Usually when I arrive in Europe at this time of year it can be cold, especially coming from hot and sunny South Africa. This year, winter seems to be hanging around a bit longer and it proved to be my biggest competition yesterday at the Trofeo Binda World Cup in Cittiglio, Italy.
The three days leading up to the race were beautiful: sunny, fresh, and mild. I was hoping the conditions would be similar on race day but the weather forecast was predicting a change for the worse. Sunday was going to be cold and wet and there was going to be no avoiding it. We all prepared ourselves mentally for the challenge of inclement conditions and prepared, I thought I was.
The race started off well. I was holding a perfect bunch position, near the front but not on it, safe and protected. It was raining but only lightly and I was feeling good. We hit the first climb of the day at about 48km into the race and my good feelings were justified as my legs effortlessly pulled me up the climb.
The action finally started near the top of another short, but very steep, climb when Shara Gillow (Greenedge) put in an attack. It was early in the race but I was perfectly positioned to go with her. I had a decision to make: jump or play it safe? Rather than playing it safe and waiting for the bigger names to make moves like I usually do, I decided it was time for me to go! I jumped on Shara’s wheel and we were off on the attack.
We were joined shorlty later by two other riders, a Futurescope rider and a rider from Dolman Boels, and we all cooperated and worked well together. I was happy with the move but I was aware there was no representation from Rabobank and Lululemon. I had it in my head that later in the race the bigger names would be coming across and our break could turn into the winning move. With that in mind, although I did my fair share of work pulling on the front, I made a conscious decision to do as little as possible to ensure I had matches to burn later on.
The break built a sizable gap and I was still feeling good, conserving where ever possible, but contributing to the work as well. As the race went on, however, my main adversary of the race began to rear its true colours. The rain started to get harder and harder, and with it my race. Pretty soon the rain penetrated all the layers of my clothing and I was soaked head to toe. “Warm thoughts! Warm thoughts!” I kept telling myself. I was doing everything I could to convince myself that I wasn’t cold, but it was a battle I was losing.
Unfortunately, the bunch caught our break just as we were about to hit the third last climb. I told myself, “be ready for the counter move,” and I was ready. Amanda Spratt (Greenedge) attacked over the top of the climb and again I jumped to follow. We were joined by Elisa Longo Borghini (Hitec), Alena Amialiusik (Be Pink) and a Lululemon rider and I knew this was the winning move.
By now, the relentless rain had turned the roads into rivers, and descending became rather scary. We started down a technical descent and Alena backed off a bit and I did too, equally sharing her fears. I figured as soon as we hit the bottom, it wouldn’t be a problem to close the small gap to Amanda and Elisa. I was wrong!
As we hit the bottom of the climb, Alena and the Lululemon rider cooperated for a few minutes but then they sat up. Suddenly, I was left to chase all by myself but, with a small Rabobank-led group closely behind us, I thought why should I be the one to close the gap when there are teams with numbers to chase? What were the chances Rabobank, or more specifically Marianne Vos, would let this break of Amanda and Elisa get away? I backed off.
In most situations, as history has proved, the chances of Vos letting the break go would be zero. Yesterday, however, for the first time I can remember, Marianne Vos did not manage to cross over to the break. Believe me she tried. On the second last climb she drove the pace over the top of the climb in classic Vos style. I also wasn’t ready to give up and I jumped again, keeping her tempo.
Vos and I managed to build a gap but our efforts were shut down by Lululemon. After that point everything became a blur! The cold had completely penetrated to my core and I was struggling to think, never mind focus or even speak. My body went into survival mode and I could feel it shutting down. I don’t remember much detail from the last 25km; I just remember thinking “I must finish, keep going, keep going!”
When we took the final corner to the finish line, with about 500m to go, I just didn’t have the compos mentis to fight for a good position anymore. I couldn’t jump this time. I took the final corner too far back and I paid the price. I finished 22nd, bitterly cold and disappointed!
As I crossed the line, I could barely control my bike any longer. I was shivering uncontrollably. I could hardly speak. It was like I was only half conscious. The conditions were so brutal only Marijn and I finished the race, the rest of my Lotto Belisol team were forced to stop racing because of the cold.
I made it back to the team car and I was never so happy to the rest of my teammates. I was shaking so uncontrollably they helped me change into warm, dry clothing. Carlee and Michal then wrapped me in a warm blanket and finally I started to come back. I don’t think I would have made to the line without the encouragement from Marijn, who had awesome race and finished 14th. The kindness of my teammates really stood out.
In cycling and in life, I have learned that for success you have to control the controllables. When you are prepared to handle the controllables you can cope better with the uncontrollables, like bad, bad, bad weather conditions. I had great physical form and tactical execution during the race but not having a proper waterproof kit cost me big time. In bad weather, clothing is make or break and that’s a controllable I’ll never fail at controlling again.
Congratulations to the podium finishers: Elisa Longo Borghini 1st, Emma Johansson 2nd and Ellen van Dijk 3rd!