Women's Tour of New Zealand by Nicole Justice×

To put it simply, last week was the hardest week of my life. The Tour of New Zealand was not only physically demanding, but mentally challenging as well. I had to push my body to it’s limits and battle nerves, fear, pain, sadness, and disappointment. I rode through a rain storm with blood dripping down my arm and a cracked helmet, narrowly avoided crashes (and succumbed to one), witnessed girls face down in a ditch with blood covering their faces, descended a hill at 75kph, and felt an indescribable emotion as I crossed the finish line on the last day of the tour. I was exhausted enough from the emotional highs and lows of the week, not to mention the 600 kilometers I rode. In New Zealand, I learned a lot about cycling, teamwork, pain, determination, and life. At certain points during the tour I was so scared and nervous my legs were shaking uncontrollably. The funny thing is, now that I’m home, I cannot wait to race in a tour again. Despite the risks involved in racing, there is nothing quite like the feeling of pushing yourself to the edge and crossing the finish line. I could probably write a thirty page paper about everything that went on last week but I’ll try and keep it concise.

I traveled to New Zealand not knowing what to expect. I have trained hard the past few months and thanks to my coach, Warren McDonald, I was as prepared as I could have been at this point in my cycling development. In addition, thanks to the boys at Bike Gallery, my bike was ready to rock! The tour started on Wednesday evening with an individual time trial. The weather was insane and we raced 7.1 kilometers in a torrential downpour. Everyone was worried about taking the corners, especially the last off canter one. I ended up finishing in 23rd place out of 71 starters and was ecstatic. I could barely see where I was going during the race and took the corners fast but luckily I was able to stay upright and get a good time of 11:23. Unfortunately, my luck would not last.

With 1km left to go of the neutral 15kms at the beginning of stage 2, a crash occurred on a sharp corner in the rain. Four of us went down and my head smacked the pavement hard enough to significantly crack my helmet. The crash happened in slow motion and was totally unavoidable since a girl fell off her bike right in front of me. After I slid across the wet pavement, adrenaline kicked in and I jumped up. I realized I hadn’t broken anything and watched in silence as Jules fixed my bike. I then held onto the team car and was dragged to the start of the race. Unfortunately, the peleton was long gone by that time and I was in a state of panic as Jules paced me behind the team car at breakneck speed. To make a long story short, the commissaire made an error and told the team car to drop me with three girls that had already been dropped from the peleton. As this gentleman apologetically admitted after the race, I should have been paced back up to the convoy. I naively gave chase and was at threshold for an hour before I realized there was no way I would ever catch the peleton unless I installed a motor on my bike. I rode 140kms/1,600m by myself that day and lost all hope for a decent finish in the general classification. As I crossed the finish line, I wanted to cry (okay, I may have cried a little)… It was the hardest ride I’ve ever done and I was dripping blood everywhere and had a huge bump on my head. The adrenaline had worn off and I was in a lot of physical pain. Emotionally, I was an even bigger mess. After a great first day, stage 2 had been an absolute disaster. Luckily I have awesome teammates who were very supportive that night and made me feel better about having such a bad day.

I woke up on Friday with a sore head, neck, shoulder, and hip and wasn’t sure if I should continue the tour. Rachel Neylan, my roommate, told me to toughen up so I ate approximately one million grams of carbohydrates for breakfast and put on my kit. Stage 3 was basically stage 2 in reverse. I was in a mental fog that day and paranoid about crashing again. My worst fear almost happened as a rider plowed into me 15kms into the race, causing three riders behind me to go down. Luckily I was on the drops and was able to maintain my balance but the girls behind me were not so lucky. One girl broke her wrist and another cracked a rib. At this point I was again ready to get off my bike and retire. Witnessing so many crashes and blood had really started to take it’s toll on my mental state. However, despite my queasiness I kept going. The peleton split in two that day and I was with the chase group after we all got dropped on one of the first climbs. I tried to chase the peleton with an Italian rider but as I was slowly learning, once you get dropped, it is very hard to get back on. All day, fifteen of us worked together to battle the insane 45kph crosswinds. It was interesting trying to communicate with the Italian, Japanese, and Chinese riders in the group but somehow we all managed to work together, form an echelon, and roll turns to the finish line at a cracking pace. Stage 3 was one of the toughest stages for me since the wind was absolutely crazy and I was hurting from the previous day’s crash. Luckily, I got a massage from the Italian masseuse that night!

