“Grow the roses!
Those rosy roses!
From the ashes of disaster,
Grow the roses of success!”
A lyric that could hardly be more appropriate to my state of mind today, as I reflect on a bike racing ‘career’ which in the space of less than a week has truly gone Shitty Shitty Bang Bang: shitty at Hove Park, shitty in Eastbourne, but very much bang bang last night at my first open road race, in Wivelsfield.
I’m not even going to temper what follows with caveats such as the smallness of the field, the lack of top category riders or even the fact that an 11th place finish hardly counts as a Merckxian feat. Nope, I’m in a good mood so you’ll have to allow me a few moments of triumphalism. Or skip this report and wait until next time, when things will no doubt have gone tits up again and I’ll be back to mercilessly taking the mickey out of myself…
So, Wivelsfield. Theatre of Dreams. Staging post on the path to redemption. Who’d have thought it?
Certainly not me as I huffed and puffed behind our team’s 2nd Cat star Shane while we recce’d the undulating four mile circuit. On the face of it my race prep had been about as far from ideal as possible. A couple of beers and a hot curry with some friends in the City the evening before meant my insides were dancing about like Contador on a steep climb; work commitments had also entailed a drastically early start to the day, which had left me feeling a fair bit below par and more in need of a lie down than another gruelling bike race.
In fact I was very close to not bothering at all. Only a little voice in my head repeating “this is just the sort of situation where you end up doing good; don’t let it pass you by” kept me in the game. That and the truly magnificent encouragement I’ve had from so many quarters since spilling my guts about the weekend’s tribulations. You know who you are and without getting all Paltrow about it I was genuinely touched.
Fine words do not put power in the legs, though. But maybe, just maybe, slogging around a lung-busting crit course does? The two crits were way harder than any training I’ve done and I’m beginning to think that was just what I needed to shake the last of the ‘Majorca lag’ from my legs.
Anyway, here’s the story of the race. Wivelsfield is one of the regular handicap events organised under the auspices of the wonderful Surrey League, without which the local bike racing scene would be truly bereft.
The format saw the lowest-ranked entrants, including me, setting off as a ‘hare’ group a few minutes ahead of the ‘hound’ group containing the better riders. The idea is for the hare group to ride hard together in order to maximise its chances of staying away, rather than the strongest men trying to smash the peloton to pieces right from the off, as in a crit.
That meant lots of through ‘n’ off, where riders take it in turn to place themselves at the front in the teeth of the wind for a short while, before dropping back in the line to a more sheltered spot. A strong but steady pace is essential for through ‘n’ off to be most effective. The sort of strong but steady pace that suits a ‘diesel’ like me down to the ground. Now I saw why several team-mates had urged me to try this type of racing despite my misgivings about taking to the open roads instead of the relative safety of closed circuits.
As we motored around, the hares worked fairly well together – I even ventured on to the front for a couple of turns before skulking at the back pretending to be struggling more than I actually was. It’s hard to put into words, but I felt so much stronger than in recent races, with a real punch in my legs that gave me the confidence to take it easy on the twisty bits and tight corners (rain showers had left the roads damp and greasy in parts) and simply sprint back up on the straights. I felt like a proper racer, crouched right down in the tuck position and able to spin up some handy speeds almost at will.
That said, we hares didn’t sustain quite enough pace to stay away and were duly caught with about three laps to go. At that moment our Bayeux team lost a rider, Paul, due to a puncture, but we still had three men in the extended peloton, with me making sure there was no repeat of my Goodwood Gallops mistake by latching on like a limpet as the fast men upped the pace.
As the race settled down again the pace dropped noticeably, even though the roads were drying nicely. The other thing that really struck me at this point was the quality of the riding. Maybe it was due to the smaller percentage of 4th Cats or the extra responsibility prompted by the open roads, but the bunch felt well ordered even though there were 20-odd riders giving it plenty.
As we started the final lap I felt comfortably in control of my physical faculties, enough indeed to suss out riders I thought I could get past on the final climb to the finish line. On the back straight I made a sneaky move up towards the front; however, in my usual fashion I managed to be almost immediately shuffled back to the rear again as we swept through the twisty section towards the climb. I was not ready to give up just yet, though. For once I had some power in those old muscles, and I knew it had to be unleashed.
This is your chance – give it the big ’un and see what happens! Go! Go! Go!
I hauled myself out of the saddle and stamped down hard on the pedals, whipping up quite a turn of speed…until I was forced to come to a virtual standstill by some shenanigans involving other riders immediately in front of me. No-one went down but my sprint was badly hampered (listen to me, think I’m bloody Tom Boonen all of a sudden…) while the main contestants went off and away to contest the major placings.
Go again! Go again!
Well, why not? The two riders who’d had the near miss were sitting up, so I surged past them into clear daylight behind the main bunch sprint, then got back down in the saddle to ride as hard as I could for the line. To be honest, I fully expected several people to come past me. But no-one did. In fact at least half the field had stayed resolutely behind me.
To say I was pleased to have finished in the bunch instead of several laps behind it was something of an understatement. I even did a brief ‘hands off the bars’ celebration. Silly old fool.
Back at Race HQ an initial mix-up in the finishing order meant it looked at one stage as though I’d actually made the top ten, with the magical prize of my first British Cycling point. Even when revised to its correct order my place in the rankings was still enough to have me slapping backs and grinning like a Cheshire cat. There really is nothing like that feeling when endorphins and self-satisfaction combine to produce a brew more heady than any narcotic…
And so, having all but given up the ghost after Eastbourne I’ve found myself today poring over the Surrey League calendar and checking Google maps for the location of such exotic-sounding places as Newdigate and Small Lyne, both of them hosts of upcoming races.
I’m back. And those roses are smelling sweet right now, I can tell you…