It was a beautiful day for a bike race, and I was down on the reserve list, the race having sold out hours after entries opened online (I’ll come back to that point later!). The Woolwich were joint marshalling the 8th SERRL summer series road race of the season, so I fancied my chances of getting a ride and hopped in the car with Bob early doors to get down to HQ and get my name at the top of the list. Turned out to be a good call, and to the delight of my fellow members who’d made the journey to marshal and assist at the roadside and in the convoy, I was pinning my number on and heading out onto the road nestled in the peloton, today consisting of Cat 3 and 4 riders, for the 80km race.
The race panned out how pretty much every race I’d done this season had panned out. I got myself in several promising, but ultimately unsuccessful breaks that petered out before they’d even had a chance to get going, looking back over my shoulder only to see the peloton sitting their looking smug. In the race before this, earlier in the month, the same pattern had formed, and it wasn’t until I saw sense, sat up and eased back into the bosom of the bunch that I switched off, struck an absolute monster of a pothole head on and punctured, putting me out of the race at about two-thirds distance.
Today, the road surface was a bit kinder, but sitting back in the bunch became a fairly frustrating tactic to adhere to. Either the pace felt too slow and I’d find myself drifting to the front without even pedalling, or another ‘promising’ attack would go and I’d feel compelled to go with it. Now, of course, when the winning break did finally go, with riders in ones and twos strewn down the road, of course I made the snap judgement that, like all that had gone before it, it too was doomed to failure and we’d all be back together again within a few minutes, another waste of rapidly decreasing energy. Of course, it was not, and two riders got away, ultimately to head the race home 30 seconds down the road from the bunch. So, that in mind, did anyone in the bunch decide to chase at any point?
Only one. Muggins.
Only a few kilometres from the end of the race, my legs were packing up and heading for the exits. I had been on the front ‘for three-quarters of the race’ as one fellow rider attested back at HQ after the race, and I’d had enough. The bunch would sprint for third place, I’d sit in and let them tow me over the line. Then, something happened. The Gods of cycling sent me an opportunity. A young 17-year-old rider I had got to know from previous races had a gap. There was another rider just up the road a few seconds ahead of him. I was at the front of the bunch. A quick glance over my shoulder… I was CLEAR of the bunch. It was only a few seconds, but it was enough to give me the energy to muster up one final bid for what would be my first top 10 placing of the year. No punctures this time, it was do or die.
My legs felt dead, but there’s something about looking over your shoulder a second time and seeing the gap back to the bunch has just grown a little that gives you those vital extra drops of energy you need to keep pushing and keep pushing hard. We were three, we were closer to the finish than certainly I was aware of, but we knew we were close. I shouted out, ‘come on we can do this!!!’ and we began a pace line. My young friend was struggling to stay on to begin with, but he recovered after a minute or so and was ready to do his turn, so I gave him the signal to go to the front. I shouted to our other colleague, ‘peel off 18!’… and that’s when the Gods called time on our race.
As 18 peeled off, my young friend (who, incidentally, was wearing number 13, and had not been informed of the ancient custom of pinning it on upside down) clipped his back wheel and swerved to the right. As poor chance would have it, this swerve coincided with the passing of one of the course motorbikes. 13 veered right into the motorbike, there was a crunch and he was down. In third wheel at the moment of impact, I only just managed to swerve and avoid, my back wheel skidding out, but I held it, and got round onto clear road. But now there was a split second decision to be made, a decision that would call on every moral fibre in my pain-racked body: do I stop or do I carry on?
14 months before, at 50kph, I had crashed towards the back of a fast moving peloton in a race in Somerset. Another rider had struck me across the back wheel, and I went crashing to the floor (see previous blog). Out of a sense of responsibility, guilt, or just decency, that rider stopped for me, as did a second rider who was unable to avoid me as I went down and who ran me over.
There’s no reason to stop for a felled rider for any medical reason. Races are well covered from that point of view, and indeed, I was well tended to, as was my young friend in this day’s race. But it was remembering that cold day in April 2013 that made me stop this time. Karma was asking me a big question, and I knew my answer had to be the right one. I was on for a certain top 5 finish. I know this because I had time to come to a stop, turn my bike round and get back to the scene of the crash a few meters back down the road before the bunch came charging through. Maybe they’d seen it happen and slowed up, who knows, but we had a good gap and we were only a couple of kilometres from the finish. But I stopped, and threw it all away.
I can’t deny I was disappointed, and of course there were those who said they wouldn’t have been quite so considerate in the same scenario. But I had made a call to two fellow riders who’s hearts, like mine, were thrashing away at maximum revs, who had black spots in their eyes, who’s legs and lungs were burning and screaming for it all to end, and as a consequence, there was a coming together, and it did all come to an end. I stopped because it was a young rider I knew, a good lad, a strong rider who will, I’m sure, become a bike racer of great integrity. I stopped because he didn’t crash on his own out of sheer exhaustion, which I have seen, or by carelessness or dangerous riding, which I have also seen. I stopped because we were all in it together, the three of us, and to use a cliché with a huge sense of irony, together we stand, divided we fall. I stopped because I believed stopping was the right thing to do. Had I continued, even if I had got that top 5 finish, I’m not sure I would have slept that well that evening.
But yes, I was disappointed. After a windy day at Hillingdon in February (finished 18th in the bunch), a soaking wet late-April day in Surrey (dropped by the bunch on the final climb), a hellish half hour in central London at the London Nocturne 2/3/4 crit (finished 28th, dropped by the bunch but on the lead lap), and of course the puncture in Kent at the beginning of June, the season was not going too well. It was proving to be a struggle to even get into any races, because with online entry for most if not all of them, they were all selling out before I could get a look in – man, I only got into this race on the reserve list! Yet I know I’m strong. I can pull a bunch along by myself for long periods, I can bridge to breaks, and of course I’m alright when the road pitches skywards.
I’m strong, I’m fit, or so everyone keeps telling me. Surely my luck would need to change soon?
Part 2 to follow soon…