Road racing is hard. A punishing circuit with 8 ascents of a 4 minute climb is particularly hard. It’s also a lot of fun, in a slightly manic, stressful, exhausting and not that fun way. I resolved to enjoy it today and by and large was successful. It’s definitely a lot more fun to watch than it is ride, that much is clear.
I rode on the front for a bit, mixed it up, got over-excited, attacked the climb without either trying to get away or go for the KOM competition, all of which put me firmly in the frame for the stupidest rider prize. I didn’t rein in my attacking or TT instincts. Despite all of this, it was going ok until the savage moment on lap 6 (i think) when i was attacked by Crampzilla, the destroyer of road races. A brief twinge grabbed at my right leg and i shot back through the bunch, dangling out the back door. It eased and I rode back up to the front, only to be abused violently a second time and it was instantly terminal. I had no option but to climb off.
There were some positives: Ed Trotman rode the best race of all of us; staying in stealth mode, completely invisible until the death when he saved the club’s bacon with an amazing 6th place finish. The other roadmen in the race were real gentlemen and even quite chatty, which was nice. Bath Uni CC and VC Walcot both rode brilliant tactical races. In all, it was good to be involved. my inexperience in this continental malarkey was exposed and ultimately, my lack of endurance – the two things that always do me in when it’s not a solitary endeavour and more than 30 miles.
Next week it’s back to the lonely and solipsistic arts of time trialling. I may do a few further road races later in the season if feeling particularly ambitious and brave.
The season comes round quickly. One minute it’s cakes and chocolate orange, copious bottles of Bishop’s Ringpiece or whatever other craft ale floats your boat, a a resting heart-rate enlivened only by the gladiatorial combat of a game of yahtzee; the next minute you’re hurtling along a country road in pissing rain with a brutal headwind, all in the hallowed name of ‘amateur cyclesport’.
The season-opener proper is the Chippenham Hilly. The big beasts emerge blinking from their sweaty turbo-sheds, ready to do battle with the elements and with each other. This year was no exception and a field of sallow, lithe, pasty-faced lycra warriors duly signed on in a village called Sutton Langley, or Kington Benger, or something like that.
I opted to ride to the start; it’s a 24 mile schlep up and out of Bristol. I then did the race, a 24 mile schlep around Wotton Basset and Dauntsey. I then rode home, a 24 mile schlep back across the darklands of Wick and Marshfield. Oddly, the rerouted Severn Bridge Road Race used a stretch of the same parcours, but in the opposite direction. I came across the first lap of the elite race, where scary look group of Rapha Condor and assorted roadmen had already gained 20 seconds over the chasing bunch. One of the riders was called ‘the tank’, on account of being 6″9 and weighing 97 kilos.
I thought i’d done well in the race, setting a course PB by over a minute; things were looking ok until everyone else also set whopping course PBs and made me look a bit shabby. I ended up 5th or thereabouts, but not disheartened. That came later, on the ride home, when i wanted to cry and lie down in the ditch with only 17 caffeinated energy gels for company. It was raining and windy and by mile 60 of 80 i was shot to pieces. I had one of those difficult moments where it’s quite hard to get off the bike at the end of the ride without collapsing or suffering a violent attack of cramp. I then struggled to lift the bike up the stairs. it was a pathetic sight.
I took one photo. It is a salutary warning of the tight-fitting nature of bongohelmets.
Tomorrow i shall rest and reconsider my policy of riding to events. I’ll be doing well to ride out and back next weekend; it’s the Gillingham Hilly.
Yesterday was beautifully calm and sunny. Given that this is officially the worst winter since the quaternary glaciation, it felt like summer had arrived. Which made it all the more inevitable that today’s race would be run off in a darkening, ferocious gale with the omnipresent threat of rain.
Having been frozen out by the weather at this time of year in ice ages past, i again opted for discretion over valour. I wore a full length, long sleeve merino base layer over a short sleeve merino baselayer, with a long sleeve skinsuit, full legwarmers, winter gloves and industrial strength winter neoprene overshoes. I took no chances. I also wore my spangly new helmet, which fits very snugly and weighs next to nothing.
