The Tour du Monde on RGT was the first stage race I’d ever done in my life. I had previous from the Highland March what it was like to flog your tired body day after day, but on a bike, this was a new experience.
It’s also true that before RGT, or perhaps I should qualify that by saying before the pandemic came along to refocus all of our lives, I’d only ever raced once on a bike, the Corrieyairick race from Fort Augustus to Kincraig in 2006, and I crashed in that, and in the process suffered a knee injury that finished my running career.
I’d done some criterium races on RGT from October onwards, but my experience as a novice was pretty uninspiring. I came away thinking that my place was down the back of the field, simply because I couldn’t keep up with the guys at the front. Cross country running taught me that forty years ago so it came as no great surprise to find that the same thing was true in virtual bike racing. But what I didn’t know, or at least hadn’t realised at that point, was that there’s a reason it’s like that, and we’ll come to that in due course.
I fancied doing the TDM for two reasons: (1) it sounded like fun, and it was likely that most of the regular punters on the platform would be doing it so it offered a great opportunity to make new friends and forge new virtual relationships. (2) R2CN has conditioned my body to a daily flogging (today was stage 572 in a row at a daily average of 35 miles) so in a masochistic sort of a way, I actually thought I might have an inbuilt advantage as the race wore on.
So having set the scene from a purely historical viewpoint, let’s take a moment to look at the shape of the race: twelve stages in fourteen days:
- Two individual flat stages
- Two flat time trials, one an individual TT, the other a team TT.
- Four hilly stages
- Four mountain stages.
There were three individual competitions running in parallel, and team competitions where the third placed rider from each team on each stage determined the allocation of times.
As I said at the top of the show, I’d never done anything remotely like this on a bike before, so it was as exciting as it was nerve wracking at times. One thing it definitely was, was full on racing virtually every day.
I race as R2CN. That is my screen name. The whole RGT experience for me is not so much about being Steve Taylor as using the platform as a global awareness raising gig for neuroblastoma research. The TDM community lobbed almost two hundred quid at R2CN, aka Solving Kids Cancer, on the final day of the tour, and I’m truly humbled by that.
Because the TDM was a global race, there were four timeslots allocated to each stage. Within the TDM community, we got to know them as race 1, race 2, race 3 and race 4. In terms of timeslots, using GMT as the benchmark, the races were every six hours starting from 00:30. As a semi-retired person, it suited my routine to go in race 3 at lunchtime wherever possible, but once we got into the second week of the tour and the racing, for me at least, got serious, I started doing more of the race 4 slots, because that’s where the big boys were, or as I call them, the diesel engines. The reason for that will become clear in a wee while.
Stage 1 was an individual time trial in the Grand Canyon in the USA. Ever so slightly uphill the whole way, it was 19 miles of you against the clock. There was no drafting, which basically means you couldn’t gain an advantage by sitting behind another rider for long periods, and the only requirement was to bury yourself in pain for 50 minutes or so, or in my case 58 minutes. I had a technical glitch at the start of the stage which maybe cost me a couple of minutes to resolve, but the bottom line was that I got blown away by the big boys. I placed 166th on GC (General Classification) at the end of stage 1. I thought to myself “I know my place”.
Stage 2 was hilly, on the famous Liege-Bastogne-Liege course in Belgium. But sadly for me, most of the climbing was at the back end of the stage because that was really where I thought I could make more of an impact. Stage 2 was where I learned the basic lesson of eRacing: you have to be prepared to fly out of the traps with your legs screaming. If you don’t, you’re toast from the off. I screamed my legs and actually managed to stay in touch with the leaders before the inevitable happened and I got shelled out the back.
I was in race 3 that had 112 riders, so even though I was off the front by halfway, 25th at that point felt like a decent outcome. Then we got to the hill. As a former hill running champion and 31 minute 10K runner, hills don’t faze me the way they do other riders. I started taking over people. My only regret on that stage was that I didn’t begin my attack early enough, otherwise my 11th in race 3 might have been much higher. Once the results were in from the other three races, my 11th converted into 16th place out of 211 riders. My interest was suddenly piqued: if I can do that on a hilly stage, what might happen once we got into the mountains.
I didn’t have long to wait. Stage 3, after the first rest day, was up the giant Tianmen Mountain in China: 2890ft of climbing in just under nine miles, with the customary frantic leg burning start out of the pen.
