It’s a close ratio cassette, just shift up one more cog and spin up to the same cadence you’re at now. Don’t look across to your left. There’s nothing there for you. That isn’t the group you want to be in. Head down. It’ll hurt less if you’ve got your head down. Work your way forward. Stay to the right, out of the wind.
Head down now. Head down.
There may be a snarl on my face. Or a grimace. I’m not entirely sure what it would be classed as. It’s not been there since summer last year, but it’s sure as hell back now, as I try to force my head down further towards my stem. Legs scream, but respond and turn over the bigger gear. I don’t want a string of riders hanging on my rear wheel so I’m throwing everything I can muster into churning the bike forward across the packed down sand. Bursting free off the front of the group towards the leaders and into a barren no mans land between echelons.
There’s no point looking up to see how it’s going, or twisting my head back to see if I’ve opened a gap behind me. I’ve watched riders try to work their way up to a breakaway in the pro peloton many times on the TV. Enough to know that once you’ve launched, your commitment is total, it doesn’t waver until you either reach the back of the front runners, or get swallowed back up and spat out by those who you’ve attempted to leave behind.
Every time I’ve seen it happen I’ve sensed that it hurt but I’m learning, quickly, that into a headwind it’s a whole new level of suffering. Double bass drum heartbeats start to smash inside my head. Should be a warning that I’m killing myself on the first lap and that it may come back to haunt me later. Should be. Isn’t. Shift up one more cog. Get that cadence back up. This will work.
Almost totally consumed by an adrenaline fuelled fire, my empty beachfront world becomes filled with the sound of other drivechains. I allow myself the decadence of a glance up. There they are! I’ve bridged the gap! Only a metre or so to the back of the group. One final all out push and I can shelter from the wind. Thank fuck. Let’s latch on…and then the race can start…
Off the beach and into the woods sees the race change from a group effort to an every man for himself thrash through the singletrack. Elbow to elbow when it’s wide enough, tyre scuffing tyre when it’s not. Who’ll blink and brake first round every bend. The speed stays distantly over ‘comfortable’. It become clear that my heart rate will have to stay up where it is for the rest of the event. Fine. This twisting, swooping, free flowing blast through the trees is exciting enough to make it worthwhile.
We weave our way back towards the end of the first lap. Places are gained and lost, but never easily. The front runners begin to ease away in that effortless looking way they often do. I could offer up excuses about ‘the luxury of them being pro meaning that was always going to happen’, but I don’t. I offer up everything I have in response instead.
The road back to fitness is long and I’m nowhere near there yet, but I’ve reached the point where I’m ready to burn up every muscle fibre to turn every pedal stroke into a race in itself.
More places are swapped as the second lap tears by. I am definitely heading in the right direction. Comfortable with the course and slowly reducing the numbers ahead of me I hit the packed down sand for the third and final time with 3 accomplices.
We quickly fall into a through and off rhythm, each taking his turn in the wind, working together in an alliance as uneasy as you would expect on the final lap of a race. How many of those grimaces are feigned? How long before the group implodes and someone launches an
A cyclocross rider streaks free. Far forward over his bars he launches away from us, sand firing off his rear tyre into the air like shrapnel from some hitherto unexploded bomb washed up on the sand.
Shit. Go with it. Go. Go!
I hurl myself over the bars and set about making my legs scream in protest all over again. There’s no ‘head down’ measured efficiency here. It’s an ugly, lurching thrash at the pedals. Every sinew straining. Nothing left. All out.
After an eternity of ever increasing pain the rider ahead looks round and realises I’ve got onto his rear wheel. I know what he’s going to (try to) say before anything is uttered. We’ve gapped the other two. We can’t slow down. If they get back up to us we will have thrown away a massive amount of energy for nothing. This pain. This has to continue until we run out of beach. This move has to work.
We reach the end of the straight and clamber up the comedy Slope of Doom together, with a clear space between us and the chasing two. The pace needs to stay flat out to keep that lead, but there’s no longer to be any teamwork. Hammer and tongs through the singletrack we fly. I slip back getting through traffic but refuse to give up. Powering back up to his back wheel and pestering him through the corners. I’m still here. I don’t die. Drop me and I’ll just bounce back again. Another bodged overtake of some riders we’re lapping once again sees me on the wrong end of a gap. Once again I close that gap down. My lungs are probably on fire. My legs probably screaming lumps of molten lead. I don’t care.
We re-enter the start/finish arena for the final time wheel to wheel. Sprinting. Dying. Not backing off.
I have a raft of excuses for why I crossed the line half a bike length on the wrong side of him. ‘Cross bikes being faster than mtbs over flat grass fields, closing all those little gaps I let open taking the edge off my ‘sprint’. I could write a book of them, but non of them matter. Non of them really excuse it. I lost out in the sprint. But fuck me it was good to be involved in. The whole race was. A chance to lay it all out on the line on a truly unique and brilliant course. Taken. Can’t wait to do it all again.