Thursday, 2 April 2015

Filling in the blanks: November '14 to April '15

On more than one occasion I've promised to write an update and now it's finally here - I just hope it's not so long you fall asleep before the end. Thanks to each and everyone of you for continuing to follow this site even during my silent days. My silence is now broken ;)

I don't normally like to look back, looking forward is much more positive. Under the current circumstances however it is good for me to remember where I was 6 months ago. The decision to have invasive surgery to treat iliac endofibrosis wasn't really a 'decision' in the true sense of the word. I was trapped between a rock and a hard place; giving up cycling wasn't a realistic option, surgery was the only way forward. I was backed into a corner with no choice other than to have bovine patch angioplasty to repair my damaged artery. I've described the surgery earlier on this site so I'll skip that bit.

Scars by the Surgeon. Bikini by Maloja. 

Fast forward to Christmas Eve when I finally started real training again. What a great Christmas present: experiencing pain and suffering on the bike once again! After 13 weeks with no real training - I was restricted to walking with a maximum heart rate of 100bpm for the first 6 weeks and then gentle cycling with a maximum of 130bpm - I was really starting from the bottom, lower than I'd ever been before. I've trained with an SRM power meter for many years and seeing the data showed exactly where I was at. While training with power is a great tool, it was scary to see how much power I'd lost and where I had to get back to. At times I wondered whether I'd ever get back to the level I was pre-surgery. The first few weeks were really hard. I had to ride with 'blinkers' and ignore all of the (no disrespect intended) 'older-aged' and sometimes over-weight pleasure riders who passed me on their rusty commuter bikes complete with heavy bike chains, panniers and back packs carrying their pet dogs. I had a long way to go but on a positive note the improvements were much more obvious and rapid starting from the lowest level.

10 weeks post-op and finally allowed to climb albeit slowly. What a great day!

Although it was hard, physically and psychologically, now I know that it was actually very good for me. My body and mind had a complete rest for the first time in many years. I was able to strip everything back and start from the bottom, building up very slowly and more systematically than ever before.

I was a bit unlucky because I had some post-surgery complications: the incision in my groin damaged my femoral nerve causing me to lose all sensation in my thigh and a few days after surgery I developed a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in my calf. The DVT resolved pretty quickly with anticoagulants but the nerve damage remains and I still have no feeling in my thigh. I'm hopeful the nerve will recover given more time - doctors believe it could take a year or more. For the first few months the neuropathic pain associated with the nerve damage was very uncomfortable and I had problems sleeping but it is getting better all the time and I feel it less and less now. When I was back on the bike and able to ride with increasing intensity I did get internal discomfort from the incisions in my abdomen and groin and I frequently got swelling especially when I started to increase the power. Even as recently as a couple of weeks ago I had significant swelling in my groin after riding as an 'outcast' rider at the Cape Epic. This is one of the reasons I decided not to continue with the remaining 2 stages, but more on this later.

Positively I have had no vascular symptoms following surgery and after the hardest test at the Cape Epic I'm pleased to say that my new artery is great! Now I have two fully functioning legs (the nerve damage has no affect on my power) and that's pretty cool! I do sometimes get a tired left vastus medialis (inner thigh muscle) but I put that down to the fact that it is still significantly smaller than the right one. After a few years of limited blood flow to my left leg, the muscles started to deteriorate and my right leg compensated. Perhaps this also explains why I experienced right knee pain for a few years too - compensating for the left leg put more strain through the right one.

Working on the imbalance. Strengthening my weaker left leg. 

My rehabilitation was spent in Gran Canaria, a place I love to train in the winter because of the warm climate and perfect roads, there are some fun technical MTB trails too. We timed my surgery for the end of the 2014 race season. This gave me maximum recovery and rehab time ahead of the 2015 season. We set the Cape Epic as my first 'come-back' race - just a little over 5 months after surgery. When we discussed this with my surgeon we came away thinking we were perhaps being a bit too ambitious - it is one of the hardest 8 day MTB stages races in the world - but in my mind it was a good target. I wasn't planning on going there just to make up the numbers though. I had a great partner, MTB Cross Country ace Blaza Klemencic, and a supportive sponsor SELLARONDA HERO. The pressure was on but motivation was high!

Beautiful Gran Canaria. Therapy for body and mind.

My last training sessions before we left for South Africa were bang on target. I was back in shape - hooray!!! - but at the same time a little anxious about giving my new artery the hardest test to date. Arriving in South Africa we were greeted pretty much immediately with the sad news that my team mate, Blaza, would not be flying out to meet us. A knee injury left her with no choice other than to withdraw from the race, leaving me with very little time to find a replacement, but her health was foremost. We were soon hopeful that we'd found the perfect partner. After a few days however this also fell through because her trade team were unable to temporarily release her from her sponsor obligations. In simple terms, the Cape Epic rules stipulate that all teams must wear identical clothing. I've gone into more detail on my facebook page about this so I'll be brief here. Fortunately, my team Topeak Ergon permit me to wear non-trade team clothes for the duration of the Cape Epic. This opens up the possibility for me to race with women from other pro trade teams so long as they too are permitted to race for a different, neutral sponsor. In this case, I was lucky to find the support of SELLARONDA HERO to whom I am extremely grateful! We found ourselves back in a familiar and difficult situation: the perfect partner but no possibility of teaming up together under the current rules of the Cape Epic. With one week to go brave Christina Kollmann stepped forward and flew from snowy Austria to scorching South Africa three days before the start of the race. We were totally relaxed about our goals, her winter training had been good and she felt in good shape, she knew the demands of the race and we were ready to give it 100%.

