It’s taken me a while to get over my experience at the Tour Doon Hame and try and condense it all into a blog post. The saddle sores have (just about) faded away, but my memories of the race (mostly the incessant beeping of car horns) are still as clear as ever.
For those unfamiliar with the race, the Tour Doon Hame is the UK’s second biggest stage race after the Tour of Britain, with a list of previous winners featuring the cream of the crop of british riders. Its position as part of the year long Premier Calendar series guarantees the attendance of the top domestic riders so the level is about as high as you can get in this country. This year’s edition ran over 2 days and 3 stages for a total of 205 miles.
For most (non-pros), the race starts before the first stage even begins. With 4 different stage starts and finishes dotted around south-west Scotland, in addition to the race HQ location, perhaps the toughest aspect of this race is the logistics involved. Luckily, I managed to snag a spot guesting on the Wheelbase/MGD team, who brought along a team van and a superb Audi S4 team car. If it weren’t for them, I’d probably still be stuck in the middle of nowhere trying to hitch a lift back to the Stage 1 start...
After a brief meeting with the team management to hand over my race license and figure out how I was going to get back to my car the following day, it was back to my little unfurnished, unheated cottage A.K.A. the freezer box. Only a combination of sleeping bag, duvet and tights prevented full on hypothermia from setting in, but it was free so I can’t complain.
Home for the weekend
The anticipation was tangible in the school car park that served as the Stage 1 grounding zone. Various folks with cameras and microphones floated around chatting to all the big names whilst the rest of us made last minute preparations. The PRO moment of the day came when I was asked by a small girl for my autograph! That got me into the swing of things and with my ego sufficiently boosted, it was time for the roll out.
Speaking of the roll out, it made a nice change having a race start in a town with actual people about (fancy that)! Usually, riders are shepherded off to the back of beyond to prevent, god forbid, any traffic disruption.
The first stages of a road race are nervous at the best of times, but with everyone looking to show themselves on the big stage, these first few miles were especially hectic as the attacks flew. This being my first race at this level, I was content with sitting back in the bunch so my only indication that a break had gone was when the pace suddenly dropped - time to sit in and conserve energy for when things hotted up later.
And hot up they did. As the bunch hit the Category 2 climb up to Tairlaw Summit, the race blew apart under the impetus of Rapha Condor Sharp who were keen to bring the break back. The steep grades and atrocious weather (oh, yeah, I forgot to mention it was raining pretty much the whole time - thanks Scotland) causing all sorts of gaps to be opened up. Hopping from shattered group to shattered group, I managed to get over the top in the second group before hitting the descent full bore.
The descent...barely a car’s width wide and completely and utterly soaked by this point, it snaked its way down the hillside with the odd patch of gravel waiting to catch out unsuspecting riders. Any other time, you would’ve been gingerly tiptoeing down, but this was racing, so you had to put your brain in a box and just go for it. I can honestly say that this is the most scared I’ve been in my life.
The bitter irony is that when we finally bridged up to the first group, the pace slackened off allowing dozens of riders dropped on the climb to rejoin. That’s racing I guess!
The last few miles were spent mopping up the remains of the break until only 3 riders remained as we zig-zagged through Girvan for the finish. Satisfied with making the front group, I sat back and stayed well out of the sprint chaos. Job done for the time being.
Once safely within the warmish surroundings of a school gym, riders recounted their woes from the morning – tales of punctures at crucial moments and of epic crashes on the descent. As is the case with bike riders, everyone had an excuse.
Some clever soul had thought to bring along a laptop, and with a dodgy internet connection duly set up, we even managed to catch the tail end of Paris-Roubaix. No sound mind you - commentary was provided by Dean Downing getting some practise in for when he has to sound clever on tv. It must’ve been a strange sight, seeing a motley crew of racers all crowding round a silent laptop on the cold gym floor.
Eventually, it was time to get back into the morning's wet kit and start preparing for the 2nd stage. Naturally, it was still raining. Nobody seemed particularly enthused about the upcoming stage except perhaps Team UK Youth who were all vigorously warming up on the turbo. The mechanics had done a great job and tidied up all our bikes so all we had to do was hop on a do a couple of laps of the course. I shudder at the thought of what the race would’ve been like without their support.
