An early season objective was needed to motivate us through the long dark winter on the turbo and Zwift. The prospect of a 3 day gran fondo (from 29 to 31 March) in warm and sunny Cyprus seemed like just the thing.
Part of the UCI Gran Fondo series, the event allows for qualification for the Gran Fondo world champs taking place in Poland this summer. Three chances to qualify in fact – with the ITT on Day 1 for those doing the “Expert” group (whilst the “Sportive” group did a non-qualifying gran fondo) and then 2 more chances to qualify on the subsequent 2 hilly stages.
This was the 3rd edition of the event and, according to the organisers, there was an increase of 40% in the number of participants this year compared to 2018. Apparently 31 countries were represented. Rather surprisingly, the vast majority appeared to be from Russia.
In the days leading up to the event, much time was spent studying the weather forecast. Initial omens did not look good and so we arrived in Paphos on a windswept Thursday, complete with kit to cover all weather eventualities including a rainjacket, Gabba and summer kit. In spite of the weather, the event got off to a good start, with a mini bottle of a local red in the race pack. There was also a pre-race pasta party held in the evening before right next to one of the main tourist attractions in the city – Paphos Castle which was also the start line for all the stages except for the TT. It was probably the most unusual pasta party we have ever been too – held in the dark, in the cold, when just a few coloured flashing lights and loud music pumping out of the speakers, like some sort of outdoor nightclub. Still – the pasta was pretty tasty!
This provided a good recovery drink after Stage 1.
Stage 1 for the sportive group was an out and back route along the hilly coastline for 95km. It was overcast at breakfast but not too cold so my initial plan was to wear just a gilet and arm warmers. As I was about to set out from the hotel the rain started falling so I quickly switched to a rain jacket. By the time I arrived at the start line in front of Paphos Castle 10 minutes later, I was completely drenched. Cyclists were being blown all over the road. Rather unusually, nobody could be seen in the starting pen. Instead of trying to bag a place as near to the front of the start as possible, everyone was trying to stay warm by taking shelter in a couple of abandoned buildings nearby, hiding from the wind and the rain until the very last minute.
As everyone was wearing a jacket it made it more challenging to spot the other women in my age group who I would be racing against but I managed to spy a couple at the start so I made sure I kept an eye on them.
It did occur to me to abandon at this point – after all I wouldn’t be cycling at home in this wet, windy and admittedly very British weather – but then I thought, it’s Cyprus at the end of March, surely the rain will stop sometime soon…
How wrong I was. Then followed 3 hours of non stop horizontal rain, head and cross wind. It was utterly grim. A whole load of surface water meant that any potholes were covered up and could not be seen and temporary streams gushed down the roads.
The first 20km were neutralised and at the village of Kouklia there was a short “comfort break” for all. By now, my numb and cold fingers meant I had so much difficulty zipping up my jersey and rain jacket that I almost missed the restart.
On a nice sunny day the route would have been beautiful. Wide open roads following the coast with some short sharp climbs before swinging inland to the turn around point. However thanks to the heavy rain and cross wind there was constant grit and water being sprayed up into my face and it was essential to stay in a group to get some shelter from the wind. I managed to leech onto a Russian cycling club and stayed with them until the final 7km when I eventually lost the wheel in yet more crosswind.
Having seen the front groups make their way back after the U-turn I was fairly confident I was 3rd or 4th woman on the road.
However by the time I got to the bottom of the final climb, with 800m to go until the finish line back in Kouklia again, another woman had caught me from behind. I put in another effort on the climb and surged towards the finish. Just as well I did. Ten seconds separated us at the finish meaning I got 3rd place and 1st in age group.
A photo Mark took of me in the neutralised section on the way out of Paphos.
In Kouklia village before the timed section started.
In the crosswinds (Photo: Andreas Iacovou Sports & Art Photography).
A dry morning meant new faces at the start, all with fresh legs as they had bailed out of yesterday’s Stage 1 in the rain.
The neutralised section was noticeably more sketchy today as everyone jostled to be at the front for the “flying start” at the bottom of the first short sharp climb. Luckily Mark had warned me about this little lump already, having ridden over it to the start of yesterday’s TT. He also said that it was imperative to be in a good group up the valley to the bottom of the first major climb as this followed the same road as the TT.