The start of our Cape Epic journey

The Prologue saw us finish in 6th position, a little further back than we had hoped but we were looking forward to the longer stages to come. Frustratingly, 6th position meant that we had to start Stage 1 in Block B - some 200 people separating us from the leading 5 women's teams!!! Neither optimal nor fair. Before dawn we lined up at the very front of B block and set up our ergo trainers ready for our warmup - this fast thinking from our Team Manager meant that we could get as 'close' as possible to the leading women's teams but still not close enough! This is another Cape Epic rule that must be addressed in order to promote fair and equal racing for pro women. In 2016 we hope to see for the first time ever a separate start for the women. Fingers crossed!

Despite Christina suffering from stomach cramps and back pain during Stage 1 we managed to move up to 5th position in the GC so Stage 2 saw us start alongside the other leading women's teams. Oddly, because there was a women's hotspot on Stage 2 all of the top 10 women's teams were permitted to start in Block A - this clearly demonstrates an awareness of the fact that separating the women's teams between blocks creates an unfair advantage/disadvantage depending upon GC position, though it begs the question why starting position is deemed unimportant on stages when there is no women's hotspot!

Christina's back had become increasingly painful and she was unable to complete her warm up before Stage 2. She had treatment from our team physiotherapist minutes before leaving for the start line. We agreed that the objective of the day was to try to get through the first 20 minutes of the stage. We started slowly and gradually moved up to 2nd position after the first water point. Within the last few kilometres  we were caught and moved back to 3rd position. Drama unfolded at the finish line as we were informed that the leading team, RECM, had inadvertently taken a short-cut slicing 5kms off the stage. Under normal race rules this would have resulted in disqualification because the stage was not completed but it was a genuine mistake (they were well in the lead in the GC) and the team were given a 1 hour time penalty. This pushed us up to 2nd position on the stage and 3rd in the GC.

Stage 3 started well for us. We were able to start near the front line (providing a huge advantage relative to the teams starting further back) allowing us to keep out of trouble and ride with the faster men's teams. This highlights the importance of either allowing all of the women's teams to start together or, best case, to have a separate women's start. Up until the second water point we were racing in 2nd position but that's when things started to go very wrong. The temperature rapidly soared from 24 degrees celsius to a whopping 39 degrees. Christina started to slow and become incoherent. Every time she sat down I had to encourage her to continue; there was nothing I could do to help her out on the track, we had to make it to the next water point. With lots of coercion and some pushing we made it to the final water point where I stuffed her pockets with sugary sweets and bananas and filled her bottles with energy drinks. The medics gave her a quick check and we were on our way again. Slowly. Within 3kms it was clear we weren't going anywhere fast. Christina could not move any further. I tried to encourage her to carry on until we could find some shade from the sun but she was at her limit and she lay down in the middle of the dirt track in the blazing sun. I took off my jersey and used it to shelter her head from the sun. All teams carry a tracker with an emergency button. I pressed it and kept her talking and conscious while we waited. It took a long time but eventually a car came and took Christina to get medical attention. Reluctantly I continued alone.

Without our partners we continued as 'Outcast' riders 

The next two days saw me race as an 'outcast' rider starting 10 minutes behind the A and B block riders. This was unbelievably great fun! There were several other elite male riders who'd also lost their partners for a variety of reasons and I was able to 'race' with the fast boys :) Each day it didn't take long until we caught and started to pass B and then A block riders. On the first day we raced hard - well it was harder for me than the guys - between water points but stopping and spending time enjoying the services and great food at each one. It was interesting for me to compare my times with the leading women's teams. On the first day I was about 5 minutes slower than the winning duo, though I spent at least that amount of time having pee pee stops and munching on sweeties, bananas and peanut brittle at the aid stations while service guys cleaned my glasses and lubed my chain. On the second day I stopped for less time at the water points and finished more than 5 minutes faster than the winning women's team.

I had every intention of completing the next two stages and riding to the finish at Meerendal but inflammation in my groin and a sore achilles tendon meant a battle ensued between my 'think of the rest of the season' rationale and my passionate 'never-give up' attitude. Given that my race was already over when Christina was forced to retire and also bearing in mind that I had just been requested by the race office not to over-take the leading women's teams, we decided that finishing at the risk of further injury would have been foolhardy.

Dirt is highly nutritious. 

Any stage race but especially the Cape Epic is a huge journey and so much happens both good and bad throughout the 8 days. This blog has been a quick summary (haha, yes it might seem long but it could've been longer. Much longer) and doesn't really show the emotional roller coaster we all went on. The most emotive way to tell our story is through images and here are a great set taken of our whole team throughout the race - follow this link to a really cool site that tells our story.

Big thanks to SELLARONDA HERO for sponsoring our women's team - be sure to check out their race in the spectacular Dolomites on June 27th - this is the date and location of the UCI World Marathon Championships where amateur riders can test themselves against the best riders in the World while they compete for the coveted rainbow stripes.

As always a huge thanks to our amazing Topeak Ergon Racing Team and all of our sponsors. Congratulations to our men's duo of Alban Lakata and Kristina Hyneck on their Silver medal who were finely supported by our male support team comprising of Robert Mennen and Jeremiah Bishop. As riders we are grateful to all of our staff who work super hard behind the scenes: Dirk Juckwer (Team Manager), David Padfield (Assistant Team Manager), Graig Gerber and Torsten Walter (Massage and Physiotherapists), Maureen Muller (Chef Extraordinaire) and Peter Felber and Robert AKA 'Giovanni' Novotny (Mechanical Wizzards).

Given our feedback to the Cape Epic, who are big advocates of women's cycling, we are hopeful that the 2016 edition will bring some exciting changes and see a mammoth step forward for professional women. I believe we can expect to see some exciting, tight and tactical racing amongst the top women's teams. Watch this space.

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