After 17 years as a professional bike rider making the decision on how to step down was not as simple as it may seem to most. Especially since the major part of my career has been spent on the continent whereas the greater portion of my loyal supporters are in NZ. For that reason, rather than drawing the curtain on my career at the Japan cup - my last official race not only of my 2012 season but also as a pro-cyclist - which would have been the easy option, I felt a need to end my racing career where it all started, in New Zealand. And the biggest race in NZ of recent years has been the New Zealand National Road Championships. The only con with that idea was the reality of continuing the training for a further 3-month period with no racing. It certainly turned out to be a difficult option and one I rued making more often than not throughout the festive season, but I knew it felt like, and proved to be, the right thing to do. I knew I needed to hang the bike up surrounded by my family, friends and loyal fans. It was a moment I just had to share with them.
The reason for choosing to do the race was different compared to years gone by so that meant my mental approach also had to be somewhat different. My motivation was fed more by emotion than by anything else. While a good result at the nationals gratifies the athlete in me, the bigger motivation was to have a good day - ride well and step away with my head held high.
On the start line I was a mixed bag of feelings; happiness, as my two boys were able to share the start of the race by being at my side as we rolled out, sadness that I would never be doing it again, relief that I had managed to keep the training up for 3 months to even make it to the start line, and of course stirred all up with of those emotions were stress and worry about the unknown still to come in my new life. As mixed up as I felt through those initial moments, one thing remained supreme in my mind and that was that I was going to enjoy the day no matter what.
The race turned out to be quite symbolic of the path my career has often ventured down. As is always the case with the nationals, it was a constant battle and with my condition not being as good as I had hoped, I had to fight back many times after the 2km climb on the urban circuit. I kept getting dropped on the climbed but as I have always done throughout my career, I would fight my way back, get to the front, work like a machine in an effort to bring back the break, only to get dropped again on the next time up the climb. Eventually I started to come into my own as we neared the final laps, but by then the break was gone. I was happy to wrap up a small group sprint for 3rd place. Not a bad performance or result to end my career with. Job done.
It had been a hard day but a good one. I didn’t win and it wasn’t easy - a subtle reminder of just how hard the sport can be and that there are no gifts. You deserve and work for everything you get.
Now back in Europe and itching to get started helping the team in other ways, it’s certainly a different feeling than having to think about and measure kilometers, hours, food and rest. For the first time in my life, I flew into Europe without a bike and touching down in Zurich looking out the window of the plane at the cold, icy European winter, I was tinged with a flutter of contentment knowing that I wouldn’t have to battle the elements of the late European winter and spring on the bike.
Only having officially hung it up for two weeks, ‘retirement’ so far feels a little like the ‘honeymoon period’; the new life feels like a welcome change. It’s nice to not have to get out on the bike if the body and mind aren’t ‘into it’. However, often I find myself trying to figure out where to go now and how I can add value in a new way to the Orica-GreenEDGE programme. As always, being the athlete, I want to get in there head first and start contributing. Having talked through retirement with many athletes who have gone through the process before me, I feel fortunate to be connected to GreenEDGE and having the guidance and opportunities that such a cohesive team environment provides. Just as I have operated on the bike leading guys out, I’m now ready to take up a similar but different role; I am looking forward to adding value to the team by guiding the riders through the race season and ultimately their careers.
Thanks again to you all. I will continue to keep this site ticking over, albeit, slowly, to give you some insight on what life is like as a non-rider in a pro cycling team.
Well guys, it's official. I have announced my retirement. It certainly isn't an easy dialogue to have with people - especially the media - as it makes it all very so real and so very tough - but I guess when you love doing something so much, retiring from it will always feel so difficult.
My final race will be the NZ National Championships on the 13th January 2013. It feels a bit odd to have been training 2 months for one last race but I want to finish with a race in the country where the seed of my career was planted.
I want to thank my NZ supporters of my career which has barely scraped NZ soil during the past 17 years. Throughout my career I have had the pleasure and honour of your support on the sides of the European roads so I feel it fitting to end my career right here in NZ where no one will have to change time zones to see me draw a close to my era as a NZ sportsperson.
