05/10/15 Race Reports

Alex Gets His 2nd Cat

By Alex.

Cyclopark 3rds/4ths

Got my 2nd cat yesterday! Every attempt at setting up a break was chased down with no-one counterting. Seemed like everyone was saving themselves for the sprint right from the start.

Finished 5th in the Bunch sprint, pretty sketchy but stayed safe. There was a line of riders that went up the left that took the first 4 place which I should have been in but went right instead.

 

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Alex Gets His 2nd Cat
02/10/15 Race Reports

Thruxton Crits

By Alex.

Steve’s legs were looking like a mixture of Froomies muscles and Cheryl Cole’s tan and were certainly working well giving him a bunch finish. With a lump of metal still holding his colar bone together it’s amazing to see him racing and still getting better and better.

The 3rd cat race had about 6 riders that were really pushing everything and were putting in plenty of attacks. We managed to get a break of 8 with most these guys in, but was surprised to see the main group pull it back in.

After this I just watched for any attacks and stayed out the wind (mega windy!!) Then on the final lap I made an attack with one other guy which held about a 100 yard gap all the way round. The guy I broke with dropped off on the drag up to the finish, I managed to dig deep and crossed the line 3rd with the bunch just behind me.

Need to practice riding in windy conditions. I find that I lose my posture and start flailing all over the place.

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Thruxton Crits
21/09/15 Race Reports

Cyclopark 234 Crits

With a last lap attack from Paul and a respectable 7th place from Andy we walked away from this with our heads held high and a cool pic 🙂

PB

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Cyclopark 234 Crits
20/09/15 Race Reports

London X-League Rd 2; Hog Hill.

By Ed.

Weather – dry
Ground conditions – dry but with 1 muddy section which I ran each time to save the bike.
Starting position on grid – front row
Finish – 8th (booooo!)
Excuses:
  • Tired legs from hard few weeks.
  • Lots of contact on the start sprint resulting in front wheel coming loose and needing re-tightening.
  • Did I mention tired legs?
  • Puncture on final lap necessitating descending from the top to bottom of Hog Hill on a rim (ouch!) then running all the way back up again (even more ouch!). Lost 2-3 places due to that puncture.
Pleased that I made it to the finish line still in the top ten but disappointed in my form on the day. Still, learnt loads, had a hard workout, and enjoyed the friendly atmosphere between all my fellow competitors both before, during and after the race.
Next round for me in 2 weeks time…
Ed X Hog Hill Sept 2015 1
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London X-League Rd 2; Hog Hill.
20/09/15 Race Reports

SERRL 3/4 Road Race Horsmonden

By Alex.

As a team, we were all over this race! With only Lee, Rich and Me, we were still able to have one of us in every attack and ready to counter anything coming up. We were always perfectly positioned in the bunch, anyone at the front was off the front. All this communication and race analysis has had such a positive impact on our racing and the results we’ve been getting are definitely proof of the pudding.

Half way through the race, Lee went in a break of 4 that got about 10-15 seconds, I was ready for anything that wanted to join to it. At the base of the hill another 3 went that I joined, 2 dropped back and I made the bridge with another to make it 6, I thought this was going to be the one that stayed away and with Lee and Myself would have given us a great advantage. but that one wasn’t to be.
The break that did stay away was a lap later in the same place, 2 guys up the road, Several of us attacked on the hill to Horsmonden and I joined them with one other guy, we worked a great ‘through and off’ and this lap had a Prime for 1st over the line which I got pretty easily. The last lap we got our lead up to 1 min and after the hills it started to get a bit attacky. I picked the guy I wanted to lead me out and I think I chose well, I was sitting second wheel and he decided to go from the corner that leads into the finish, with about 150 meters to go I went and won by 0.02 of a second! (New level of Sprint found)
Following not far behind was Rich and Lee, Rich managed to give Lee some room and Lee got a 3rd in the bunch sprint which put him 7th and Rich came in with still a fantastic 12th overall. AWESOME!!
The biggest positive for me was executing everything we’ve learned this year. After every race that goes well, we all feel great. 1st place is just money in the beer fund 🙂
£40 in winnings by the way!! (£20 of beer already consumed)
Alex Ricb and Lee Horsmonden 2015
Alex wins Horsmonden SERRL Sept 2015

 

 

 

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SERRL 3/4 Road Race Horsmonden
06/09/15 Race Reports

London X-League Rd 1. Stamner Park

 

                                Temporarily leading the race around lap 3 of 8, closely followed by the eventual winner Rob Purcell
By Ed.
Weather: sunny
Ground conditions: totally dry
Race duration 50 mins
Key features:
(1) long climb
(2) twisting section through woodland, perhaps 20-30 turns inc at least 6 hairpins.
(3) 3 dismount barriers positioned on a hairpin
(4) long flat field section with headwind (road tactics applied here)
Starting position on grid: 4th row
Finishing position: 2nd (46 seconds behind winner)
Highlights:
The start was a full body contact sprint experience as I went from around 40th position to 4th in 2 mins.
Woodland section involved switching from full gas to cerebral riding within a few seconds. Very easy to get lines wrong.
Final hill – blew the 2nd place rider away with a full on sprint from halfway up followed by Kamikaze descent which included tripping over the barriers and going flying! Held on for the place though.
Effort 10/10
Video. Appearances at: 1.47, 5.43, 7.10 and 8.37
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London X-League Rd 1. Stamner Park
21/08/15 Race Reports

