Dunc’s 11 City blog – day 4

After yesterday’s brutal headwinds, we were blessed with a tailwind for almost the whole of today’s 43.3km stage from Franeker to Dokkum – it made it a super-fast one, basically a 4-hour downwinder, plus I went probably as hard as I’ve ever paddled to get what I think was another top 10 finish in a strong masters fleet at this 2018 SUP 11 City Tour

Today’s start was the tightest yet, so with barely room for 7 paddlers across the canal in Franeker, our huge masters fleet of probably approaching 30 now properly filled the waterway about 5 rows deep. Not a start I was looking forward to, but it turned out pretty good for me – we weren’t allowed up to the startline proper (from our pre-start line) until a minute to go, and although I found myself a gap into the front row I decided to stay safely second row behind a couple of familiar tails. At the gun I had space to escape the maelstrom behind, kept my nerve, kept paddling and weaved my way safely through the carnage – avoiding one of the leaders falling in the middle. Phew!

Then, when I had a chance to look ahead, I saw there was another rush for the lead group – just like yesterday – and again the guy one up on me in the ranking, Stéphane (Fool Moon, the Swiss!) had made a break for it. So I figured I should probably roll the dice and go for it too rather than watch him paddling off into the distance again. It soon emerged that there were two lead trains: five of the recently elite guys steamed ahead, leaving Stéphane in no man’s land, followed by a 4-strong group of chargers, then me and the rapidly approaching faller from the start, with a decent gap back to the rest of the fleet. With a crosswind at first for a few k after the start, it wasn’t easy going trying to make my way up there – but as the faller came back up on a mission, I asked if he minded me taking his tail (JP 23.5) and turned myself inside out (touching 9.6kmph without any wind assistance!) to follow him up to the second group before he jumped train and made his bid for the leaders. By this time Stéphane had been reeled in and was driving this second train … which I soon realised seemed to contain a couple of cannibals! Seems trains aren’t so friendly up in the top ten, as I saw them use and discard Stéphane and another guy as their pace men; and we were still at some pace 6k in, rating 9.2 / 9.3kmph – it was all I could do to stay in touch with the back of the draft train. Then I was asked to do my turn, tempting as it was to nod towards my inflatable and shrug my shoulders, I had a go at hitting the front of the train but faced with a monster tattooed Spaniard at full pace on a 2019 Fanatic (which looks remarkably like a Sprint, but in red!) I soon had to admit defeat in this particular battle and peel off…

On the plus side for me, the cannibals had truly spent Stéphane Fool Moon the Swiss  who was now a good hundred meters behind me, which gave me the motivation to keep pushing up towards the lock – and our only portage of the whole race – 11k in. Thanks to the Chelmer and Thames, I really didn’t have a problem with the lock and got through pretty clean, even taking the chance for an energy gel on the way through (a lot of people seemed weirdly fazed out by it though!) I was surprised to see one of my sparring partners from the last few days, the South African who it turns out is called Shayne that I was a place ahead of, standing with Furio at the lock – unfortunately he’d been forced to pull out after yesterday’s headwind stage as he’d trapped a nerve in his elbow. Gutted. I didn’t hang about though, so safely through the lock, I got myself into the zone for another 10k of race pace lone paddling up to halfway – which went well, I conserved my energy but managed to put a little more water between me and Stéphane so he came off at the rest point maybe a minute or so behind me. I’ve got these breaks dialled now – 15 minutes: soup, coke (of the a-cola variety!) chocolate, go grab my bag, Lucozade Sport, painkillers, return my bag, more chocolate, water, quick stretch and back onto my board with a couple of minutes left on the stopwatch. Hand that to Hans or one of his many helpers on the bank, wait for the go, and go!

Now we were into proper tailwind territory, with 6-inch chop running down the canal it was easy enough to hold 8.8 / 8.9kmph speeds – and the scenery was amazing. We were back into traditional windmill country, vast flat green agricultural land (which does explain the wind!), sheep, cows, Shetland ponies for some reason, it was totally beautiful… I was still paddling strong and feeling strong, as I saw another black shirt (us masters wear black) beginning to loom into view and realised I was gaining. It was one of the original members of the cannibal train who had obviously been spat out by the two guys left up there – so I redoubled my efforts and started to reel him in, powered past and invited him to draft me for a couple of kilometres whilst he got back up to speed. We had 8km to go now, and this extra impetus has pushed me up above 9kmph, then he offered to take over at the front. He was on a Starboard Sprint 21.5, with a big smiley face permanent markered onto the tail and a Luna Surf sticker – probably thanks more to the board than its adornment he pushed us up to 9.2, 9.3, 9.4kmph. Which I held onto OK (we were now in maybe 20-knot tailwinds) and in fact felt I had more in the tank, so as he began to slow a little with 4k to go I took the lead again and got us flying at consistently 9.3 / 9.4kmph, touching on 9.5! This was undoubtedly the hardest I’ve ever pushed on a paddleboard but it felt amazing and I was able to keep it up right the way to the finishline – despite Smiley Luna peeling off and trying to go past me, he just didn’t seem to have the power and left me with what I think might have been 9th place?

I’ve also got the finish dialled now – straight off the water, board and paddle into the board store, bee-line to the massage tent to get my name on the list, then with abouat a 40-minute wait there was time to get double dinner (we’re given two meal tickets – today was a huge bean-filled pancake wrap with hummus and stuff, very nice) and a lemon Amstel (we’ve also got drink tokens, so I now promise myself an Amstel midway through the paddle for being a brave boy!) Then get the 20-minute sports massage, work out the lift situation and get back to the van at the start. Then, while I have been driving back to the finish every day, today I’ve come to Leeuwarden where tomorrow’s stage finishes so I stand half a chance of leaving on time for the ferry. Andrew Smith and his family are staying here so his wife Maria will drive us to tomorrow’s start in the morning. Unfortunately the ‘campingplaats’ (basically a municipal motorhome car-park by the canal with all the amenities) is full tonight so I’m sort of very civilised wild camping just outside the gates. And as I made my third dinner of the evening (pasta surprise!) we had an unexpected 20-minute-long fireworks display over town – probably something to do with the city of culture status, or it could be some kind of festival as the music still hasn’t stopped!

Anyway, bedtime now ahead of the final day tomorrow – a ‘mere’ 27km stage. But it’s an individual time trial with no drafting … into a headwind the whole way, possibly 14-knots. It’s going to hurt!  I believe my start time is 11.01 – and I think I’m ready. On the plus side, no mass start, and it could be my opportunity to break into the top 10 if I can claw a few more minutes back off Stéphane, so I’m going to go for it…

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