Again, I went in race 3 in the lunchtime slot, and shot out of the blocks. Once the climb started in earnest, and the road of a hundred hairpins lived up to its name, I put my foot on the gas. Names that are now familiar to me weren’t so back then, and it’s only by knowing how good some of these guys are in the heat of battle that can I judge my first place in race 3 of that stage. But it wasn’t enough to translate into a stage win because most of the big guns were in race 4. Still, 8th place out of 198 starters was once again a decent result, and for the first time I started to realise that within the confines of the tour, I’d actually found something that I was relatively good at: going up hills.
Stage 4, the very next day, was another hilly stage, and once again I elected to go in the more moderately paced race 3. It was 20 miles taken from the final stages of the Milan-San Remo classic and although it was billed as a hilly stage, there was once again enough flat for the diesel engines to get the power down, an area where I am definitely vulnerable, both tactically and power wise. I got dropped on a descent, rode solo for a wee while, and then pulled my usual stunt of making up places near the end when the road went up. That detachment off the front was to prove costly however because on a stage where KOTM (King Of The Mountain) points were on offer, my 7th place in race 3 was overwhelmed in race 4 and I only placed 26th out of 234 on the stage. I wasn’t worried by the result, but I was annoyed by having lost precious time by not being in the bunch for longer.
Stage 5 was a furious flat out job from the town of Yulara in central Australia, taking in a couple of laps around Ayer’s Rock in the World Heritage Site at Uluru. My customary race 3 jaunt was as good as I could have hoped for under the circumstances, it being a flat stage and all that, but 37th out of 49 starters spelt serious bad news for my chances on the GC. 37th translated into 208th out of 237 starters on the stage by the time the big boys had been out to play, and at the halfway point of the tour, I pretty much had my mind made up for me: I was good in the mountains, decent on the hills, but rubbish on the flat.
Stage 6 was in Rio, a testing mountain stage starting down at the seafront and ending at the statue of Christ The Redeemer that looks down on the city. This being a Saturday, the big guns were all in race 3, the lunchtime slot, and it was finally an opportunity to use some tactical nous acquired from the first five stages, before attacking on the first climb. I got 3rd from 104, which became 5th from 179 once all of the other races had completed. At least I now knew that I was competitive in the mountains. 8th and 5th from the first two gave me renewed confidence with two more giant mountain stages left.
At the halfway point of the tour, I was way out of it on GC but starting to sniff around the top ten in the KOTM competition, and that gave me hope for the second week.
Stage 7, the very next day, turned out to be pivotal in the context of the tour. Two climbs with a five mile descent/flat between them, I got away with the lead group up the first climb, but my customary achilles heel did for me on the descent. I lost the lead group and trailed by a minute or so as we approached the Agliru (the Alto de Cordal) with it’s 20% gradients approaching the summit. It took me no time at all to catch and despatch the guys in third and second, but out front on his own was Falk Levien, a rider from Germany and leader in the KOTM. When I finally caught up with Falk, we went through a phase in which we were like two punch drunk boxers trying to land the knockout blow. I knew that Falk was way stronger and faster than me on the flat, of which there was about a mile to the finish once we got over the top of the climb, so I knew that my only chance was in attacking early: but that meant going on the 20% stuff.
I just sat on Falk’s wheel for what seemed like an eternity, trying to give the impression that I was hanging on, whereas in reality I was just watching the distance to go ticking down to 2.5 miles. It came just as we approached (yet) another hairpin, and I just booted it with all I had for about twenty seconds. Finally I had a gap. Having a gap, and managing it, is so much easier than having no gap at all when the race is going uphill. I knew that I needed at least 400m going over the top, so I just kept pushing, albeit not so hard as before, and I got the respite that I needed. First in race 4 also became first on the stage, from 156 starters. As far as the KOTM was concerned, I was finally in business. I started to think I might make the top five, and the time gaps gained on the mountain had even elevated me to 11th on GC.
From obscurity and relative distinterest, I was now focussed on at least one front, if not two. Up top, Falk Levien still led both competitions.
The next day was the second rest day, but of course with R2CN still in full flow, I don’t do rest days. I just banged in 35 miles as normal.
By now my team mates in Team 3R had convinced me that my tactic of going in race 3 was costing me dear, both in terms of time in the GC and points in the mountain competition. I’m not going to dwell on what might have been if I’d raced in the first week as I did in the second, but suffice to say that if you want to mix it with the big boys in a stage result, then by hell you’d better be out on the road with them in the heat of battle. You will not achieve your goals by racing in a smaller, slower field six hours earlier, that’s all I’ll say.