Hillingdon Wednesday Night Masters’

Lining up at the start of Masters’ race at Hillingdon on Wednesday night I knew I was ticking quite a few of these boxes but that ‘successful breakway’ had eluded me this far. In fact the last time I was in a winning breakaway I was racing in a 3rd/4th Category race but here there were plenty of 2nd Cats, a few 1st Cats and there was a wealth of experience including some past and present National Champions.

Throughout the race, as I always do, I got impatient and went with and instigated a lot of moves. I enjoy going to a race and actually ‘racing the race’ instead of ‘hanging on’ or ‘sitting in’.

2 riders went away off the front quite early on and I thought it too early to go with them so that left 40 or so of us in the rain, trying to attack off the front and bridge the gap to no avail.

Cornering in the rain is never fun at race pace and I always let out a bit of air from my tyres to improve my grip and because it reduces the risk of punctures.   There’s always that trade-off between those two positives and more rolling resistance but on Wednesday I experimented with a slightly ‘flatter’ tyre. I don’t know if it was all the cornering I’ve been practicing and teaching this year or the lower pressures but I found I was gaining on pretty much everyone and felt confident doing it, pressing my outside foot down onto the pedal to push the bike into the floor and equally pressing the bars down at the front. I was on my game.

5 laps or 5 miles to go and the two escapees were still up the road but people were beginning to tire after a flurry of attacks seeing as the race was in its closing stages. I was here to be aggressive and I hadn’t finished yet. I didn’t fancy a bunch sprint in the wet anyway.

Tactically, the last 5 laps are a good place to attack as a lot of riders won’t waste their own energy chasing any more as they are saving their legs for the bunch sprint. Also from a tactical perspective, if you attack when everyone is tired, even though you’re tired, they ‘think’ you’re stronger. This sport isn’t just about fitness, in fact it’s about so many things, the psychological side being a huge part. What’s more they can’t see the pain on my face if I am disappearing up the road lol. I mentioned ‘balls’ earlier: I don’t care about ‘blowing up’. It’s only a bloody hobby after all so I was prepare to risk everything, unlike some of my competitors………

So I attacked.

With 4 and a half laps to go, on the slight uphill I leapt off the front and rode hard through the left and then right-hand corners, capitalising on my improved cornering technique.

Mark Cavendish talked about getting in the front echelon in the Tour a couple of years ago, describing it as being like “standing on ice that is about to crack; you’ve got at most 5 seconds to get out of there or you’re stuffed!” When an attack goes up the road and more than 5 seconds have lapsed, you’re thinking: “if I don’t go now I am going to have to expend far too much energy getting across to it”. Too late. It’s gone.

That’s what happened on Wednesday, I was away, clear of the peloton by some way as I saw ‘4 laps to go’ on the lapboard. Now all I had to do was ride as fast as a peloton that was rapidly accelerating towards the climax of its race.

Shit.

I had made a huge effort on the uphill to get away from a group that is averaging 26 mph, I am now riding into a headwind and, a few seconds from now, my reward will be that uphill section again.

I started to question my decision but I was fully committed and the small group of spectators at the start/finish line spurred me on. Around the back and up the drag I decided to count from 30 down to 1. I made it over the top and took the 2 wet corners even quicker, taking a few risks but I needed all the help I could get.

I glanced across and caught a glimpse of my pursuers, the gap wasn’t coming down, this was good.

Past the lap board, 3 to go and now I had stopped breathing; instead I was gasping, panting and wheezing.

“I’ll never hold on”

“I can do this”

I was getting light headed, my legs were screaming and I remembered that every single time that I had ever tried a solo break I had failed.

“Not today” I said to myself as I passed to laps to go, wishing, oh so wishing it was 1 lap to go.

My arms were hurting!! I couldn’t feel my legs any more.

I could no longer count from 30 down to 1, it was too long so started at 10 and just split the penultimate lap into 20 second chunks.

1 lap to go. The most painful bell I have ever heard, by a country mile.

I still had a few hundred metres but now I started rationalising with myself, saying “oh well, at least I tried. Mind you, they might start playing cat and mouse behind if nobody wants to lead out the sprint so I went up a gear for the first time since my attack. I was now well and truly in the hurt locker as I ascended the back straight for the final time. Through the corners and up the rise, then left into the finishing straight. I thought about the numerous TV Commentators who always ‘tell’ the rider not to look back so I didn’t, terrified of being swamped at any second.

I could see the finish as I cranked it up a few gears and got out of the saddle.

Fear of loss is a much much stronger motivator than sense of gain. Right now I was absolutely bloody terrified of getting caught and having to wait 3 more years for this moment to come around again.

I cross the line and looked behind to see the peloton only 50 meters away.

