Trento – 18th September 2022
The big day had finally arrived. For an amateur cyclist this is as big as it gets. The UCI Granfondo World Championships road race.
Today, new world champions would be crowned in each age group. Two years ago Trento was announced as the host for the 2022 event. Since then I’d been planning and looking forward to this day knowing that it would be on a mountainous course that would suit my cycling attributes. I couldn’t help but think that this could be the day when the stars might align for me. I was a ‘youngster’ in my age category, the course was perfect for me and I was fit and healthy. I had high hopes. I was dreaming of a rainbow jersey.
Each age group would start separately to ensure that it could be a genuine race without the interference of other riders. The youngest age groups would start first and then 3 minute intervals would separate each age group start.
The weather was perfect, a forecast maximum temperature of 20° and clear skies. The course would be 145km with nearly 4000m of climbing within it. Two major climbs of either side of Monte Bondone and a shorter but still significant climb to Cadriai before a downhill finish into Trento.
I was lining up with around 130 finalists in the 55-59 years old race. Each racer had qualified for the final in one of around 30 qualifying events across the globe. I’d qualified in Spain and winning the event there meant I had the right to start the final on the front row and avoid the jostling for position that the other riders would have to endure.
Being on the front row also meant a more relaxed approach. Knowing my place there was reserved I could nip off for my last minute toilet break without any concerns. Joining me on the front row was Michael Schaefer, a friendly German who won bronze in Sarajevo last year. He cheerfully pointed to a list he’d stuck on his top tube. ‘Your name’s here John!’, his list of names and bib numbers were the riders he considered to be his main threats. I was honoured to be on his list, little did he know that his name was on my similarly motivated list that was scrunched up in my pocket!
A UCI official checked who we were at the start and then another scanned our bikes for motors, serious stuff! We’d been warned that the bikes of the fastest riders would be weighed at the finish to make sure they were above the official 6.8kg limit. I’d added heavier than usual wheels and heavy skewers to get my bike legal and up to weight.
With a couple of minutes to go I was relaxed, more so than usual. I knew I was well prepared and I just wanted to be let loose on the course. Off we went and I went straight to the front, not to ride fast or hard but just to try to dictate the pace a little. The last thing I wanted was a frantic dash along the first, flat 10kms. After a few hundred metres I was swamped by impatient riders wanting to push on. I was rapidly sifted back to the middle of the pack. No need to panic, we were on a wide road and there’d be plenty of space and time to work back to the front prior to the first climb where it would be important for me to be in the first quarter of the field.
The pace was steady for those first kilometres but I got increasingly frustrated at the lack of space to get to the front and with 2kms to go before the first climb I needed to take action. I barged my way through on the left and with a couple of hundred metres to spare I got to where I needed to be.
The road narrowed a little and ramped up dramatically. The first climb up Monte Bondone via La Viote was 20kms long at a relatively humble average gradient of about 6.5%. This figure disguised the truth somewhat with flatter sections in the middle and a steep start and finish meaning that very little of the climb would ever actually be ridden at it’s average. It would take just over an hour to scale this thing. The first 3kms averaged around 10% and having reconned this section the previous day I knew that there would be a ‘selection’ here. The field would be whittled down here as riders less adept at climbing would be shed from the lead group.
I came to the front on that section, not going too hard, but hard enough to contribute to that ‘selection’ process. I looked around me after 2kms and there were still plenty of riders there, perhaps 30, with the rest of the field trailing in a stream behind. For around 100 riders their day was already converted into one of participating rather than competing for the win. The gradient eased and a chance to take stock. I felt good and I was keen to stay on or near the front in an effort to keep the pace firm but steady. The rivals who I’d noted on my scrap of paper were there, well most of them. Massimo Zunino, an Italian with impressive results; Michael Schaefer and Wolfgang Hofmann, a German who I’d battled with earlier in the year in Switzerland were all very much there for the party and looking strong.
As we progressed up the road we caught the stragglers from the younger age group races that had started earlier. I got cheerful encouragement from Bruce Bird who was not having a good day. He and I had had some good battles last year but being a year older than him I was now in the next category. As we caught and passed these riders it would be important to pay careful attention to the yellow numbers of our age group race and not let the other riders cause a split in our group. Again, good to be near the front to reduce any risk.
