With a rare free weekend in the diary, I had decided to enter this Cat 3/4 race on a course that looked fun and relatively flat (on Google Maps). Seemed like a good idea, but where the hell is Deal, and why does it take 2 hours to get there by train? Never mind, I thought, the weather looks good, and the racing will make the journey worth it… reckon I might win this one, or at least get some points... As it turned out, the journey was the easy bit.
The first thing I noticed when I alighted the train at Deal was wind. No, I hadn’t eaten sprouts the night before, and wholemeal pasta doesn’t have that effect on me. A cold, stiff, westerly coastal breeze was blowing and made what I had hoped would be an easy 3 mile ride to the circuit actually a bit of a struggle. Not ideal race preparation, but finding the Fowlmead Nature Reserve easily enough, I headed up to the track to sign on and seek some refuge from the wild weather - May 4th 2013, this was near the end of the winter that had no end. With the majority of riders huddled in cars and, in some cases, team mini-buses, I had to make do with a walled marquee, bent over double in the gale, as shelter for me and the bike, and settled in for a quick pre-race pasta snack.
“F***ing awful weather” a voice said from over my shoulder a few moments later. I turned round to see a middle aged gentleman dressed in a white Catford CC rain jacket, navy shorts and white leather slip-on shoes stood just inside my adopted lodgings, surveying the clouds of dust being blown up the long start finish straight by the Kentish Mistral. I agreed, and a conversation started up. “Oh well”, he continued, “at least it’s a tail wind up to the finish line… Hi, I’m Jeff”.
To cut a long story short, I had unwittingly met Jeff Banks, the fashion guy off the telly who was on The Clothes Show in the 80s who now bank rolls Catford CC’s Equipe Banks racing team. As a result of a lovely chat about bike racing that proved a welcome distraction from the obnoxious elements for both of us, he pledged to be a Woolwich CC supporter for the day, quite unprompted of course, and (if you're reading this Jeff) most welcome and appreciated I must say.
Pleasantries aside, it was time to get down to business as race time approached. I stripped off the thermals and headed off to warm up, eyeing up the opposition on the small piece of tarmacked infield upon which most of the competitors were priming their cannons. Soon enough, we were called to the start, and the small-ish field of 20 or so riders, many of whom looked, to my ever optimistic racer’s eyes, either too old or too poorly dressed to be considered serious racers, lined up under starters orders. This was looking good!
We set off round the lovely Fowlmead Circuit, a sort of flat Mont Ventoux on repeat, with a twisty bit in a wooded area, followed by a more sweeping section round some barren, wind-exposed land. Exposed indeed. The wind was absolutely horrendous. Glancing down at the speedo at the worst moments, the peloton was barely scraping double figures battling against the unrelenting tempest. Anyone aspiring to win this race with an ounce of sense would stay nestled quietly in the bunch for as long as possible today. Therefore, my decision to chase down a break on the third or fourth lap out of 15 was, in retrospect, a touch naive. Chase down the break I did, though, and there was a good 15-20 seconds gap when I eventually bridged. This could work!
What I hadn’t bargained for however, was that my two companions were only a few points off Cat 2 (I found out later – and they went on to win the race), and dressed immaculately in their team kit with faces betraying some exuberant youth oozing from beneath the racing shades. It was then I realised… I’m hanging out of my arse here! Bed well and truly made, I now had to lie in it, and attempted to do my share of the work in the group of three, although somehow it always seemed to be my turn when facing directly into the force 8 gale. On the sixth turn for home, overwhelmingly out of my depth, my legs and lungs could take no more, and with a whimper I watched the break ride away as I retreated to the peloton…
…and was then promptly dropped by the peloton… into the lonely windy abyss.
Having dropped back so far that I was riding with the rider who punctured on the first lap, my dented pride was barely comforted by Jeff Banks who was still stood by the side of the circuit shouting ‘Come on Woolwich’ as I plodded past. I had given up chasing, but I wanted to complete the distance despite the embarrassment and frustration. I guess these feelings are all normal for someone who suffers being dropped by the bunch in a bike race for the first time. We all have to go through it, in many cases on a day where one is feeling at the peak of one’s physical fitness and brimming with all the world’s confidence. It is one of bike racing’s basic lessons.
So I kept going to the end, siting the howling gale as the cause of my downfall to my new companion, who echoed my disdain for today’s meteorological intervention in our progression towards bike racing greatness. We took solace in each other’s shame. Jeff Banks threw a proverbial arm of comfort around my shoulder, and promised, genuinely, to look out for Woolwich CC in future races.
So there it is: I got dropped, I got over it. I made a few mental notes: train harder, race smarter... maybe try a Cat 4 only race a bit nearer home...
All I had left to do then was, indeed, get home. I considered grabbing a copy of Autotrader before the train arrived, but I thought better of it.