OK, I promised to share some of what I’ve learned in my first year of cycle racing, so here goes.
I must stress that I am most definitely not the fount of all knowledge where this sort of stuff is concerned. Experienced riders will learn nothing here, while other tips may prove entirely unsuitable to your physique, fitness, type of racing or indeed the courses you race on, wherever they may be.
However, one or two nuggets might give absolute beginners a bit of a head start…
1) Join the club. The best day’s work I ever did was to join my team, Bayeux CT. Through them I got used to bunch riding and started to adapt my body from being suited to the long, steady tempo riding of sportives into one better able to cope with the rapid and vicious pace changes typical in a race (a process that seems far from complete, judging by recent efforts). Though not a big outfit, the team has several highly successful racers among its members, giving me access to a wealth of information and guidance. If only I’d listened to more of it…
2) Horses for courses. Unfortunately, you’ll generally know this only with bitter hindsight, but there will be some courses that suit you and others that are poison. I know now that tight, undulating crit-style circuits are just disastrous for me – I’ve been dropped and humiliated at every one I’ve contested (Hove Park, Eastbourne and Cyclopark), while other riders (mostly younger, lightweight types) float around them barely breaking sweat. If you find a course that doesn’t suit you, it’s simply best to admit defeat and move on.
3) Don’t be afraid of the open road. Although I’ve raced predominantly on closed circuits, some of my most enjoyable times this season have been on the open road circuits used in the Surrey League handicap series. Handicaps like these are among the few events open to 4th Cats on the public roads, so if you have something similar near you I’d strongly recommend giving it a try. I certainly aim to do more Surrey League handicaps next season.
4) Positioning is everything. This is a real cheek, since I am hopeless at it, but staying up among the leading places (though not the very front with your nose in the wind) as the race unfolds is pretty critical if you want to finish in the points with any regularity. For events like the Dunsfold 4th Cat series you don’t need to be up there all the way through, but don’t leave it until the final lap or two to move up unless you’re a real strongman, since the effort involved will invariably knacker you out before the sprint winds up.
5) Keep your head up and your eyes open. Cycle racing is dangerous, everybody knows that. In the 4th Cats this is especially so – there’ll be riders making their racing debut in almost every event you take part in, while most others will be inexperienced and/or crap bike handlers. That’s the point of this category. So keep your head up, be alert to what’s going on around you, don’t be afraid of a bit of elbow-banging (unsettling though this always is) and try not to brake more fiercely than is necessary. In my experience, if there are going to be crashes they will be during the first two laps or the final lap. You have been warned…
6) Keep clear of the idiot. There’s always at least one in every 4th Cat bunch. The guy (usually in a plain jersey, it has to be said) who goes for gaps that aren’t there, weaves about and generally displays all the safe bike handling skills of a bull in a china shop. Suss him out early and keep away from him. This will usually take quite a bit of effort, since the random nature of his riding will mean he always seems to be alongside or directly in front of you. I call this phenomenon the ‘loony on the bus effect’.
7) No time for heroes. Many people moan about 4th Cat circuit racing being dull, since the races mostly end up in a bunch sprint. This is indeed often the case (though not in the aforementioned crits such as Hove Park, where the bunch usually gets scattered to the four winds), but in my experience the best option is to wait it out and not to try any solo heroics during the meat of the race. Doesn’t matter how strong you’re feeling, the bunch will chase you down. Even if two or three riders get away it’s very unlikely you’ll get organised enough to make it stick. This is the novice category for a reason – if people are competent enough to organise breakaways they’ll already be a 3rd Cat or higher.
8) If you’re gonna go, go early. This is a bit of a controversial one, since I’ve not tried it personally, but in most of the events I’ve done at Goodwood and Dunsfold the top two or three riders have been those striking out earlier than what many people would recognise as the ideal time (i.e. 100-150 metres from the line) to start a sprint. I have a theory about this: we 4th Cats are not super-quick sprinters in the main, so the gaps that can be created by a premeditated surge off the front with 200-300 metres to go are very difficult to pull back, since everyone’s top speed at this level is within a couple of MPH of each other. Of course, going early could mean you run out of puff, especially if there’s a headwind (which there almost always is at Dunsfold, for example), but even then your sheer momentum will keep most people behind you. I have never seen somebody come from a long way back to take the victory in a 4th Cat sprint.
9) Sprint on the drops, not the hoods. Bit of a no-brainer really, but it took me a while to grasp it. If you’re tall like me it makes a heck of a difference – see photo above, my finest hour in racing to date, winning the ‘sprint’ for ninth at Dunsfold.
10) Finally, enjoy it! The best advice of all. There really is nothing like the thrill of competition and, mixed with the endorphins that come with a very physical sport like cycling, it creates a wonderful, natural high that keeps me coming back for more. Unless you get dropped and come last. In which case it sucks.
Since my last post, the blog has passed something of a landmark – 10,000 page impressions. For what is basically a highly personal diary dedicated to a pretty niche subject area (i.e. me) I have to say I’m utterly thrilled by that number. Sincere thanks to each and every reader, especially those moved to subscribe and everyone who has posted a comment or a link on the various cycling/club forums that have directed traffic this way.