My legs feel as weak as a kitten’s”
were the exact words I used, while sat in the office earlier in the day, before heading down to Manchester for the final round of crits.
By the time I’d got there and signed on the feeble leggedness (that’s definitely a word, by the way, don’t bother looking it up, you can trust me) had spread to include a very butterflied (also a word) stomach as I realised the turnout for the race was nearly double what it had been for the previous two rounds I’d raced at. Oddly butterflied (it is a word), in fact, to the point where my HRM started bleating out readings well over 100bpm just while I was pulling my race jersey on…
Now, I’ll admit I did get a bit tangled up in the jersey – you know, where you have to sort of thrash about a bit to get it over your shoulders and then sort of shimmy around to pull it down over your chest – but it wasn’t enough of a workout to raise my heart rate that much!
Being thoroughly ‘pro’ I decided to just ignore it and go warm up a bit, riding up and down the entrance road while the youth races took place, hoping to get some life into my legs. I felt a bit muddle headed but put that down to how warm and still the weather was.
The youth races finished and we lined up on the start line. This week, rather than lump everyone in together, the organisers decided to run the race as a handicap; the 1st and 2nd cat fast boys would set off half a lap behind us lowly 3rd and 4th cat riders. There was only one set of points for the top finishers available, so the top guys would have to make up the deficit before racing to the finish. I had no idea how this would affect the way we would race and, unlike last week where I was full of desire to race everyone and everything in front of me, I wasn’t sure how I would end up doing as my heart rate danced along and my legs jittered underneath me.
We set off and I was immediately at the back, a failure to clip my left foot in properly meant I was engulfed in the throng of riders up the first straight and round a sharp hairpin bend, but start line adrenaline kicked in and helped me work my way back towards the front where I could keep an eye on any likely breaks in the group.
The speed for the first few laps was high, we started to really carve round the turns and the exit of every corner turned into a short sprint. I found myself struggling to power out of the bends, having to fight to stay on people’s wheels, the warm evening air ripping across my lungs, burning them and contorting my face into a full on race gurn very early on in the hour long race.
Occasionally a rider would try to make a break, only for the group to pull them back, or more often the attempt would just sort of peter out after a few seconds, which confused me (if I was just going to attack off the front I’d get my head down, keep that initial burst going for at least half a lap and not look up or start glancing round to see if I’d achieved anything until after that), but for the first 7 or 8 laps a group of about 10 of us were pretty much stuck together. We weren’t going slowly, by any means, in fact we’d already started lapping some people, but no real ‘moves’ had taken place. I was growing more and more grateful of this as I became more and more aware that I was lacking any power and my chest was worryingly sore whenever I had to put in any effort. I could sit on the front of the group and pull it along comfortably enough (which, in crit terms, isn’t comfortable at all really), but on the few occasions where I saw someone go off the front and chose to speed up in the hope of getting away with them I couldn’t shake myself loose of the riders behind me. I had no ‘snap’.
A couple of laps later and the 1st and 2nd cat riders caught us. This showed me, in no uncertain terms, that I was way down on power. Last week I’d been able to work with them, this time round, they simply flew past, picking up two riders from our group as they immediately opened up a gap in front and continued to pull away.
My muddle headedness meant I didn’t even realise it was happening until they were a good few seconds ahead of us. I was about 3rd back in the remaining group as it slowly dawned on me that no-one was going to try and chase them down.
“Shit” I thought. “I don’t know if I can do this”.
I took a couple of deep breaths, ignored the stabbing pain that doing so caused, dropped down low on the bike and threw everything I could through the pedals. Head down, cranking as hard as I could before having to brake – as little as I dared – to tear round a hairpin before hunkering back down in the drops and thrashing my legs round as any sense of efficient pedalling went out the window in my attempt to close the gap and get on the back of the breakaway.
I glanced up and saw that I was halfway across to the still flat out group. Everything was hurting and a desire to just stop and sit down somewhere was creeping into the back of my head, but I promised myself another 30 seconds of trying to bridge to the racers in front before contemplating slowing. I kept my eyes locked on the rear wheel of the rider at the back of the group and just. kept. hammering.
I got to within about 2 or 3 seconds of them, tantalisingly close but not quite in the slipstream where I could hide and recover, but got caught up trying to ride round the outside of a couple of riders I was lapping. It slowed my progress only slightly (and certainly wasn’t anyone’s fault) but it was enough to leave me floundering. I couldn’t make contact with the front group and a glance behind me showed I’d opened up a slip of around 10 seconds to the group behind. My lungs were on fire, in a “not well” kind of way, rather than a “flat out effort” way and I knew I didn’t have much in the way of strength left in me.
I kept glancing back at the group chasing me, hoping someone would leap off the front and give making a break with me a go, but that didn’t happen. I began to fade and decided to drop back and shelter in the group rather than just hang myself out on my own. The first week I’d raced I had the strength to stay out on my own for near enough the whole hour, but tonight I couldn’t face it.
I stayed in the group until the finish, occasionally going to the front, trying to cancel out anyone’s 10 second leaps off the front as we entered the final few laps and managed to cheer myself up a bit on the final lap by overtaking a few people in the final sprint. I was too far back to get right to the front of the group (newbie error on my part there), but given that I could barely take a breath without wincing by that point, I was happy enough.
Fizzy legged and worryingly light headed, I wheezed my way back to the sign on tables to hand in my race number and was presented with an envelope. A bit confused I asked what it was for. “End of series winnings”, I was told. I wasn’t aware there WERE winnings to be had, I thought everything was for glory and points (which I couldn’t earn, racing on a provisional license, so in my case it was just for glory and the pitiful amount of that I’d earned wouldn’t need an envelope to keep it in), so I stumbled back outside, wafting the envelope around and mumbling to Jase, who’d popped down to watch, “I won summat, for doing summat”.
“Cool, what did you get?”
I realised I’d not actually *looked* at the envelope or explored what it’s contents were.
“Erm…” a bit of bleary eyed reading later ” a fiver.”
“Awesome” Jase said, semi sarcastically.
I tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t sound like “I coulda bin a contender”, failed and instead commented on how it would pay for a nice chippie tea.
I wandered back over to the car, still suffering every time I took a breath, clutching my prize, feeling a lot like a (bloody tough) game show contestant who had missed out on the briefcase full of £20 notes, the holiday for two to sunny Acapulco AND the speedboat and found themselves departing from the TV studio by the back entrance with nothing more to show for their endeavours than their bus fare home.
I should now point out that, quite frankly, I’m delighted to have got anything as a prize. I genuinely didn’t think people would be racing for money or anything like that, I know I wasn’t. I am in no way unhappy or ungrateful with the cash (chippie tea, in effect). In fact I think it’s ace!
It’s ace that the organisers even put the effort in to staging the series and I imagine most people, like me, are happy just to get the chance to race. Chasing people down, sprinting away, getting in breaks, learning how to work through groups, with groups, watch out for likely looking moves and get thoroughly put in my place by far, far faster riders is great fun and means I’ll be back if they stage another series. Definitely.