One of the most enthralling aspects of watching the new Sky TV documentary about British Cycling (second only to playing ‘spot the Majorca roads I’ve ridden on’) is listening to the team’s resident psychologist, Steve Peters.
The training details in the programme I can’t really relate to – pro riders are of course in the sort of shape the likes of me could never even dream about: born physiologically superior and prepared to the nth degree. But when Peters talks about racing cyclists’ mental frailties… now, that got me listening.
My wife, too, who dug me in the ribs at every mention of giving up, seeing the dark side of everything and generally losing the race before it has even started. The ‘inner chimp’, Steve Peters famously calls it. To me it’s always been ‘the other me’ a constant, nagging companion in my brain who questions everything I do, drags away any crumbs of positivity that I muster and generally acts like another c-word that doesn’t end in ‘himp’.
It’s really annoying, because either side of bike races I fairly burst with determination – visualising the route to that elusive victory or plotting how to put things right next time out. It’s as soon as I’m on the start line that things begin to unravel… Ugh, why are there so many (insert name of team) here today… it’s too cold… he looks bloody strong… so does he… oh God, here comes another kicking… etc etc.
So it proved on my return visit to Cyclopark – breaking a pledge as I’d vowed never to race there again after my bruising debut a year ago.
A lot has changed in that year. For starters the venue is no longer just a track surrounded by a muddy building site. It now has a proper car park and a very nice clubhouse with actual toilets and running water, rather than a Portakabin with a bowser that nobody knew how to turn on.
The track itself also seems to have mysteriously flattened – and straightened – out. After the simply horrible race I did last year I had subsequently developed a picture in my mind of gargantuan slopes, each rise on the circuit equivalent to two Ditchling Beacons back-to-back. I can distinctly remember being forced to change to the inner ring to tackle one of them in the final laps before I bailed out altogether. I also distinctly remember about three or four more hairpins or other similarly nasty twisty bits. At least I thought I did.
After two months of little or no training, due to work pressures, I should probably have expected a similarly brutal story this time around. However, it just didn’t happen – in fact I turned out to be one of the more comfortable climbers in the field! No doubt the absence of 3rd Cats (last year was a 3/4 race) played a big part, but it was still highly gratifying to be maintaining a decent position as the undulations whittled the bunch down to just over half its former size. Perhaps old Cyclopark’s not so bad after all…
Seemingly content with the natural attrition rate, nobody was keen to make a serious stab at a breakaway, the massed ranks of Dulwich Paragon and Crawley Wheelers keeping in close attention at the front. In fact, apart from the very erratic riding of one guy from the West Kent club the race was ticking along quite nicely, especially when West Kent blew up (probably due to having ridden about 10 miles longer thanks to all the weaving) and slipped behind at about three-quarters distance, much to the relief of everyone else.
It was then that I made my first big error, spurning the chance to take a gel while the pace was still relatively sedate. Whether or not it would have made a difference nutritionally, it allowed my inner chimp to grasp at something negative and start working away.
Rather like my troubled attempts at slumber the night before, when a totally irrational fear that I’d left the garage unlocked had me tossing and turning, and the awful nervousness before the race that had literally turned my insides out, thoughts about my lack of suitability for this whole racing endeavour wormed their way into my consciousness and had me fretting when I should have been plotting.
It didn’t help that my previous race, at Hillingdon, had seen me run out of puff in the final couple of laps, something that had played on my mind ever since. Sure enough, when the pace clipped up a few notches with two laps to go I started to struggle, certainly physically but also in the mind.
By then the ‘bunch’ had reduced to about sixteen of us, with a chap from the Brighton Mitre yo-yoing off the back and no one else in sight. I was still there as we started the last lap, albeit towards the back of the little group. Needing eighth or better to get my 3rd Cat license and knowing I’d been going well up the climb that would be the last before the line it was nicely set up for a barnstorming finish, just like I’d visualised in the days leading up to the race.
Except that when the time came to really lay it on the line – I mean really lay it on the line – I was found wanting. I didn’t go to 100%. I listened to my inner chimp and gave in to my (admittedly very real) fatigue. The leaders slipped away and about 10 of them contested the final sprint, with a few other last lap laggards rolling over the line just before I arrived in sixteenth place (although I’m convinced it was a place or two better than that and a couple of lapped riders were in fact counted wrongly).
So anyway, here’s the post-race positivity. It was a massive improvement on my last visit to Cyclopark. I was fairly competitive despite a severely compromised training regimen. I’ll be better for having that race in my legs. And several of the top ten are no longer 4th Cats.
Well, there you go. It’s obvious, isn’t it? All I have to do is turn up to next week’s Surrey League return fixture and victory is assured…