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Prova de 9 de julho 2017

A little over a week ago I took part in my first competitive cycle race, meaning I can now officially refer to myself as a competitive cyclist (something I have been doing daily since). I won’t lie, I was nervous going into the peloton having witnessed several high-profile crashes on the Tour de France and having previously experienced the consequences of falling at high speed. I had also trained very little the preceding weeks, or at least, very little compared to what I expect of myself; I sometimes forget that 150 km per week is a lot to someone who does not regularly cycle.

But I was also feeling excited. This was my chance to experience the thrill of the ride. Those GoPro videos of the Tour de France really give you a sense of the insanity of cycling in a peloton and made me keen to experience it for myself. I had signed up for the prestigious Prova de 9 de julho race in São Paulo where only two years earlier I had been snapped cycling alongside Luana as we soaked up the atmosphere of the race. Now I was competing in the Aspirantes group, literally translating to the aspirants or the hopefuls as I like to call us. Either way, we were given the 6:45 am departure slot with a time limit of 90 min to complete the course which comprised of two laps of a 22.7 km route around the streets of São Paulo.

Me and Luana at the 2015 Prova de 9 de julho

It was pitch black when we arrived at 5:45 am. As we approached the start area, a bloke cycled past with a roller on his shoulder. By the time I was entering the pit, he was warming up alongside a cluster of cyclists whose legs were getting cold. This was getting serious. It turned out to be Fabio, an old student from the lab (hence why I could link to his video) who had the cunning to bring along the equipment to warm up at the start line. Either way, I am not one for warming up anyway, and took my position about 10 m from the start line behind. Luana had advised me to start near the front if I were to have any chance of keeping with the peloton. The butterflies in my stomach started to flutter as the clock ticked down; 30 min, then 25, soon there were only 5 min left. The sun had risen. This was it

10… 9… 8… 7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2.. 1…

A deafening buzzer sounded as we pushed down on our pedals and the majority of us clipped in our other cleat. We were off. And the pace upped immediately. Several guys whizzed past me as my naivety showed but I quickly shook this off and started making my way towards the front. Within seconds we had made the first turn and the main peloton was made, any straggler had already been left behind. Before long we were past Parque do Povo and on a long main stretch of road, the peloton mercilessly accelerating along it. Unfortunately for me, I was hemmed in towards the back with those around me beginning to falter. I wanted to make my way out but found myself with nowhere to go. I agonisingly looked on to see the distance to the peloton get bigger and bigger. I had no option but to slow down, drop to the back of my bunch, and move around them. I changed up some gears and put my foot down and went after the main peloton!

Now, anyone who knows anything about cycling in a peloton will know that once you’ve lost it, you’re unlikely to get back to it, especially when it’s applying the pressure. Nonetheless, my blissful ignorance was in full swing as I went solo in chase. I could feel my heart thumping through my helmet and taste blood and sweat in my mouth as I pounded down on my pedals with more force than ever before. I am no stranger to putting in the effort and yet, no matter how hard I pushed, the peloton in front of me got further and further away, and before long it vanished out of sight. The chase was lost and my speed dropped, meaning I was soon reeled in by the group behind me. This time I was determined not to make the same mistake. I knew I had to cycle more aggressively. The same guys who had denied me a position in the main peloton (though admittedly had I been more experienced I would have realised this sooner or positioned myself better) were now my new teammates. Our group snaked along the streets, everyone trading wheels to conserve energy, the occasional joker thinking he could make a break before quickly being reeled back in. By the time we crossed the start line again to begin our second lap, we had lost well over a minute to the main bunch, but they were no longer our priority. Now the focus was on staying upright and finishing in the best time possible. For one poor bloke who took a tumble on a sharp turn behind me, this wasn’t possible, but there is no time for sentiment in the peloton and the rest of us motored on like a well-oiled machine, knowing we needed each other to keep up the pace. Nonetheless, there was no doubt that everyone was silently plotting their own agenda for the finish.

I, myself, was calculating when to make my move. I knew I had no chance on the final flat stretch as I am by no means whatsoever a sprinter. My forte is in the climbs, though the course provided none; the only parts that resembled anything of an incline were some 20-50 m stretches on bridges and tunnels. One of those was positioned about 1 km from the finish so that’s where I had planned to do it. My naivety showed again, however, as pretty much everyone in my group had made the same exact plan. Except they attacked sooner. And before I knew it I was crossing the line as the third last of our group. It mattered not to me as I was delighted I had made it in one piece, well within the finishing time (1:13:54 averaging 36.9 km/h) and 49th overall with 312 total finishers.

Post-race smiles and medal!

I have been an obsessive cyclist for the last 5-6 years now, but this was my first race. However, the thrill that came with it makes me undoubtedly think that it won’t be my last. I love everything about cycling. I use the bicycle for transport, arriving at work full of energy and happy at avoiding any traffic. I use the bicycle for sight-seeing so I can intimately visit a city and its surrounding, soaking up the sights and sounds that can only be experienced on two wheels. And I use the bicycle for training, riding as much as I can each week to maintain a certain level of fitness. But the thrill of a race was something else. It was exciting, testing, enthralling, overwhelming, exhilarating and everything more than I expected. There was no time to rest on laurels, no time for deep thoughts, no time to enjoy sights. It was pure adrenaline and focus to not lose time, not clash wheels and not disappoint my biggest fan Luana cheering on the street. But there is no need to be disappointed about lost pelotons or missed attacking opportunities, the aim this time was never to win and the experience will only help me in my next race whenever that may be.

Don’t worry, I’ll let you read all about it when that moment comes around.

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