The final 7kms of the climb averages about 9%. As we got closer to the top I would glimpse back on hairpin bends, our group still looked like about 15 people. More than I’d expected to be honest. If this many riders could get over what was probably the toughest climb of the day and remain in touch it meant we could end up as a biggish group for the majority of the race. My ideal scenario would have been to crest that climb in a much smaller group. Liam McCrory came up to me and spoke quietly in my ear, ‘You’re looking great John, they’re all hanging off you, you look the strongest’. Liam’s comments made me feel good, trouble is I always look ok on a bike even when I’m not! I’m the same with other sports I’ve got to a decent level in, all looks smooth and easy from the outside but not always from within! I did feel good on that climb though and I was genuinely comfortable and in control all the way.
13 of us topped out together as I grabbed bottles from our trusty support man Mauro in the feedstation. Now for a super fast decent. Long straights, nicely engineered corners and wide roads all meant very high speeds. I had to work and concentrate hard to stay with everyone. Pedalling hard out of corners and getting as aero as possible without reverting to ‘supertucks’ that we’d been reminded that morning would be punished with disqualification. We’d average over 70kph on this descent with speeds arounds 90kph on the straights.
Our group got a bit stung out during the decent but as we hit the flatter valley road I was relieved to have stayed in touch. The valley ride was never truly flat but the intensity of the race abated briefly and gave us all a chance to feed and drink and assess what was going on. 55kms in now, I’m in a group that’s now reduced to about 11. I’m happy where I am but still concerned at how many of us are there!
We turned hard left and headed up a 2.5km climb that would have taken riders by surprise had they not done their proper recon work. Our group stayed together over that one and then we pressed on over ‘lumpy’ roads toward the foot of our second major climb of the day.
We were about to scale Monte Bondone for a second time but from a different side, culminating in the same point we’d climbed to earlier. This side of the mountain would mean us climbing for about 17kms at a stiffer average gradient of about 7.5%. The climb on this side was quite regular, no big surprises, just long and constant.
The first 8kms of this climb up to Candriai would be our final climb later today followed by a descent to the finish in Trento. Our group scaled the first half of the climb uneventfully. The pace was firm but manageable. Nothing to upset the group which was now down to 9 or 10 of us.
At Candriai we turned right for the final 9km up to Bondone. Brendan Sullivan, an American in the group attacked. We hadn’t seen much of him so far but he was making a show now. He went hard but none of our group panicked. He never got more than about 50m up the road and he was reeled in within a couple of minutes. Then he’d go again, and again, with e same reeling in outcome. I didn’t need this. The efforts to pull him back were hurting me. For the first time today my legs felt tired. 80km in now and I started to get the feeling of being a ‘hanger on’ rather than the ‘controller’ that I felt I was earlier in the day on the first big climb. Those final 3 or 4 kms to the top of Bondone were hard. I always knew I’d stay with the group but I was starting to struggle and ominously count down the kilometres. This climb just couldn’t finish too soon for me whereas the first climb of the day could have gone on forever!
More water from Mauro and we embarked for a second time on the super fast descent and a repeat of the valley loop. Similar to my first descent I had to concentrate and work hard to make sure I didn’t lose touch with my rivals. Let a gap develop now and I’d struggle to get it back in the valley. I had to stay with these guys if I was going to have a chance of a medal today.
Stay with them I did. As we reached the valley for a second time we were down to 8 riders in our group. 2 Germans, 1 Italian, 1 Austrian, 2 Spaniards, 1 American and me. I forced myself to eat and drink and looked for every chance to recover and rest. The pace on that second valley circuit was steady. It was as if all our group were resigned to the fact that nothing would or should happen until the final climb that would start at the 106km point. That’s where the showdown would surely tale place. In the valley we passed Steve Allen, another Brit who I’ve often raced with. He started 3mins before me in his 50-54 race and had lost touch with his lead group. He made some encouraging remarks as he could see I was still in touch for a result.
The final climb to Candriai approached, I came to the front on the short descent leading into it to make sure I was at least not hanging off the back. 8kms of climbing left followed by a technical 10km descent and a couple of flat kms to the finish line. 8 of us left. 3 would be very happy men in about 45 minutes and 5 would be disappointed. Prior to the race I’d played out the various scenarios in my head. Maybe I would attack on the climb, maybe I’d attack on the decent if I doubted my rival’s abilities there. Maybe I’d wait for a sprint where, by climbers’ standards, I’m quite strong. It would all depend on how I felt, how many other riders were there, and what I reckoned their strengths and weaknesses might be. I couldn’t pre plan this, there were too many variables that I couldn’t anticipate.
