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  • Sarah Gigante

The Defence

Nationals…it’s such a special race. So many Aussie cyclists, both competitors and fans alike, know of the famous and brutal Buninyong road circuit. There’s just something about this event that gives me goosebumps, despite the event’s typical scorching summer weather. It’s one of the few races in which Australian-based riders have the opportunity to test themselves against the returning Aussie pros and put their name out there as riders to watch. And I haven’t even mentioned the biggest drawcard of all yet…the small but very real possibility of winning the green and gold bands and having the honour of being the national champion for a whole year. Speaking from experience…it’s a life-changing moment if you can make it happen!

After a 2020 with minimal racing, when the new dates for 2021 Road Nats were announced for early February, you probably could have heard the nationwide sigh of relief and the clipping in of cleats as many of the top cyclists in Australia relished the thought of having a big race to target at long last, and started training harder than ever. This was especially true for those stuck in poor old Melbourne, who were in lockdown at the time and, if they were like me, were probably thankful for that positive news to create the motivation needed to climb on the ergo for the 102029th time in a row. I still remember setting the countdown app on my phone…I think there were about 130 days to go at the time, but my coach Dylan and I were already excited. We had big dreams – I’d won the road race in Buninyong in 2019 and the time trial in 2020, and had been training the house down for many months despite the lack of racing (unfortunately this isn’t too far off being literal, because, in 2020, more virtual kilometres were done inside my house than ‘real’ kilometres outside…)

I love climbing but also enjoy the thrill of the race of truth, so Dylan and I set about the challenging but exciting prospect of targeting both the road race and the time trial. With the lack of racing between March and December, we had the rather rare opportunity (if you can twist it to be an opportunity…I sure didn’t enjoy the lack of racing at the time!) of having an extremely focused and very long training block coming up to the Summer of Cycling. I am so grateful that I had Dylan to guide me through these many months, with his planning and knowledge working towards our shared longer-term Nationals vision but also allowing me to have regular small and achievable goals along the way to keep me motivated. The regular INSYCD testing, although painful, allowed me to see my continued progression and made it possible for Dylan to keep my training zones perfectly adapted to my form at the time. We went through so many different blocks of training, which satisfied Dylan from his science-based coaching point of view and also kept me happy and interested from a cyclist-going-crazy-in-lockdown perspective! With many Zwift races scattered throughout, I did tons of medium zone efforts, and then moved into lactate shuttles, we introduced more and more TT sessions to the program, and then, when real-life racing was back, I was able to mix the local crits with some VO2 Max efforts and finally some Nationals simulations on the Buninyong course itself.

After all of this training, I’d seen my power slowly but surely increase across the months, which was a pretty epic feeling for us both after such a difficult year. Hitting PBs is so satisfying, as you know all too well the hard work, consistency and sacrifice it takes to become stronger than ever before. These personal bests, along with an awesome Tour of Tweed in December and a surreal Santos Festival of Cycling in late January, meant that I came into the long-awaited Nationals Time Trial on the 3rd of February with slightly higher levels of both confidence and nervousness than I had experienced in previous years. I knew that we’d both done the work and, as the defending champion, the race meant so much to me, but this was the same for other riders, and as everyone knows…it’s a bike race, so anything could happen!

The race day nerves weren’t too difficult though, because on top of all the support I’d had leading up to Nationals, I was super fortunate to have some truly fantastic people around me on the day itself too. This helped me stay calm, since I knew that everything that could be controlled was being controlled. As well as the presence of my fabulous mum, I also had a very special trio in the follow car behind me – my knowledgeable driver Colin, super coach Dylan and legendary mechanic Jesse. Dylan was with me the from the afternoon beforehand all the way to the end of my warmup, appearing – at least from the outside, which was all that mattered to me, as the nervous rider – far more composed and relaxed than I felt!

Once I rolled up to the start line though, it was game on. I didn’t feel nervous anymore, and any pressure I’d felt had suddenly disappeared. Instead, determination swallowed my thoughts, as I brought my whole focus to the task at hand. I knew that course and my pacing strategy better than anyone, I was sure of that. Not only had I raced and won there before, but I’d been to Buninyong a number of times in my training preparations to do race simulations based on the power protocol Dylan had given me after my INSCYD tests. As I blurted out in a media interview…’the hard work had been done and it was time to party!’