I had done it. Ok it was 3rd place as we never caught the early break but I had soloed my way to th finish against a group of riders who I respect enormously.

I was elated and I was in pieces.

I pulled over as everyone passed me, gasping and unsure what day of the week it was as my team mate Steve congratulated me.

It was an awesome night, one that has given me so much confidence and self-belief to take forward.

I learnt a lot too:

  • It would have been easy for me to stop believing in my incessant attacking strategy but I continued to believe in my process. How can you get better at anything if you don’t practice it and learn from your mistakes?
  • It’s ok to run slightly lower tyre pressure.
  • You don’t need oversocks to protect your shoes in the rain!
  • Practicing your cornering really matters

Two more things:

  • On the way there Steve and I were stuck in traffic in the p*ssing rain wondering why on earth we were going to a race! I really really don’t like racing in the rain. We’ll by facing that head on it turns out I now do!!
  • I learnt that you can always go harder but I’ve told you before haven’t I??!!

PB

 

Ok the picture’s not from Hillingdon but you could have brought your camera?!

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Hillingdon Wednesday Night Masters’
04/08/15 Race Reports

World Masters’ Road Cycling Championships

Aartselaar, South of Antwerp, Belgium

Sun 2nd August 2015

 

I have never had so much adrenaline running through my veins as I did at 12.15pm on Sunday. Neither had I ever felt my heart pounding against my ribcage quite like this. The race hadn’t even started; I was just sitting on the start line! The day before my back hurt and even during the warm-up my knee hurt but now, nothing hurt, nothing could hurt as I was lining up against the best 140 riders in my age group on the planet at the World Masters’ Road Cycling Championships!

More than a tad surreal.

Less than a decade ago I was smoking 50 cigarettes a day and I weighed 21 stone. I know I bang on about this a lot but I still can’t believe how far I’ve come and if that inspires one person then I’m happy. I would have bet a lot of money (that I don’t have) on the fact that I wouldn’t have ended up here.

Start line

Where’s Wally?!

 

Every year the International Cycling Federation (ICF) hold these championships for various age groups and I am in the 40-49 year old category.

Not that you’d know; you have never seen such a lean, tanned and very very fast bunch of old folk in your life!!

Ok so the average speed for this 86 km race was a mere 27 mph for just under 2 hours but that did include braking hard into 70 corners (7 on each of the 10 x 8.6 km laps).  The the most energy sapping part of this race by far however was holding position.

It was like a war zone out there. Moving around wasn’t like back home because everyone was the same level i.e. world class. Everyone fought tooth and nail for the gaps and there wasn’t an inch of the road, gutters, curbs or cycle paths that riders didn’t consider just to gain a few places.

The first 3 laps or 25 km were over in a flash but I managed to hold my own. I had been here enough times now to know that it’s very important to stamp down your authority and not let riders push you about. I was on my game, riding in the top 5 or 10 for those opening laps, even leading the peloton through the finish line and the enormous crowds on lap 3. A hugely unwise use of my energy I know but when your parents have driven halfway across Europe to support you, as well as supported you in countless races (and witnessed several crashes) it is the least I can do.

And it makes for a very cool photo may I add.

Leading peloton

On laps 4 and 5 they went bonkers and suddenly the right, right, left and right corners one immediately after the other put me under real pressure but I had been here 2 weeks earlier racing against the 19 year old future professionals at this same game so today, sorry old chaps but you ain’t going nowhere without me!

I had slipped back a little into the bunch but that was not so much due to the effort but actually when the pace eased it gave the back markers a chance to move up. I was at the World Champs and actually wishing it didn’t ease up!!

I had done the work for this mind. From October to March I had ridden exactly double the miles I had ridden the winter before. I had worked on my flexibility in an attempt to get lower on the bike without sacrificing power, I had worked on my weight, being 6kg lighter than this time last year and bringing my total weight loss now to a staggering 48kg! I had also done the bit that a lot of people struggle with:

I’d suffered.

I’d suffered in training and I’d suffered in racing.

In training I am lucky (!) enough to have a bunch of team mates who are either younger than me or weigh 20 kg less than me. Say no more.

In races I have either attacked the sh*t out of them until I could ride no more or I had entered hilly road races with my aforementioned lighter team mates or gone on trips abroad to ride UCI events against lads over half my age.

I was up for this.

I sat watching my dad drink a large beer in front of me the night before the race, hoping that the discipline I’d demonstrated to both myself and my clients would be worth it.

In order, my goals today:

  1. Finish in the peloton
  2. Don’t crash (more my mum’s one that)
  3. Prize money went down to 30th so I kind of had my eye on that too

With half the race gone I was on for a top 30. It wasn’t going to be fitness that let me down it was going to be positioning and therefore a little bit of luck.

If you aren’t moving forwards you’re moving backwards and today that was more the case than I have ever seen in a bike race. I was fighting fighting fighting but every time I made up a few places the peloton widened and I lost them again. Alex Dowsett says you should always follow wheels as riders pass you and ‘take the train’ up. Believe you me I did but it was incredible how the peloton would instinctively veer to the right if I was moving up on the right and vice versa.

