Some people – who, presumably, have never actually watched a women’s bike race – seem to think that the riders are not as competitive as their male counterparts, that there won’t be as much action and that it’s all just a big jolly jaunt along country lanes.
Anika Todd came to worldwide attention in 2013 when she finished second in Canada’s National Individual Time Trial Championships, just 20″ behind winner Joelle Numainville – but 19″ ahead of third-place Jasmin Glaesser (who is now her team mate). That wasn’t at a bad result at all; especially considering that she’s only been riding a bike for two years, having previously competed in rowing, running and wrestling – and it earned her a professional contract, her first, with the legendary Tibco-To The Top. In this article, Anika describes so accurately what it’s like to race in a top-class professional event – the fear, the pain, the cut-throat tactics used as a matter of course – that she manages to give us a taste of how it really feels.
Are you afraid?
Every race is terrifying. Every corner, every obstacle, every descent, every bit of gravel or dirt. The sound of brakes squealing and the screams. The sirens and horns honking. The feeling of bumping bars and hips. The sight of bloodied bodies and broken bikes. The sickening sensation of your wheels sliding out from under you. The searing pain that shoots through you when you take a hit. The fear starts to creep up days before and reaches a crippling level by the start of the race. Sometimes it’s so bad it makes me physically sick and I don’t think I will even manage to get on my bike, let alone race 140km.
But what exactly is so scary? I had never really thought about it beyond the fact that racing a bike in a bunch was categorized under “terrifying things” in my mind. Leading up to the Ronde van Drenthe weekend, I was talking with my sports psychologist and she asked me exactly that: what are you afraid of? It got me thinking about it and I realized that I wasn’t really afraid of anything except for the fear itself. It was an irrational, fight or flight, survival instinct type of fear. The kind of fear that is an overwhelming panic triggered by a vague set of circumstances, rather than a well defined fear of a specific thing. I rode in a group all the time and that wasn’t scary. Sirens and horns and screams are just sounds so those aren’t scary. Corners and descents and gravel aren’t scary. Going down hurt but no worse than the pain I was inflicting on myself anyways.
If anything, it hurt less than a hard sprint or the final kilometers of a time trial or steep climb. It hurt less than Peter’s sadistic interval training sessions and I survived those three or four times a week. As I thought about it more and more, the less afraid I was until it wasn’t scary at all…
Day 1: Drenste 8
Suddenly I was calm and, until now, that was the last thing I was the night before a race.
No longer afraid I slept like a baby, enjoyed my breakfast and felt excited standing on the line at Drenste 8. The race started and I was suddenly comfortable in the chaos of the bunch. It was a whole new experience. I was relaxed and aware, able to move confidently through the masses. The bumping and yelling and crashing was still happening but it no longer distracted me. I was able to move up to the front exactly when I was supposed to, 10km away from the selective cobble section and, having been protected in the draft of the bunch rather than fighting in the wind off the back or the side of the group, had the legs left to do what I was supposed to do when I got there: time trial.
I slipped through a tiny gap that opened ahead of me, made sure Joanne was on my wheel, and pulled. Legs fresh and head clear I quickly settled into the rhythm of my cadence, bringing the speed up and up, stretching the group further and further as the miles to the cobbles counted down. I pulled until my legs were screaming and I could taste the blood in the back of my throat before rotating to catch my breath on Jo’s wheel. Newfound confidence and aggression in place, I managed to stay there, defending my position and recovering before slipping through another gap and pulling again. A couple turns and we hit the cobbles , both in the front 20 positions. Perfect!
On the cobbles the race developed exactly the way we had expected: the front set a leg destroying pace over the narrow cobble path and people started popping. Gaps opened and there was no room for the riders behind to come around. The group shattered and I was still there in the front. Cobbles over and back onto the asphalt where it was a drag race to the next cobble section only a few kilometers away. At least two thirds of the peloton were gone and the tempo being set at the front was ensuring they were not going to come back. The next cobble section was a disaster. The cobbles were rough and narrow, the dirt around them was loose and we were flying over them. My Reynolds wheels were proving to be indestructible and my Fuji frame was stiff enough to withstand the thrashing it was getting in the crossfire between my legs and the cobbles.
Others weren’t so lucky. All around me equipment was failing; riders were breaking wheels and frames, getting flats, losing bottles and crashing. Within seconds of entering the cobbles there was a literal obstacle course of carnage to weave through… because clearly the cobbles and ridiculous speed weren’t hard enough to manage on their own. It seemed my luck had run out for the day as I found my path barricaded by wrecks. Forced to slow down I watched the front of the group pulling away, now whittled down to about half of what had survived the first cobbles. A group of about 40 of us came togther and gave chase for a bit but it was too late – the lead group and caravan were long gone. With less than 30km left to go we were unceremoniously dismissed from the race by the flag and whistle of the commissaire. Game over, time cut, better luck next time.
