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Inside the America’s Cup hurt locker

Simon van Velthooven has sailed in his first proper boat race – against the champions of the America’s Cup - and discovered a new kind of hurt.

The Emirates Team New Zealand cyclor is hardened to the pain of pedalling relentlessly in pursuit of victory, from his successful days as an Olympic track cyclist.

Out on Bermuda’s Great Sound on Sunday morning, the first day of racing in the 35th America’s Cup, van Velthooven again felt the familiar burn in his legs and lungs from the intensity of competition. “It really hurt out there,” he said. “It was a hell of a lot faster than I’d imagined.”

He also experienced a new type of pain, as Team NZ rekindled their rivalry with Cup defenders Oracle - in a race they almost had, and then lost, by just six seconds.

It was an historic day in the America’s Cup, when for the first time in 166 years, the defender raced amongst the challengers, like a cat amongst the pigeons. And they came out clutching feathers – the only team in the six-boat fleet unbeaten after two races.

Although it had to have wounded Team NZ’s pride to be pipped by Jimmy Spithill and Team USA for a ninth time in a row (carrying over those excruciating losses from San Francisco four years ago), there was the consolation that their encounter had all the hallmarks of a classic match-race – a bow-to-bow start, lead swaps, a luffing duel, a dramatic protest appeal. Just like the good old days.

But this was the first-ever racing day for van Velthooven, and he did a good job of masking the hurt afterwards.

“It’s happy days,” he said, after emerging from a cold bath to cool his body down. “Everyone was so happy that our boat was singing out there. We finished a relatively hard race with a lot of hydraulic fluid left. If it wasn’t for a couple of mishaps, it would have been an excellent day.”

Team NZ came away with one win from day one - a straightforward 2m 33s annihilation of the hapless French first-up - and no damage to their boat. And they learned the age-old lesson of staying between your rival and the mark, and never giving Oracle a second chance.

Helmsman Peter Burling and his crew were not without errors on Day Two either - the worst, entering the startbox too soon against the British, copping an immediate penalty. But they still came away with two impressive wins: a come-from-behind 33s victory over Dean Barker's Team Japan, before waltzing away from the battered Ben Ainslie Racing boat to win by 1m 28s.

Van Velthooven knew it could have been much worse. He could have been one of the grinders on board Softbank Team Japan, who escaped with their heads after the menacing black hull of Brit Ben Ainslie’s Rita crashed down on them in the starting box in the final match of the day.

Skipper Dean Barker and a couple of his crew were knocked around in the crash. Kiwi grinder Derek Saward instinctively put his hand out to stop the hull as it bore down on them and crumpled Barker’s steering wheel.

But the most damage was done to the British boat which, with a gaping wound in its port side, came close to sinking as it sailed out the rest of the race. “By the time we got to the dock she was on her way down," Ainslie said. "It was all hands to the pumps and bailing. It's been about 30 years since I was bailing out Optimist dinghies, and it wasn't something I was expecting to do.”

Sir Ben Ainslie and the BAR team bail water from their damaged yacht Rita following a collision with Softback Team Japan. Photo: ACEA 2017/ Ricardo Pinto

Both the BAR and Japanese team had a long night in the shed repairing their damage to return to the racecourse this morning. But neither could pull off a win today, both falling to Team NZ and Oracle.

Van Velthooven watched as the first crash of this America’s Cup (but doubtful to be the last) played out, and wondered how he might react.

“I’d just duck down into the hull and hope for the best,” the cyclor said. “These are pretty wild boats, with a lot of horsepower in the wing. When the boats get that close, one wrong manoeuvre, one wrong trim, and you can end up on top of someone else.”

Every day that the rookie van Velthooven takes to the water his understanding of sailing leaps significantly. The bronze medallist in the keirin at the 2012 Olympics was brought into Team NZ to train sailors to become pedallers, on the boat’s revolutionary pedalstals. In the process, he transformed from cyclist to cyclor.

He saw Oracle only “a few times” in his first race, as he literally was head down on the carbon-fibre deck, pedalling frantically, at the front of the cyclor peleton – purely producing power for the boat’s hydraulic systems.

“I was definitely thrown in the deep end out there, but I did my job as best as I could - keep your head down pedal hard and make sure Blair, Pete and Glenn [the Team NZ afterguard] have all the hydraulic fluid that they need,” he said.

Team NZ made good use of the substitution rule - which allows two crew changes between races - with van Velthooven replacing Olympic rowing champion Joe Sullivan after the French victory.

“We are definitely the mercenaries in cyclor positions one and two. The guys behind us pedal hard when they need to, but they have more boat control to do. Everyone has their job, so we pedal 100 percent,” van Velthooven said.

“I’ve made sure that the guys have trained all the muscles they need to handle the loads. Because the pump we’re powering is not like a bike at all; it’s like pushing a dead weight around. It’s quite a neural effort, very draining.

“It was much, much harder out there today than any other sailing I’ve done, but that’s the nature of sport, isn’t it? Everyone steps it up on race day.”

And therein lies another revelation from the opening day. Apart from the out-of-touch French, who also lost heavily to the defenders, all challengers proved they were contenders for the Cup match in just 20 days’ time.

“Today BAR beat Artemis, Artemis beat Japan, Japan beat BAR, and we were close to Oracle. There are five teams out here going hammer and tongs, and we keep saying ‘Imagine if there were 10 teams here, it would be outrageous’,” van Velthooven says.

“At the end of the day, the most reliable boat combined with the best crew, who can pull off the best manoeuvres, will win.”

At the end of a fascinating first day, the cyclist-turned-cyclor was pinching himself; racing at the top echelon of another sport, he said, felt a little surreal.

“It’s one of the cool things about being a New Zealander. Anything is possible. You’re doing something amazing one day, and then another door opens and you’re doing something else incredible the next.”

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