With this advice in mind, as we started going up this first hill I could only see yesterday’s winner and the 4th placed woman around 20 metres in front of me. I put in a big effort, catching both just as we went over the top. This meant I was now in a good fast group to drag me up the valley. Annoyingly the fast woman had a domestique who gave her a little push whenever needed. Surprisingly my legs worked today and I managed to cling onto the group all the way up the valley, overtaking some of the “Expert” category riders who had a ten minute head start.
As predicted once the proper climbing started the group quickly disintegrated and I settled into my more usual climbing pace.
The dry shrubs and muted greens reminded me a bit of Provence in April. There was a 2km gravel section which really sapped the energy out of my legs and it was a relief when the tarmac started again. There was another short but nasty section of cobbles in a village – thankfully it was dry still at this point. As most of the other cyclists taking part are Russian there was no chit chat at all and people generally just rode in silence which was fine by me! At 60km was the summit and there followed a 30km descent towards the finish, punctuated by some little rises.
As the descent wasn’t very steep being in a group would have been a good advantage but sadly everyone was either too fast or too slow for me so I did most of this section alone. Unsurprising by the time we rejoined the valley road which we had ascended earlier in the day a couple of women had caught me. We continued toward the finish in a group of around 15 and I made sure to keep an eye on the whereabouts of the other women – although they weren’t in my age category (I could tell by the numbers) I didn’t know if they were in my race or in the “Expert” race. I also wasn’t entirely sure if there were any other women ahead of me apart from yesterday’s winner with the domestique but thought probably not.
On the penultimate climb I made sure I was 4/5th over the top to ensure that I was in a group for the final few kilometres to the start of the last climb to the village top finish in Kouklia – same as yesterday.
I marked the woman in front of me up the first ramp and watched and waited as the road flattened out. I was aware that there was still at least one other strong looking Russian woman somewhere further back on in the group. At 300m to go, as the second and last ramp started, the woman I was marking continued her same pace and so I decided to go, worried that we were starting to run out of climb… she didn’t follow and the other Russian woman was nowhere to be seen.
I finished 2nd woman in the sportive and 1st in my age group.
By the time we returned to Paphos it was past lunch time but the Popeye Kebab and Fish Bar was open as always; Mark and I ended up going there three times!
Today’s neutralised start was even more dicey and aggressive compared to yesterday – and that was just the women! I think some were caught out by yesterday’s “flying start” and lost time by being at the back of the peloton when the race car pulled away signifying the start of the race.
Legs were unsurprisingly weary after 2 hard days already. Everyone else around me however seemed to have fresher legs and were overtaking me on the first draggy climb with at least 3 women in front of me.
I soon became aware of another woman on my wheel who had caught me on the initial climb. Although she was not in my age group, I still didn’t want to concede any GC placings. We marked each other for much of the climb. We seemed to be fairly evenly matched. I was probably a little stronger whenever the gradient increased a bit more but soon she’d be back on my wheel or in front of me.
I spied the first proper descent along a dramatic mountain ridge and so I surged forward to join a few cyclists in front and saw a chance to get rid of her on the twisty descent. This turned out to be a good move as a I never saw her again.
Commencing the final climb was a shock but in the second half my legs started feeling better although I suspect it was party psychologically as I started overtaking people who were flagging.
The final 3km to the finish was not the steep climb we had all imagined it would be – instead it was a rather windswept drag with rises and flatter sections. The last 500m were much steeper; by now the legs were toast and mindful that there didn’t seem to be any other women near me I rolled in across the finish line, just as the rain started falling again. No legs left to attempt any sort of sprint!
In the end I was 3rd on the stage which I was happy with as it was one that favoured the strong climbers.
Over the 3 stages I placed 1st in my age group and 2nd in the Sportive GC.
Nearing the end of the second and final climb (Photo: Andreas Iacovou Sports & Art Photography).
In the final 50m to the finish line in the hilltop village of Tsada.
The final prize giving at Paphos Castle; thankfully it stayed dry.
Although it rained on every stage the sun did occasionally come out… just not when we were riding.
And now a different perspective; Mark’s account of his experiences in the “Expert” category.
Stage 1 – Time Trial
As I had waited in the rain for Lillian to ride by the hotel after starting her 3 hour “Sportive” stage I felt happy that I only had a short 30km time trial to contend with. Two hours later I was shivering at the start, itself a wet 20km ride from Paphos, and feeling I was getting my just desserts for being smug.
