.
Maybe we should all do group therapy.
‘’Hi, I’m Chris.”
“Hiii Chriiiis.”
“My fear is if I take a turn up a climb and can’t get back on.”
“Thanks Chris.”
What I’m trying to say is that we build the team so that every rider plays a decisive role, so that one rider’s contribution is as valuable as the next.
Luckily my pre-race nerves, which reach bursting point as the UCI man’s fingers went from 5-4-3-2-1 to BEEEEP, quickly evaporate as we descend onto the freshly surfaced roads. Nothing is said amongst us. The only thing that matters now is to get that damn bike rolling as fast as possible.
Having Bjarne in the car is also putting extra fuel in the engine.
‘’This looks really good guys really goo… SPEEDBUMP! Really smooth, Danielle.”
Everything gels as we gradually build up speed and enormous amounts of lactate-related pain.
“Beautiful rhythm, guys, second fastest time so fa… WATCH OUT FOR THE CAT! Very smooth, guys, let’s take this speed all the way to finish.”
I could imagine that watching a TTT from the sidelines must be quite mesmerising. Six riders that look as though they’re wearing space suits with wannabe Robo Cop helmets on. Facial expressions exploding with pain covered in snot and spit. Certainly in my case.
Six riders pushing the boundaries of the amount of pain you can handle, and occasionally getting a worrying sensation that the groin area has been numbed and may never function again. Yet none of it deters a rider from finishing.
That’s the beauty of it all. Nobody wants to let the team down. The fear of losing is greater that the fear of becoming sterile. It’s a prestigious event. Team against team. Such a battle deserves respect. Mick Rogers described it well:
“TTT’s hurt no matter what. If you’re strong, you take longer pulls and suffer. If you’re weak, you take shorter turns and suffer to stay on the wheel.”
Simple and incredibly true. Taking your turn hurts, a lot. But what’s worse is the transition from being at the front to sprinting onto the last wheel. There are three blissful seconds where you’re in no-man’s-land. Dropping down the group trying to recover but suddenly realising that four guys have already gone past, and I need to latch onto number five, or…
In my head it’s a bit like this –
Taking a turn: AAAHHH PAIN AHHHHH.
Go off the front: Ahh, recovery.
Then onto the back : AAAHHH PAIN AHHHH.
On the wheel before next turn: OMG, I’M NOT GONNA RECOVER!!
Being near the front again: Okay, I can do this, HUT HUT HUT GOOOOO!
My problem is that sometimes my concentration wanders for a split second. Today I started to look at the shadow of each rider in front of me. Wow, I thought. That’s a pretty cool image. I hope the TV cameras get a shot of that. Then suddenly the fourth rider was making a little gap that quite rapidly grew. OH SHIT THAT’S MY SHADOW. Damn it… Luckily the shadow was capable of getting back. And in the end our six-man machine rode smoothly to clock a very decent time.
Team time trials will always hurt. But today it hurt in a pretty cool way.
Chris and his Tinkoff-Saxo team finished 5th in 1hr 04mins 16secs.

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