‘GET OFF THE TRAAAAAAAAAAAAACK!!!!!!!!!’
With the women’s peloton bearing down on us fast, we three grinning, panting, wide-eyed finishers dived for the grass at the edge of the Gravesend track like rabbits to their burrows to allow the ladies, still racing and on their final lap having been lapped by the men, to pass on their way. On any other day, we wouldn’t have been so absent minded, saving our back-slapping and tale-swapping for a quieter, calmer moment after we’d caught our breaths and reconvened in the café. But for me, and my fellow racers, today wasn’t any other day. Today was a day when we moved up in the world.
It was a pleasant September afternoon, dry with light winds and plenty of sunshine peeping out from behind the rolling clouds. A perfect day for a bike race, much like the same day a month before when I came to the same place to compete in the same 4th-Cat-only race at Gravesend Cyclopark. 4th Cat only races had been a revelation; far less brutal than the 3/4 races I had competed in throughout the season thus far. For a season littered with injury, a crash and some pretty major charity rides, I hadn’t had the chance to do as much racing as I’d hoped to do, and weeding out the 4th Cat races became my best hope of fulfilling one of my objectives from the start of my first full season of racing: get from Cat 4 to Cat 3.
The race back in August had gone extremely well. About 30 riders showed up including three of four from Dulwich Paragon, a club who always give the impression that they have sent a team to a race, when in reality, the likelihood is that none of them actually know each other. About half way through the race a gentlemen racing for Adalta passed me after the climb out of the Eastern hairpin. ‘Got a gap if you wanna work’ he wheezed. Unwittingly, I’d come out of the saddle for the little climb and broken off the front of the bunch. I tentatively agreed to ‘work’ with this rider, but his pace was hot and I started to panic. There was a long way still to go and my legs instantly felt like they were going to fall off. I expressed my doubts to the Adalta rider and we backed off and fell back to the bunch.
At this point, there was a slight altercation between the rider from Adalta and the gentlemen from Dulwich Paragon, whereby the former felt that the latter should be doing more work on the front of the bunch since they were clearly working as a team and it was only fair. The Dulwich riders duly ignored the Adalta rider, who then promptly saw red mist and rode away from the bunch on his own. In the time it took me to decide whether or not to go with him, he was gone, and indeed he enjoyed such a potent combination of strength and anger that he went on to win the race. I didn’t fair so badly though, breaking off the front with a few laps to go in a group of three (none of whom were wearing Dulwich jerseys). We worked hard to the end and to my enormous pleasure I had the legs to see both of them off in the finale for a very nice second place. It was a good day.
That was a month ago from this moment, sitting in the September sunshine eating some pasta on a picnic bench, an hour before my race, whilst watching the Cat 2 and 3 race raging away. I felt calm today, but never allowed my mind to start drifting away with thoughts of how I might do in the race. It would depend who turned up, I might get a puncture, there might be an almighty pile up with me at the bottom of it.. I was on my own again, but that was fine too. I’d made a few friends before kitting up and rolling out to warm up, and felt I’d have a few guys to work with when the Dulwich troop started playing with the bunch.
Warm ups done, gels in back pocket, we all rolled up to the start line, and a few nervous started to flutter round my belly as I scanned the field for potential strong guys. There was quite a mix today, from the svelt, sharply dressed and cleanly shaved (legs) of the PMR rider to the dishevelment of a privateer who looked like his bike was about to crumple beneath his vast weight - watch out for him in the sprint – it was hard to tell who’d turned up. We shall soon see.
The bunch rolled away with me at the back as usual, fumbling to clip in while the rest glided off up the rise towards the Eastern hairpin. You can see me on the video that was posted with clips from the race made by a guy with a phone. I like to hang back at the start though, and with my favourite little hill after the hairpin coming up, I knew I’d be on the back with no dramas, and I was. My heart sank however at the sight of the svelt PMR rider and another young rider with the deepest carbon rims I’ve ever seen, disappearing down the road almost immediately. Calculations in my head… I only need two points to get into Cat 3… 7th place is enough… ok, so maybe I won’t win today… bollocks! I turned to my ally and quizzed him on his thoughts as to the potential staying power of this break. His guess was as good as mine – no idea. Meanwhile, we’re leading the bunch with no sign of any of the four Dulwich riders offering any assistance, surprise surprise. And that’s how it stayed… for the first half an hour of the hour-long race.
Then, up ahead, suddenly we could only see one rider. The younger guy, who wasn’t wearing a club jersey, had blown and was coming back to us. In fact, I’m not sure he even finished. That just left the PMR rider, and he seemed to be getting larger in our sights too. From only being able to see him on the long straights, we could now see him on the shorter ones too, then round the hairpins, until finally we swept him up. As I passed him I offered a shout of ‘good effort mate’, but there was no response, probably a mixture of disappointment and affront at my utterance.
It was all back together again. Game on!
And then it happened. After about 45 minutes of racing, two riders suddenly broke off the front of the bunch setting the race alight. I recognised one of them. He had been with me in the group of three runners-up a month ago, riding for himself. Now he had a club jersey on: Adalta! The other guy, would you believe, was Dulwich! I don’t know why, but something in my mind told me to go with this. Yes, there were only two of them, yes breaks had been attempted all through the race thus far but with no success, but this felt different, and instinctively I chased them down. It was the first time I’d been in the red zone this whole race, my breathing was hard and fast, and adrenalin was coursing through my viens. I didn’t know what I was doing, but it felt right. I caught the two riders just as we reached the start finish line and cried out ‘Three of us, we’ve got a gap, LET’s GO!!!’.