There isn’t much to say about the crit itself.
With 6 corners per lap and 15 laps on the cards, it was essentially a sprint workout with 90 reps. Moving up was nigh on impossible save for a couple of dives up the inside or the odd cruise around the outside. Apart from that it was just a case of holding on to the wheel in front for dear life. 40 minutes later, the finish came and I'd not crashed or lost more than a handful of seconds. That counts as a success in my book.
Next item on the agenda: get back to my car. Despite having a rather nice Audi S4 team car to blast around the Scottish countryside in, it still took nearly 2 hours to get back to my (considerably slower and crappier) car. From there it was another hour back to my freezer box for the night. Optimal recovery it was not, but I don’t think I’ve ever slept better.
Do I look cold?
The 107 miles between Moffat and Annan were always going to be tough, but the forecast for heavy rain all day had me seriously questioning whether I’d be able to finish at all.
I could find motivation from one thing though. With 2 consistently mediocre stage placings the previous day, I was somehow the 2nd 2nd Cat rider (try saying that quickly) on GC. I reckoned that by just hanging onto the lead group, I could be in for a bit of prize money all things going well.
With a couple of category 2 climbs on tap for the initial few miles around Moffat, no team was prepared to let any group go and the pace was fast except when it was faster. With those difficulties out of the way, a break duly formed and the pace in the bunch slackened off.
Having smugly listened to all the tales of punctures the previous day, it was now my turn to get on the wrong side of lady luck. Just as we turned onto the narrow singletrack lane leading up to the 20% Talla Linns, I smashed my front wheel into a pothole causing my handlebars to rotate forwards.
Quick, raise your hand, get over the side of the road without taking anyone else out, and pray that the team car arrives quickly.
To my surprise (and gratitude), my teammate Stuart Reid was only a few metres behind me, and quickly offered up his front wheel as well as a good push. This meant that I rejoined about halfway down the race caravan instead of right at the back.
My recall of the following few miles is patchy at best, probably my brain’s way of protecting me from the painful memories. The headwind seemed to pick up a couple of knots, the road surface felt like I was riding through treacle; Mother Nature itself seemed to be conspiring to prevent me from rejoining the group. Up ahead I could see the bunch splitting so I knew that the hammer was down and that it would be a big ask to make it back. Forward progress was frustratingly slow and I longed to hit the climb and its 20% grades as I knew that I’d at least be able to make up some time there.
The climb was everything they had said it was and more – I was grovelling like I had never grovelled before. The challenge now became dodging those riders who were dropped and were now drunkenly swerving across the road. Following the summit, I was still a long way back and had to let it all out on another risky descent. It was another case of leaving any common sense, or thoughts of personal safety, behind and just focusing on picking the right line. Even a Vanilla Bikes rider clipping a bridge and cart wheeling off into a field couldn’t break my focus. At the bottom of the descent, I still hadn’t made it back on and had to dig even deeper to close those last few hundred meters on the flat.
At last I’ve made it back. Time for some serious wheel sucking. What’s this?
Turns out I’d caught up just as the bunch went through the day’s feed zone, coming to a near stop in the process. Hindsight is an exact science and all that, and I could’ve saved a lot of energy in my chase, but at the time, you’ve got to make the effort as you never know what could happen.
With everyone back together (save the break) and nicely fed and watered, there was just the matter of 60 miles to go into a block headwind. I can’t have been alone in counting down those miles one by one as I gradually lost feeling in more and more body parts. Conditions were truly miserable and I think everyone was pretty much done with getting a combination of water and road grime sprayed into their faces.
It all came to an end rather anticlimactically. No one was particularly keen to hang about at the finish line, preferring to dive into the showers and get the hell out of there. The break stayed away once more, whilst I managed to notch up another mediocre placing (49, 53 and 36 for the race). This did put me 38th overall which I was pretty pleased about, and I ended up being the best 2nd Cat rider too. Not bad for my first race at this level.
Thanks once again to Wheelbase/MGD for letting my guest on the team, and for providing such great support throughout the race. Also, thanks to all my sponsors – Kinesis, Morvelo, Reynolds, TRP, BBB, Microshift, Clifbar – for providing me with gear that stands up to the abuse dished out by a stage race.