29th July 2011
Photos: Paul Spooner
Sarah Storey writes after she has just returned from a trip out to Germany where she competed in the Thuringen Rundfahrt with some of the best female road racers in the world.
When I came into cycling I always wanted to see just how far I could test myself in the sport both on the track and road. At first I didn't realise my partially formed hand was enough of a disability to be considered a ‘disabled' cyclist. Well cycling is all about the legs isn't it?!
Of course I quickly learned the value of the upper body contribution in all disciplines of the sport and realised there was some way to go before I could work alongside the world's best females on the road and track. In 2010 I started competing internationally in able-bodied cycling with the aim of seeing just how good I could be.
A one day race in Belgium, a stage race in France, the Chrono International Time Trial and the Commonwealth Games saw me testing myself against the world's finest female riders and then I got the call up to the Great Britain team for the Team Pursuit at the Manchester World Cup.
On the road side of the sport I was keen to push myself up another level too, so when Horizon Fitness Prendas gained a place at the Thuringen Rundfahrt to support the cycling legend Hanka Kupfernagel, I jumped at the opportunity to learn from one of the world's best riders.
As a stage race the Thuringen Rundfahrt is the second biggest women's stage race in the International Calendar and the start list for the 2011 edition really did read like a who's who of women's cycling. It was amazing to look through the teams and see many of the names I looked up to in the sport being on the start line with us.
Stage one was a 3.5km team time trial and it was a manic course with only about 50 metres of flat-ish road during the whole ride. The team needed four of the six riders to cross the line for the team time and so after blistering starts from our two younger riders, Annie and Hannah it was left to the older riders to blast it out over the two laps. The course was shaped like a back to front P and every 300-400m there was a 90 degree left hand bend. We did two laps of the main circuit before a fast right hand turn back into the start finish straight and teams were set off every seven minutes to ensure there was only ever one team on the course at a time. It was technical and fast but my computer showed 60 seconds of freewheeling in the four minute and 47 second ride. It was certainly not a course that played to my time trialling strengths and we all did the ride on our road bikes, so my Di2 electronic gears did the perfect job for me.
Stage two was the first of only two stages billed as sprinters stages and as expected finished in a bunch sprint, something we would have to wait until the last day to have again in the race. Stages three, four and five were all hilly stages, with small breaks getting up the road each day and the big teams controlling the bunch for the finish. During the stages between the team time trial and individual time trial I was attempting to stick with the front group to support Hanka and to take any opportunities to get in a break. To seasoned professionals both of these tasks are easy enough, but it's amazing how hard it was just to stay up at the front. On the hilly days the technical nature of the course meant I faced extra challenges with feeding.
Eating and drinking with the same hand that controls the brakes and gears was a fine balance and there were times when I got caught out drinking and would have to bite into the bottle until a safer section to return it to the bottle cage! On the bike I would try and have as much CNP Pro Hydrate as I could, but with the technical roads making that difficult I quickly realised I would need to start the race having consumed more fluid than I normally would just in case I struggled to drink with everything else I was doing!
Some of my biggest fears about pelotons and road racing have centred around safety, being taken out by another rider and getting injured. Obviously these are not things that are easy to control and really shouldn't be at the forefront of a rider's mind when heading to a race. I guess for me, coming from events where I have always been able to control my performances [the timed events of the track and swimming pool] it was a different style of racing and it was during the race in Thuringen that my fight for survival helped me get over this fear of hitting the deck!
The choice I had was simple, cling on to the brakes and lose the back of the bunch, or descend with the group and stay in the wheels. Whilst the latter has previously instilled the fear of God into me, as I dreaded being unable to stop if something happened in front, the prospect of not being in the bunch at the bottom of a descent seemed far more painful!
Joking aside the peloton was superb, of course these are the best riders in the world and it felt so safe and normal. I even found myself descending a switch back descent and having a chat one day, all at 60+kph! Having confidence in the bunch was a big step forward and definitely helped by the fact I felt so comfy on the bike and had such good tyres.