I was beginning to look like today wasn’t going to be my day, frustratingly as my form was there.

Then I reminded myself that this was the bloody World Championships!

I sprinted as hard as I could, for as long as I could, along the left hand side of the bunch, into a slither of a gap before they shut the door and I just about made it to the front. It hurt.

Now I was in the wind, a headwind, we were doing 27mph and I had just been riding at 33mph to get there!

I had to slot in and slot in quick. I did and then a ‘second train’ came over the top of us and I was back where I started! That’s how the last few laps played out. A real lesson in positioning of which, like all of us, I shall be a lifelong student.

We got to the bell and one lap or 8.6 km to go.

“Laste Ronde. Laste Ronde” on the PA System. My favourite Flemish expression.

I was not in the top 30 at this stage but still a wave of euphoria washed over me as I knew I was going to finish such a prestigious event in the peloton. Also I still had about 11 minutes to find my way through to the sharp end.

Riders were bunny hopping up curbs and jumping onto pavements and cycle paths at this point as there were simply too many strong riders for the amount of road on offer. I was prepared to take some risks due to the occasion but that was beyond me right now. People shouting at each other, brakes screeching, the smell of burning brake blocks, elbows locking, thighs touching, lycra on lycra and in no way arousing….exciting racing all the same.

In hindsight I think you need to ride ALL the way to the front (even off the front) every time you can in these situations, just to create space for yourself, even if it means risking blowing up. I will do that more next time, now that I know I am strong enough.

The finishing straight was long, flat (like the whole course) through the town and benefitted from a slight tailwind. We had maxed at 40 mph at some point already during the first 9 laps and lap 10 wasn’t going any slower.

I had 3 concerns:

  1. I was positioned a little too far back for my liking.
  2. The road constantly narrowed and widened as we hit the town

Re my position in the bunch, a gap could still open or I might still get on a train that takes me up to the front but if it doesn’t…….

The event was excellently organised on every level except that I did feel that the narrowing sections on the finishing straight should have been marshalled; you know the chappie with the yellow triangular flag and the whistle? We nearly came a cropper several times during the race and, with 500m to go I was getting very concerned about how over 100 of the remaining riders were going to sprint, shoulder to shoulder. I wasn’t going to place but I wasn’t going to give up either.

“I’ll just stay very very alert”

CRASH!!

Riders in front of me all go down, bikes in the air, I slam on my brakes.

“I’ve got away with it?!”

A rider slams into the back of me.

“Oh, I haven’t!”

I am forced into the rider in front of me and we all hit the deck. I am STILL pumped to the brim with adrenaline (I must be careful what I say as there is Doping Control here) so I get straight up, acknowledge the apology from the bloke behind, put my chain back on and finish. Two days later I’m limping as my hip’s pretty bruised.

I have finished the World Championships.

I will never tire from saying that.

Until next year when I’ll say “I finished in the prize money”

My mum, for the record, nearly had kittens. She’s ok now.

A ‘few’ Belgian beers and chips with Mayo to follow. Recovery drink? Stuff the bloody recovery drink!

PB

Hot off the press…..results now in….I came 83rd out of 130 finishers, 1 min 23 secs behind the winner.  Considering I spent most of that on the floor I’ll take that!

Race daay atmosphere 1Race day atmosphere 2Race day atmosphere 3

 

 

 

 

 

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World Masters’ Road Cycling Championships
18/07/15 Race Reports

Ronde Van Vlaanderen

Sun 12th July 2015 Oostnieuwkerke

This was my first UCI 1.12B Kermesse in nearly a year and last time I only lasted 20 mins (of the 100+ km race). I have only actually ever finished 1 of the 15 or so Kermesses that I’ve ridden at this level and this report should go some way to explaining why. This ‘explanation’, by the way, is not an excuse! We need to learn to lose in order to learn to win and riding ‘beyond yourself’ is a sure way to bring on your fitness.

Right that’s covered my back so let’s crack on….unless you suffer from a heart condition!

Almost 100 riders took to the start line for this 117km ordeal over 22 laps of a 5.3km circuit on fully closed roads through a tiny little town in West Flanders, marshalled by the police and the locals. During the warm-up I experienced all the normal things that make Belgium Belgium:

  • Tight (scary) corners
  • Fierce cross-winds
  • Street furniture (Islands, roads suddenly narrowing, metal posts at the side of the road, speed bumps)
  • Typical Belgium surface i.e. gaps down the middle wide enough to fit your tyre in!

Plus a bonus feature that I naively hadn’t counted on seeing (or didn’t want to see, if the truth be known):

  • A cobbled section including 2 corners!

Belgium Cobbled Section Oostnieuwkerke

To continue with my ‘explanation’, a final two challeneges:

  • A howling wind. Windier than I’ve seen before out there
  • A drag (almost a hill) after the road drops down suddenly into a tight right hander (I only come here cos it’s flat!)

For the regulars amongst you, you’ll know that the last cobbled corner I took nearly was my last as it landed me in A and E for stitches in my elbow and subsequently a broken bone in my arm. It was very wet that day; at least this time we had been having a heatwave.

