As the dust settles on the Greatest Weekend Ever for British CyclingTM it seems almost churlish to document my own meagre efforts; but though it occurred a world away from the sunny Champs Elysées I too can look back on a breakthrough of sorts.
Not in the Thursday evening Surrey League handicap race, of which more later. And certainly not in the Saturday Cyclopark event I’d planned to race in either, as that fixture was unceremoniously canned by the Surrey League due to a lack of pre-entries.
Instead – and fittingly, given its role in fostering my competitive comeback – it was a wet and muddy Hove Park that provided the backdrop to probably the most satisfying performance of my racing career to date.
Thanks to the missus for shooting the video that let me make this short film of the race.
Though things worked out in the end, to begin with the omens were not good. A rainstorm of biblical proportions hit us as we approached Brighton, leaving the roads awash and raising serious concerns in my mind as to whether the whole thing might be called off. However, the organisers and riders are made of tougher stuff than that, so as soon as the rain eased we scrambled to get ourselves signed in and our bikes ready for action.
Despite the weather there was a field of almost 20 for the 4ths race. As is customary, this fourth and final race of the series reverted to an anti-clockwise orientation. This meant the tougher climb would come into play, as it did for both my races at Hove Park in 2011 (read about them here and here).
The hill, which follows a sharp, low-speed left hand turn, was my nemesis 12 months ago, steadily draining me of breath until I’d fallen off the back of the bunch to be lapped on multiple occasions by the leaders. But that was then… would it be different now? It was going to be an interesting comparison: in fact, with no Goodwood meetings in 2012 and even Dunsfold having changed its finish line location this year, the race provided a first genuine opportunity to directly measure my fitness and racing smarts against my inaugural season.
I placed myself on the front row for the start, happy to lead off in the knowledge that hanging at the rear is a potentially disastrous position in these races. As the early laps unfolded I stayed in the first two or three, egged on by the encouragement of the missus and lad, who I’d badgered to come along in the hope that their presence would have its usual positive impact on my performance.
In typical Hove Park style, the bunch shed weaker riders at a steady rate, leaving no more than about 10 of us in contention for the money places. But by half distance I too had started to flag, the hill taking its toll as I dragged my 83kg up and over it time after time. At one point a curtain of pure fatigue lowered itself over my eyes and brain and I completely bungled my turn into the hill, starting my climb from the less than ideal position of the damp grass verge and probably giving the guy behind me a minor heart attack.
It was the prelude to worse tidings… I started to slide off the back.
For fuck’s sake come on, don’t you dare let them down!
In stark and happy contrast to earlier in the season, the voice in my head this time was ‘refuse to lose’ rather than ‘refuse to try’. With my loved ones watching expectantly I had to claw my way back into the lead bunch, if it killed me. A lap or so of all-out effort did the trick and I latched back on, mouth agape, puffing and wheezing like an old Mississippi paddle steamer and praying that the pace wouldn’t pick up again before I’d at least recovered to a level of exhaustion that wasn’t life-threatening…
Thankfully, it didn’t. In fact, things seemed to ease up a fair bit, so much so that two riders we lapped were able to cling on to the back of us for the remainder of the race. I started to get into a rhythm, timing my efforts on each lap to avoid going too deeply into the red and utilising my new-found bravery on descents to crouch low and leave the brakes well alone, allowing me to hold my position while basically freewheeling on the main downhill stretch.
What I didn’t do, which in hindsight I should have done, was bully my way up my little group as the lap counter started to tick off the closing circuits. Part of it was down to a lack of stomach for the physical arts of crit racing; part of it was a feeling that the last time up the hill would afford opportunities to gain places if I saved a bit of energy. And of course most of it was because I was absolutely buggered and in a world of pain.
Sure enough, on that final charge I passed maybe two other riders up the hill but was too far back to gain any further places, finishing in eighth place.
Even after a warm down lap I was still utterly shattered, as can be seen in the little movie shot by my wife on the night. My average heart rate for the race was 162bpm and that included the warm down lap and at least the first three minutes of lying prone on the grass gasping for breath, before I remembered to press the ‘stop’ button on my HRM.
Eighth. Two BC points. Doesn’t sound a lot, but – believe me – on that course it’s a helluva thing… from multiple lappings to contesting the sprint: not a bad payoff for a year of hard work.
Every cyclist who has raced on the open road knows the shout that goes up when a car is approaching on a narrow lane.
I heard it, sure enough. We were smashing our way down one of the twisty descents of the Newdigate handicap course, with me on the outside of the bunch and towards the rear, since we’d just been caught by the ‘scratch group’ of top riders.
No problem I thought, since I was near the white line but not across it. However, it wasn’t a car. It was a bloody great tractor that suddenly hoved into view – a tractor whose driver was using all of his road and a fair bit of ours, pressing on with no concession at all to the pack of bike racers now streaming past him.
There wasn’t even time to think, let alone brake.
A year ago I’d have been straight into him at just under 30mph, the results of which don’t really bear thinking about. I’m a better rider now, thank Heavens; schooled in the art of using my body position to aid my descending and with reactions sharpened by hours of racing within jittery packs of 4th Cats.
Instinctively, I threw my weight to my left and angled my body away from the tractor as sharply as I could, managing to just squeeze past. One of the riders behind me at the time came up after the race and told me he was 100% sure I was a goner and that even with the evasive action I missed the tractor by millimetres.
Bike racing… what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…