The time trial was tough – I guess they always are – with the out leg being generally uphill into the wind and the return one being so fast at times that I was spinning out on my compact chainset. I felt I had ridden well with some good power numbers but I was disappointed to find that I was 18th (out of 26 starters) in my age category, albeit with many competitors on TT bikes. I was long way from being in the top 25% needed to qualify for the “World Champs”. Tor had a fantastic ride, beating me 10 seconds – I keep forgetting just how strong she is – and coming in as the 6th woman overall. Ray, another London Dynamo club-mate, was 3 seconds ahead of Tor.
It stopped raining just as I finished the TT so the best bit of the day was the ride home on dry roads with a strong tailwind.
Tor starting the TT.
With the weather forecast showing a 70% chance of a thunderstorm I opted to wear my rain jacket (and arm warmers). This had the positive effect of keeping the heavy rain away and the less desirable one making me overheat on all the climbs. A sketchy neutralised section of about 40 minutes led to a left turn off the coast road. No one saw a sign saying that the timing had actually started but on the first short climb it was clear the race was on. Luckily I managed to get in the second group up the valley, also containing Tor and another strong London rider, Bella, and reached the steeper section of the climbing in a decent position.
I felt good on the climbs and, unlike Lillian, would even say I enjoyed the 2km ‘gravel’ section, although it would be more accurate to describe it as a tarmac road that had degraded so much it was now bumpy and covered in stones. One long climb led to five shorter ramps before the descent to the valley. Ray overtook me just before the top of the final ramp, having been caught behind in the valley as a result of the unannounced flying start, but I thought that if I could catch the group that had coalesced around him on the descent I’d get a good pull down the valley back to the coast.
Unfortunately in spite of expending a lot of energy I never quite caught his group and watched them ride away as we reached the flatter terrain. With hindsight and looking at my power I think I blew up just before the descent; my normalised power for the 1 hour 40 minutes to that point had been 90% of my power for the 30 minute uphill section of yesterday’s TT! I renamed the final section the Valley of Death and had a painful and mainly solo ride 25km to the finish in which I was overtaken by 3 groups and about 40 riders. One of the last of these contained Tor and Bella. I managed to stick with their group but then dropped my water-bottle which I stopped to pick up. However, I think that saved me from the ignominy of being dropped on the penultimate climb. I was cooked. By the time I got to the final 800m up to the finish village I was literally seeing stars and very glad when it was over, having lost 2 minutes to Tor’s group in just the last 5km and over 6 minutes to Ray. I finished 117th, Ray 69th and Tor 109th, putting her in the lead in her age category.
Tor crossing the famous Trozena Bridge just after the gravel section (Photo: Andreas Iacovou Sports & Art Photography).
I thought the hill top finish today would suit me and I hoped I’d be able to get my own back on the big strong Russians that had put me to the sword in the Valley of Death. (There were about 600 competitors, roughly split 50:50 between the Expert and Sportive events, and as Lillian mentioned the majority seemed to be Russian.)
As with yesterday as soon as we turned off the coast road the race was on even though we still hadn’t entered the official timed zone.
I caught Tor and Bella who were in a group ahead and decided to try and work for them on the first (800m vertical) climb which had some downhill and windswept sections. When they were dropped by the group I tried to help providing a bit of pacing and some shelter, although in spite of my efforts we were caught by another group just as we started the descent. Taking it fractionally more easy on the climb meant I was able to look at the view – forested hills topped with cloud and steep scrubland and vineyards – and had good legs for the final climb where I overtook most of the people in the group that had dropped us. A punchy stage and great end to a competitive, well organised and fun event.
Both Tor and Bella improved their positions with Bella moving up to 1st in her age category and Tor into 3rd position in the women’s GC. I finished the event with a 6th place in my age group in GC and an 82nd position overall. Tor was 85th and Ray, who had a bad day and lost time on Stage 3, 87th. The winner was Andreas Miltiades, the Cypriot national champion. I also managed to qualify for the Gran Fondo “World Champs” though as it is a flat course I know that I won’t be going!
Mark, second, trying to keep up with Tor, first, on the big descent of the day (Photo: Andreas Iacovou Sports & Art Photography).
Tor crossing the finish line of Stage 3 in Tsada.