Then, on the morning of the race it poured with rain. I was more than relieved therefore that it had started to dry out by the time the race started! Phew!

I rode the cobbled section twice in my warm-up (twice was plenty) and, whilst this was no ‘Forest of Arenberg’, they do genuinely rattle your whole body way more than you’d expect. Care was still required on the corners in the dry but they’d be like ice in the wet. Oddly, the metal manhole covers seemed less daunting than usual! I would focus on 2 thoughts:

  1. Ride a bigger gear than on normal tarmac, keeping plenty of pressure on the pedals
  2. Hold the handlebars gently to allow me and the bike to ‘float’ over the cobbles.

Warmed-up and ready I still get that “I hope I can finish” feeling at this level in Belgium. The one Kermesse I did finish last year had a lot going for it, for want of a better ‘explanation’:

  • 3 corners per lap i.e. there were long straights and therefore less frequent accelerations (may I just mention there will still 99 corners that day!)
  • Lots of buildings to shelter us from the wind
  • A large field meaning more shelter again
  • A friend of mine was racing and I had family watching. All this helps enormously when you are ‘chewing your handlebars!’

Having ridden this circuit however, the cobblestones and the tight right hander up a hill had almost encouraged me to pull out.

Almost.

Not that I’m afraid of getting dropped. I was a little afraid of not staying upright though.

The whistle blew at 3pm precisely and we were away. After 10 metres we were straight onto the cobbled section, at least I had a chance to race over them without hitting them at full pelt on lap one. They felt ok! It is amazing what a shot of adrenaline can do. Naturally produced of course!

Straight, left, straight. There are gutters on each side, do I take them for a smoother ride? I daren’t change my line, anyway the guy in front is the middle so I’ll follow him. Right, straight, right hander onto tarmac.

Bliss.

We accelerate; the ‘real’ race begins. I slot in and I’m feeling pumped. 180 degree right and now the tailwind.

When I first started racing I assumed a headwind would be tough to race in as it’s tough to ride in full stop. Then I realised that in a headwind anyone on the front would be doing so much work compared to anyone behind that it’s rarely hard work in the peloton in a headwind. Well, relatively speaking.

Cross-winds have always been hard work because if the guy on the front positions himself cleverly (e.g. on the left of road if the wind is coming from the right) then everyone else is using huge amounts of energy trying to balance delicately between being in the wind (to the right) and falling off the road (to the left). What’s more they might not see a split happening in the peloton if the guy on the front is ‘drilling it’.

What about tailwinds? I used to assume that everyone benefitted from a tailwind so you all flew along together chatting about your new wheels or where you were going on holiday (well, training camp).

Then I went to Belgium.

180 degree right and we ‘hit’ the tailwind.

The Belgians worked out a long time ago that there is something called the ‘concertina effect’: The further back you are going into a corner, the more braking you have to do (I accidentally wrote ‘barking’. Yeah that too) so the more effort you need to use to get back up to speed. If the guy on the front has taken the corner without braking and is now benefitting from a tailwind AND going at 100%, the second guy needs to put even more effort than him to stay with him. A gap will have opened naturally on the corner and, add to that the tailwind, the second guy isn’t getting much benefit from the shelter.

Imagine what it’s like for the 30th guy! Then spare a thought for me!

Last week I spoke about riding near the front. I am sorry. I am so sorry.

So we are all in one line and the front is in another town. I am holding the wheel though. I’m in my biggest gear and we’ve been going 2 minutes. Left, right, left , right. All in succession. You begin to dread that in the same way you dread the next hill in the UK. You know that it’s still the tailwind and the more corners that precede it the worse your life is about to get.

39 mph and I am wondering what is happening to my body. The road has a kink in it. I didn’t notice it in practice but now everything is coming at me so quickly, my view obscured by the riders in front. I now know why those pillars are protected with hay bales! I also understand how a rider in the Tour de France can hit a bollard, spectator, dog or curb when from your living room it looks so simple; the world is coming at you waaay too fast and you’re waaay too tired to react in time!

How on earth are we going to get around that sharp right-hander at this speed? Oh. Like that. Not having time to worry about something has its positives.

We hit the incline with the fierce wind coming from the right. I want to be in the left hand gutter but it’s so bumpy, unlike the middle of the road, which was smooth. I say road. You’d struggle to fit 3 riders abreast on this lane. Occasionally a rider would overtake me on the right (that’s when I knew I wasn’t last) and I’d be able to ride on the smooth tarmac AND leeward of him. It was bliss, other than the fact that we were riding uphill faster than I ever ride downhill anywhere else!

Right–hander at the top and into the headwind. A frantic sprint out of that corner and then, at last, the peloton bunched up so for the first time we weren’t single file. I could move up. I went into gaps before someone else did (see I do preach what I teach!). To my right, riders were bunnyhopping the gutter and riding on the cycle path to move up or attack. All very well but every 20 metres that gutter had a metal post coming out the ground. How nobody came down is a testament to how talented these youngsters were. Yes youngsters. I could have been anyone’s father that day 🙂

The road narrowed, we floated over/smashed into* (delete according to ability) a couple of speed bumps and a left hander into the finishing straight for the first time. The crowd and the commentary over the PA system all felt pretty special at this point and I always feel “part of something” when I come here.