The Severn Road Club use the U17, it’s a tough course with about 1300 feet of undulations. The roar surface is pitted and getting beyond repair. They’ve done that thing where it looks a giant with an enormous tub of gritty black polyfilla has scraped over a huge hole. If you measured the distance and took into account the size of the depth of the fissures and tectonic gaps you’d find the course is significantly further than 25 miles. I think this is known as self-similarity, but i might be misremembering my studies into Chaos Theory.
I took it relatively easy on the way out, emboldened slightly by the mother of all tailwinds, but nervous about the last 9 miles after the turn and the savage assault to come. At 5 or so miles I had an average speed of 32mph. This dropped around the two short loops where the course deviates into the Alveston badlands, but heading for the turn i was up to a tidy 27mph, which i felt was perfectly reasonable given the swirling tornado. By this point my number was flapping violently in the gale, the wind had torn the pins out on one side.
I circumnavigated the roundabout at Slimbridge with a degree of caution. It’s a big roundabout. By the time I’d started to turn into the wind it became clear that things were about to change for the worse. I was using a Hed 3 trispoke on the front. It always raises an eyebrow on a windy day. I had a few spicy moments when a gap in the hedge made me wobble slightly, but generally it was within tolerance, whatever tolerance is. Some people really don’t cope with a gusting crosswind. I don’t mind it too much.
The journey back from the turn was an exercise in damage limitation; i had one overriding desire: to come in under the hour. I haven’t gone over the hour since i used a road bike and didn’t want to start now. I turned the Garmin screen off and clung on, trying desperately to make up time on any sheltered and downhill bits. It seemed just about manageable, but the drag up towards Stone was exhausting. The wind picked up and it was squeaky bum time; the bike was starting to do strange things, flick and twitch. Once through the funnel of doom I pushed to the line and managed a 59.32. It’s by far my slowest 25 for about 4 years, discounting any hilly courses, and shows just how hard a day it was. I scraped a 22mph average for the return leg. Nevertheless, it was the same for everyone and it was good enough for the win, with only one other rider coming in under the hour. There were several 2-up teams out on the course, Ben Anstie and James Cartridge glided round to a 55.30, making the most of company riding with a superlative effort.
Clubmate Jo Knight took the women’s prize with a 1.14, an incredible effort in the circumstances. She was going to ride home, a piffling 19 more miles into the teeth of the headwind; i gave her a lift.
It’s peculiar to take a win in the first event of the season. The pressure’s off, I guess. It’s also good to be racing and seeing the familiar faces coming out of hibernation.
Next week the hilly season starts, with the Chippenham Hardrider. I am silently hoping for benign weather.
This weekend i headed out to the Odd Down circuit with Trotters (of Hamilton Wheelers fame) to spectate at the club’s nominated trophy event. Cyclo-cross is spectator-friendly; the race is usually on and around a short circuit, comprising of about 8 to 10 laps. All the hardy onlooker has to do is stake out a suitable location and wait for the filthy, mud-caked racers to come past. It was lovely and claggy under tyre; creating challenging conditions for the (fool)hardy bike riders. Trotters and I watched the enormous field charge away from the flag; there were a hundred on the start sheet, an almost incomprehensible figure that suggests the numbers opting to ride competitively is on an exponential upwards curve. Good luck gaining entry to Cat 4 circuits next season, newbies.
After a lightning quick blast along the road race circuit, the peloton squeezed through a tiny gate and headed into the wilds. Therein followed a classically circuitous meander through scrubland before hitting up the bmx circuit for a few endos and some spicy 360s. After that it was down to the woods for a bit of proper sketchorama offski, followed by a deadly climb up a slippery slope. Arch-Cross supremo, Charles Coleman, designed the course and threw in a couple of hurdles at the end. It was a right derailleur-breaker and there was a satisfying number of strange and terrifying mechanical problems, mostly caused by the dense layer of clag coating any exposed metallic parts.