I thank also all those non-Kiwis who have supported me in my travels through professional cycling's timeline. It's been so humbling to Carole and I to have had such unwavering support for so long from so many different nationalities and as you all know I have had some pretty low lows with injury and rehab and you guys have made such a big difference to my morale during those tough moments.
I will continue to work with Orica-GreenEDGE through 2013 and am looking forward to mentoring the young blood, helping them through those incredibly tough moments pro-cycling tends to throw at us. I will also be assisting in race directing and training so I will have my plate full enough to keep me busy. I am looking forward to learning new skills off the bike but I know in my heart that 2013 will be one of lament for me as I transition through this period. I love racing my bike. It's that pure and simple.
But, my body and mind have been battered time and time again and Carole and I both feel that this is the right moment to move on. Our boys will have a Dad home more often than not and one who isn't constantly tired! I am really looking forward to spending more time with my boys.
So for those of you who will be in Christchurch on the 13th January, it would be great to see you out there to support all the guys racing. Although it may be my last race, it will be one of the first of many for some of our rising talent.
Julian and Carole
Digging Deep Stage 16:
After a sleepless night I begrudgingly awoke to the feeling that stage 16 was not going to be easy. I was starting to get very tired and feel a deeper level of fatigue – the kind of fatigue I have only ever experienced during Grand Tours. Unfortunately this fatigue entered itself into the equation just as one of the two hardest stages of the race was upon us. Needless to say, I was afraid as to what the outcome of the day may entail.
Team-mate Simon Clarke had landed himself back into the climber’s jersey and we thought that we’d try and get him in the break of the day so he could grab himself more points; a great plan in theory but one which would put us, well me anyway, on the rivet from the beginning. But when there is a task to do, you do it and it’s just a matter of dealing with the consequences as they begin to slap you in the face, whether that means getting dropped and having to chase all day and/or missing the time cut altogether.
As expected the start was terrible and after trying to help the boys out I went into the red. I had to hit survival mode. After 30km I got dropped for the first time of the day and I was alone. I was lucky that the Commissaires didn’t stop the team cars from coming past me and I was able to slot into the convoy. I survived there for a little while and made my way back into the peloton just as it started to ramp up again for the first catergorized climb of the day. Then the tempo rose and the groveling started all over again. I began to fall back through the peloton and although I was losing ground fast I still had to fight to limit my losses. All the same thoughts began to enter my head as the previous time – the long day ahead in the saddle chasing and having to do it alone and of course the idea of doing all that and yet missing the time cut. As thick and as fast these thoughts entered my head, I tried to push them away just as fast, telling myself that they are of no use. Instead I tried to focus on ‘right now’ and just maintained the gap to the last rider in the group who, while slightly better than me at this point, also looked as though he was doomed - swinging from side to side as he fought to stay linked to the chain of the peloton whipping across the road.
Toward the top of the climb I was well and truly dropped from the main group. Between me and the peloton there was now nothing but a lonely void. I could only see up to the next sweeping curve and there was only a Guardia Civil officer on a motorbike and a few spectators still electrified from seeing the strung out group of cyclists blaze by.
Thankfully I was not alone and I was comforted by the presence of a handful of other guys. Although, not so comforting was that four of them were from my team. Not a good indicator. Altogether we were 12 lost stragglers off the pace and although bummed at feeling so crap I was consoled by the presence of others; eleven guys to share the workload which eased some of the fear of having to push myself hard all day. Our race no longer became one against the other. In fact, it wasn’t even a race at all. It became a day of survival where we needed to band together to get through the stage within the time cut - a task which could not be accomplished alone. That’s the cool thing about cycling. In situations like that, rivalry and team colours become nothing and survival becomes everything.
As we came off the bottom of the climb and settled into our swap off pace line – each taking our turn at the front, we all seemed to become a little less desperate and more comfortable with the task at hand, even if it meant we remained well off the back of the race. We knew that as long as we all pulled our weight we’d live through another stage of the 2012 Vuelta.
Fortunes changed for us as we soldered on and further down the valley it was clear that the undulating roads, constant attacking and a furious pace were taking their toll. The front of the race had eased up and my 11 companions and I rolled back into the group and as we did so an intense sense of relief washed over me, knowing that for now we had been pardoned.
