Michael Hepburn – Rounding out 2011…
In RIDE #54 (volume 04, 2011) we welcome Michael Hepburn as a columnist. Titled ‘Summary of a Full Season’, he reviews the journey from pre-season training camp through to September… but stops short of the events of the Tour de l’Avenir and world championships which took place after he submitted his yarn. The young man is a former world record holder in the (3,000m) pursuit. He is the bronze medallist from this year’s world championships (under-23 time trial). He is a professional rider with a big engine and great attitude. Next year he will be part of GreenEdge Cycling.
This is the follow-up to his column that you can find on p.160 of RIDE #54…
Rounding out the Season
By Michael Hepburn
After a short break in Australia mid-year, I flew back to Europe with the rest of the boys at the end of July. We had just finished a two week training camp at Ocean Shores (just south of the Gold Coast) getting the miles back in the legs after our short break. Two Italian one-dayers and a German one day race were on the cards before I headed to an altitude training camp in Livigno, Italy, for three weeks in August.
‘Durbo’, Rohan and I were joined in the first week by Graeme Brown, dual Olympic gold medallist from Athens. It felt like we should have been back on the track, the four us chopping turns!
A week later, Brownie went home and we were joined by Pat Lane and Jay McCarthy for the last two weeks. The training up there was perfect. Although I may not be the fastest climber in the world, I really enjoy training on climbs and feel the form often excels after these sorts of training blocks. As well as clocking up as many vertical metres as possible, we spent a lot of time of out TT bikes.
Before the camp had started I had sat down with U/23 road director James Victor and said that I wanted to focus on and was really motivated for – both the TT and road race at the upcoming world championships. Following the altitude camp, instead of racing a time trial in both Italy and France with Durbo and Damien Howson (who were both preparing 100 per cent for the TT), I would instead head to France for the Tour de l’Avenir stage race. Starting with a prologue, I would still have one test to see where I was with my TT prep. Perfect! Or so I thought.
I went to France after a week of flogging myself in training and came around just in time for kick-off.
The start: a 6.6km prologue to get things going. I knew there wasn’t too many races in the season that suited me more than this one and I expected a lot out of myself. I had been time trialling well all year but after placing second three times and a fourth place, I was over just standing on the podium and wanted my first ever TT victory! There was also one other reason I was motivated to win. When I had studied the courses, I noticed that the prologue would be on the same day as Father’s Day. I thought what a perfect way to thank one of the people that have supported me from the very beginning with a win on his special day!
Earlier in the year I was in a similar position, having missed out by 0.5 of a second on the prologue victory at Olympias Tour on May 16, Dad’s birthday. I wanted a different result this time.
From the beginning, I knew I was travelling quick. Proof was on my Garmin. Anytime I saw something below 500 watts, I pushed harder. Coming up the finishing straight I could see from the clock on the over-head banner that I was going to set the fastest time, four seconds faster than team-mate and eventual runner-up, Rohan Dennis. We were both flying; 18 seconds back to third wasn’t too bad for 6km. I averaged 54.5km/h. One reporter said it was because of the tailwind. I didn’t really understand this as the course was a big oval shape which started and finished at the same place.
Going into stage one with the yellow jersey on my back was very special. A group of three got away early and built to an advantage of 10 minutes before Richard Lang and Jay McCarthy showed their strength at the front of the peloton. While a few other countries helped with the chase, bringing the trio back to six minutes, it was our two boys that were pushing hardest.
I was so proud of the way Jay and Rich battled on the front for 100km into the headwind, bringing the leading three back from six minutes by themselves with 15km to go! Moves started going, Rohan attacked with a group of seven and ended up gaining 20 seconds. My yellow jersey was now his for stage two.
The second stage was fairly straight forward; a few categorised climbs in the middle (which I surprised myself always being in the front group) but all the groups came back together with 30km to go. I thought I would give it a crack in the sprint. Pat Lane came around me with 3km to go and looked after me in the finale until about 500m to go, dropping me off in a great position for the sprint. I ended up hitting out a little bit early and got rolled by four riders in the last 50 metres: 5th place. Not bad, but nothing special either. ‘Look ahead to tomorrow,’ I thought.
