The road is empty. Silent. Maybe the scratching of a solitary broom, sweeping the first corner. Cutting the still air. The clatter of a metal barrier being moved. Riders huddle on the start line. More grating, discordant scratching from the broom’s bristles. The tick of hubs rolling to the line. The sound of porta-loo doors swinging shut and thudding dully. The road emptying. Cleared. Final preparations. Everything settles. Crowds gathered hesitantly at the barriers crack the stillness.
Nationals is known for its searing temperatures, but there’s hardly a hint of that yet. It’s 8am and you shiver on the start line as a hundred riders gather around you. Pushing forwards. You nudge your wheel further between the two people in front. I remember one year seeing the rider in front of me shaking with nerves on the start line. Commentators speak words that aren’t heard. You strip your long sleeve, reaching across people to hand it to someone over the fence. Your last contact with the outside world. Everything narrows. The world is within the barriers.
The national anthem vibrates on the icy tension. You stare at the channel of empty road ahead, sweeping up to the left where it disappears around the corner and heads up the climb. An empty stage, waiting for you. The Red Coat soldiers prepare their guns. The traditional gunshot will begin the race. You stare at the ground in front of you, concentrating. It’s a bike race – anything could happen. Months of meticulous preparation is about to go into the hands of fate. Darkness. A split second. It begins.
THE FIRST CORNER
A hundred cleats snap-in. The whir ramps up. Race vehicles speed away. There are often crashes here, in the first few kilometres, around this left-hander and up the climb. It’s easy to get tangled up, and in the past, pre-race favourites have been. If you crash, you could be chasing all day, ending your race before it’s even started.
You reach the place which, in later laps, will host the chaos of the feed zone. You barely notice it now, staying alert to the wheel in front of you. Trying to hold position. People are crossing over, getting out of the saddle, accelerating and slowing down. People touch wheels, brake sharply. The bunch is a complete jumble of riders of a vast range of experience levels.
It’s a different field than normal races. People are unrecognisable in their team kits for the new year. There are NRS riders, there are pros, there are first-year U23s who’ve just moved up. There are a lot of people you don’t know or see very often, who are just peaking for Nationals. Everyone is hard to recognise. You ride in a sea of unknowns, unsure what the person in front of you will do. It can be a stressful wait for the later laps, when the bunch has whittled down and strung out, and it’s finally down to what you can make your legs do.
Another left turn. It flattens out for a moment, but you’re still only halfway up the hill. A smaller road. It’s nice to have a gravel edge instead of the heavy-duty plastic barriers that separated the race from the highway in the first section. Looking forwards for where you might go, how you might get out if someone in front of you lets the wheel go, or if an attack shoots up the other side of the road. There are no KOM points this time up the climb, and the pace is still tolerable. It’ll really get hard around lap three or four.
The crowd builds as you reach the steep section. It leans in from the sides of the road, one swelling mass furiously rattling cowbells. Yelling. It feels like you’re part of a stampede, charging up the hill. Violently tipping your bike side to side as you jam power through the pedals. Rising, buzzing energy. Electrifying noise. Crowds like this don’t exist very often in domestic races – for a lot of the riders, this is the most hair-raising experience of the year. Adding to it is the fact they’re racing the pros they see on TV. You look sideways and see Team BikeExchange riders next to you. Later in the race, you might make a split with a few of them and the whole thing seems surreal. Like you’re floating. All the pain of preparing for this race seems worth it.
Quiet. It’s peaceful over here, no matter how much you might be suffering. You’re right over the back of the course, away from the crowds and people. The only reminder that all that exists is the helicopter chopping above you, sweeping sideways, drifting closer and further away. A moment to collect yourself. The feeling of being alone, breathing as the pace settles. Trying to stay forward as the bunch swamps around you on the wider road.
It doesn’t descend straight away. The gradient is slightly in the negative, but you’re still pedalling. In future laps, these are the roads you can find yourself scrambling on. Trying to make it to a group that just stretched away on the climb.
Then you reach the descent into Federation University. The bunch is transformed into human bullets. Tucked on top tubes, elbows and knees squeezed in, heads low, trying to reduce surface area. You drag race people down to the turn. In the middle of a whir of wind and hubs ticking. Controlled wobbles as you hit bumps and imperfections in the road. 80 kilometres per hour. Watching the people around you out the corners of your eyes. If you get into the punchy climbs, turns and speed bumps of the university near the front, you’ll save energy.
THE FINISH STRAIGHT
A number eight. Buzzing orange on the finish gantry next to the timer. You glance up at it. One down. Only eight more times. When you fly past those barriers on the finish straight, you feel like you’re going really fast. Everyone’s watching you, cheering. It gives you energy, stops you feeling pain.
Makes your heart beat faster, knowing you’re about to turn back onto the climb and everything’s about to go nuts again. Riding a tide which pushes you forwards. Last chance to move up before the hill. Desperation. The race is building. Taking shape. The chaos, the pain, the noise is about to ramp up. You know you have the legs, but it’s a bike race – anything could happen. Lap two. Darkness. A split second. It begins.