On Saturday, the weather was a lot calmer and I managed to stay with the peleton until the final kilometers. I got dropped earlier in the stage but chased, made it through the convoy, and rejoined the bunch. Drafting from team car to team car at high speeds was exhilarating! Unfortunately I had nothing left for the final 3kms that day. I just didn’t have my normal power and I’ve never been so frustrated. My body wasn’t doing what I knew it was capable of but at least I was making some improvement since the crash. That night I went to bed feeling defeated but woke up the next morning refusing to get dropped!

The final stage of the tour was my best stage. I finished with the peleton (averaging 38kph for 110kms) and did well in the final sprint to come finish 22nd. The pace was hot all day and the climbs were tough. I tried to position myself better than I had the previous days and this seemed to help immensely. The weather was also sunny and calm which definitely made things easier. Although it was a great finish, the stage was not without disaster. I witnessed my teammate, Lucy, crash and Miranda and I almost went down with her. It looked like she’d hit the deck pretty hard and I was shocked to see her make it back up to the peleton with holes in her kit and blood dripping everywhere. Tough chick! As we all crossed the finish line in one piece, everyone looked extremely happy and relieved. I wanted to pump my fists in the air but then I remembered I finished very close to the bottom of the general classification!

When all the results were in for the week, Holden Cycling did better than many people expected. Miranda Griffiths finished 6th, guest rider Rachel Neylan in 12th, and Lucy Coldwell in 22nd. Steph Ives and I were happy to finish the tour and will be back next year to hopefully secure top twenty-fives as well! A big thank you goes out to team manager Jules Knuppel who did it all for us this week… Jules drove the team car, washed our bikes, did our laundry, filled our biddons, cleaned our wounds, and counseled us. Steph’s parents were also extremely helpful! We may not have had our own mechanic or masseuse like the other teams but we were able to survive le tour. I did my best to befriend the mechanics of other teams and got looked after by Marino, my sixty-year-old Italian mate. Saying “ciao” and smiling lots will get you places with the Italians and I am so thankful for all their help, generosity, and humor. The Hotel Coachman also did a great job in supporting the riders. The rooms were nice and they fed us plenty of potatoes.

Everyone will have their own personal version of the tour and my teammates all raced incredibly well. Each one of them had their emotional and physical highs and lows just like me. I will never forget the events of last week and I am really happy to be home in one piece. One of the most important lessons I learned during the tour was to not be so hard on myself. Cycling is an unpredictable and dangerous sport and sometimes you can be extremely unlucky while other times luck will be on your side. Even if you’re feeling great, you can still be brought down in a crash. I’ve learned to keep things in perspective and even thought this tour didn’t go my way as an individual, my team performed very well and we all supported and worked for each other. Cycling is a team sport and everyone has their good and bad days. The important thing is to put the team first and ride for and support each other. I also learned a lot about tactics, positioning, and race strategy and I have so much more to learn. Racing is completely different to training and there is no doubt that my race brain needs some educating. Finally, I realized that there are a lot of extremely talented female cyclists in the world and I am going to need to continue to race and train hard if I want to compete on an international level. Having said that, I also need to invest in time. Knowledge comes with experience and as Wazza always tells me, I need to be patient.

Now I am ready for a few days of rest, recovery, and detox from caffeinated energy gels. Thank you to all those who supported me throughout the tour; your kind words and encouragement were much appreciated. Sorry Wazza for all my frantic Skype calls and e-mails… You’d make a good psychologist. Bridie O’Donnell, you’d make a good psychologist too. I could keep on writing but if you want to hear more stories, just ask me. There is a lot more that happened off the bike!

To read more about Nicole Justice, you can follow her blog at: http://ridelikeagirlmelbourne.com/