Day 2: Boels Rental World Cup
From a strategy point of view, this race was much the same as the previous day: use the team to stretch the group and secure positions before the first selection. This time the first selection would likely be on the VAMberg, a super steep 500m climb followed by a short descent into a hard, open windy section. The first part of the plan went fairly smoothly – we got to the front at the planned point in the race, did our pulls and earned our front spots into the climb. That got most of the team, myself included, safely to the first cobble section, which is where I made the mistake that cost me the whole race: alongside the cobbles is a smooth asphalt bike path that is off limits; venture onto it and you get disqualified. Halfway through the first cobble sections the pain was so great I was allowing myself to zone out, to somehow shut down and dampen the suffering. Buried in the pain cave I forgot about the 90 degree right hander at the halfway point on the cobbles and promptly overcooked the corner putting myself squarely on the bike path.
Unfortunately for me, everything except the corner was taped off to stop riders from getting on the bike path. However, the tape was also a sufficient barrier to keep me from getting back on the cobbles. Whoopsies. The only option was to stop and crawl under the tape. There I was at a standstill in the middle of a World Cup watching the race fly past me. All the work and pain and positioning had just been wasted because of a few seconds of lost focus… I was livid. How could I have been so stupid? Of course the anger and panic wasn’t helping matters as I was struggling to find my composure. I couldn’t focus and I couldn’t get clipped in and I was struggling to find any kind of rhythm in my breathing or cadence. To make things worse, I was already red lining before my mistake. Pulling and the climb and the cobbles had taken a significant toll on my legs, which were now failing me as I tried to chase back onto the group. Not long after I got picked up in the broom wagon, exactly how I did NOT want my first World Cup to go. I did have one more day of racing though so it was time to refocus on tomorrow.
Day 3: Novillon Euro Cup
This race was one big loop of about 100km and then ended with a couple local 20km laps. Because the finishing laps were so short, anyone that was more than a few minutes behind the leaders would be time cut at that point. The big lap included the VAMberg and seven cobble sections, three of which were several kilometers long.
To make it through this race you would have to be positioned near the front at selective points and save your legs for the cobbles. Things started out well enough and I startd the climb in the front 20 or so wheels. One look around told me I was in a good position: Wild, Johansson, van Dijk, Blaak and Armstead were all within a few wheels of where I was. However, luck was not on my side that day. A girl about 4 positions up from me couldn’t hold the pace being set and let a gap open halfway up the climb. The road was too narrow to pass and so the front group opened the gap up to a few hundred meters by the time we had descended onto the open , windy road. I started chasing, working hard with Chantal and two other girls but the rest of our group wasn’t helping.
The cross wind also meant that the front group was spicing things up and so the gap was opening further and further. With only four of us working it seemed like the race was lost but we kept pushing anyways. At one point it was just Chantal and I taking pulls, which meant that there wasn’t much time to recover before you had to pull again. I was hurting and a glance at her face as she pulled through told me that she was suffering just as bad. The next time I pulled through she yelled at me that we had to close soon or we wouldn’t catch them and I knew she was right – we wouldn’t be able to hold this pace much longer. I dug deep and slowly forced myself to bring the speed up and up, then she pulled through and brought the speed up more, then it was my turn and I brought it up some more. We had set a painfully high pace amd I was barely hanging on but the gap was finally starting to close.
After what seemed like an eternity we finally reached the back of the lead group: we were safe, time to recover before fighting for position for the first cobble section. The first cobble section came and went without much excitement. I had moved up into the front 20 positions or so, which made life much easier. It wasn’t until the second cobble section that I got into trouble again. I had picked a bad line through the corner onto the cobbles and it had cost me at least 30 positions, which put me at the back of the first group. As the paced picked up over the cobbles the group stretched and stretched and I fought to dodge dropped riders but it was a long section and eventually a gap opened. Try as I might, I couldn’t get across it and so I was left chasing for the second time that day. I chased and chased wih two other women but they were both suffering and barely contributing to the effort.
Just when I thought it was over, Ellen van Dijk caught up to the three of us. Never have I been so happy to see someone: Ellen is the current World Champion time trialer, so if there was one person I could have picked to be there chasing with me she would be it. It didn’t take long for Ellen to demonstrate exactly why she was reigning world champion – we were in an open section with a strong side wind and, even protected in her draft, I was barely managing to hold her wheel. She flicked her elbow for me to come through and I did… barely. I flicked my elbow but the other two girls were done. Tired of waiting, Ellen went back to the front so it was now her at the front and me at the back and she was clearly fed up with towing the three of us around – she moved to the right side of the road putting all three of us in the gutter. Without any appreciable amount of protection from the cross wind, and tired from having just finished my own pull, I was struggling to hold onto her wheel. Not long after that it was over: Ellen had time trialed off into the sunset where she successfully rejoined the lead group and I was fighting the wind alone in the Dutch countryside.
Soon after Ellen disappeared, the second group caught up to me. It was a decent group with several riders from big teams like Rabobank, Boels and Lotto Belisol. We were strong and working well together, but the gap to the lead group was simply too much. After 110km they had put more than the allotted 4′ time gap into us and we were cut. Another DNF for me. I had made a lot of mistakes and the thing with these races is that they are so hard and the caliber of riders so high that you can’t afford to make more than one or two mistakes; it costs too much power to come back from them. However, I have learned more in the last two weeks than in the whole last year and hopefully that new knowledge will shine through in the races to come.
If what Anika has said has made you think racing might be for you, check out your national cycling federation’s website for details on how to get into racing. Remember – it’s hard; but if you’re hard too you might just be riding in a World Cup race within two years.