It was short-lived; within 20km we were on the first of the three majors for the day. By this time I had had a chance to recover mentally and physically. Determined more than ever to fight on, I went to the front and planted myself in the top 10 and gritted my teeth and readied myself to make it over the climb. I knew that it was all that was left to do and if I succeeded, the second to last climb would be about finding a group and riding comfortably to the finish for the last 40 km, rolling it with the pace line in the valleys and steady-as-she-goes on the mountain.
It might not have been pretty but I did it. I had been able to shake off my bad start to the day. The first 10km cat 1 climb I made it over with the front group and staying planted in the front at the beginning of the second 10km cat one climb, I made it into a good group to finish the day with. And low and behold I wasn’t even in the last group on the road. Meaning that on the last Hor cat climb of the day we were able to take our time riding up at our own leisure. Although this became somewhat difficult during the last few kilometers as we fought pitches of 22% on a 1.5m wide path at the top of the Valgrande-Pajares Cuitu Negru. Once again race organizers had taken things too far and made it too difficult on what was already a difficult day. Maybe it looked nice on the goggle-box but I can tell you that from where we were looking it was just plain old ugly.
Onwards and Upwards Stage 14: Palas de Rei - Puerto de Ancares
I write this a couple days after stage 14 and I really have to rattle the brain to remember it, which isn’t much apart from the fact that it was the lead in stage to three mountain stages - a crucial period of the race for the GC. For me it was a shift into economy mode with only one goal; to conserve when and where possible. Once again, as it has been all Vuelta, the start was hard and fast.
I thought I had done pretty well with 40km to go when I decided to sit up and go back to the grupetto but as I was dropping back, the ‘Sheriff’ aka Neil, rolled up in the team car. Expecting to get the nod and the, “Just ease up, there are 30 riders just behind you”, he said nothing. Just an empty, blank look and asked if I needed anything. “Bottle.’ I said to cover myself and then asked how many were behind. “Six” was the response, followed by “…and four of them are ours”. “Oh” I said. It seems that I had miscalculated. I panicked a little thinking about what to do. It was the first time that I recall miscalculating a grupetto. I could see another group in front and after talking myself out of believing I was flicking my team-mates by going forwards instead of backwards, I dropped it a couple of gears and started the pursuit up the climb in a quest to tag onto the back of group. Knowing it would be best but not sure if I would make it before we crested the top in 7km.
Eventually I made it up to the group of 30-odd riders and found a safe place to slot in to and take a breather. Still, it was a bit more effort than I would liked to have exerted. Next time I’ll try and joggle my grupetto-calculator to work a bit more accurately.
The transfers to and from the stage have been a bit tiring the last couple of days. They have been 12hrs from the moment we leave the hotel to the time we get to the next one and then we still have massage, stretching, ice bath, dinner and diaries to write. Today’s finish took a while to navigate out of. Although it seemed as though we were in the middle of nowhere and with few spectators, there was only one road in and out of the place so it made for a slow and tedious exit for the teams.
Another of the difficulties I find with such long transfers is having to eat so late. One of my post-race rituals is to go for a walk in the evenings to help the tummy settle. It’s also a nice opportunity to get away from it all for half an hour or so. It was a nice evening when I went out this night and I strolled along some streets where there was a pleasant bustle of locals out doing the same thing, enjoying their evening. This is the Spanish ‘paseo’ and it’s an integral part of their culture. It got me thinking about the Tour of Britain this time last year when I was out walking after dinner and I got stopped by the police and asked 20 questions. They obviously felt I looked a bit dodgy! Oh the contrasts between different countries and their cultures.
Regression Stage 13
I think I must have left the good feelings I had during stages 11 and 12 at the last hotel for I was struck by a shocker of a stage today.
It was pegged out to be another sprint stage. Again we were battered by relentless attacking over a lumpy course as every man and his bike attempted to get in the breakaway. When finally the break stuck our team was represented well with two out of the six-man break being our own. Again Cam Meyer made it into the break alongside team-mate, Simon Clarke. I spent my whole day glued to the wheel in front trying not to lose it. Even after the break went, a couple of teams were not content and went in search of a sprint, riding tirelessly to try and bring it back together.
