Stage 4 consisted of three laps of a 28km circuit and I had a great day. The front group was down to 10 guys when I got popped at around 50kms but managed a 5km time trial and got back to the leaders. I was able to stay with them until 10kms to go when I went out the back with two other guys I have been riding with a lot – Justin Morris from Sydney and Kevin Halsey from Belgium. I rolled in in 7th spot and very satisfied with a hard day. Safely consolidated in 8th overall.
Stage 5 was always going to be brutal and the start was particularly nasty. We have been told about an almost unrideable section at 20kms with lots of loose rocks and steep gradients. I decided to go on the attack and see if I could get a gap by the top of the climb at 20kms and hopefully stay with the leaders when they had shelled most people. Three others had the same idea – all of us top 10 overall – and I spent the first half hour of the race at my limit but unfortunately the chase occurred in earnest behind and we had a maximum 30 second break. We got caught three quarters of the way up the climb which was disastrous, but I managed to hang in and then make up a bit of time on the tricky descent down the other side. The four leaders were away and there were four of us in the group behind, including my now good friend Kevin Halsey who is an absolute engine (and was Tom Boonen’s lead out man for 7 years). We averaged 31kph for the race and I was able to give Ash Hayat a lead out to win M1 for the day and I rolled in 6th. A couple of other contender dropped away and I had moved up to 7th place.
Stage 6 was massive on paper at 189kms and it didn’t disappoint. Unfortunately for me it was a disaster. I was riding well at the 95km mark when the group was down to a dozen or so and my rear tyre let go. I rode for a kilometre uphill trying to stay with my group on a flat hoping that I could crest the climb, give a quick blast of CO2 and continue riding. Unfortunately that didn’t happen and I had to change a tube. I chased manically trying to get back on and was making good ground before I punctured again. I managed another quick change and put in another big chase but just as I was coming to depot 2 the same tyre went down again. I fixed the tyre at Depot 2 and a group rolled with Carl Maroney (mate from Melbourne) and my old friend Kevin who had also punctured a couple of times while in the break.
All the chasing had sent me deep into the red zone and I had forgotten to keep drinking in between tyre changes. The temperature hit 42 degrees and I as out of water and completely cooked – but with 70kms still to ride across some incredible rough track and deep sand. I stayed with the group for 50kms but was getting dumped on all the hills and would bridge on as it flattened out. I then punctured again – and then once more for good measure – and waved the group goodbye with 20kms to ride. I was in full survival mode for the last hour and told myself not to do anything silly. I had vomited a few times and even though I had lots of water I was struggling to keep anything down. I rolled across the line in 7 hours 30 and a good hour behind where I expected to be. My overall position will have been obliterated and I will have to reassess my goals for the race from here on in. I will have to take it easy tomorrow as I am bound to be cooked and we have another 150kms in the same heat. I am incredibly disappointed but that’s racing. I am determined to finish the race and find some new objectives. I have become friends with the current race leader Jeroen Baelen from the Netherlands as he had a great day today. He had given me a tyre last night and I had given him some CO2 after he had an early puncture today. I might try to recover tomorrow and then help him any way I can. I am potentially still in the hunt for Masters 2 overall but not sure whether to make that the objective or try to help Jeroen win.
All in all definitely one of the hardest days I have done on a bike but happy to have smiled (grimaced)