Context / Excuses
Entering an elite level race as a 3rd cat I knew I stood almost no chance of finishing in the points, and would be happy if I wasn’t dropped in the first 10 minutes.
The race was classed as a National B road race, which means it was 125km distance and the points on offer go from 60 for first down to 1 for 20th. On top of the far greater distance that I am used to racing over, the course was a fair bit lumpier too. And I’m no climber. So why pay money to enter in the first place?
As part of my clubs commitment to SERRL (the South East Road Racing League) it is obliged to organise races. As a member of the club I am obliged to help out, so I volunteered to marshal at the race. On the Thursday before the race I was at the club 10 TT and Gary, who was organising the race, suggested that I should enter in order to promote the club at its own event and give my club mates someone to cheer for (as well as myself there were only two other club members riding). At first I dismissed the idea as ludicrous, but took the suggestion as quite the compliment – Gary must think I’d be able to keep up with those guys. The only reason I even entertained the idea was because the week before, although I’d suffered quite badly with cramp, I’d had a good ride in the Ride London sportive. Gary suggested I bring my bike on the day just in case I wasn’t needed to marshal. When I got home and chatted to my wife about it she thought it’d be a good idea to enter the race if I could. Her reasoning was something along the lines of “it’d do you good to have your arse well and truly kicked” (she actually put it a bit softer than that “you should push yourself if you want to get better”). I think she might hate me, maybe I should cancel the life insurance policy?
The day of the race I got dressed in normal clothes, but as suggested by Gary, I took my bike and kit bag too. I got to the race and, although I was given the choice of marshalling or riding, Gary pretty much frogmarched me up to the sign on desk and made me enter. We OK’d it with Kim from SERLL. I went and spun my legs for 5 or 10 minutes, not enough time for a proper warm up, but better than nothing. I managed to get Andy from the club to help me pin my numbers on – cheers Andy, just one pin came off when I pulled my jersey down halfway through the race. As I typically manage to pop a pin or two off every race, I have since purchased some NoPinz and some sticky packaging window things in order to stop this happening.
Pre race briefing, straight forward enough, looked around, everyone else looks super strong. After the pre race talk by the commissaire we got on our bikes and waited for the pace car to roll out of the town hall car park for the neutralised start. Some teams riding on what must be sponsored bikes… I’m used to seeing lots of expensive hardware at the start of a race, but this was another level.
As soon as the race started the pace was quick. I’d not ridden around the circuit before, only the climb back up to the HQ which I’d ridden after a 25 mile TT. After a 25 mile TT I’d found it horrible. What am I attempting this again?! I had looked at the profile of the course on the computer, so I knew there was a descent right at the start of the race. Descents don’t normally bother me, I’m quite good at going downhill, its going up I can struggle. So I’d dismissed this as a chance to rest a bit. I wasn’t prepared for the pace. The peloton hit the descent pretty hard. I, on the other hand, was too cautious which led to me almost getting dropped. I had to burn my first match right at the start of the race, spinning out in my hardest gear at over 50mph, just to keep up. Thankfully at the bottom of the hill, where the road flattens out, the speed dropped slightly and I caught up with the back of the bunch and managed to recover a bit. Pace down the first flat section was QUICK. When we hit the first climb I paid for not warming up properly. I was warmed up enough to keep up, but I’d not recovered fully from the initial effort. The peloton went up the climb pretty hard, and I had to put in another effort to stay with them. It didn’t help that I kept finding myself at the back of the bunch. It seemed everyone I chose to draft behind instantly started drifting back , so I kept having to put in little accelerations which were taking their toll. Still, I made it up the climb. I think it was at this point that a group attacked off the front, and it was too much for most people to contend with. Later , when word got back to us that there were 10 guys a minute up the road, my fellow Bigfooter Andy said “well, that’s the race over then”. It was pretty much accepted that the guys in the break were going to be able to maintain their advantage and make it stick.