One of my other big demons has been cobbles. They are great to change races, they are a big part of cycling in all kinds of racing, but for me, the dreaded cobbles mean I am hanging on for grim death and hoping I can get through them before losing my left hand from the bars. A recent adaptation to my road handlebars has given me an attachment that allows me to lock my left hand in and out. It's not a complicated system and relies on me using the little wrist I have, but it proved to be a miracle piece of equipment on the cobbles, which appeared at some point in most of the days. The attachment also means I have better security on the bars on roads with poor road surface, which was again a great help, especially when it came to descending in a group where I couldn't see the bumps. As well as the attachment the electronic gears (Shimano Durace Di2) proved to be extra helpful, on the odd occasion when I needed to change gear but still hang on for dear life, I was able to do it much more easily and my system for switching from big to little ring is much faster too.
Throughout the week the key to surviving another day in the bunch was rest, recovery and nutrition off the bike. Working with CNP Professional has transformed this concept and their range of products ensures no part of the day is without the vital nutrients that are required by a body under so much physical stress. Additional nutrition at a race is obviously important, but the basics still have to be done right and supported with a good general diet. Remembering the Pro-Vital multi-vitamins in a morning is as automatic as having good wholegrain breakfast cereal and with propeptide for the protein and recovery as well Pro MR for night time repair and recovery, I knew I was doing everything I could to support my body to recovery.
By the time the individual time trial day came round, I had never felt so dead! The racing had been relentless, with the peloton attacking like fury from the outset every day. Driving round the course for a last minute refresher of the route and lines on the corners I recalled the advice from Hanka when we'd checked out the course as a team the day before the race started. Having her experience from previous editions of the race proved invaluable and I completed my target of a top 20 finish. Again the route had a couple of cobbled sections which I never thought I'd tackle on a TT bike, but I actually enjoyed them!
Although the body was feeling the strains of the tough racing, I felt lucky not to be struggling with the same saddle sores I heard from other riders. This year Horizon Fitness is sponsored by Prendas Ciclismo and has the race kit from Santini. We couldn't have wished for better quality and during long days in the saddle having well fitted kit is crucial to ensure there are no extra distractions or unnecessary pain.
The final day of the race was a local circuit, passing the hotel where we'd been staying all week on each of the four laps. It was billed to be a sprint finish, given there were three seconds separating yellow jersey and second at the top of GC, but it felt like a sprint from the off! I ended up out the back of the race in the first lap, after having to brake to avoid an Italian girl who was about to take out my front wheel on a fast right hander. I was so gutted, but at the speed the bunch were going, despite riding at 300 watts for what felt like two laps, I wasn't gaining. Having said that I wasn't alone and although I couldn't see it, the bunch was gradually splintering each lap until the bunch was the smallest it had been all week. Each of laps took in about two km of cobbles, with some really uneven sections where I was convinced I would lose my front wheel in between some of them!
It was a tough day out, but a huge relief to finish even if I had lost over 10 minutes on the final day. I ended up 25 minutes down overall, but given that last year in Limousin I'd lost 24 minutes in the first day, this year was definite improvement. Having said that though I was still no better at walking post event, with my hamstrings screaming at me to stop moving!
With the race over I was asked if I would attend the final presentations as the organisers of the event wished to present me with the Amy Gillett Award for Sporting Attitude and Fair Play. This Award has been presented in memory of a tragedy that happened just prior to the race in 2005 when Amy was killed whilst training for the race. I was so humbled to hear of the presentation and felt so honoured to have been chosen for the award given the number of cycling heroes in the race with me. It's difficult to put in to words what it means to win this award, other than to say it is such a huge honour to receive it in Amy's memory. No one will ever forget her and with the award we also remember the great work of the Amy Gillett Foundation too.
With an eight hour marathon drive back to Calais being the final thing to complete the week, there was plenty to mull over and analyse before the next challenge. I have an easier week in training this week and it's timed very well with the ‘One Year to Go' celebrations!