I have allowed something of a backlog to build up. I have indeed been racing lots, and I have lots of great things to babble on excitedly about. I can’t tell you about all of it, you’ll fall asleep before you get to the end and have nightmares about coughing up your lungs whilst getting swamped in bunch sprints over and over again. So, I’ll just pick out one of the highlights for you. This particular one was a highlight for more than one reason. (Warning: This one's quite long, I'd make yourself a tea and pull up a comfy chair!)
Sunday, August 24th. Waterloo Station. London. 11am.
Valentino has gone for a pee. The venue of choice for his ablutions is an Italian restaurant in Waterloo Station where we have met to catch the train to the bike race. Valentino is Italian, and he is also a Pizza chef. He’s been gone for ages while I stand outside in my lycra smiling awkwardly at the al fresco diners. I’m beginning to wonder whether he has entered into a quintessentially Italian debate about tomato sauce with his opposite number, when he finally emerges. “Ok, lessa go… where do we have to go?” he says cheerfully. By way of an answer, I point my bike in the direction of platform 15.
Valentino and I have traveled to many bike races this 2014 season. Well, not that many, but enough that by this day, we’d pretty much struck up a very hearty friendship having shared some tough experiences on the bumpy lanes of Kent and Surrey in the thick of a heaving racing bunch of cyclists. The pre-race conversation had by now developed a pattern:
-How you feeling? Terrible [meaning, not bad]. You?
-Ah, pretty tired, not feeling up to much today [meaning, pretty good, predictably optimistic].
-You raced this course before?
-I think so. You?
-I think so. Gonna try and get in a break?
-Maybe [meaning, probably]. You?
-Maybe [meaning, probably].
-Ah, you will [meaning, if you try one, I’m jumping on your wheel mate].
-Naaa, you should though [meaning, I know exactly what you’re thinking, sunshine].
-Naaa. Well, maybe [meaning, why am I talking myself into this again??].
-No, you should, you looked strong in the last race [meaning, I had a nightmare in the last race]
-Hmmm, we’ll see who turns up [meaning, hopefully no-one useful, so I can maybe win… ha!].
Yadda yadda yadda. By now though, we’d got through the initial novelty of having someone to talk to about bike racing who actually got it, and had started talking about other things, boring subjects such as our love lives. As I munched my way through several bananas, flapjacks and other things hastily grabbed at the station supermarket, our train whisked us out of London and into Surrey towards Seale, a little village where we would find the HQ for today’s Surrey League race, a Cat 3 only bunch race over 90km. The lunchtime start time of 1pm meant we had all had lie-ins, a welcome change for a Sunday bike race, although one which gave us the uncomfortable and unshakeable feeling that we had completely missed everything. Of course, we were well on time, and signed on under a white Gazebo while someone was preparing a barbeque in the broken midday sunshine. The sausages looked painfully good.
Race preparations had also become fairly routine by now, but something else was also starting to happen as the season was wearing on that, subversively, was starting to give me a feeling that I’m sure I will never get bored of: I was starting to see the same familiar faces at every bike race, and it was real a buzz. Cycling does this. It makes you feel part of something. It gives you a sense of brotherhood like nothing else I’ve ever done in my life. The sense of togetherness we all feel inside us from the sharing of the experience of bike racing, the emotion, the nerves, the pain, the thrills, the fears, the inner turmoils, the overcoming of adversities, the burning desire to beat them all, the euphoria, the disappointment, the post race cakes, the whole swirling mix of human experiences all shared with the same guys week in week out. It’s a special feeling, and it’s ours, and by this point of the season, we’re all looking out for one another. I know, I'm a hopeless romantic. It's all the time I spend hanging out with Italians.
Back to the task in hand, today’s course was short at around 8km. We would do 12 laps. Valentino had in fact raced it before, whilst I had not. ‘Issa verry tough’ he told me sternly, ‘there iss a climb, the road issa verry bad’.
We roll out.