After the break went away the pace eased slightly, which I was grateful for – there was no way I was going to be able to maintain the speed of the first lap for the next 3 hours. Laps 2 and 3 felt more civilised, but still very quick. I had only just recovered enough to maintain the effort. On lap 3, going up the climb I thought to myself “I’m feeling OK, and we’re half way through now, I might actually make it to the end!”. We were averaging over 41kph (26mph-ish), but with the climb every lap the effort felt harder. I was trying to constantly take on food and water, and I was doing OK with it, but was still having to ration the water as I only had two biddons. I had toyed with the idea of asking someone from the club to pass me a water bottle once a lap, but because I’d only really entered the race last minute I hadn’t managed to do this. Other clubs were far more organised and were handing out biddons and food to their riders at the top of the climb. Having to carry that extra weight wasn’t helping me very much, and I probably had the cheapest and possibly the heaviest bike too… blah blah blah, excuses and more excuses…
Where was I? Oh yes, handing out water bottles – a bit hazy now, think it must’ve been on the 4th lap that at the point where riders were picking up their fresh biddons there was a crash just in front of me, 2 or 3 riders going down pretty hard. I just about managed to steer around and was happy to see Bill and Andy from the club were safe too. I was starting to fade though, and found myself with a gap to make up. I caught up the bunch before the descent and rode up along Bill and said “I think my race is done to be honest, Bill”. On the descent I started cramping and couldn’t put much power down. The bunch got away from me. However, I managed to recover a bit, and when the road flattened out I managed to tuck down, maintained my momentum and freewheeled up to the back of the bunch. On the flat sections and small uphill drags I managed to keep up with the main bunch pretty easily, even when I was suffering.
On the last time along the flat section I tried to spray some water over my neck to cool me down, but I was so tired that I couldn’t even manage this and sprayed the chap behind me in the face, oops! The climbs every lap had taken their toll, and the last time up the climb my cramp got more painful and my heart rate went into the red. I drank all the last drops of water I’d been saving, but it was already too late. The guys on the front of the peloton were pushing harder too, riders were now getting shelled out the back. I lasted on the back of the group until the steepest part of the climb when a gap appeared just a couple of wheels in front of me. I put in an effort to go around the guys in front of me, who were done. But the cramp only allowed me to put so much power down, which wasn’t enough to catch up. When the road flattened out a bit one other rider and I paired up and took turns to get back on to the back before the final descent. We could only just about maintain the gap though, which had grown to about 50 metres. I remember the chap had bright orange socks, but I was only just technically conscious at this point, so I don’t remember what club he was with.
It was agonising, I’d come so far (110km), only to see my chances of a strong finish disappear off up the road. I almost killed myself in a failed last gasp effort to catch back up. I knew I stood no chance of a strong finish though, once the cramp had set in I was done for. I can continue to ride with cramp, but nowhere near race pace, climbing makes it worse very quickly. I managed to drop my orange socked friend, and pushed on up to the HQ.
I really wanted to stop. It made sense, stop the pain, have some water, or TEA, or CAKE…!! Only a madman would continue to endure this pain willingly, with no reward whatsoever. But I did want to finish the race, and I was so close now, just one descent and the final hill up to the finish. I saw another rider up ahead of me. “I’ll let them make my decision for me” I thought “If he keeps going then so will I”. I went past HQ and the people who’d been cheering us on at the roadside were all packing up. There was no cheering for me now. Rachel from Bigfoot, who’d been marshalling at the roundabout just past HQ, was about to leave her post too. “Should I just give up then?” I thought. But the rider up ahead of me cracked on, so so did I. Rachel cheered me on, but it felt like a “Really? Are you sure James?” gesture! I managed to catch the guy just before the descent. I had managed to recover a bit and my cramp had subsided, so I shouted “jump on” as I went past him. I put a bit of power down on the descent, I don’t know what I was hoping to achieve?! I assumed that my new cohort would take a turn on the front, so when the road flattened out and I’d had enough I slowed a bit. Instead of swinging round to the front he sat up next to me and started to chat. I just wanted to get to the finish as quickly as possible though. So when he went and sat back on my wheel (without taking a turn) I pushed on and he dropped off. I was looking for the turning up the final climb, but little did I realise that I still had one more turning to take before I got there. Tired and confused, I missed the turning I was meant to take. Luckily Ian from Bigfoot was still marshalling at his post and pointed out my mistake.
Thank you Ian, if you had packed up I’d have been lost in deepest darkest Kent with no phone, water, food, money, sense of direction, PRK, nor any hope of survival.
I quickly realised, stopped, took to the grass and did 100m or so across a green to get back on track. I finally made it to the climb. It was horrific. I knew it would be a tough climb, but after 3 hours of hard riding, and with the cramp coming back as soon as the road pitched up, it was nasty. If I’d made it this far with the bunch I would’ve definitely been dropped. I need to lose at least 5kgs if I am going to ever attempt this race again. I found out later that Bill, who is quite the climber, had attacked at this point which led to him finishing in the points, chapeau Bill. On the climb I managed to catch a couple of other riders though, and the marshals were still at the finish line – I’d FINISHED!!! Thank goodness for that, the ordeal was over. Back to HQ for tea, cake and banter. I found out later that the guy who’d won had come 10th in the national time trials this year, think I’ll stick to 1 hour crits and local TTs for the time being…:-)