I even started to lose my cool a little today as I tried to protect the lads in the break. When we were passing through A Coruna the speed of the race was getting very difficult - especially as we crested some of the rises on the continually undulating roads. Thirty – forty riders back I looked up ahead as we were going over a rise and I could see the camera motorbike only a couple of meters in front of the chasing riders at the head of the peloton. Then down on the flat we accelerated to an unnaturally high speed. Looking up I could see the same again. Then over the next lump we were sprinting full gas over the top again. In a very short space we had taken one minute back. With steam coming out my ears, I went to the front bellowing, although short of breath, as best as I could at the motorbike and the commissaire to police things better.
Finally as the break came back to 1min in the last 15km and we raced over a couple of 1-2km kickers coming into the final, I was piped out the back. It had been a terrible day for me. Just when I felt like I was starting to come around, I was slapped again in the face by the ‘form fish’, awakening me to the reality that I wasn’t actually going as good as I had believed. It’s a cruel business.
Beautiful Galicia Stage 12
Stage 12 to Mirador De Ezaro might have to take the cake for beauty. It was another cracker of a day in Galicia and the race book showed the path of the race meandering in and out of harbours and bays during the 190km race in a general northward direction. Like every stage so far, we were pummeled by an epic start of which although I tried, I was not really a part of. It was again super Cam Meyer who had got himself in the break when the smoke from the initial fireworks had finally dissipated.
As for us guys back in the group, it meant we were able to take a somewhat more relaxed look at the coast for the rest of the day. With a hideous wind coming at us head on, those at the front had to battle hard to set the tempo, which for the rest of us snug in the peloton felt was a very moderate and comfortable pace. For me, such a pace allowed for more sight-seeing and I made sure I made the most of the opportunity. It certainly was stunning scenery.
The finish of the stage saw us duck inland around a rocky, picturesque fiord then 2km up a brutal climb that peaked in steepness at 30% gradient - new territory for me, apart from riding up the banking of a track many moons ago. The views from the top back down into the fiord and out to the coast made the groveling worthwhile thankfully and I was glad we got to ride back down after the finish. I was able to stop a couple of times and fully appreciate and enjoy the spectacular vistas which were simply breathtaking.
Much like stage 11 did, stage 12 also bestowed upon me a very good feeling on the bike. I suffered very little. I made some good attempts at the start and even coming into the finish I tried to give it a good nudge and although I’m never going to do anything in a finish like today’s, it was good soup for the mind, body and soul. It made me feel good about the days ahead and gave me more hope that I’d finally broken through the wall of not-so-good sensations I have been experiencing.
Time Trials Made Easy Stage 11
It's official! I actually enjoyed a time trial. Time trials in Grand Tours have always seemed a real chore for me. Even though it’s more or less a day off for me as I’m not a specialist, I always find them a real grovel even if I’m just trying to make the time cut. Today however, was a different beast and from the start everything felt more comfortable. From the outset I was able to hold a good speed and I wasn’t fighting with a bike that I ride a maximum of four times a year.
The course was hard but I was able to maintain a good rhythm throughout and when I arrived at the finish after bombing the descent in Pontvedra, feeling young and liberated, I wasn’t my grumpy self. I was left with a feeling not too dissimilar to that after hopping on a really fast time trial bike or a new race bike for the first time or sticking on a new set of race wheels. Although I didn’t post a top time, it all seemed fast and effortless and making the time-cut was not an issue in the slightest.
Maybe there were a variety of different reasons to the positive rush of today but certainly the glistening waters of the Atlantic back-dropped by green rolling hills helped and the hoards of people who came out to cheer us on - reminding me of the Vuelta in my earlier years – all made for a much more entertaining day.
Post Rest Day Blockage
Stage 10: Ponteareas-Sanxenxo
Post rest day nerves were abundant as we rolled out on my first ever race in the Galicia region. After being pounded by the wind on our rest day afternoon ride making it almost impossible to even talk, stage 10 was treated to nothing more than a light sea breeze and although it was a stage what wiggled its way around coastal areas which are most affected by the wind, it had little effect on us. The major for the day was the climb at the start which was 7km long and began after 5 km into the race. This kind of stage straight after a rest day is always feared by many of us as it’s often a lottery to know how the body will pull up after a day where it has been allowed to relax. Many of us, including me, often suffer from what we commonly term as ‘blockage’ – a favourite cycling term – and refers to the blocked sensation in the legs you often feel when you start racing hard again after a rest day. Basically you feel as though you’re pedaling in squares.
