October 10/07 10:20 am - Chris Atkins Reports from Final 3 Stages of the Tobago International Cycling Classic
Posted by Editoress on 10/10/07
Chris Atkins (Benchmarkgrp/Mazurcoach) reports from the final 3 stages of the Tobago International Cycling Classic
Stage 3 - The first day of climbing
I apologize for not getting timely reports out for the last few stages. The island has limited connectivity with the internet, and when it is working at capacity the line is only 56K and cuts in and out during usage.
The last few stages contained all the climbing that we would do during the race. As the race went on, it seemed the pace and intensity steadily grew.
This stage was 5 laps on a course that had slow and steady rolling hills that put some sting into your legs before the 2km main climb. The climb itself was a steady grade that lead up to a rattlesnake-esque (an analogy for all you Ontario guys) steep switchback that weeded out the field. The first lap was paced hard up the climb. At 200lb, I'm basically an anvil on the bike as soon as it gets vertical, so I quickly found myself off the main field with 10 other guys on the first ascent.
The following descent was twisty and slightly technical, and complicated further by the fact that on coming traffic would quickly 'relegate' any riders violating the non-existent yellow line rule. On the descents and blind corners you really have to watch your line and keep on the left side of the road (in Tobago they drive opposite to the North American convention).
Kevin fought his way to the main break, but after a flat and a subsequent botched wheel change from our service (or lack thereof at the time) he lost time from the group. Alex was feeling the effects of the heat on the day and could not get on top of his legs. Both would join our groupetto and pace simply to finish and get a ticket for entry into the next stage.
Brandon and Darko were in a group just off of the main break. Darko commented that Brandon was riding like a champ up the climb and mentioned how impressed he was after the race. As a lightweight, Brandon definitely found his own on the island with the long steady climbs.
Brandon and Darko finished together a few minutes off of the lead at 19th and 21st spot respectively.
The next day's stage was an advertised flat stage in the main city of Scarborough.
Stage 4 - Walking through 'minefields'
This stage was close to downtown Scarborough, and had portions of a similar circuit that I raced back in 2003. Interesting enough, these same roads would prove too hazardous that year due to traffic, pedestrians, chickens (serious...one got hit), and it was actually the midweek team that organized a protest with the other teams to stop the stage. This revised course turned off before heading into the main city area and would prove to be reasonably safe.
The course profile was described as 'flat and fast', but we quickly found that there were several rolling ascents on the backside of the course. The profile would be similar to the main drag up to the line at Mosport (another analogy for Ontario racers). I definitely would not classify this course as 'flat'. In Tobago you are either riding up a major climb or riding down, so this is all relative.
The course was literally spread with potholes ranging from a few inches to a few feet wide, that took about 5 laps to successfully learn where each major one was. Despite knowing where the majority of potholes were, I managed to find myself rolling hard over 5-6 major holes. I managed to avoid any flats, but the course was similar to a minefield as guys were pulling off left and right for mechanicals due to flats, broken spokes, bent rims, and even cassettes, hubs, and bottom brackets that rattled loose! Racing was very uncomfortable, because there was always the constant worry that you would be next.
The winds in Tobago always hit hard from the South-East for our trip. Seeing that the roads on this course ran mainly in the East and West direction it was yet another day of death line gutter racing. Visibility for potholes and other hazards ( i.e. the narrowing of several single lane bridge crossings) were reduced even more.
Darko was the first in our team to get a puncture about half way into the 17 laps. Ideally it would have been best to give a wheel to him from one of the guys lower in GC. However, only Brandon saw him pull off and he quickly handed off his wheel. Darko would chase hard for 2-3 laps on his own. At the same time it was the team Atlas-Romers guys who were driving the pace trying to catch a main break of 7 riders. When Darko got back on he could only hold on for a short while before the pace quickened and he cramped up. The main break was eventually caught except for a lone rider from Team Angostura (Garrett Peltonen).
Kevin found himself with yet another flat and was not able to catch back onto the group. This stage alone would claim many riders and there were more than a few DNF's at the end of the day.
Alex was riding like he was possessed, and attacked hard with 3 laps to go. He held a gap of 10-20s for 1 lap but was pulled back. As soon as he was pulled back, he COUNTERED HIS OWN ATTACK! I was definitely smiling and shaking my head when I saw that. He was pulled back again with 1 lap to go and he positioned himself in line preparing for the sprint. In the sprint for 2nd the speed was quickly rolled up through the last few corners. There was some chaos on the inside of the last corner at a pot hole section that caused me to hesitate. I was gapped a few places and rolled back up to manage 11th with Alex close behind in 13th.
Most racers then had to ride ~15km back from Scarborough to Crown Point after the race was over. All of our riders hitched rides on the back of two flat bed trucks to save our legs for what would be the ultimate epic stage 5 the next morning.
Stage 5 - The day I spent in 39x27
We were told at the beginning of the stage that there were 5 climbs on the day. Traditionally, all the hype about this stage is directed towards Palatuvier. This climb alone can crush guys and determine final GC. What we would quickly find is that Palatuvier was not the toughest climb of the day, by far.
The last time I did this stage I had a 39x25 on Palatuvier and I remember seeing 7kph on the computer for close to an hour. I was prepared this time, I brought the 27 and I left the computer at home so I couldn't see how stupidly slow I would be going.
Right off the line, riders were attacking left and right to form a solid group before the first climb. Bruno Langlois from team Angostura made the first attack only meters from the start, and would successfully form a lead group about 30s up the road. Our riders stayed conservative, mainly on the fact that I thoroughly described the profile of Palatuvier and there was some hesitation to enter the climb partially cracked.
