The Tour Down Underdogs

27 Jan

The 2015 Bupa Challenge Tour is an event which provides riders with the opportunity to ride the Stage 4 of the Santos Tour Down Under, the same route that the world’s elite riders will ride later that same day. Earlier in the year I gamely committed to join a team (The Tour Down Underdogs) with a crew of guys from my old church in Adelaide – including my Dad, brother Peter, and brother-in-law Scott. I signed up for the 150km ride from Glenelg to Mt Barker, wondering why the ride had to start at the beach and finish in the Adelaide Hills (why not the other way around??). The 150km ride included in excess of 1500m of vertical climbing. The closer I got to the event, the more I realised I had over committed.

That was my first challenge. To date, I’ve not signed up for an event that I’ve not been able to complete. For weeks I struggled knowing in my head that I had over committed, but not being able to admit it out loud. A week from the event, I finally succumbed and notified the organisers that I would be commencing from the second starting point – Willunga. Initially I felt like a failure, but the more I considered it, the more I decided that this would still be an achievement. The ride would be just shy of 120km and include some 1300m of vertical climbing. To achieve both in isolation would be personal bests for me; to combine them would therefore be quite a personal achievement. I’m also the only girl in the crew… so I figured that had to count for something…

My bike was the second challenge. I’d decided I wanted to take it, however I was concerned about the gearing. When at home at Christmas I rode Mum’s mountain bike some of the route and found that the gears enabled me to get up hills (albeit slowly). My bike wasn’t geared as low and I found I literally ran out of leg strength on some climbs around my area. After discussions with the cyclists in the family, we contacted our bike shop and arranged to have a chain ring and cassette replaced. They were ordered in, and at the eleventh hour arrived and were fitted (the mechanic coming in to work on his day off to fit it for me knowing I was on a 0600hrs flight the next morning). Dave and I boxed my bike (with much frustration) and I was set to go… hoping the changes made some difference to my ride.

On arrival in Adelaide Dad, Mum and Tim picked me up from the airport. We drove the ride route so that I could have a feel for what I was in for. It may have been a mistake. While I was able to see that for many uphills there was a following downhill the sheer volume of uphills, and the length of time we sat in the car had me a little more anxious. The closer I got, the more I worried that I just wouldn’t make it. I reassembled my bike with Dad, took it for a quick 10km to make sure it was all in working order and hoped for the best…

Ride morning dawned. I was nervous. Really nervous. We had arranged to pick up one of the Tour Down Underdogs riders – Kerry. Kerry is a busy man and had decided, like me, that due to suboptimal preparation Willunga was a better start option. In the car I made sure Kerry knew that although we were taking him to the start line, he was free to ride the route without me holding him back. I had met Kerry only briefly before and everyone I had spoken to had, without prompting, told me what an incredible bloke he was. I have to agree. Kerry decided to ride with me. I very rarely ride with others (often due to riding at odd times because of shift work – Kerry is in the same position). It sure made the ride easier.

10km into the ride we hit the “King of the Mountain” – Sellicks Hill. This was the first opportunity for me to try out my new gears – I was very happy. Not only did I make it up to the top of the hill, but I still had a gear to go when I got there! I had also beaten the rest of the family to the top – While the others started from further away, they also started earlier. First challenge – accomplished!

The ride continued in an unremarkable fashion. Light showers at the start of the ride didn’t hinder us too much. Kerry was fabulous at providing me with feedback about traffic conditions – notifying me of cars and passing groups of bikes as I became more comfortable on the road. At Myponga we saw the first of the Glenelg riders start to appear. Not far behind those at the front came Peter and Brad – tucked neatly into a large pack of riders and absolutely cruising past us! Scott was shortly behind him, taking the lead in the front of another pack of riders. As we cycled on past, it would appear Peter, Brad and Scott stopped for refreshments at Nangkita… as at Mt Compass we were overtaken again – with a surprised look on my brother’s face “hey – how did you get in front of me!?”.

As we approached Strathalbyn (90km) I was feeling okay. It certainly pays to cycle with someone – the chatter, laughter and joking is a wonderful distraction. It was here that we saw our first cheer squad – Dave and Mum were roadside to cheer us on. From Strathalbyn there was 16km of climbing. While it wasn’t steep it was constant. I’d forgotten it from the drive. I soldiered on. Just keep pedalling, just keep pedalling became my motto. Kerry was better on the hills, and was able to make it up them with better speed than I, though graciously waited at the top for me each time. As we approached the end we descended into Echunga. From here my memory was vivid – there was a steep ascent – while it wasn’t long (about 1km) the gradient was around 7% – which for me is quite the mountain. I was cycling on my own at that time and the mind was starting to get the better of me. I was over 100km in and I was fading. My mind was telling me I was done. I really didn’t think I could go any further. As I turned the corner, and was confronted with the hill, I was also confronted with something else – or should I say someone else… David, Tim and Josh were roadside chatting with Kerry. Cries of “You’re going great Auntie Jen”, “You’re awesome Sis”, “You can do it Auntie Jen” filled my ears. I stopped for a rest (and a few precious cuddles), took on some more drink, accepted their confidence in me and set off with Kerry. But here is where I have to stop and thank my new riding buddy. Not only did Kerry provide verbal encouragement as we commenced the ascent but he backed that up with a little (lot) of physical assistance. He put his hand in my back. I wish I could explain the effectiveness of this… explain how much difference it made to have that hand there but I think you need to experience it to understand it. The strength he showed to not only get himself up that gradient, but doing it one handed, whilst helping me leaves me shaking my head still. I had made it up all the other hills in my own strength without walking (which was amazing), but as half of those on route with us got off and pushed, Kerry and I (well Kerry with me attached) overtook cyclists as we climbed the final ascent of the journey. As we approached the crest I assured him I’d be okay and I finished the climb in my own strength.

Finished! One relieved and happy Jen :)

Finished! One relieved and happy Jen 🙂

The final few kilometres, and the associated descent, were the icing on the cake. I admit to a few tears in my eyes (thank you for the cover sunglasses) as we cycled down the finishing chute and saw a reassembled cheer squad – Dave, my Mum (and Dad who had finished 150km about 30 minutes before me – I never saw him overtake me!), My brother and his boys, My sister and her girls, the Letcher’s, the Wilson’s, and the Mountford’s were all there cheering us in. What a welcome. I’m so grateful for Kerry riding with me – together we chatted and laughed our way through 119km. I’m not sure I would have made the distance if I did it alone – would my mind have defeated me far earlier? It’s hard to know – but I do know that together we achieved it. We finished – 5hrs 50 minutes of moving time (6:30hrs from event commencement) – average speed of 20km/hr. One tired, but happy Jen.

So… I guess next year I’ll have to shoot for the full distance ride…

For those that are interested, here are the team’s efforts. I applaud them all – their courage, determination and distances and vertical climbing totals were phenomenal!

  •  Scott: 243km, 2200m (average speed of 30km/hr!)
  • Peter: 240km, 2300m (average speed of 30km/hr!)
  • James: 162km, 1800m
  • Matt: 153km, 1700m
  • Dad: 152km, 1700m
  • Jen and Kerry: 119km, 1300m

Some photos from the day:

Dad

Dad… 150km of riding… 60 this year and recovering from open abdominal surgery – he’s amazing!

Kerry and Jen

Kerry and I make it to the finish – only about 200m to go here 🙂

TDU

Half of the Tour Down Underdogs team (L-R – Matt, Jen, Dad and Kerry). All extremely happy to have finished!

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