Handicap Racing – A Tale of Love and Hate

Following the 3 Day tour I had decided to pick some more races to focus on, with the aim of keeping up the motivation throughout the rest of winter, while also putting more focus on my training (rather than just riding to chalk up the kilometres).

The next race on the Northern Combine fixture was the Jim Fawcett and Mario Giramondo Memorial Handicap. Handicaps are common place in Australian road racing, and they guarantee a solid days effort no matter the group (handicap) that you start in. The aim of the race is of course to win, but to do so you have to catch the groups in front of you, while staying away from those behind you. Consistent rolling turns are the name of the game, controlling the pace on the climbs to keep your bunch together, and making sure everyone is equally sharing the pace- with as little freeloading as possible.

I have a love-hate relationship with these style of races. I’ve entered a couple and had wildly mixed results. My previous handicap with Northern Combine saw me dropped from my group, and absolutely destroyed after less than half race distance. Conversely, I have also raced a handicap with the Albury Wodonga Cycling Club called the Dirtberg – a short (35km) event with the final 8km being uphill, and on a gravel road… where I finished second! Only being caught (and passed) within 350m of the line.

The challenge comes when you are unlucky enough to be poorly handicapped (in a group that is too hard). You’re already doomed – destined to be chewing your stem and teetering on your lactate threshold for as long as you can. On the other hand, if you end up in a manageable (or easy – known as sandbagging!) bunch relative to your fitness, you’ve got your best chance at surviving.

The race distance was to be 4 laps in freezing conditions of the Kyneton Pastoria course (the same course as Stage 3 of the 3 Day Tour) with the finish line at the top of the climb of bald hill, rather than 2km following the summit.

 

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Frozen Puddles? Primo winter road racing weather!

I had been given a start in the 12 minute group, 2 groups ahead of scratch (the A Graders!) – a reasonably good handicap, and I was amongst familiar faces from previous races. With a bunch of 10 riders, we had a reasonable shot at making it somewhere near the finish. I set my own goal for the race, to roll turns as long as possible for a good solid workout, and then to try and survive with the scratch guys should (when!) they catch us.

The bunch got rolling along really well quite quickly with no one skipping turns, and after nearly 3 of the 4 laps I found myself daring to dream that this may be the winning group. But of course that little fantasy soon came crashing down. As you round the tight left hander at the start of the lap, you can sneak a glance across the paddocks to your left and see where you’ve just come from and what is chasing you, and alas! I glimpsed the scratchies. In an instant the cooperation disappeared from our group as we all knew from then on (since we were undoubtedly to be caught) that conservation was the key. Let’s be fresh so we can jump on! I quickly sank a Gel, guzzled some fluids, and sprayed out the rest of my bottle to “lighten the load”. Yep here they come – it’s go time!

During a handicap race should your bunch roll well enough catch a group in front the idea is to absolutely smash past – this is to ensure you don’t pull along any deadwood that will disrupt the classy turns your bunch has been riding.

With this in mind, I wanted to be ready when the inevitable happened, not to be dead wood, but to see just how hard they were ripping turns and to see if i could join in. I wanted an answer to the question “just how far off am I really?”

As the group neared the end of the gravel section of the race, with little more 8km to go, it happened. Boom! A shower of road base and a rooster tail of gravel shot straight passed me and the scratch group attacked over us. I responded, this was it, the first part of the answer… I had to get on. I hammered down on my cranks, watching the gap stabilise then slowly start to shrink. I was hurting, but mentally I was lifting. As I made the junction with scratch group there was no time to take stock of the situation, the only answer was to follow everything.

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Made the split with the “scratchies”

As the kilometres ticked down, I managed to respond to every attack that was thrown down. The race was on. As one attack was brought back, another was launched. With less than 4km to go I was relishing the intensity. This is what I came here for! Then in a flash of hope, misguided ambition, or absolute stupidity, I launched an attack, my wattage bazooka locked firmly on to the thoughts of the finish line and glory. My mind clung to the hope that the rest of the bunch would give me some rope. After all who is that guy with the white Velotoze?

After what I picture (or at least hope) was a frantic chase by the group, I was reeled back in. And there I was, stuck, on the front with 2km to go… uh oh.

As we approached the final climb the hitters unleashed their own wattage bazookas (apparently I had nothing but a withering bb gun in comparative terms). I chased as hard as I could, but I knew I was well out of my depth. I planted my sit bones into my saddle and pushed out every last watt I had left, crossing the line at the top of the climb 7th overall! Satisfied; stoked even!

I entered the race with the goal of getting some intensity, some race fitness. I hadn’t even considered the prospect of doing well! As I said earlier, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with handicaps. However following this one, I’m definitely sitting in the love zone. Racing at the front with the big hitters in the closing stages of the race was an absolute blast. While it showed me just how good they are, it also helped give me some belief that I could get to their level.

Thanks to Northern Combine Cycling and Coburg Cycling Club for putting on another great 1 day event, it was cold, it was fast and it was bloody good fun. The love-hate relationship with handicaps will no doubt continue!

The strava link can be found here:

https://www.strava.com/activities/619834987/overview

Robbie’s Race Ratings

Conditions: 4/5

It’s winter road racing. It’s going to be cold, so you can dress for that. Overnight rain left the Strade Nero section of the course a bit soft, subsequently covering everything (bikes and kit!) in road base.

Performance: 4.5/5

Different style of racing, left it all on the road. Ambition got the better of me too close to the finish.

Event Organisation: 5/5

Northern Combine Cycling and Coburg Cycling club did a great job pre event. Entry procedure was seamless. I felt my handicap was spot on. Post-race presentation in a pub with a raging fire. What more could you ask for?

 Overall Satisfaction: 5/5

I left the event absolutely pumped with how I rode and how my fitness is progressing; and, importantly, motivated to keep it going through the rest of winter.

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