1km into the climb and we are all together. I’m somewhere near the front with Schaefer and Hofmann just ahead. My legs are weary but I’m hanging in there. Just starting to consider my options although the pace being dictated to me is making attacking impossible. 2kms down and the ship is steady. I’m starting the think we’ll all go over the top together.
Suddenly, Walter Lehki from Austria attacks, Michael goes with him. I try to react but can’t quite bridge to them and I’m rapidly absorbed by the group. Then Hofmann goes past me along with Javier Santamaria. I’m spent, my medal hopes are slipping away in a few seconds. I can only hope that 2 of them fade enough for me to reel them in later. Brendan comes past me too. I’m now 6th on the road. The 4 leaders seem way up the road. I look back and see that I’ve got a big gap on the other Spaniard, Fernandez and Zunino. Our group is well and truly disintegrated. After 4 and half hours of riding together a few seconds of action has smashed our group to pieces. I just keep trudging on. It hurts. It hurts even more when you know the medal dream has just be taken away from you.
I topped out at Candriai with Brendan out of sight ahead of me. Behind there was a good gap still to Zunino, perhaps 30 seconds with the second Spaniard, Fernandez, trailing further back. The final descent is a beauty, very technical and certainly one to reward a skilful descender who’s done his homework. I can hold my own with most racers on a descent and I was frustrated at the fact that my skills and recon would probably not be worth anything now. I pressed on anyway, taking smooth lines and no unnecessary risks. Saying that, I still overtook lots of stragglers from other age groups as I plummeted down to Trento.
As the descent fizzled out I spotted an American jersey ahead, I’d caught Brendan just in time to have a battle to the line with him for 5th place. We crossed the Adige river into town and I got on his wheel by virtue of taking the left route through the final roundabout as opposed to Brendan’s slightly slower right route. I unashamedly tucked in behind him then, fancying my chances in the inevitable sprint. The final tight right hander came up that would lead into a 200m finishing straight. I’d reconned this bend a number of times and I knew the line to carry speed through it. Brendan made an almighty hash of it, almost shunting into the railings on the far left. We were both slowed equally though and then I had time to focus on trying to pass him in the sprint. My legs were cramping but I managed to muster one final, painful effort to pass Brendan and secure 5th place.
For the next few minutes I was perched on the side, leaning against a barrier, unable to get off my bike with massive cramps setting in. Those poor spectators having to endure my pathetic wailing!
As I recovered I started to take in the moment and all that was going on around me. I went over to Michael Schaeffer, ‘did you win?’, he beamed his massive German smile at me and confirmed his victory before being whisked away for a drug test. Liam McCrory who’d been with me on the first climb, finished in 11th place, he rushed over enthusiastically, ‘did you get the win John?’. He seemed disappointed and surprised when I told him the result.
I felt such a mixture of emotions at the finish and in the hours and days after the race. This race had been such a focus for me for so long. I found it hard to reconcile whether coming 5th was good, bad or okay. I’d come to the race to win, or at least get on the podium. I’d been well and truly beaten in the final stages by stronger riders. In retrospect it’s easy to forget the pain of cycling. I keep thinking that maybe I could have pushed harder on that last climb, dug a bit deeper. Was I really that tired? Should I have done anything differently?
The rational side of me knows that finishing 5th in the world in a strong field is a great result and one I should be proud of. The emotional side of me keeps dipping into how it would have felt to have been on that podium or better still to have got the win and the coveted Rainbow Jersey.
I hung around for the presentations which were done on a grand scale. I waited in the wings and got to congratulate and chat with the 3 medallists just before they went up for their ceremony. Michael was then announced as the new World Champion and he proceeded to belt out his national anthem. He was a worthy winner and he was enjoying his moment. Staying to watch those guys get their rewards was important for me. It rounded off the day in the right way. I would have wanted people staying if I’d earned a place on the podium.
And so to the future, what next? First I need some time to reflect on the whole process and think about what I want next. I need to take the positives from this race and build on them ready for whatever the next goal might be. No Rainbow Jersey yet but maybe one day.
I love riding my bike and that passion will keep fuelling me for the next adventure!