Belgium Judges Podium Oostnieuwkerke

Is that Peter Kay on the PA?

I feel part of a culture of cycling unlike that in any other country. On the walls in my hotel there are cycling jerseys signed by great Belgian cyclists.

Belgium Cycling Jerseys Dom Westhoek

They didn’t ask me to sign a jersey, funny that!

On the streets there are billboards advertising the next big race. The Tour de France occupies half of all the space in the newspapers in reception. I have seen a least 20 bicycle hire companies in 3 days and have been shouted at by 2 cyclists for not giving them their legal right of way. Every road has an accompanying cycle path. Bloody cyclists.

One lap or 5.3km covered. If I trained that hard ONCE in a month back home I’d be happy.

Over the cobbles, this time at race pace, thank goodness for the headwind cutting our speed to only 25 mph. My focus was on those two earlier thoughts and then something dawned on me: I was actually keeping up on the cobbles and nobody was passing me! Finally, something I was good at out here.

Typical, I’m good at something that wrecks your bike, wrecks your backside, wrecks your back and arms and causes 10 times more crashes than tarmac.

Oh well, another experience and I’ve conquered a big fear with that one. For the next couple of laps I am in control. I remember to take big long diaphragmatic breaths where I can and I only use energy when I need to (practically all the time but hey ho). Saving energy had also meant not moving up so it had crossed my mind what level of rider I had for company back here. I was about to find out. Out of the 180 right turn and the hammer went down. I was getting the hang of it though when I realised the rider in front of me wasn’t. He couldn’t hold the wheel.

Shit.

I jumped around him and sprinted as hard as I could before the train disappeared in the distance. Sometimes in the UK if you wait for long enough someone will close the gap for you. In Belgium, if that gap’s not closed in 3 seconds flat you’ll never see the race again. I closed the gap and as I caught the back of the wheel in front I put my chin on my stem and freewheeled for a nanosecond, gasping for breath before the left-right-left-right shenanigans that were about to unfold. Then, still with the tailwind, things really kicked off. Gaps were opening everywhere meaning riders had to sprint to close gaps as we lost rider after rider to the sheer speed of it all. I was following wheels and still very much in contention but these selfish people who weren’t strong enough were causing a lot of us a lot of grief and energy closing gaps.

It can’t go on this fast any longer can it? Who’s at the front??!!

We drop down at breakneck speed into the sharp right-hander and onto the bumpy incline in the cross-wind. No it isn’t whacky Races, just a cycle race. I can hear my breathing very audibly and I pray that it eases soon. It doesn’t. I stay left and leeward on the incline, not caring about how bumpy the line was this time. I’m on my limit when I notice the rider in front has left a gap.

Aaaarggghhhhhh

I go around him, in the bloody wind and I was ever so close to grabbing on to him to pull myself past, that’s how angry at him I was for causing me so much hurt. I am glad I didn’t now. I have, incidentally, had it done to me on several occasions in the past!

Nearly at the top and the right hand corner and then, all things being equal to laps one, two and three, we’ll hit the headwind and I’ll be able to breath.

It didn’t happen.

We came out of the right-hander and I immediately lost contact. I went as hard as I could for as long as I could but the gap, into the headwind, was too hard to shut. I flicked my elbow furiously, asking riders to come round me. Was I going to be granted a second chance? I doubted it but waited for one second. I looked over my shoulder, only to see riders in ones and twos in the distance, nobody in any position to help me. At least I had the reassurance that a significant number of riders had been put into difficulty before me and the 31 minutes I’d lasted with the future stars of the pro peloton.

Belgium Betting Odds Oostnieuwkerke

I wonder who bet on rider no. 2 ?

As I was wondering what would happen now, 2 riders joined me and, as we weren’t pulled out by the Organiser, we continued, taking turns on the front. I purposefully went to the front on the cobbled section each lap and was amazed to each time find myself waiting for my companions by the end of it.

We were swept up by 2 other lads and, in turn, caught 2 more, making us a group of 7. It was still so so fast and it felt like we were in the winning breakaway, not the chasing group. My legs were burning but now I knew I was with a group who were exactly the same level as me and that does wonders for your head.

The roads were closed, everyone looked like a pro, the crowds were cheering and we kept racing for another 30 mins. Although I was unclear about what was being said over the PA system I knew it wouldn’t be long before we were pulled out. This happens for a number of reasons, namely:

  • The Police like to let some traffic through each lap to keep the traffic flowing. If riders are all over the course this is unsafe
  • The public bet on the race so they don’t want us ‘novices’ getting in the way of their thoroughbreds at the finish!

It was getting ‘twitchy’ so I assumed this would be our final lap and we’d be sprinting for pride. It’s weird, I had just raced as hard as I’d ever raced for an hour, a typical duration for a race back home and here we were, the back-markers, having our own little battle when the ‘actual’ race was going to continue for another 1 hour and 45 minutes!

