It’s like I’ve fallen out of bed from a long and vivid dream
Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying…
After a – frankly quite ridiculous – total of 38 races spread over two full seasons I have finally achieved the bare minimum of what I set out to do at the beginning of last year.
I am a 3rd Cat road racer.
Not for me the instant gratification of a first-time-out victory; nor a speedy progression to the next level after just a handful of outings. No, it’s been a bloody grind to be honest.
But that’s bike racing for you. It’s not about fun and laughter, it’s about searching within yourself for the strength to be better than the other guys – whether that’s through natural talent, a more dedicated approach to training or just the nous and bravery to put yourself in a position to succeed (what it certainly isn’t about is cheating, but I’m not going to go there just now…).
Don’t get me wrong, I adore cycling; it has come to define me as a person and I’ve had countless wonderful chats and giggles while out training with team-mates, as well as quiet moments of bliss while riding on my own. But as anybody who has followed this blog for some time will know, the racing bit is just… well… different to all that.
And so, when the moment of realisation came that I’d finally made it, the emotions were different too.
But more on that later. First, the race itself. Lining up at the start I had a rare feeling that it might be my day. There were about half a dozen fewer starters than the week before, with even the usual Cyclopark powerhouses Dulwich Paragon only about three-strong, presumably because they’re finally running out of 4th Cats.
Once we got underway, though, I just didn’t really feel on my game. I was never in any danger of getting shelled out, but something seemed to be missing and I quickly dropped back from a leading position to one towards the rear. The folly of this was quickly shown up by a crash on the apex of the down-and-up hairpin, where a touch of wheels brought a couple of riders down and had me braking to a virtual standstill – hardly ideal at the bottom of the short climb out of the corner. I got going again and chased back on, but was gasping for breath afterwards, a condition that took several laps to ease.
The race was a lot less lively than the week before, though, perhaps because we were going the other way around where the climbs are longer but shallower. I was thanking my lucky stars that nobody went for a breakaway during the latter stages, making the job of clinging on that much easier. I even had the presence of mind to consume my get-out-of-jail gel, although squeezing several blobs of very sticky and very sweet goo into an already dry mouth did as little for my breathing as it did for my taste buds…
I clung somewhat forlornly to the back of the bunch as the bell sounded for the last lap, sticking in there more in hope than expectation. The final blow seemed to come when we passed the leading bunch of the women’s race on the tight final corner before the long drag up to the finish line. I managed to get detached in the process and as the track straightened up I found myself about 10 metres behind the second-last rider.
Ah fucking fuck…
Then a weird thing happened: the bunch ahead slowed almost to a standstill, as if nobody wanted to be lead-out man up the final drag. With little more than a few turns of the pedals I reached the back of them.
This is bizarre, we’re all just looking around and the finish line is only up there…
Clearly that thought had occurred to one of the other riders, a young chap who suddenly hared off on his own up the right hand edge of the track.
Shit, follow him!
Without even checking what gear I was in, and ignoring my aching legs, I seized the drops, stuck my fat arse in the air and had a go.
What happened next I still can’t adequately explain, not least because it all happened in a blur of fatigue. It was as though the bulk of the other competitors had suddenly ridden into a large puddle of molasses while I sprouted wings. I jumped from back to front in less time than it took you to read this sentence.
Oh my God, I’ve done it!
With about 50 metres to go I could see that I was travelling much more quickly than all but a handful of riders, basically guaranteeing a place better than the 8th I needed. So without even thinking about the possibility of actually winning the bloody race I just sat up and cruised the rest of the way to the line, pumping a fist and bellowing other celebratory pleasantries.
Maybe I lost a place or two at the finish – I very much doubt I could have won having started so far behind – but at the end of the day I don’t really care. I’d rather have had the feeling I did on crossing the line – a feeling that would have been lost if I’d still been sprinting hell for leather, eyes down for a full house.
I was bloody pleased, I can tell you. Bloody pleased. I almost couldn’t bring myself to leave Cyclopark (now officially my favourite cycling venue…) for fear that the spell would be broken. When I finally dragged myself away my emotions while driving back to my family ranged from a guttural roar to a river of tears. Mind you, I imagine the M25 has that effect on a lot of people.
So, what now? As the Radiohead-inspired headline states, my racing story is not over. Maybe this blog is, though. I don’t know yet. For one thing, there may yet be a race or two to fit in before the season finally closes. I just received my newly-minted 3rd Cat license in the post and it would be a shame not to use it…