Main Divide Road Race, New Zealand 2006

Yesterday was the 'Main Divide' road race, 113km from Darfield to Arthur's Pass in the Southern Alps. The weather had made a considerable turn for the worse at the end of last week, with strong, bitterly cold Southerly winds bringing rain and penetratingly cold temperatures (for a NZ summer anyway). The forecast wasn't looking promising for the race, and indeed, getting up in the dark yesterday morning, it was very chilly with heavy showers. But we drove out to Darfield regardless, I figured we'd at least see what it was doing out there. And it wasn't too bad - 10 degrees and the sky seemed to be trying to clear, so I signed on. There were about 30 starters in the 'A' grade field, so a compact bunch as we set out for the 30km of flat, straight roads before the climbing started. I mostly just tried to hide in the bunch, but with the strong crosswinds and several attacks it was very hard at times. The commisaire threatened a few times to stop the race if we didn't keep left, but when struggling to get shelter that wasn't easy. Having ridden the course on Tuesday was definitely a help, as when the climb of Porter's Pass started, I knew how long it was and so did my usual trick of ignoring everyone else and just settling into my own pace. A fair size group disappeared up the road, then gradually split into two. I was a bit worried about being left behind, but about halfway up I caught the second group, then to my surprise went straight through them and towards the front group. I ran out of climb before I could get very close though. On the descent two dropped riders from ahead, myself and another guy who had made a good sprint over the top from behind got together to start to chase. But I couldn't hold the wheels! Which leads me to some conjecture on my bike which I'll come back to in a moment. Anyway, I was left between the three chasers and the second group, so took a chance to eat and drink before latching on the back of the group as they came past. Shirley was out on the course as feeder, and I had told her she would need to walk a ways up the hill otherwise I'd be going too fast to take a bottle from her. But having never done the job before, she wasn't aware of just how fast we'd be going, and I could only sling my empty at her and shout for her to try again further down the road, as we went past at over 50km/h.... After a bit of sorting out and dropping of weaker riders, we ended up with a nice little group of six of us, and settled down to it. The course was very fast in places, with some long downhill stretches and the wind behind us at times. A few times I was unable to go through because I just didn't have the gearing to pedal! Despite taking on plenty of fluids, I was starting to cramp towards the end, probably not helped by the temperatures - although the sun came out latterly and it got up to 18 degrees, it was as low as 6 over the first pass. So when it came to the final steep 4km up to the finish, I had nothing left, and so rode in alone, just behind my group. But I'm glad I did the race, great to actually race a point to point event, and a very good training session - 175bpm average heartrate for 3:10, and a 35km/h average speed for a windy day with 1700m of climbing and only 950m of descending. I'll see where I actually finished when the results go up on the web.

So, about the bike. In using the Bike Friday for touring and training, I have not noticed any difference from riding a big wheeled bike. In fact, for touring I think it has definite benefits. However, I haven't raced it much. In the US I did one criterium on it, but that was against a 3rd category field, so not a true test. I have used it successfully racing HPV events on the track in Florida, and in HPV drag races in Europe. In Japan I won (with a new course record) a decent length (~20mins) hillclimb. So far so good. However, when I raced it here last week, in a flat 45km road race with the A grade, I really struggled, and eventually got dropped at half distance. The last time I got dropped in a race was three years ago in Belgium, so it was a bit of a shock. I put it down to not having the training in my legs for that sort of effort. But I am inclined to reconsider that opinion following my observations at Arthur's Pass yesterday. Despite the weight penalty of the bike (mine was bought for touring/ training, not racing, so weight wasn't a priority - Bike Friday do make lighter models), I was climbing very strongly, showing that I have the form and the power. But then on the fast flat/pedally downhill sections I was really struggling to hold the wheels, despite being in the slipstream, and in fact got dropped whilst applying full power to the pedals and not being undergeared at that point. So it would seem that the bike offers some substantial drop in efficiency at high speed; my suggestions for this are a combination of increased rolling resistance (although rr only increases linearly with speed, if the coefficient is a bit higher in the first place, then the difference in wattage will be more significant at higher speeds), and a major ramp up in aerodynamic drag of the small wheels, given that they have to spin that much faster than a 700C wheel (especially comparing the drag to a low spoke count deep section aero 700C wheel). But then, having observed the problem and suggested the reasons, my second observation from the race was that on the really steep downhill sections, when I was fully tucked, I was rolling away from some of the others. In fact I achieved a new maximum speed for the bike, hitting 98km/h (steady as a rock at that speed, hands resting very lightly on the centre of the handlebar); I've never managed to get it over 90km/h before. My explanation for this conumdrum is that my downhill tuck is very good - I always won the freewheeling downhill race when at university, and not that many other racers make such an effort to assume an aerodynamic position.

Still, it is frustrating that the little Bike Friday doesn't quite live up to it's claim of: 'Rides as good as you best bike.' Or maybe it does, but unfortunately doesn't race as well as your best bike..... One of these days I'll get around to putting some SRM power cranks on one, and getting some empirical data to compare to a road bike and actually find out.