Last Thursday saw a return to Croatia for the 53rd edition of the Tour of Istria - Memorial Edi Rajkovic. The three day race was familiar territory after my eighteenth place there last year and a big early season target. Fruthermore after the success the GB Junior team had enjoyed at Roubaix, we were second in the Nations Cup competition and keen to improve on this over the course of the weekend.
Last year we had been caught out a little on this stage, one that was, on paper, almost guaranteed to end in a bunch kick and likely to play to our strengths as a team. We had stuck to the 'race distance' to the meter and consequently not expected the finish when it came, a mistake I would not make twice and a good lesson for racing in general, the 'race guide' is exactly that - a guide! This year we approached the race hopeful to put into practice a deadly lead out train, delivering one of our two sprinters for the win.
We covered the moves early doors, eager not to miss an opportunity to get up the road, however ultimately with almost ever other team doing the same the first fifty kilometers were pretty fast and hot! I didn't feel particularly good, maybe a combination of the heat and grippy roads, however hoped to ride into the stage a little, getting some good legs for the final valley road to attempt to deliver one of the fast lads into pole position for the win!
The first stage is a rolling one, although does have two categorised climbs about mid way through. Last year these had passed with little fireworks and I expected the same this time round, expecting the GC to be decided on the harder hilly Saturday stage, how wrong I was! Six riders slipped away on the first climb and I decided to jump across the gap in order to protect GB interest, it wasn't a very big effort and with the gap under ten seconds I was expecting the move to get shut down by the bunch as soon as we hit the descent. In the end another six or so riders came across over the top of the climb and the group swelled to fifteen or so guys. In the meantime I had gone for the King of the Mountains sprint at the top of the climb, just misjudging it to catch a Russian just up the road, rolling over the 'summit' second.
For the next fifteen or so kilometers I let the French (three riders), Russians (two riders) and Dane's (two riders) do as much of the riding as possible, my mind constantly thinking of the inevitable catch and being as fresh for the lead-out as possible. I went for the second KoM sprint and took it pretty comfortably, now on equal points with the Russian, I knew the jersey would be awarded to whoever crossed the finish line first, something I wasn't particularly thinking about. With ten kilometers to go we hit the false flat downhill valley road and got a time gap of forty five seconds to the bunch. A few kilometers later, with the break far from cooperating, the gap had stretched to fifty seconds and I knew we were going to stay away for the win.
Coming in to the finish drag I covered the first few moves and ended up coming second in the group sprint, with the Slovenian putting a canny move in in the last kilometer to take the win and first Yellow jersey of the race. I was reasonably pleased with the finish and happy to keep myself in contention for the GC, however ruing not following the Slovenians move in the last kilo, something I knew I had the legs to do. Coulda, woulda, shoulda...
Saturday was the first time I had ever worn a jersey outright in a race however I went into the stage not explicitly thinking about defending the jersey, instead taking aim on the overall stage win and much more coveted yellow jersey. Stage Two was a pretty hilly one and had always split up in the past. I had not so fond memories from last year, crashing before the first climb and subsequently missing the break whilst I was chasing back on, something I hoped to rectify this year!
In the end the stage was super controlled. The Russians and Slovenians rode tempo on the front all day, dissuading any big attacks. I felt like my legs were ok and had Scott 'Sid' Davies for company in the front group of about thirty. Assessing the situation I decided, with the super hard and steep final 500m cobbled climb to the finish weighing heavy on my mind, that I would go all guns for the finale, letting the teams with numbers in the front control the race.
Scott did an amazing job of babysitting me throughout the stage and arriving into the final hectic kilometer I ducked and dived to take third wheel into the base of the climb. I held back and let a few guys take it on, dying a million deaths on the wheel of the french rider before finding one final kick and taking the win in the last twenty meters of the stage.
It was cool to win a race at this level, even if I barely got my hands in the air from exhaustion. Standing on the podium I was pleased to have paid back all the work the team had put in and more importantly the faith they had in me - a win at this level doesn't come about every day that's for sure. I took the yellow leaders jersey by three seconds, turning a seven second deficit around with a cheeky ten second bonus on the line. I was frustrated the stage hadnt been harder, leading to bigger time gaps on the final climb, however there wasnt a whole lot of complaining I could do after the result.
The podium presentation was followed by a nice hour and bit wait outside anti-doping control as some poor lad tried to overcome stage-freight and pee in his little plastic cup. As was the case at Roubaix I found this the easiest part of the day and was in an out in a matter of minutes, taking pride in easily filling the 100ml necessary to make a sample!
Sundays stage finished in 'Pula', the town in which most of my friends and half of north London descend on come August for the Outlook music festival. It was a little more complicated than I would have ideally liked, with bonus seconds available on the road and at the finish. Luckily the team were super organised and with a few other teams also riding for a bunch kick, I managed to sprint to a fourth and third in the intermediate sprints, doing enough to step onto the podium for a third day in a row! It was also really cool to have guys coming up to me in the bunch to say Congratulations, I was pretty blown away by how many guys did! On the final podium it was wicked to pick up the Yellow leaders jersey and the Red points jersey on the final podium, the fact GB had won a nations cup stage race for the first time ever also made it pretty special!
No photos have arisen from the final stage yet, however I will post some up if/when they do! A huge thankyou to Matt my coach, Rachel our carer and Martyn our Mechanic, its a cliched thing, however I really cant emphasise how much they do for us. The team were amazing on the road and I am hugely thankful to them for their work. So thank you Ollie, Scott, Chris, Jake and Jake!