Staying true to the fact that I'm an anvil on the climbs, I was gapped about 1 min on the first climb and joined two other St. Lucia guys for the descent. The road down was fast and technical (typical of descents in Tobago) and I was hitting the corners hard to make up some time. One turn came up way too quickly for me and I dug hard to complete the arc before running out of road. My rear tire hit some gravel on the side and I found myself going side ways before recovering and then moving forward into rough grass. I rolled on the grass for a few meters before my front wheel hit a low patch and I was ejected from the bicycle over the bars. I landed literally 2ft away from the edge of the roadway and a subsequent wall that was only 1ft high. That distance and that small wall were my only buffers from falling a few hundred feet off of the side of the climb. The St. Lucia team car came to pick up my bike and help me off the road. The support guy said, 'I'll take yah bike, yah can ride in dee back of dee cah'. I looked at myself and I felt alright except for a few minor scrapes, so I said, 'I came all the way from Canada to ride this stage alone, and there's NO WAY I'm going to quit like that'. We can't let these island guys think Canadians are wimps! ;)
I took all the remaining corners a little bit easier, and to my surprise I would catch Darko at the bottom of the first decent (considering the time I was off the main bunch, combined with my time on the ground - Darko was taking these corners REALLY conservatively). I rode most of the day with Darko as he gained minutes on me with the climbs and I gained all the time back on the descents. Going through the first two climbs Darko kept on saying 'was that Palatuvier?'. It was really quite incredible climbing all these roads with our comparitive knowledge of what is 'hard' in Ontario. The climbs that were classed as 'easy' in Tobago leading up to the major climbs were absolutely brutal themselves.
Palatuvier came up and literally started as 500m of such an extreme grade that not even the strongest guys could turn over a 39x23. I had on my 39x27 and was standing up to just focus on turning over every single pedal stroke. After this initial steep pitch, the climb continues for several kilometres on a shallower grade that can be comfortably spun. Once Palatuvier was completed I told Darko that it was basically over, except for one other climb that the organizer mentioned was difficult around Speyside. Along the way, what we found was just endless roads of up and down that seemed to go on for ever. This is where you start to lose your mind if you're hurting. There is no indication of where you are, and how far you have to go before these climbs are over. We were 2 hours into the stage and not even half-way through the 120km. With all the literal crawling during climbing, our average speed was well below 30kph. I was literally climbing at below 10kph for most of the time, and the descents are so fast that most of the time is spend in the small ring.
We then happened upon an absolute beast of a climb in Charlotteville. Ask anyone on this trip to describe this climb and it is absolutely beyond words. This one broke me down when I climbed it. My whole body was in such a sweat that I was putting a large portion of my energy even into my grip at my fingertips to ensure my hands could hold the slippery bars. Brandon was with the main group at this point and was pushing to his absolute limit. He reached a point where he could not turn over his legs and he simply toppled over onto the side of the road mid-climb. Our support attended to him, and he was described as blacking out and not knowing where he was at the time. I was with Darko while climbing this beast and he described it as 'simply ridiculous'. Of anyone he would have the most experience racing - by far. He would later describe this as not even a 'normal' course but a 'freak-show' display of ridiculously hard climbs. With every agonizingly slow pedal stoke my front wheel would pop up while sitting, and my bike would barely sway side to side while standing. I was going well below my previous slow record of 7kph on palatuvier, this had to be a slow walking pace around 3-4kph. Darko had to WALK up the climb, that should say enough to anyone curious about the intensity of it.
The final climb was Speyside, and after descending Charlotteville and realizing we were probably hours off of the lead I literally stopped in a drink hut for some water (our support was with the leaders and long gone up the road). After talking with the locals about the terrain and the climb we just did, they said that Speyside was even worse than the Charlotteville. How could that even be possible?! After I told Darko about this he was in total denial and said they have to be wrong. Sure enough, SPEYSIDE WAS WORSE. I'm not even going to waste my time trying to describe this one - if you need a comparison try riding your bike up a steep roof that goes on for kilometres and lasts for 3/4 of an hour. Add onto this the stress of 35 deg temperatures and 45 deg humidex and you're almost there.
I would find out later at the hotel that most of our team had crashed during the race (everyone except Alex). The descents were more technical this year, and there were some hazzards on the road such as loose gravel, broken terrain, palm leaves, and dead pythons (serious). Unfortunately Darko crashed on the descent of Speyside and could not finish the race. He is currently recovering from his injuries and will be okay. Hometown favourite Emile Abraham even crashed on one descent, despite being described as knowing all of these roads like the back of his hand. Apparently his handlebars were subsequently broken by the fall and he could not use the drops afterward (only the bar tape held the bar together).
Alex continued his streak of riding like a beast and contended for the race win with all of the favourites. He rode through Emile and several German riders from team Atlas Romers and Gutersloh. He maintained his lead and charged hard into Crown Point to finish 9th, only seconds ahead of the following small pack of riders. Kevin also had a strong finish and described the course as the best race he had ridden - 'every turn was new, and the time flew by'.
In final GC, it was Alex, Kevin, and I finishing in 21st, 24th, and 25th. It was really all about survival through the stages, especially the final brutal climbs.
Just to add some information about the race. The organizer is always looking for new international teams. Free accommodation, a rental car, and even a food allowance are provided with the race. All that is needed for each rider is transportation (airfare) to the island. Tickets to Trinidad are typically less than $500, and the flight to Tobago is less than $60. If anyone is interested for next season, please keep this in mind and flag me down during the year and let me know.
If anyone (Ontario especially) complains about the climbs at Rattlesnake or Effingham, ask anyone on this trip for some clarity on what REAL climbs are!