Now, I’ve stood in my share of dusty village halls in my time. The smell of mild damp, floor polish and a lingering odour of old people is nothing new. In fact, over the years of racing bikes, I feel like I’ve become somethng of a connoisseur of these frighteningly twee habitations. Many a Sunday morning has been spent shuffling round them, yawning and trying to focus bleary eyes on signing in sheets, to the point where I feel I can now spot a good one from ten paces away.
Yesterday’s was a good one. Wedged tightly in the middle of the picturesque little village of Scorton, the village hall in question was as musty as you could hope for, with the faded wooden floors and uncomfortable plastic chairs adding to the overall “remember your school days” ambiance. With the sound of shuffling feet echoing round the ‘give it another coat of white paint and the problems will disappear’ walls you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a Sunday morning gathernig of old people, but these shuffling feet were wedged into tighly fastened, super slick soled cycling shoes. So singular in their purpose that moving round on the buffed-pround floor could end in disaster the second concentration was lost.
On tables arranged neatly along the back wall, militarily tidy rows of mugs, their handles all pointing in the same direction, and ruler measured slices of fruit cake were arranged ever so smartly. Beaming volunteers were requesting nothing more than a token pound for a “welcome to Sunday” quaff of tea and bite to eat, stood just to the side of race number wielding organsiers, deep in discussion with me about the size of my ‘fine’.
Yep. Fine. Despite not yet mounting a bicycle in anger at the event I had incurred the wrath of BC and it’s horde of “there’s a rule about this in the handbook” minions.
I had, due to a natural lack of organisational ability, brought last year’s British Cycling Racing Licence with me. A minor issue, I thought, given that BC have a fantastically interactive on line system. My racing licence validity could undoubtedly be ascertained in a time limited only by the download speed of whatever computer system/smart phone was available at this national ranking competition. Blank eyes and gentle hand wringing on a well worn clipboard and pen suggested in no uncertain terms that this was not the case. As with all the best village halls, the relentless march of time and technology outside the ornate wooden doors would have no effect within. I was to pay for a day racing licence.
This was irritating, but it wasn’t going to dampen my enthusiasm, so with a – slightly pained – smile I began to dig out an extra £5, on top of the £20 entry fee.
“That’s £10 please”
“Sorry, what? Your colleague just told me it was £5 for a day licence”
“Ah, no, this is a surcharge because you have a licence but haven’t presented it”
I was beginning to lose control of my tightly fastened, slick soled cycling shoes at this point, which had decided to slowly but surely creep their way apart from one another across the impressively shiny wooden floor, leaving me ever so gently sinking and was becoming aware that, if the discussion were to continue for too long I was at risk of ending it in the splits position.
“Is there an out of towners tax too?” I mumbled as loudly as I dared while handing over the last of my money. Bitter silence hinted that there bloody well might be if I didn’t just shut it.
Back outside in the morning sun, freshly enlightened of any heavy money that might have slowed me down, I set to work pinning well used race numbers to the back of my jersey. The original ‘official’ holes for the safety pins were long since worn out and the sieve like properties of each corner suggested that I was not the first person to find myself stuffing the pins through anywhere that looked like it might hold for the duration of the race. I decided that my fine would be going towards a ‘new race numbers’ fund and found some financial solice in the idea.
An impressively large field of riders gathered on the main road outside the village hall, hundreds of eager and smiling faces, firing banter and cheery chatter across the centre of the village. Outside the quiet mustiness of the village hall the freshness of the morning air seemed to be invigorating everyone from the elites perched at the front of the line right the way back through to the 3rd and 4th cat riders gathering at the back. Tucked neatly towards the rear of the stationary peloton I caught sight for the first time of the lead out car. It was a bloody Porsche!
I hastily reminded myself that these events are staffed by volunteers and that it was highly unlikely that BC had bought a rather expensive sports car to sit at an average of 20-something miles per hour for a couple of hours, every now and again when there must be a million other uses for the money. It must have belonged to one of the officials, who had decided to use their own equipment out of the kindness of their own heart. It certainly made an impression! I started to relish the prospect of chasing it over the hills and through the Lancastrian countryside…
A comfortably paced neutralised section lead us out from the village centre to the top of a motorway bridge where us 3rd and 4th cat racers paused while the longer elite race set off. There was just enough time for a final glance up at the scenery and quick swig from water bottles before we were off.
The start climbed immediately and wrapped in the centre of the group the first few miles became a constant shift between seemingly random accelerations, soft pedalling and occasional deep breaths as the peloton tried to squeeze it’s way past cars travelling the opposite way along the narrow country lanes. This being my first race on open roads I had originally planned to sit back and observe through the race and work out if there were any differences between how it flowed, in comparison to all the closed circuit crit racing I’d done. It seemed sensible in advance, but of course once you’re out there it’s difficult to not start eyeing up everyone around you; would they become a race long adversary, would you end up working together if the group broke apart? Countless possiblities began to flow through my head, intertwined with snippets of advice from others who had years of experience. Positioning in the bunch, how to work your way around in the seemingly chaotic throng, looking out for likely breakaways and how to get in them. There as so much to think about the first 12 mile lap seemed to slip by frighteningly quickly despite an average speed that I knew I’d have no problem beating while out riding on my own.
I had, over the course of that first lap, found myself slipping towards the back of the bunch on a few occasions as the changes in speed at the front became amplified through the group. I realised I was having to play catch up every now and again, as a natural thinning out of the width of the peloton occured round each corner and over each climb. A few people in front of me were taking sharp lines round corners, exacerbating the brake/accelerate situation and I came to the conclusion that the back third of the field wasn’t a good place to be. The average speed, as we began the 2nd lap, stil wasn’t overly high and I worked my way up towards the front few riders as we began the biggest ascent of the course once again.
