I used to love watching the Wacky Races cartoons when I was a little lad. It might even be the source of my lifelong fascination with motor racing, but back then I just enjoyed all the crashes and spectacular mishaps that the likes of The Anthill Mob, The Gruesome Twosome and evil Dick Dastardly would suffer in every episode.
My favourite character by far was Dastardly’s sidekick, Muttley the dog. Every crash, every calamity, was a source of the utmost hilarity to Muttley, who would unleash his trademark wheezy snicker as his shoulders rocked up and down in helpless mirth.
Muttley would have loved it at the Mountbatten 4ths race yesterday. Crash! That’s a busted collarbone! Heeheeheeheeee. Smash! Bikes and riders catapulting through the air! Heeheeheeheeeeee. Whoops! A rider overcooks the bend and shoots off the track! Heeheeheeheeeeee.
I wasn’t laughing. In fact, as the race ended I was coasting home, indulging in Muttley’s other trademark, the sotto voce grumble… Sassafrassarassum fuckendangerousclownsarum.
I know what you’re thinking. Something like: Bike racing is inherently dangerous, stop moaning and quit if you’re too scared. Cluck cluck cluck…
It’s a fair point. I know the risks. But at what point do the risks become unacceptably high? I reckon cramming 41 4th Cat riders, many of them by their nature absolute beginners, into the tight confines of the Mountbatten velodrome is just such an occasion. It’s not really for me to tell race organisers how to go about their business, after all riders = money, but the size of that field for that level of rider on that course was an accident waiting to happen. Several accidents as it turned out.
In my defence, while I acknowledge that as a middle aged family man I hardly have the fearlessness of youth, I think I kept myself pretty well in the mixer yesterday after several incidents that would have seen off a less committed individual.
The first occurred early on, when I’d managed to get myself into a nice spot about six or seven from the front and on the inside. As we rounded the banked first bend two riders beside me touched, with one barging straight into me, pushing me onto the grassy infield. I say grassy, it was more like a ploughed field and it needed every ounce of my bike handling skills to stay upright. I have even more respect for my blogging buddy Rich Mitch, who chose to spend an entire winter riding only on grass and mud – I came perilously close to a nasty spill and even closer to adding a dash of brown to the traditional black and white Bayeux team issue bib shorts…
“Well held,” said a rider behind me when I finally regained the track, 20 or so metres further on. Well held indeed. But I’d gone from being handily placed to right at the back, as well as being more than a little shaken.
Paradoxically, the first big crash of the race benefited me, because although it almost took me down it then enabled me to move forwards while riders scattered around the fallen and the race pace dropped. It was a nasty one, though, once again on the banked first bend, which was causing major problems for newbie riders unable to hold their racing line against the gradient. One oldish guy from Southdown Velo came off worst: he was the collarbone victim I mentioned earlier.
Usually an early crash like that calms everybody down, but not this time. To tot up the number of locked brakes, near misses, swerves and other close calls would trouble even Deep Thought, the supercomputer from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’m almost 20 races into my fledgling career and I’ve honestly never seen anything like it…
But I stayed right in there, elbow to elbow, and as the race moved towards its conclusion I thought I’d played a tactical masterstroke. Though I’d forgotten to start my stopwatch as we set off, the actual time indicated we were almost upon the call for the final three laps (the race being 30mins plus three laps). With that in mind I moved up to second wheel, sheltering behind a big chap in plain black kit. As we wheeled around for a couple of laps I saw myself as Chris Hoy, stalking his prey in the keirin. My reckoning was that my advanced position would keep me out of trouble; also that my ‘lead-out man’ was sure to accelerate once the commissaire indicated three laps to go, giving me the perfect launch pad for what I was always intending to be an early jump for glory.
We held this position for about four laps and every time we passed the line I thought: It must be time for the three lap board to come out, what’s going on?
What I hadn’t factored, of course, was that the race had gone off a bit late. Sure enough, the lap countdown board didn’t come out, the guy in front lost momentum and I hesitated for a crucial moment as riders started to come past us, ending up a bit boxed in. That error wouldn’t have been fatal, were it not for another rider immediately swerving into my handlebars, causing a sickening wobble that took several seconds to correct, by which time guess what? Yep, I was almost at the bloody back again. And then, of course, out came the ‘3 lap’ board.
The second big crash, with a lap and a half to go, put paid to my race. I was nibbling at the outside, trying to pick my way through a wall of lycra, when three or four riders came a cropper just in front of me. My wife, who was spectating on the opposite side of the track, said the flying bikes and men drew gasps from the crowd. This time, thankfully, there were no serious injuries, but after swerving round the mayhem I sat up, uttered a few choice oaths of the fuck this for a game of soldiers variety and wheeled gently round the final lap and a half, my heart having totally gone out of the venture.
Thus in a remarkable parallel with my first ever race, I finished at the back, crossing the line breathing no more heavily than after a stroll round the garden. In fact I’d raised a great deal more sweat doing my turbo warm-up. At least this time I hadn’t been one of the fallen, I hadn’t been lapped as a result and I wasn’t facing a bill for a damaged bike. Several of my fellow competitors were less fortunate, quite a few of them through no fault of their own, just innocent bystanders caught up in others’ ineptitude.
Where do I go from here? God only knows. I’m trapped in a Catch-22 situation where my snail-paced development and poor race choices last year have left me stuck in the 4th Cats and exposed to all the absolute beginners and give-it-a-try chancers who make these early season events so perilous.
I emphasise again – I love bike racing, I love the cut-and-thrust, the tactics, the effort required and even a bit of the ‘physical side’ within reasonable boundaries. But I will not put my health and livelihood on the line when the risks are allowed to become too great. Full stop.