So needless to say I was pretty apprehensive going into stage 10 but thankfully it seemed the whole peloton was afraid of the ‘blockage’ and after a couple of riders from lesser teams attacked, there was no response from anyone else and so off the breakaway set.
From there on it was a day that was gradually raced faster and faster. In all it was a somewhat negative-feeling atmosphere in the race and with 30k to go as we headed across a coarse-way, the Orica boys tried to open it up. Although it was an extremely exposed area, there was barely any wind and after our 10km effort to try and change the tone of the race by splitting the peloton in the crosswinds, the race came back together. It cost us a fair amount of energy and we didn’t really recover from the effort in time to prepare for the sprint finish. Once again the victory dodged us.
Our satisfaction in the day came from our attempt to try and make a difference in what had been up until that point, a dull and boring day. You just never know what can happen when you put it on the line and when it doesn’t work out as hoped you have to find consolation in at least trying. So that’s what we did after stage 10.
Rest Day...Phew! Rest Day Number 1
After a pretty trouble-free transfer across Spain, following stage 9 – the only annoyance being the 200-odd other sweaty, stinky athletes with metabolisms running at multiple levels above the norm - the rest day was a tad bit topsy-turvy. Normal practice on a rest day is a bit of a sleep in with a ride after breaky then a kick back in the arvo. The best case scenario would include a little siesta, of course.
This rest day was not a stereotypical one. With the bikes still in transit and not due to arrive ‘til after midday, it meant we would not be riding until after lunch and the morning we would have free. It all seemed a bit arse about face but there wasn’t much choice.
It was the staff who had to do the hard yards after stage 9, banging out a 24hr transfer coast to coast of all the team vehicles. A 1200km jaunt. Thankfully their transfer went well and our bikes arrived on time. After lunch we headed out to turn over the legs and before we knew it our first rest day had come to an end.
It was a rest day that I enjoyed a lot - the fresher Atlantic climate, coastal beauty and lush greenery especially can take credit for that; Mother Nature soothing the battered and fatigued body and soul.
Chalk and Cheese Stage 9
Racing in to the World’s big cities is always a buzz and riding into Barcelona is always one of my favourites. Stage 8’s intense tempo from the gun had obviously scarred a few more than just me and with it still very fresh in the minds of many, stage 9’s start was much tamer and the first attack rolled away relatively uncontested.
Heading out of Andorra to Barcelona, or the Costa Brava, is a race that we do regularly in different Vueltas, as is the finish on Alto de Montjuic, the hill overlooking the city where the Barcelona Olympics were staged. The last time I was there was during the TdF in 2009. Today’s finish was a little different entailing an extra lap over the top of the climb before coming back around to finish up it. It was difficult to predict how it would play out so it had to be ridden as if I would make it over and be able to contest the finish.
Although I dug deep I just didn’t have what was needed to follow over the top the first time. In fact, none of the sprinter types did. I was well lined up riding into the climb but once on it I just didn’t quite have enough of the climbing legs. I think that even at my best, I would have struggled. Looking back on the replay, the climbers certainly pushed hard up the climb and the attacking was fierce.
Nonetheless, it was a stage that I really enjoyed. The run into Barca is always exciting and hectic and the fight for position is relentless but as long as you are strong, it is enjoyable. I enjoyed it and managed to fight for position and hold it well. This was great for my confidence and gave me another glimpse that I’m heading in the right direction.
Post race we did a coast to coast. Immediately after the finish it was a quick scrub up in the shower rooms of the Olympic Park Stadium then a bus out to the airport for the charter flight from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Destination: Vigo in the province of Galicia.
The flight traversing the country was in itself something amazing. Leaving an arid, terracotta-coloured rocky Mediterranean coast and arriving on the Galician coast seemed a world apart. With its moderately hilly terrain, untamed coastline and blessed with plenty of greenery and windswept trees, we were certainly welcomed to Galicia by a stark contrast. So stark that it was hard to believe we were still in the same country. The only link of commonality between the two northern areas of Spain seemed to be the continuous and debate-provoking stretch of windmills dotted from coast to coast; an undeniable eyesore littering the beauty of the ever-morphing Spanish landscape.