The Tuesday night of the second week brought about stage 8, a hilly 20 miles on Norfolk Island in the southern ocean off Australia. I went with the diesel engines in race 4 from the off, and this time I actually managed to stay the course. For the first time on the tour, I did not get (significantly) dropped before the first big climb. What’s more, the guys who did gain, max fifteens seconds, soon got reeled in once the road when up a second time. For the second time in three days, I hit the front. But because I don’t know ‘all’ of the names from the front of the pack (but I am learning fast) I made a fatal mistake when a Spanish chap went back past me about a third of the way up the final hill. I assumed, mistakenly, that I would just pick him off again further up the road. I was wrong, because he was way stronger than I was. Still, second on the stage from 162 lifted me into the top three in the KOTM, something I’d never even contemplated a week earlier, and from a nobodies tour at the outset, I’d now gatecrashed the top 10 on GC.
Wednesday, and stage 9, was my day of doom. Everyone should plan for a day of doom, because that ultimately is what makes you or breaks you. Stage 9 was a fast and furious flat stage round the pyramids of Egypt, and I made the decision to go with the slower race 3 instead of the turbo charged race 4 because I thought it presented me with the best chance of staying with the lead group for longer. Being in the lead group means being in the draft of the leaders, going faster, and critically, saving energy. Cue a power ‘failure’ about five miles into the stage, just as the race hit the first serious hill. I got dropped by a group of around thirty guys going up a 3.5% gradient, whereas I’d destroyed the diesel engines up a climb twice as steep as that the night before. At first I thought it must be my legs. Had I given too much on stage 8, and was I now paying the price? Whatever the reason, I wasn’t exactly thinking straight as we came off the top, and the next group soon flew past on the flat: and the group after that too. By time I realised that it wasn’t my legs, but the smart trainer that was throttling my power, I was way, way down the field. I reconfigured the power feed from the trainer from Ant+ to Bluetooth and as if by magic, I got my full power back. It was like when you’re watching F1 and the guy on the pit wall tells his driver to reset to mode 3 because he’s doing he’s doing 180 down the straight instead of the expected 200. I was doing 15mph instead of 20.
But the damage was done. I finished 164th on the stage, from 216 starters, and I slipped back out of the top ten on GC. Fortunately, as a flat stage, it had no bearing on the KOTM.
The next day, Thursday, was pivotal to the rest of the race. Falk Levien still led both the GC and the KOTM and was very much the man to beat. We’d become friends on Facebook after I responded to a comment he’d posted about the race, and I was both dismayed for Falk, both a person and a racer when he messaged me ahead of stage 10 to announce that he was having to quit the tour through injury. No one should have to leave the battle field like that, and certainly not when you’ve given your all to such great effect. Falk had been my man of the tour to that point, but racing being racing, I now had to refocus on the what lay ahead: one hilly stage, a team time trial, and a final tortuous climb up the Col Du Telegraph and the Col Du Galibier.
First up, on the Thursday night, was stage 10 on James Ross Island in Antartica. It’s perhaps worth mentioning at this point that every one of stages of the TDM took place on an RGT magic road. These are virtual roads made up by the promoters of the tour, and in that regard a magic road can replicate any piece of terrain anywhere on the planet. That’s one of the great attractions of RGT, the ability to do just that. My adventure across the USA on route 66 was done in exactly the same way: magic roads, constructed in a combination of Garmin Connect and Strava.
Anyway, I digress.
Stage 10 comprised a long downhill/flat 19 miles before the first of two beastly climbs. My team (3R) had made it their objective to deliver me safely to the foot of the first climb where I could hopefully wreak my usual havoc amongst the main contenders. The guy with a virtual target on his back was James Melville, who I would class, from my three months of racing single stage flat races on RGT, as the most fearsome racer out there. Whereas Falk came out of left field, I knew about James. And he’s from just up the road in Glasgow. In fact his whole RGT squad of racers are from his Glasgow United cyclo cross team. It felt that I was racing the bloke up the road. Racing James Melville is a challenge in itself, but with Falk having abandoned the tour, I now had to find some way of dislodging James from top spot in the KOTM. He was now the hot favourite for the GC, so my focus on stage 10 was effectively to finish within striking range of James in order to take the KOTM to the last stage up the Galibier.