Up at the front there was a wholly different atmosphere. Although we’d slowed more than I expected for the climb, everyone seemed ready to work to pull the group along. There was no one team working together to lead, rather a few riders from various groups and clubs who were feeling fresh and willing to take a turn setting the pace. The ‘concertina’ effect in and out of the corners was greatly reduced and the lines riders were taking were much more predictable in amongst them. This was much better. Smoother. More controlled. And then all of a sudden quite a lot faster.
We’d hit a short, steep rise in the road and a couple of riders had thrown themselves up it, hard. Given that I’d found the pace so far comfortable enough I decided I’d throw myself up the hill after them. Up out of the saddle, cranking hard enough to hear the rear wheel twist and flex against the brake pads more than normal I found myself alongside a couple more riders who had spotted the attack and had also leaped away.
The pace stayed high for about half a lap and I found myself sat on the front, setting the pace, on a few occasions. It was a great feeling, better than at the crits as the more interesting course provided much more to think about and the sight of a Porsche with big flashing lights on was a sight to behold! I imagined the group strung out behind me as I started to settle into the rhythm of pulling at the front before dropping back a few places in the bunch for a quick breather. A few of us began to work together quite well, taking turns, leading when we wanted the pace to change and dropping back when someone else decided to lead out. On a few occasions a chaingang would (just about) form where the rises and dips of the route would allow and I wondered how the rest of the 3rd an 4th cat racers – there were 60 of us on the road – were coping with the increase in speed.
I didn’t have to wait long for my answer, as we started to drop down from the highest point for the course someone alongside me glanced behind and shouted. “Lets keep this going, we’ve got a gap!”
I could sense a change in the atmosphere almost immediately. So far we’d been, basically, enjoying ourselves. On finding that we’d managed to ride away from the main group, intent changed to staying away. Increasing the gap. Putting some proper effort in.
I’d got in a breakaway that looked like it could stay away for the rest of the race. How great would that be as a result for my first road race?! I decided to stay up near the front as often as possible. I wanted the split to work, so was happy to sit on the head of the group and keep the pace high. The motorcycle outriders would occasionaly shout out information about how big a gap we’d got over the main field as we ripped around the course. There was no let up now and as we cruised round the 3rd lap we lost a couple of riders to the speed, dropping off the back as we fought our way up the hill and into the headwind at the top of the climb (why is there always a headwind?!).
By the start of our 4th and final lap our advantage had grown to a good few minutes and, once again, the atmosphere changed. The race was going to be decided amonst the few of us left in this group. One of us was the winner…but who?
A caginess started to pervade our riding. My mind was already several miles down the road…could I WIN my first race? there seemed to be a lot of heavy breathing as we rode up the main climb for the final time. I still felt strong. From the sound of clattering chains behind me people seemed to be pedalling less smoothly, where they tiring?
About halfway round the lap, while I was sat at the front, someone attacked and leap down the road, flat out. I dropped my shoulders and sped up as much as I could. He’d got a gap of about 5 or 6 seconds before I’d managed to match his pace and for a while he dangled off the front of the pack. He held his advantage for a good few miles as we flew flat out towards the finish line, situated at the top of the main climb, but was reeled in just as the road began to rise for the final time.
Back together, I began to worry. A season of training for nothing but endurance races meant I wasn’t suffering or running out of energy, but I was severely lacking in any sort of sprint ability! I couldn’t think of much else to do, but get back on the front as we raced across the final through miles, keep the pace higher than it had been on any of the other laps and hope that it might dampen anyone elses attempt to power away to the line.
(Image by Martin Holden Photography)
With just a few hundred metres to go we rounded the final corner with me still sat at the front, tucked as far over to the left of the road as I could get, so any attacks would have to go from my right. I had no idea if I would be able to muster up any sort of burst to keep up with the other riders. It was plainly obvious that I was, basically, just leading out the final sprint and after a few seconds the roar of accelerating tyres kicked off the final few, frenetic moments of the race. I stood up and started to fling the bike around underneath me as the front wheels of riders alongside me became their spinning legs, became their rear wheel. Shit. That’s not gone well!
I cross the line in 6th place and, after a moment of feeling sorry for myself, realise that I was right in amongst it in my first road race. I ddin’t even come last in the select group that broke away from the main field. I’ve done alright, actually!
The finish line becomes a place to chat, as congratulations are passed around and, after catching up with Jase, who’d continued his streak of mechanicals and had to drop out of the race earlier, roll back down towards the patiently waiting village hall to hand in the tired looking race number that had just about clung onto the back pockets of my jersey.
My out-of-date licence was sat waiting for me out on the organsier’s table as I dropped the numbers off. I felt a slight pang of regret in not being able to sprint over the line to take 1st place. I would have loved to have marched back into the hall with a faux heroic swagger, slapped the race numbers down on the table and shouted “Stuff your damn surcharge, rulebook boy, howdya like them apples!” then grabbed my licence before departing, arms aloft in a victory salute. But deep down I knew I’d just end up going flying on my arse as my shoes lost traction with the polished floor, leaving me in a sweaty heap in front of a bemused volunteer who’s only crime was to stick to the rules to keep everything running smoothly for the benefit of everyone in the race.
I didn’t buy a cup of tea though. HOWDYA LKE THEM APPLES, EH?