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Fancy cycling a 138km stage of one of the world’s leading pro races? MF’s Mark Bailey jumps at the chance.

Heat like I’ve never experienced before. The rocks themselves seem to be blasting warmth at me as I pedal past, straining to reach the summit of Smith Hill. The sun is scorching my skin, my head feels as if it’s on fire under my helmet and the lactic acid is penetrating deep into my legs. And there’s still 100km to go.

Heat of the moment

The 138km Bupa Challenge Tour gives cycling enthusiasts a rare chance to cycle a full stage of a professional UCI World Tour bike race on the same day as pro riders such as Geraint Thomas, André Greipel and Jens Voigt — all under the screamingly hot Adelaide summer sun.

Stretching the point

295x198 road warrior A I had trained hard for months. To direct my training focus I received a Bupa Centre Fitness Health Assessment. My VO2 max — my ability to use oxygen for energy at max effort — was a decent 43.2ml/kg/min but with plenty of room for improvement. The expert advice was for four training sessions a week, with a mix of long endurance rides and shorter high-intensity blasts for rapid gains in cardiovascular fitness, plus some flexibility exercises.

Spinning classes at the gym or turbo-training sessions at home filled my weekday evenings. These sweat-drenched sessions in hot, stuffy rooms proved great conditioning for the heat and helped me to practise hydration tactics.

Dead heat

South Australia was in the grip of a heatwave throughout the first stage of the Tour Down Under. Local legend and 2004 Olympic Men’s Madison gold medallist Stuart O’Grady said his cycling computer had registered nearly 50C on the roads, which had started melting. Team Sky rider Alex Dowsett suffered heatstroke.

“I was throwing up and couldn’t get anything back in to my system.”

“I was throwing up and couldn’t get anything back in to my system,” Dowsett said. “I was wearing a black jersey and it was white with salt stains.” The stage I would be riding was taking place just three days later. Keen to acclimatise, I went for a ride on a Focus Cayo Evo 1 hired for the event. The air was thick and the dust parching. Bushfire warnings dotted the roads. Nutritionist Tim Lawson had advised me to drink a litre of fluid and eat 60g of carbs each hour, but after two hours I realised I hadn’t thought about eating or drinking. I realised I would need to eat, even if I didn’t feel hungry.

Early and bright

295x198 road warrior BOn the day of the race, my alarm goes off at 5am and I try to scoff bread and bananas before the 6.30am start, which finds me among more than 5000 other riders in the eastern suburb of Norwood.

Temperatures are predicted to reach a “milder” 35C. Riders set off in groups according to their average speeds. I’ve opted for the 25km/h group. This proves to be a mistake.

The route ahead is a journey through the Adelaide Hills, including two King of the Mountain climbs at Smith Hill and Mengler Hill, a short but steep Category 1 climb (climbs are ranked from 1-4 with 1 being the hardest, apart from the ridiculously tough “hors catégorie” ascents), finishing in the town of Tanunda, 70km north-east of Adelaide.

Bearing in mind the heat, I’m hoping to finish in about 5½ hours. This is a challenge, not a race, although, as any man knows, that’s never strictly true. Anyway, incentive is provided by the knowledge that the professional cyclists are just a few hours behind us; if I’m way too slow I will be diverted away from the official finish, which would be a huge disappointment.

The opening kilometres are slow in the bike-choked streets, but the first 400m climb out of Adelaide starts to split the peloton. I feel good at this point — in fact, I get told off by a policeman on a motorbike for veering up the wrong side of the road in a bid to overtake slower riders. It’s after 25km or so that I realise where my planning has gone wrong.

I’m travelling much faster than I planned — 5km/h faster, as I’ll later discover — which means I’m surrounded by people travelling too slowly. So I’m using extra energy trying to catch the faster riders ahead, rather than working in groups to beat air resistance and conserve strength. Either I’m fitter than I thought or I am just getting my pacing horribly wrong.

Upward momentum

The first King of the Mountain stage looms ahead after 38km at Smith Hill.It’s a ferociously tough ascent under the blazing sun and by the time I reach the top it feels as if the road surface is clawing at my tyres. Sweat sprays from my helmet every time I move my head so I stop for extra water and Powerade at the Mount Pleasant refreshment stop. I force myself to eat an energy gel or bar every 30 minutes, even though I feel sick.