Image: Con Chronis

Part of me wishes I could just say that the race whizzed by in a blur of excitement and adrenalin, but my legs would complain about the accuracy of that claim…I think if you’re not partly scarred by the prolonged pain every time you do a TT, you must not be going hard enough! The race started well enough – despite my slight over-eagerness in the first technical minute or two, I managed to get myself down the ramp and around the first few narrow corners with the rubber side down, which was probably the most important outcome of the starting sector! After just a kilometre, it was already time to power over the short but steep Gear Avenue hill, and then it was onto the ten-minute out-and-back Yankee Flat Rd before a quick descent down Fisken Rd and a drag back to the start line to do it all again. I felt strong in the first lap, but wanted to keep it that way for the latter half of the time trial too, so I stuck to the pacing plan as best as I could. I knew I was on as good a day as it felt when I came through the halfway point with one lap done in just a sliver over 20 minutes, when I’d taken almost 43 minutes for the two laps the year prior. I still remember thinking ‘gee, that’s fast. This is going to go one of two ways – I’ll either have an absolutely awesome TT, or I’ll absolutely explode later on and creep home!’

I’d made it up Gear Avenue soon enough though, so I started to hope that it would be the former and that I’d finish off ok! My legs and lungs – I can’t remember which was worse! - were absolutely burning by this point, but I didn’t push through all those lockdown ergos just to give up at a little bit of pain on race day! I distracted myself along Yankee Flat Road by counting the seconds to the rider in front of me and trying to catch as many people as possible, which was quite fun. I was so in the zone that I came up to the turnaround way too hot and skidded a few metres past the cones, which wasn’t ideal, but on the upside, must have given my three supporters in the car an increase in heart rate – only fair really, considering my heart rate was hitting records for the whole forty minutes and they’d told me we were in it together!

Phew, it was finally time to turn left onto Fisken Road and start the final descent. On the first lap, that same point had brought with it a little bit of a breather before starting the long drag into the climb for the second time. There was no time for a break, no matter how small, this lap though! I knew that this particular turn signified five minutes to go. Five more minutes! Speeding round the downhill bends, trying to stay in my aero extensions as much as possible, I wondered if I was dropping my follow car on the descent…but there was no time to do a head check to see, so despite my competitiveness (yes, even with cars!), I figured I’d have to check with Dylan about that afterwards. The more pressing issue was in front of me…the Team Bike Exchange van following 2019 TT Champ Grace Brown was still in sight, but I wouldn’t have exactly described it as close either. Was it less than a minute away? I thought so, and sure hoped so, but there wasn’t enough time to count anymore, and I didn’t think my brain was up for maths – no matter how simple – at this stage anyway. I just pedalled as hard as I could, any technique and Dylan’s advice of ‘shrug those shoulders, tuck that head’ probably going out the window (ok, definitely going out of the window…I’ve seen some photos!) as I gave everything I had to get to the line. There’s a really sweet video on Twitter of my mum cheering me home down the finishing shoot, so I wish I could say I heard that, but really, it was all a blur until I finished and heard the commentator announce that I’d taken out the title for the second year! As the last rider to start, the lack of suspense in comparison to last year was certainly a treat, as I didn’t have to wait to find out if I’d be beaten or not and could instead celebrate with my incredible team.

Image: Con Chronis

I also learnt so much in both the crit and road race, and despite the latter in particular not going as I’d hoped it would, finishing seventh, in hindsight I was still proud of how I raced. Plus, as Dylan told me, I could be proud of myself for coming into that race in my best possible form. And my mum reminded me that defending a national time trial title was very special too! I’d write about those two races here too, but I think I’m going to make the Pinnacle Performance website crash if I make this blog any longer. I’m definitely looking forward to trying again in 2022 though. Thanks so much to everyone that made my awesome Nationals experience possible – all my training buddies, Chain Brain for the TT bike build, Ken at Adaptive Human Performance for the setup, Colin and Jesse for driving to Buninyong for me, my aunt and uncle for welcoming us into their Buninyong home for all the simulations and race week itself, my team Tibco Silicon Valley Bank, my club Brunswick CC, and most importantly, my two biggest supporters throughout a difficult 2020 – Dylan for being the best and kindest coach ever, and my mum for being her awesome self. Thanks everyone!!

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