But the race officials weren’t finished with stage two. An hour after the finish, they called the team and said that I was being relegated to last place in the front bunch and penalised 30 seconds for throwing five head butts in the finish. FIVE! My reply when I was first told was, “Sorry, what happened?!”
I don’t think I’ve thrown five head butts in my entire life, let alone all within 10 seconds! Unfortunately there was nothing I could do, the race jury wasn’t changing its decision.
The next day would be the first of the mountain stages. It was a day of hell for the first 80km, spending most of that time off the back in the pouring rain, struggling back into the peloton numerous times. Words can’t describe how thankful I was to finally get back into the group after the first three climbs. Groups were going down the road and to take the pressure off the team from chasing I jumped over a two minute gap to the lead group of 40 or so. My mind starting thinking about the finish: there was a cat-3 climb at 25km to go, and a cat-1 at 15km to go. I looked around out the French and Colombians – 20kg lighter than me at least! ‘This isn’t going to be good,’ I thought.
With only Richie and myself in the group of 40, neither of us being the best of climbers, our director for the race, Neil Stephens, wanted the boys behind to chase for Pat Lane to have a crack. A decision I would have backed 99 times out of 100. Pat told him that he didn’t think they should because “Heppy could win the stage…” Apparently Pat received an very interesting look back!
I decided to drop off the break at the start of the cat-3 and ride my own tempo, essentially a 15-minute TT. I was in the front group of 15 over the top and when we hit the cat-1, I decided to ride the same tactic. There was no hope that I would be able to accelerate, pause, accelerate with these pure climbers! From the moment we hit the slopes I was on the limit. ‘Another 15 minute TT,’ I thought.
The little climbers danced up the road and I was left in silence, going deeper than ever before just to hang on. The gap to the leaders was all over the shop: 250m, 150m, 100m, 200m, 150m… With 300m to go of the climb, having climbed past many blown riders I could see the leading five just ahead. One more full tilt effort and I would catch them over the top!
With 7km to go I was in the leading group of six. Surely this wasn’t happening. ‘Today’s stage was something I’ve never even gone close to winning,’ I thought. But that was why I was going to win. Pat knew it and that’s why he had backed me.
At 10pm the night before, I walked to his room and told him: “I’m going to win tomorrow.” He and Jay gave me that look that Neil had given Pat out on the road! Some 16 hours later I crossed the finish line having won the sprint comfortably. I was filled with relief, adrenaline and pride having achieved something that nobody thought I could do, having bounced back from the disappointments of the previous days, having struggled and nearly abandoning in the first two hours of the stage.
I wanted a road stage of l’Avenir so badly. After the finish line, I lashed out and made a gesture with my arms which was taken out of context and the different stories of what happened and why I did it followed.
It was spontaneous but a stupid mistake and one I regretted instantly. There were better ways to express my emotion and unfortunately only the people close to me knew the true story.
The team pulled me out of the race to clear things up and I agreed with the decision. I was sorry for the way people interpreted my salute and I wanted to look forward only from that point. Neil, the rest of the team, my family, friends and my girlfriend were very supportive in such a stressful time for me.
The world championships followed 10 days later and unfortunately I didn’t walk away with what I’d hoped for. A bronze in the time trial kept me reasonably happy with the championships but I just didn’t appear to have the same sensations as a week earlier. The boys rode their hearts out for me in the road race as anyone who saw the coverage on SBS would have noted. They rode with such professionalism that I really felt bad for them when cramps in each leg stopped my run in the sprint. Once again, they supported me through this and assured me we all had given ourselves the best chance on the day and it just didn’t happen. We were lucky to have such a good group of guys.
The worlds marked the end of my 2011 season. A few weeks off the bike and back into riding around in circles with some of my best mates on the track were next.
By Michael Hepburn