Prova de 9 de julho 2018

Last month I took part in my second “Prova 9 de julho” race in São Paulo. I had signed up a few months before with good intentions, but my training for the event was non-existent at best. If I was to follow the logic of homeopathy, less is more, although if that was truly the case I was in danger of being overtrained without having performed any actual training. The race organisers had taken the rather unprecedented step of handing out the participation medals the day before, meaning I didn’t even have to take part! No excuses though, I had made a decision and would follow through with it.

My choice of outfit for the day had been made a while back: my birthday present from Luana, a snazzy personalised Manchester United cycling outfit. This year’s lucky number was 360. We arrived at the start line 45 minutes before the start. Luana suggested I warm-up with some short sprints; I dismissed her suggestion and positioned myself 10 m from the front, the closest I could get, and waited. I was probably made to regret that decision not to warm-up as within seconds of the race start, I was lagging behind the main group. I kicked as hard as I could, my legs feeling like jelly in the first 100 m but I had to push through or risk losing any chance of keeping in touch with the leaders. It wasn’t easy as a number of more “recreational cyclists” who had started towards the front meant that I had to slalom my way through the field, unable to gain any real momentum. I was finally out of the melee and pushing hard but the first peloton was already snaking away in the distance, and my only chance of a decent finish in the second peloton was also looking in danger…

The start of the 72nd "9 de julho" international cycle race

I managed to hang in there, gritted my teeth, and made some bold attacks off the group I was in in search of the second peloton. With the help of three other riders, we made it, and thanks to the beauty that is drafting I could sit up and relax a little more, safely nestled in the larger group. As we approached the midway point of the first lap, we hit a notoriously bumpy section of road which caused my water bottle to jump ship, never to be seen again. I was gutted that I wouldn’t be able to quench my thirst, nor throw my bottle away like the professionals. There was no time to dwell on lost bottles though as the peloton thundered on mercilessly and into the perilous tunnels of São Paulo. These tunnels are not for the faint of heart as they are poorly lit, damp and contain lots of potholes that you have no chance of avoiding as you descend at 60 km/h. What goes down must come up, however, and the descent into the tunnel quickly turns into an ascent to exit. Frustratingly, the riders in front of me were not particularly skilled in the art of climbing and having descended freewheeling, began pedalling again far too late, meaning we lost so much speed and momentum for the climb out of the tunnel. However, this got me thinking…

Like the previous year, towards the end of the first lap I started to plot my attack. Of course, it would not be to win the race, but at least I could get the better of the peloton I was in. The entire course is very flat, which doesn’t suit my climbing skillset. However, this year’s course had been reversed, which meant that there was a slightly longer uphill exiting the final tunnel just before the final 300 m. With my group seemingly naïve to the secrets of good climbing, I had made my mind up about where I would attack. There was still plenty of distance to go though, as we passed under the banners and onto the second lap, another 23.6 km to go. With our peloton stretched out, I was sat towards the back and I felt the pace was letting off. So, I pulled out and started making my way up the front. Before long, I was behind the frontman, who I quickly recognised as Fábio, an old student from USP. We shared a quick handshake before he moved over and suddenly there was no one in front of me, I was pulling the peloton along! With this new-found responsibility, I pushed down ferociously on the pedals like never before, keen to showcase my talent and impress my adversaries. This was the first time I was leading the chasing pack and what a thrill!

It was exhilarating! It was enthralling! It was living! It was… EXHAUSTING!

My legs were burning. I’d done a good stretch, so I moved over to allow others to pass, but no one did. I gathered up what remaining force I had and continued to push as hard as I could but eventually my legs were running on empty and my speed reduced to that of a crawl as we made our way over the university bridge. Luckily, others took over at the head of the peloton and I could retake my anonymous position in the heart of the group, knowing that I had done my bit for the cause. Now I just had to conserve energy and bide my time for the final “climb”. As we descended into the final tunnel, the group started to split as teamwork quickly made way for individual goals. As the gradient slowly turned upwards, I positioned myself out wide, away from the bunched group, and towards the front. Suddenly, I could see the white light, the opening of the tunnel, my cue to go for it. And so, climbing out of my saddle and mustering all the energy I could, I attacked. And surprisingly, it was working. Within seconds I was several metres ahead of the main bunch, daylight in every aspect as I exited the tunnel and pushed for the final 300 m among a handful of others. A photo finish with two others as I finished with a time of 1:13:42 for the 47.2 km course, averaging 38 km/h and finishing 52nd. As is customary etiquette, our group said their thanks, shook hands and gave hugs to each other to celebrate finishing in one piece, something unfortunately not everyone who started the race did.

Exactly one year on from my last race, the immediate euphoria that followed made me question why I don’t do this more often. There is definitely an extra sense of delight and enjoyment when racing in a peloton at speeds you wouldn’t otherwise imagine. Of course, there were pre-race nerves, mainly due to concern about falling. Certainly, riding in big groups which may contain inexperienced riders along the potholed streets of São Paulo are a cause for concern. Too many excuses I suppose, but I certainly hope to increase my training volume, get back to the days when my fitness was that of a trained cyclist and perhaps enter the more occasional race. And with some cycling trips planned with Luana, who knows, maybe one day soon I’ll be boring you with another blog post.