Stage 10 did not go according to plan. Nothing new there then.
I thought I was doing so well until I made an error of judgement and got spat out of the back of the lead group two miles before the first climb. My team leader in the group went on the race chat to ask where his wingman had gone. Sorry boss, I lost concentration for a split second and they blew me away. Then I had that all too familiar power issue that had afflicted me on stage 9 – I recognised it when the second group shot past me and I couldn’t respond. By the time I’d done the same power reconfig, I was back in the mid fifties placewise. I had about nine miles to save any chance in the KOTM, and by that I mean take it to the final stage. On hilly stages, of which this was one, the winner gets 200 points, then it goes 190, 180, 175, 170, 165, 160 etc. On mountain stages, KOTM points are worth double that.
At the start of stage 10, I was 14 points behind James. The only way I could be sure of keeping the KOTM in my own hands was to finish ahead of him on the road. He knew that and I knew I that. And with about nine miles of the stage to go, all I knew was that he was likely up the front somewhere while I was languishing back in the fifties.
It was damage limitation time.
The first hill was the steeper of the two. For a hilly stage, it was quite brutal, but fortunately it splintered the field. Every time I caught and passed a rider, I could see another one up road, and another one after that. On repeat. Fifty became forty. Forty became thirty. Thirty became twenty. But still there was no sign of James Melville. I pushed harder. Twenty became ten. By now I was running pretty much on adrenaline and fumes, but the thing about Taylors, and indeed this R2CN journey, is that we don’t do giving up. Ever. Once I got past tenth, I could see the next three riders on the leaderboard, and there he was: James was in 7th. And there was still one more significant climb to go.
Cue what I said earlier. James Melville is the most fearsome racer on RGT bar none, and now I had to take him on, on terrain that suited both of us. Two miles up then one mile flat and down. Just like on stage 7 with Falk, I had one chance: I had to get away on the climb. For about two or three minutes, we traded blow after blow as each of us tried to get away. I eventually got clear, and such was my raging focus by that point, I caught and passed the next two guys up the road too. But James being the racer that he is, he caught them too and limited the damage to two places: game on for stage 12 and the KOTM.
Friday was a rest day ahead of the team time trial. But being a greedy racer, I now had two objectives: the KOTM and the GC. I knew that because we’d never practiced riding in formation, our Team 3R was likely to lose heaps of time on stage 11: the Team Time Trial. I was not wrong.
I’d discussed my issues on the disastrous stage 9 with the rest of my team, and when the promoters offered catchup stages for riders who’d either missed a stage, or wanted to improve on a previous performance, I thought having a second crack at stage 9 might be an option on the rest day. They talked me out of it on the grounds that I should focus on stage 12, the mountain stage up the Galibier. Reluctantly, I agreed, but – and they will probably go WTF when they read this, because they don’t know how the rest day played out, I decided on the Friday morning that as I was going out to do R2CN miles anyway, I might as well give my all on the re-run of stage 9.
If I may paint the scene, I went back over the video of the original stage 9, when I got dropped by the group on the first climb, and noted the timing points every two miles. Drafting in the bunch is way, way faster than riding alone so it was certain that I would lose heaps of time in the early stages, but I also knew that I just had to be patient for that period when I was originally riding alone and on reduced power.
There were only three of us in the pen for the re-run, so this was effectively an individual time trial, which I already knew I’m not very good at.
To cut a long story short, I was two and half minutes down on the schedule at halfway. Two and a half minutes!!! “Should I just chuck it and cut my losses” was going through my head big time. But I haven’t endured through something like 1850 days of R2CN to give up now. That’s what kept me going. “Let’s see how the next check looks…” on repeat. Slowly, I started pulling it back. And just as it was on stage 10, there’s nothing like getting a wee sniff of something in your favour to drive the legs ever harder.
I gained 8 seconds over my original time. Eight seconds on GC. It gained me one place out of 216 riders. If you want to home in one statistic out of the whole Tour Du Monde, focus on that one. I made up almost three minutes in the second half of the stage on tired legs that had been challenged to retrieve an impossible situation the night before.
Eight seconds. 60m 16s became 60m 8s on a rest day.
Leona Knox once told me that we don’t do giving up. Leona sent me a poem to confirm it. We don’t do giving up. Ever.