I had caught up with two riders who were already deep inside the pain cave. Approaching the eastern hairpin, my questions to the Dulwich rider and the Adalta rider as to how they were feeling were answered monosyllabically with a ‘SHIT!’ and ‘ON THE RIVET!’ respectively. But we carried on, and for the first time I experienced what it is like to be the hunted, to be chased by the pack, to be constantly looking over you shoulder in fear of how close your assasins might be. But I felt strong, and was more than able to sustain the pace when I found myself on the front. Then an incline, and a cry from behind of ‘slow down 15, keep it together’ from the Dulwich rider, and I played the game, even though on the inside, this little accidental break of mine had filled me with enormous hope and encouragement. Round and round we went, down hill into a stiff headwind, then uphill back to the start/finish line. Things were going well, then I heard the crash.
Coming round one of the hairpins at the western end of the circuit, our ‘on the rivet’ friend from Adalta had unceremoniously fallen off the rivet. I don’t know whether his huge effort had caused it, whether he slipped or had a flat, but he was gone. Now it was just Woolwich and Dulwich at the front of the SERRL Cat 4s, with a good 20 second gap back to the bunch who didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Next time round past the finish, the lap board came out. 5 laps to go. This was it!
5 to go. We’re sharing the workload, still communicating, still working hard. 4 to go, I seem to be spending a little more time on the front, and when I’m not on the front, it feels too slow. 3 to go, was something said between us? I’m looking back and feel like I’m waiting for this guy to get back on my wheel. 2 to go, he’s definitely still there, I can here people at the finish line cheering him on (not by his name of course, just by his club name). The Eastern hairpin, up the little rise, my favourite little rise, one more look back, he’s off my wheel, four or five seconds back. I just rode.
I rode and rode and rode, swooping down the hill into the fierce wind. I rode and rode, legs feeling like the guns of navarone, every tiny capillary gasping for oxygen. I rode and rode, and at the bottom of the hill, just before the quick left hander, I looked back… no-one there! My heart is in my mouth, and I still feel like the hopeless prey of a pack of wolves. I’ve done too much, I’ve cooked my legs, they’ll come back at me surely, there’s so many of them, they’re leaving me hanging out here, wearing me down, waiting to swallow me whole. But I’ve never felt like this before, I’m leading this bloody race, I’m on my own, I’ve only got a few kilometres left to go, this is magnificent, I feel so STRONG! I’m panicking, I’m breathing so hard, my heart is trying to break free from the prison of my rib cage, I’m coming up the hill and I can hear a sound… the bell!
One lap to go. This is my moment. Do I venture a look behind. Are those the same sounds of encouragement I heard before for the same guy? How close is he? JUST RIDE DICKHEAD!!! Down the hill to the Eastern hairpin and I’m Lewis Hamilton, braking late, hitting a sweet apex, power down back up the hill, back in the saddle at the brow, in the drops, head down, RIDE! I still feel strong, and I swoop down the hill for the final time, and just before the left hander, a cheeky look behind… EMPTY TRACK! I’m panicking, I’m breathing, I’m riding, I’m, I’m… smiling??? I round the final hairpin and am greeted with another very sweet sight: I’m about to lap the women’s bunch! ‘COMING THROUGH!!’ I shout like a juggernaught sounding its horn, and cries of response emanate from within the bunch as they move over to the right and let me come steaming through, not letting up my pace for a second.
I’m still the hunted.
One right hander, two right handers, and then I’m heading for home, just a long, rising, half a kilometre of tarmac ahead of me, no-one behind me. I’m all alone and start to wonder if anyone is actually here, if in fact everyone abandoned the race and went home, and it’s just me, riding myself into the ground like one of Paul McCartney’s lonely people. Up ahead, I see the lead motorbike pulling over at the finish line, I see people lining the track, standing, clapping. I empty the last drops of energy left in my legs as I head for the line, I’m 50 metres away and I hear… the bell?????
The moment of my first race win on a bicycle was awash with confusion. In my state of euphoria, it had not occurred to me that having passed (lapped) the women’s race back down the course, they still, of course, had a lap to go. Amid the cacophony of cheers, clapping and bells and heavy breathing, I looked around for some kind of confirmation that I was indeed crossing the line to win. All on my own, I should have been fist pumping through that whole last 50 meters, two arms in the air, pointing to the heavens in a gesture of thanks, mouth wide open in a shout of joy. The official photographer caught me just as my left hand began to rise off the hood, a look of puzzlement still etched on my face. Luckily, the man with the phone video did catch me raise both arms at the very last minute, just as my front wheel touched the finish line. I had to ask the guy on the motorbike if I’d really won. ‘Yes you did win’ he replied, straight faced, as if proudly talking to his own grandson after the egg and spoon race.
Despite losing my victory moment somewhat, this was one of the greatest days of my life, one of my proudest moments, and one of my best achievements. Yes, it’s a late season Cat 4 race, but I won it, and I was smiling broadly for a good week afterwards. I felt so proud at the club meeting a few weeks later as I told my tale of how I got away. I was applauded. It was such a tremendous feeling and I made sure I enjoyed every moment. I felt like I had arrived. I was a race winner. I had the certificate.
A proper racing cyclist.