Sports writing, when done well, can stir the blood like few other forms of journalism. The best examples of the art create vivid pictures of drama, passion, glory and disaster that keep the reader gripped from first paragraph to last.
Sadly this report on my second-ever cycle race is not going to be one of them. Even the likes of Ian Wooldridge or Hugh McIlvanney would struggle to make a back page lead from what was on the face of it a pretty nondescript outing by Yours Truly at Goodwood yesterday.
Though official results are not yet in my estimated finish placing of 20th-25th was about the same as I managed in the rain-soaked Chertsey season-opener (EDIT: official results now in and I was actually 16th – not quite so bad). However, beneath that bare statistic lurk some signs of progress, which I’ll take encouragement from as I enter what will now be an enforced racing break of more than a month.
Firstly, I finished on the same lap as the main bunch this time. Secondly, it was a bigger field (north of 50 riders) of whom many more finished than did so in Chertsey.
My ability to stay on the lead lap was enhanced enormously by not getting caught up in what appears to be something of a 4th Cat tradition: the “start of lap 2 crash”. Once again we negotiated the nervy opening lap OK, then as we rounded the first corner after the start/finish line somebody slithered to the floor, taking a number of riders with him. This time I had room enough to take evasive action, although my over-zealous slowing down meant I faced a half-lap burn-up to get back into the safe confines of the bunch.
As an absolute beginner myself I don’t want to sound all hoity-toity about it but really there was little excuse for such carnage. The track was slippery in the drizzly rain but Goodwood is a wide-open motor racing circuit and the corner was more sweeping bend than narrow hairpin. Still, that’s 4th Cat racing for you.
Crash avoidance aside, my biggest issue in the early laps was maintaining my position in the peloton. I kept getting shuffled up and down the pack far too readily – something for me to work on in future races to be sure, because each surge up the outside to get back towards the front exposed me to the energy-sapping wind.
All that said, the pace was very comfortable all the way past half-distance, and though I had my race face on and was in no mood for small talk, it would have been eminently possible had I so desired.
And then I went for it. I make no bones about it, my jump off the front of the pack was for one reason and one reason only, and it had nothing to do with race tactics. Nope, my only thought was to travel past the pit area in a clear lead, purely for the benefit of my watching wife and particularly my little boy. That’s why I picked the back straight to sprint away, thinking also that riding solo I could pick a quicker line through the tight last corner.
My initial gallop took me well past 30mph and I went down on the drops to try to maintain a speed in the high 20s, so as to build a lead over a pack that had been travelling at no more than about 22-24mph at that point.
What I didn’t realise at the time, but understand fully now, is that in order to achieve these lofty goals one needs to actually have the necessary fitness levels, particularly when riding solo into a cross/headwind. It quickly became clear that my mind had written a cheque that my legs couldn’t possibly cash…my speed dropped to 27…then 25…then 23…then the first rider from the bunch headed me as we neared the spectator area. I still managed to pass the family in the top five, but it was hardly the minor triumph I had envisaged.
Winded by my efforts, I slunk to the back of the peloton for a couple of laps to regroup and get my breath back. There wasn’t too much time to mope, though, because then we heard the bell and it was Final Lap time.
Here again my lack of racing smarts came painfully to the fore. An over-exuberant attempt to move up the pack resulted in me being shot right out front after the first corner, which caused me to panic a little and slow down until I was passed by a few riders. This worked up to a point, but of course by now everyone was in tight lines to stay out of the wind, so I was back in midfield before I could safely pick up a wheel.
Then a few riders got a bit over-excited and there was some swerving and shouting, with one bloke taking a quick detour onto the grass. As a result I erred on the side of caution and backed off slightly, reaching the last corner even further back and in no position at all to make an attempt on a top ten place and some coveted British Cycling points.
Still, no harm in trying to finish as high as possible, I thought. So I embarked upon a bizarre seated sprint, my legs being too tired to actually haul myself out of the saddle for the full Cavendish effect. Although far from pretty this gained me a fair few places in the home straight, but still left me at least 10-15 metres behind the winning rider.
So, as I said at the outset, nothing to write home about really. After returning to the pits, though, a curious thing happened. For the next hour or more I was consumed by what I can only describe as a very large high. I felt like I was bouncing around and I was all chatty and happy and back-slappy…most unlike me.
If that’s what the endorphin effect of properly taking part in such races is like (crash-spoiled Chertsey doesn’t really count), I’m going to be completely insufferable if I ever manage to score a decent finishing position in one…