Saturday, stage 11, was the team time trial. I was an embarrassment. I’d never ever needed to ride in strict formation, so on an undulating course where I was great going uphill, I was inevitably rubbish going down the other side. My two team mates managed to keep some kind of structure but I’m afraid I was like a yoyo on a piece of string. And we lost heaps of time, which counted against us all on GC, but it is what it is. We did our best.
One stage to go.
Second in the KOTM by four points, I just needed to finish ahead of James Melville to secure a rather unexpected crown. Easier said than done. But that was at least within my control. The GC had gone AWOL and I was back in 15th place. At the very least, having given so much to the tour and raced every stage, I wanted to try and get back into the top ten.
Cue a bloke with a spreadsheet.
On the Saturday night, I took the GC after 11 stages and stuck it in column one. Then I took the stage 7 result from Angliru, the nearest comparative stage to the Galibier, and dumped those times in the next column. Then I added the two together in a third column in order to create ballpark total. To cut a long story short, Tim Davies, who was in 5th place, and who was in that original breakaway that broke me on the descent of stage 7, was fourteen minutes ahead of me on my provisional GC. I took almost fifteen minutes out of Tim on the latter half of that final climb up the Angliru.
It gave me hope so I stuck a virtual target on his back.
I was 15th, Tim was 5th. I set myself a target of getting sixteen minutes back, a minute of which was contingency in case he got into a strong group and had a good day.
Tactics: just fucking go for it. From the off. “If you blow up halfway up the Galibier, at least you gave it your best shot”.
But on the day, I got lucky. There was a gap between the top of the Col Du Telegraph and the foot of the Col Du Galibier where I knew I would lose significant time if I was riding alone against a chasing express train, which incidentally, was guaranteed to include James Melville.
A French rider went after me when I tried to break clear up the Col Du Telegraph, and much as I would have liked to ridden the whole stage against the virtual clock, I needed his support for ‘the gap’. Maxime Saonit won stage 10, the stage where I had to play catch up, so I already knew that he was a serious player. We worked together on the descent, but I needed more time than our collective pace was creating once we got onto the Galibier, so I emptied the tank alone.
It was virtually impossible to do the maths on the road. Trying to work out the average number of minutes per mile, then multiply that by an ever changing gap (depending on gradient) between two riders in real time, when you’re tired, is just too much. So in the end I just had to do what I could, then sit back and watch the clock on the live stream once I’d finished.
I got seventeen minutes and took Tim’s 5th place. If you’d said to me after stage 1 that I’d even be in a position to compete for such an elevated position, I’d have laughed it off. But… I am a former 31 minute 10K man, and Ross, my eldest, who has some of my genes and my certainly my legs, was the 2019 World Lightweight Natural (as in drug free) Bodybuilding Champion. And we’re both tiny with strong legs.
There was a discussion amongst our team during the second week of the tour about the relative performance of the different bits of kit that are supported by RGT. I use an Elite Novo Smart ‘wheel on’ trainer than allows the back wheel of a road bike to sit on the flywheel of the trainer. The RGT software sits on two devices that communicate with the trainer: if you connect to the trainer using Ant+, then the signal comes from the laptop that’s hosting the screen app (that I then relay to a telly in the garden shed). If you connect through bluetooth, then the RGT mobile app on your phone controls the trainer.
But there are other ways of doing the same thing. Direct drive trainers allow the back wheel to be removed and the chain connects directly onto the trainer. As a software guy, I remain sceptical whether the two systems are compatible, and that’s before you introduce different manufacturers of the various bits of kit. For my part, my trainer has been configured using the software app that came from the manufacturer, then I race just about as hard as I can.
All of the power in the RGT app comes from the bike: if you don’t work hard, you go slowly. If you push harder, you go faster. Somewhere between the RGT software that controls the trainer and your legs, there’s a balance. I do not profess to know where that lies. What I do know is that I appear to be good at going up hills, even at my age. Maybe the fact that I’ve averaged around 1500ft feet of climbing and 35 miles a day of distance for each of the last 572 days helps to explain how I was seemingly stronger in the second week of the TDM than I was in the first. Indeed, as a point of reference on that, the fact that I banged in six one hundred miles days in nine days towards the end of the Ride2Cure in Australia backs up the argument that I have good endurance.
The one thing that still bugs me is that because we were all on different equipment, there is no way of knowing whether my performance on the TDM was favourable because of the technology. But what I do know is that I raced my bollocks off, I never, ever gave up, and I won the King Of The Mountains for R2CN, and got a top five finish on the GC, which I really did not expect.
That’ll do me.