After 90km, the ride is turning from a physical challenge to a mental one. I count my cadence or aim for the nearest tree — anything to keep my mind focused on pedalling. Although I’ve been drinking water, I start to get painful cramp in my calf muscles so I take a salt tablet and hope for the best.

The eight percent gradient of Mengler Hill is approaching at 115km and that won’t be fun if my muscles are convulsing. My thirst isn’t helped when I fly past Jacobs Creek in the Barossa Valley. Wine sounds good. Any liquid sounds good.

Down but not out

295x198 road warrior CAt the foot of Mengler Hill, I rise out of the saddle for extra power, but cramp kicks in within the first few pedal strokes, forcing me to sit back down. As I grind up the hill, all I can think of is the 115km of cycling and 1500m of climbing already in my legs. It hurts. I feel marginally better about my effort when, a few hours later, this climb breaks Germany’s André Greipel — the two-time overall winner — and causes him to lose his lead in  the Tour. After the summit, everything — legs, chest, brain — feels painful and slow.

At one point I lose focus, go too fast around a corner and almost plough into a car. I’m getting angry at everything from a bump in the road to other cyclists. Poor concentration and mood swings are a sign of dehydration, so I reach for a rehydration sachet.

It doesn’t help that I’m also feeling sick. This washing-machine diet of tablets, powders and gels is leaving me queasy and I stop eating. As a result, the final 20km seems to take an age.

With 10km to go, I start to see children on BMXs and old men on tandems. I’m convinced I’m hallucinating until I remember there are also shorter 33km, 79km and 102km rides for families and the less adventurous who start further along the route and avoid the hills. Soon the “1km to go” sign looms into view and I summon one final burst of energy.

Hot Streak

When I see my finish time, I’m shocked: 4hr 28min; almost an hour faster than I hoped and with an average speed of over 30km/h. I’m delighted, or as delighted as my exhaustion will allow. But hours later the stage proper is won by Spanish rider Oscar Freire of Team Katusha in 3hr 8min with an average speed of 41.41km/h. It’s a humbling reminder of what the pros can do. One stage is enough for me. Time to hit the beach and Jacobs Creek instead.

For more information on the Bupa Challenge Tour, visit tourdownunder.com.au.

BUPA RACING TIPS

Lotto-Belisol team cyclist, Australian Adam Hansen, shares his strategies.

1 The pre-race riding regime

Allow 3-6 months to get race-fit. Cycle 1-2 times a week on flat terrain, increasing to 3-5 times a week, all the time ramping up distance and intensity. Check out the route on the Bupa website and incorporate hills, etc, where necessary.

2 What to eat and drink

A good blood-sugar level is important for staying focused, but you don’t want spikes from eating too much sugar all at once. Eat ⅓ of a performance bar every 20 minutes throughout the event. If that doesn’t feel enough, top it up with a gel.

3 Essential kit for battling the heat

Two water bottle cages are recommended for the longer rides. You can also wear a soft-brim hat under your helmet to keep out the sun. Make sure you don sunglasses and put on lots of sunscreen. Comfortable cycling clothing is critical.

4 How to maintain focus & discipline

Ride in a group at a consistent tempo with a mate. Don’t ride with guys two levels above yours — you’ll pay for it later. Chat with other competitors to take your mind off the distance.

For information about Cycling Australia, go to cycling.org.au

Saddle Snacks

Fuel to make your wheels go faster.

Energy bars

Energy bars that are as dry and hard as cardboard are the last thing a suffering cyclist craves. The ones I ate were moist and chewy with 71.7g of carbs per 100g and just 2g of fat. As with all of these products, try a few before the event to find out what you like.

Energy shake

Go for one with maltodextrin, which provides glucose polymers to keep up your energy levels, and fructose for an extra dose of energy.

Hydration tablets

In hot conditions, adding a tablet to your water bottle restores electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium, which are lost through sweat. They come in a variety of flavours, so make sure the one you’ve picked doesn’t disgust you.

Energy Gel

At the end of rides, with your stomach churning, gels are better than bars, and isotonic ones work effectively without extra water. I took an isotonic gel with 22g of fast-acting carbs in each sachet.

Recovery drink

When it was all over, I had a drink with a 3:1 ratio of carbs and protein. This balance will enhance the speed of glucose replenishment in the muscles and enable you to recover quickly from a long ride.