After two laps I think I’ve got it all sussed out. I know where I’m going to attack, I know where I need to put the hammer down and where to not put the hammer down. It’s actually not a bad course, and the ‘climb’ that Valentino mentioned had been turned into a mere float into the air thanks to the intervention of Surrey council who had decided to resurface the whole section. The mind boggles as to how bad it must have been for them to randomly resurface this quiet, tree covered back lane. But no-one was complaining. Surrey Council had unwittingly created a battleground, a launch pad for rocket-shaped attacks by hapless bike racers, namely, yours truly. Three laps pass without incident. I concoct a plan in my head. I will wait till two laps to go then attack from here, regardless of what breaks go off before that.
I then proceed to immediately throw my own plan out the window and put my whole race in jeopardy. Third time up the climb, I decide I’m bored, the race is boring and I’m going to try and light it up a bit, wake some dudes up. That was the idea. What in fact happened, was that I launched myself so well, that I ended up in my own solo breakaway. What genius.
After half a lap I couldn’t see the bunch behind me anymore, and so what in my head had started as ‘a bit of a laugh’, began to turn into a completely delusional conception that I could ride away and win this race all on my own, all 70km that was left of it. That said, this was something of a first, to be off the FRONT of the bunch, clear, out of sight and on my own. People at the side of the road clap you even if they don’t know you. The more knowledgeable ones give throaty, slightly louder than average shouts of encouragement to spur you on. The course car drops back so that the commissaire can shout the time gap out to you, rather than the normal course bike updates. It’s like living in luxury. You feel like such a pro. the hero out on a solo break time-trailing to glory... It’s also like living in your own zoo of pain. You feel like a sitting duck. A prune. A shrivelled prune.
To my credit, I held a gap of 25-30 seconds for about 15km riding at what I guessed was something around threshold, just below the red zone. I kept looking back and seeing no sign of my chasers, until halfway round lap 5, there they were steaming up the climb after me. So, I sat up, feeling almost smug. I’d let them come back. I wasn’t broken, oh no, it was all part of my cunning master plan, you know, the one I was making up as I went along and kept changing every time someone attacked. Yeah. That one.
Back in the bunch (back in the real world) things were ticking along quite nicely. Various burly gentlemen were taking turns at pretending to attack, being chased down by various svelt young gentlemen in skinsuits (some flashy, some a shade more modest), and the race began to take the shape of a typical 90km affair. Someone else went off on a solo break, an Australian dude with tattoos on his legs not wearing any club colours. I recognised him. He was the dude who serviced my bike! Fair play mate. I’d ride over and share the load, but, ya know, I’ve done my bit. He came back eventually to a few consolatory taps on the back. This race wasn’t going anywhere. Three laps from the end, still nothing much had happened. I’d been feeling a bit sick actually, not comfortable at all, and had complete resigned myself to sitting in and waiting for the sprint, in which I would probably get blocked and not come anywhere. There was only one thing bothering me: Cat 2.
I needed 9 points to get the season total of 40 required to go from Cat 3 to Cat 2. I’d need to place well in the sprint to get those points. I was feeling like shit though, so not much chance of that. My only chance of scoring any points to day would be…
And that’s when it happened, the miracle. I was taking a drink, a nice long slug to try and rehydrate myself a bit, that being the only cause I could think of for my burgeoning nausea. Glugging away I was, chin pointing defiantly skyward, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a flurry of activity towards the front of the bunch. Like a Meerkat, I sat up and tried to see what was happening.
A break! Four guys in it. One of them I knew was useful. And was that… Valentino!!!
I slammed the bottle back in the cage and took a deep breath, closed my eyes (metaphorically, or maybe even literally), crouched over my bars like a rugby front row about to scrum down, and let the cannons erupt. The bridge was epic, predictably agonising, but my launch was perfect, from the back, no-one saw me coming, I went off the front alone, heading for the four guys ahead. The break was complete, and was free of the bunch. There were five of us. Game on.