We hit the final left hander and now it was a dead straight run into the wind and the finish, 200m away. I was sitting in 5th and jumped as they jumped, immediately passing all but one rider. I could feel a someone drawing level with me to my left and I could also feel the pavement was a few inches away on my right. The eventual winner was on his left so the three of us really needed to hold our lines.

We did. I was pipped for 2nd and he was pipped for 1st but it was great fun having our own little race and our own little sprint finish in front of the crowds after the disappointment of getting dropped. I shook hands with the lad who won our mini-race, warmed-down, got changed and enjoyed a beer whilst watching my ‘original’ race!

Only 23 riders finished, reassuringly. I was also reassured when I had a look online later that night to find out that many of the non-finishers were normally regular finishers on the kermesse circuit. So it was a hard race even by their standards! I had learnt my own lesson today of course: Had I toughened up and ridden nearer the front I wouldn’t have had to close all those gaps.

I reflect a lot on my performance after my races so, in order to reassure myself further that night, I had a quick look at the ages of some of the riders who didn’t finish:

20, 19, 20, 18, 22, 19, 26, 32, 22, 19, 41, 19, 21, 25, 19, 19, 34, 21, 23, 23, 19, 33, 19, 19.

I felt better and rewarded myself with a further beer at the hotel bar!

This ‘pattern’ of racing continued at my other 2 events, on Tuesday and Wednesday; smashing it for half an hour with the top guys and then racing for another 30 mins when I settled into my own group.

So, not the “finish” I was hoping for this week but I have drawn lots of positives:

  • I have ridden cobbles well
  • I have got 3 hours of world class racing in my legs
  • I stayed upright
  • I am motivated to work even harder in order to come back and do better
  • I am learning Flemish at a rapid rate

I need a holiday!

PB

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Ronde Van Vlaanderen
06/07/15 Race Reports

Benenden Sandhurst 234 Road Race

Andy Benenden Sandhurst 2015

Andy (After 5 mins): “Fast start isn’t it?”

Alex Benenden Sandhurst Finish

Alex (After 30 mins): “Hard isn’t it?”

Barny Benenden Sandhurst 2015

Barny (After 90 mins): “How’s it going Paul?”.  Me: “I’m on my knees but kind of enjoying it”.  Barny: “What bit of this is enjoyable?”

 

This was the extent of the conversations I was physically capable of engaging in with my team mates over 2 hours and 44 minutes of vicious hilly road racing in the p*ssing rain yesterday.

47 2nd, 3rd and 4th Cats lined up outside Rolvenden village hall.  Normally we’d have a field of 60 but the rain was so dreadful and the course so challenging that it didn’t really surprise that 13 people were a lot wiser than I was!

As the lead cars rolled away and the flag went down to signal the end of the neutralised zone it went off like our lives depended on it.  I kid you not, I was riding as FAST AS I COULD for the whole of the first minute.  There was no thinking about conserving energy, how much food or drink to take or where were the key parts of the course.  This was literally about hanging in there and treating this 65 mile race as 130 little races of half a mile each.

“10 more seconds, it will ease up”

It didn’t.

“10 more”

Still nothing.

Surely I am not going to get dropped in the first minute?!!

Fortunately, it turned out it wasn’t Bradley Wiggins on the front and the paced dropped, not a second too soon, from f@cking fast to only bloody fast.

10 minutes into the race the pressure was still on and gaps were opening everywhere.  I tried to follow wheels to avoid too much work in the wind closing these gaps myself but then I remembered what had happened at the Nationals a few weeks ago when 15 riders disappeared up road.  I was NOT letting that happen again and I jumped around Ed and a couple of other riders and decided that I would ride up to the front group regardless of the outcome.

This was either going to finish me off and I’d blow up and get dropped by doing too much or I could stay where I was and get dropped by doing too little.

Great couple of choices!

The former was realistically my only choice and I found something I have never found before.  The interesting thing was that it wasn’t actually in my legs or my lungs or my heart.

No, it was in my head.

I rode across the gap, knowing how important it was and realised just how much the decision to ignore your head can help you.  I was now on the back of the lead group, unsure how many made it or how many were in trouble.  I found out later that a lot were.

I was now on the back of the lead group and I sensed a few more riders beginning to make the junction behind me.  The hard bit had just begun however as I now had over 2 more hours of racing with the best riders in this race.  Oh well I only had myself to blame!

A long fast descent (which I’ll come back to) and 15 minutes in and we hit the first climb of the day.  Amazingly the skinny guys didn’t fly up it, everybody needed a short breather; they were human after all!

Things were different over the top of the climb however as everybody just drilled it on the main road.

“Yes but you’re built for the fast flat roads Paul”

When you’ve just been hanging on to 46 skinny guys on an undulating lane for 15 minutes which culminated on a hill, riding full gas on the flat is a very different story your legs will tell you!

Anyway I got through it, we swung left and we hit the second descent (I was comfortable here – shame the descents are over so quickly) before a two tiered climb which we flew up in gears I wouldn’t even consider on the flat in training.

