Open road cycle racing was a complete unknown to me – all I knew is that I would be learning on the job…
The build up to the race
As yet I haven’t been able to fully process what happened after 11am this morning for exactly two hours and 24 minutes, all I can say is ‘it was brutal’ and then sink back into a slump with throbbing limbs, ankles, feet and a cloudy head. Not a muscle in my legs and feet escaped this morning, they were all hard at work, grinding through the undulating course, 46 miles, 1500ft, headwinds. Not long after the start I was in shock by how tough it was, and I had two and a half hours of it…
I entered the race in January, so it had been sat in my mind for the best part of three months, and I had ramped up my cycling to train for it, still only managing two or three good rides a week amid my running and swimming training, and life activities.
Somehow, March crept up and tapped me on the shoulder. The week arrived, and in response I’d been eating nervously and trying to hydrate.
On Tuesday I went for a pre breakfast 20 miler, which only served to dampen my confidence as my legs were tired and heavy from riding long hilly miles over the weekend (where I’d felt really strong). So I rested for the rest of the week. Just a quick swim and an 8 mile recce of area the day before, and my legs were ship shape for this morning’s race – a 46 mile 5.5 lap course of windy Priddy, on top of the Mendips.
The start itself was controlled, meaning that we cycled out for a mile or two in the peloton at a steady pace. I had no idea that we hadn’t started yet. The pace was comfortable (I guess that was a pretty good clue) but I was hard at work concentrating on not crashing, holding my line, moving up the group, avoiding cat’s eyes on the road. The lap included three hard turns, a gentle corner and a lovely downhill bend which wasn’t used to it’s max potential as there were loads of cars out today.There were fifty women signed up, but there were some no shows. Only ten 4th cats started, and even less of us finished. The majority of those racing today were in 2nd and 3rd cat and sponsored (even the 4th cats were sponsored) leaving but a small handful of us novice club riders quivering on the start line.
After the first hard corner, it was like someone had let a firework off! The group dashed off up the hill. I wasn’t expecting it and shot off after them, pantingly exclaiming ‘what was that!’ enter first thigh burn of the day.
Lesson 1. expect the unexpected.
Apparently the job of the strong girls on the front is to wear the group out, like a pack of animals after a feed. And it felt every bit as cruel as that. I had learned my first lesson. These girls are not your friends, expect the unexpected.
Lesson 2. Expect the unexpected in the expected unexpected.
Let me explain. Feeling wise to the unexpected, I learned my second lesson very quickly – false starts. When the group surges forward and immediately slows down again. To stay in the peloton as this is happening is extremely challenging, constantly on and off feathering the breaks, thinking of the woman on your wheel, the wheel in front, the girls to the right and to the left. And racing to catch up, shouts of ‘on your right’ ‘on your left’ and ‘stay there!’ The whole peloton affair was skittish. Entirely unpredictable, exhausting – their games worked. I was off the back around 22 miles in.
Now, the idea with staying in the pack is to work less hard, due to headwinds. It does make a huge difference, but once I’d lost them (let’s be honest, they’d lost me), I was sort of relieved. Being more of a triathlete, I actually prefer to cycle alone and play my own game. This isn’t in the spirit of cycle racing, and it’s bloody hard work but nevertheless I was fairly happy to be off the back and yet not at the back.
At mile 25, the three of us BSCC girls were off the back together, and it was at this moment that our lowest ebb washed over us. I was shell shocked by the speed and ferocity of the race, legs tiring, yet only half way through. Christina decided to pull out, and Hannah and I agreed to work together. I felt wretched. So I sucked up an energy gel, wiped my mouth and set to work. Hannah was excellent, she was out in front but held back and waved me up to her. I caught her up and sat on her wheel. Then I suffered from a mechanical that had me drop back…
Lesson 3. Don’t touch your shades after sucking on an energy gel. Doh.
After a few valuable seconds spent ineffectively wiping my shades against my jersey I caught Hannah up. ‘I’ve had a mechanical! I have gel all over my glasses and I can’t see a frigging thing!’ I chirped. (Still full of gel let us not forget). I zoomed past her. ‘If we are going to work together we need to stay together!’ Hannah said. ‘Oh yeah’. I am such a novice.
Lesson 4. Work together (and actually do it)
It was over. So after the gel incident we were cooking on gas again. I’d dropped back a few times, but always eventually caught Hannah up and took my turn on the front here and there. The course was four miles short so the finish line crept up on me. We went over the line together, Hannah putting her arm around me, and me doing a cracking job of trying to crash us both over the finish line.
It turned out that the girls behind us had dropped out, so we were the last ones over the line. we’d pushed out 19mph average over those 45 miles, and I’d reached the dizzying heights of 37mph.
The aftermath was a cheese roll affair. There were tears.
Lesson 5. There’s nowhere to hide in Road Racing
The race itself was extremely well organised, the volunteers, marshals, support vehicles, HQ, food and tea afterwards were all laid on in the most organised fashion. I was disappointed having worked so hard to be joint last again by default, but I was pleased not to have crashed and to have finished an extremely tough race.
I had no idea that after the places where points are dished out, no more places are recorded – apparently most cycling races only record the top ten. I was the rookie at the end asking where the final total finishers list was! This makes me love triathlon even more, which is all about getting over the line on your own journey, everyone counts, rather than purely about the fastest places.Yesterday I learned that there really is nowhere to hide in road racing. In triathlon and running races, if you’re having a bad day, chances are you’ll beat a good few people and get a medal at the end. Not so in road racing, where there is double punishment for not being excellent, first off not getting placed, and worse – having to work harder off the back. It’s demoralising.
And in conclusion, pay it forward
At this moment in time I don’t feel like rushing to sign up to race with cat 2s and 3s again, but the problem is there just aren’t really any races for 4th cats, there’s not enough demand. And frankly, racing with a hard field is probably what improves you, even if it’s horrible.
This leaves me with a choice: adopt rule 5 and accept that there will be a few more races like this before I improve, or stick to triathlon (for racing). And the answer has to lie in whether I enjoyed it or not – at least in part.
The question is, is it the job of the demoralised female cyclist to swallow it and go back in for more, to be present and seen and grow the face of beginners in racing, thus decreasing chances of demoralisation. Or am I delusional to think that by me and my fellow club riders encouraging each other to race that we would make a difference?
The answer for me comes down to the balance of enjoyment and purpose. As Chrissie Wellington says regarding helping the growth of women’s cycling, pay it forward – it doesn’t matter how little, just do it. And getting fit, if a little thrashed, along the way is an added bonus.