Valentino must have realised this at the same time as me as out of his mouth came a series of deafening noises the likes of which I never knew he could be capable of that carried a sentiment along the lines of, ‘gentleman, this is a wonderful opportunity for us, now shall we be good chaps and make a big effort to keep this one out?’. That, but with expletives, and in an Italian accent. Poor old Valentino. He’d been waiting for this moment nearly the whole season and now he was finally in what looked, to all intents and purposes, like the winning break, he wasn’t about to take a back seat in the wagon. He wanted us to work. Thankfully, no-one argued (no-one dared!). And so it began. We worked. Hard. This really was it.
Three laps we had left to ride, or was it four? It didn’t really matter, the timing felt right, and the bunch didn’t have an answer to the relentless work the five of us were putting in. Looking back, they were drifting further and further back. No time gaps, just an empty road. The five of us slogged on and on, everyone taking their turn. Well, nearly everyone. One guy was finding the going a little tough and had become a passenger. He had a loud voice with an American accent, so no-one was in an doubt as to what state his legs were in at any given moment. It ranged from bad to catastrophic. But somehow he hung on. Sadly, Valentino was no so lucky.
Not really blessed with the best legs for climbing, and with two mountain goats in the break (namely myself and the useful guy), Valentino’s elastic was snapping. And then it snapped. I didn’t see him go, I was too busy gunning it up on of the climbs, side by side with useful guy, the pair of us dragging anyone along who could stand the heat. Sadly, this was one kitchen Valentino could not stay in. I felt bad, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes. But the battle for the rest of us raged on. We heard the bell. 8km to go.
Last laps are always cagey affairs. In my mind I was open to suggestions. If anyone went I felt ready. Would I have the balls to try something myself? Thinking about it now, I probably could have. Hindsight is such a wonderful thing when it comes to bike racing. It’s a bit like child birth. When you look back, you can’t remember the pain. So I’m told. It came down to the final stretch of road, the last kilometre. Shouty Yank had all but resigned. That left three. We thundered down a short descent to the final junction, a really tight left hander. After the tight left hander, all that would remain would be about 500 metres of pure sprinting, ever so slightly up hill. This was the moment I needed to have my brain switched on. So. Guess what? I didn’t.
Useful guy got the jump. He went straight away, thrashing away at the pedals almost immediately. Had he taken the corner better and got better momentum? Had he planned this? Or did he simply remember to switch his brain on? Probably all three. He kicked, really hard. I saw it, but by the time I could respond a vital half a second had passed, and that was all he needed. The third guy, a sound gentleman from Kingston Wheelers named Paul made a small noise of surrender. It was just me chasing useful guy. Chasing, chasing chasing, trying desperately to get back on the wheel. The line was in sight, and so was the win. I kicked and kicked, but useful guy kicked and kicked a bit harder... I couldn’t close the gap... I knew I could get him, I'd pipped him in a sprint about a month before... The win was there, coming at me in the form of a thin white line of gaffer tape across the road, hurtling towards me.... But there was a black and orange skinsuit large in my sights as it flashed beneath my wheels. I had taken second place in the Surrey League 3rds race at Seale.
It always takes a little while for these things to properly sink in. You cross the line and the first feeling you get is overwhelming relief that it’s all over, there is no more pain to suffer. Whether that relief turns the corners of your mouth upwards really depends on the result. Generally, anything in single figures works for me, but a podium? That’s gold, even if it’s silver or bronze. Yes, there was a tinge of regret in the back of my mind. If I’d had my brain switched on… but second? Well, I was happy, and happy also that I’d been beaten by the best man in the race, fair and square.
So I came second in a road race. Actually, I came second in no fewer than 6 races this season, some road races, some crits, some hill climbs. But not a single win to my name. It didn’t matter though, because 2 was the magic number for me in 2014. It was my second full season of racing having taken up cycling in 2012 and racing in 2013. I had taken all those second places, and some thirds, and some other top tens, and as a result I had, on this day in Surrey, accrued enough points to earn me my Category 2 racing license. Now I’d say that was a decent season’s work.
*Takes a bow*.
Next month, I have a mountain to climb. Well, a large number of hills.