Left and left again, up the drag and through the finish line.  5 laps to go!  There is no way I am going to finish this race.  No way.  I am definitely definitely not going to make it to the end.  I am riding on my absolute limit when we hit the main descent for the second time.  I had vaguely noticed a manhole cover on a left hander on lap one (whilst narrowly avoiding a heart attack) with a big pothole next to it and was paying special attention not to ride over it as it would be like an ice rink in this rain.  Do I go inside it and risk drifting wide and over it or do I run outside it and risk drifiting wide and into traffic!

Brilliant.

I chose outside and continued to do so successfully on each lap.  As long as everyone in front of me sees it too I’ll stay out of hospital.  They did.

Right, left and right and then straight.  Thank goodness as we hit 50 mph in the wet and I don’t mind admitting I was glad when the last one of those was over.

We hit the climb that followed and this time the skinny guys weren’t messing around.  I was going backwards when Andy passed me and said “hang in there Paul” (another ‘conversation’) which was enough, cheers mate.  I was riding the climbs out of the saddle, treating them like a sprint finish as, if I had treated them with any less respect, I’d have been out of the race.

About 90 minutes in and I got a chance to have a look around.  The group was tiny!  We had shed half the field.  Barny, Andy and Alex were there with me but unfortunately we’d lost Ed, Stu and Lee.  There was no shame in that chaps, this was brutal.  This was bloody brutal.

The size of the riders remaining was interesting too:

Short and skinny OR Tall and skinny AND Me.

I was in the company of climbers and I was hurting.  So far I had been sick 5 times in the race and desperately wanted to eat but daren’t in case it made things worse.  Fortunately I had carbs in my water bottles.  I had never tried so hard as I had today and, knowing that I had ‘made the selection’ motivated me beyond belief.  Having 3 fabulous team mates around me gave me even further encouragement.  None of us wanted to be the next to ‘crack’.

I was 6 feet from the wheel in front on one of the climbs and really couldn’t do anything about the gap.  I turned to Alex and said “you go mate”.

Nothing.

I followed it up with a pathetic “please?”

He laughed and closed the gap.  I knew what he meant.  He really didn’t have it in him either.  That’s how bad it was getting!

2 hours in and I’m now thinking about where on the course I am going to drop out of the race.  If I drop out at the finish it’s convenient as I’m near the warm and dry village hall.  That would mean choosing to quit though.  That is not in my nature.  I was more likely to get dropped on the hill at the far side of the course which was annoying as I’d have to ride back alone.

There was another option.

It begins with Man and ends with The F*ck Up.

We reached the bell and I led the peloton through.  I felt very proud.  4 riders had broken off the front but frankly I didn’t care, my race was here, I was here to finish in the peloton.  1 lap to go.

Everyone was tired now and we looked more like a breakway than a peloton as there couldn’t have been more than 15 of us left in our group.  Things were clearly going to kick off on the 2 climbs.  The first one came and went and even though it was hell we were still ‘gruppo compacto’ on the descent into the final climb.  Andy jumped away with 2 others which meant we didn’t have chase.

What a shame

They were gone then Alex slipped into a move and he was away.  Again, we stayed where we were but there were only 5 of left!  This didn’t really matter now; in fact it was kinda fun knowing that, a few miles down the road at the finish, we would be coming in in ones and twos like a Belgian Classic and not the usual bunch sprint.  We had all ‘raced the race’ and it had been bloody awesome.

Now it was my turn.  Ever since entering the race I knew that if I was going to make a move, given the course profile, it could only be after all the climbs were out if the way.  I jumped away from my group but someone grabbed my wheel and sat on it, forcing me to swing over and reassess.  My group consisted of Barny, me and 3 other muddy-faced opponents.  I sat at the back, caught my breath and jumped again.

I was clear.

A second later my legs told me that they didn’t want to play

I tried desperately to keep the pedals turning as I could see the finishing straight, ramping up ahead of me.  “Come on” I heard as one of our group had jumped across to join me.  My reactions were slowed by my fatigue and my legs were slowed further.  I couldn’t get his wheel.  No hope.

Seconds later Barny and the other 2 charged past me and I dragged my body over the line for 17th then dragged Barny out of the ditch where he had collapsed after placing 16th.  I was congratulated by Andy and Alex who came a fabulous 9th and 10th respectively

Only 20 finishers out of 47 starters today.  I confess I may have shed a few tears in the car on the way home.  I mix of pride and how much my body was hurting…..

 

Ed’s post-race synopsis sums things up pretty well:

“What can I say? Wtf! Jeezus! I want my mummy!

Brain insisting that it was not a good idea to be doing this, that I was in actual peril.

Legs yelling “I can’t give you any more captain – the engine canny take it!”

Heart rate through the roof, even on the descent.

Race blew apart in the second lap and I was sliding back into the silence of normal life.

Shrugged my shoulders and went and had a cup of tea.

Well done lads, some balls as big as Andy’s guns today”

 

What a day

PB

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Benenden Sandhurst 234 Road Race