It was savage and exciting to watch; a stream of riders mullering it into a state of exhaustion, coping with the conditions and the terrain with varying responses from the fatalistic to the exhilarated. I took it upon myself to cheer and heckle uproariously, getting into the spirit of the ‘cross and waving the cowbell with violent abandon. Somehow Trotters and I managed to find a prime spot in the middle of the course – and by ‘middle of the course’, i mean in the actual middle of the course: hiding behind a tree with racers passing on either side, ambushing them with nothing more than a camera, cowbell, wooden spoon and saucepan.
Dave Atkinson joined us halfway through, then a few other people who were at first diffident, before suddenly getting into character, cheering and jeering in equal measure. Those who managed to ride up the short but impossible climb received the biggest cheer.
I made a short and slightly old-school audio slideshow. It would have been a lot easier to make a video, but i’m nothing if not anachronistic.
Long-standing readers of this blog, of which there are 4 family members and possibly one other random person, will know that the Burrington hill climb is the defining event of the West DC racing calendar. It brings the curtain down on the season, finishing off the hardriders trophy series and for most people acts as their last race before they head into a wilderness of winter base and ale raves™. This year we had a full field which is pretty much unheard of round these parts and certainly without precedent in a hill climb. It made for a spectacular day’s racing.
I rode out on a 68″; it’s not far from Bristol, a short incursion into the dark heart of the Mendips. On arriving I rode the climb, sneaking in amongst a couple of riders, to check on the ominous power of the headwind. The feather flags used by the club were pointing back down the climb and it did not bode well. The initial section past the rock of ages was a struggle into some blousy, full-frontal gusts. After that it seemed to lessen slightly and the top of the 2 mile climb was more manageable. I switched the cog on the back to a lighter 65″ and then settled down to watch the early starters.
At the alloted time I made my way down the Combe and lined up at the start. I had my picture taken by a bona fide World Champion whilst Roger did the honours.
The lower slopes were windier than a tripe-fed greyhound. I hunched low over the bars and dug in, getting into a rhythm and sitting on top of the gear. It seemed to work, I felt good and drove it on all the way up the climb. Cowbell corner was a spectacular feast for the eyes and ears; it makes such a huge difference to be cheered on by spectators.
I then headed up onto the steeper section and gave it everything I had. On the whole, I felt good, it was the kind of ride where I couldn’t have really done much more; i was at threshold and just kept going. I managed to go a second faster than last year in noticeably slower conditions. Once across the line I did a small bit of retching, thus earning my hill climber’s badge from the hill climbers scout troop.
It was a brilliant day. Ben Davis won with 7.33; Liam Glen 7.38, then me with 7.47. I just beat James Dobbin into 4th place by a second. Richard Cartland was 5th with 8.04. I was the only one in the top ten on a fixed wheel, but there were lots of other riders opting for the simplicity and joyousness of the single cog. At the start my minute man made a vaguely disparaging comment about my choice of bike; something along the lines of ‘that’s brave’. It seems to be fairly common for people to think it’s foolhardy to ride fixed in any sort of hillclimb, when the reality is that with a regular gradient a fixed wheel bike is the perfect machine for the task. It’s become the preserve of a hardy few but has grown again in popularity over recent years with the more general resurgence in fixed wheel bicycles. I’m quite disappointed that I won’t be racing on it again this season; I’m using gears for the National, but it will be my choice of bike for the winter miles. Anyhow, I overtook the aforementioned minuteman within about a minute.
On the way home I bullied my way up some other Mendip climbs; taking advantage of the tailwind to do some fairly hard efforts. I saw some really strange things… things you people wouldn’t believe…
I made it home alive. It’s been a brilliant weekend of hill climbs and I feel as though I’m getting some sense of form at just the right time. This was always the intention.
There is only one race left: The National Championship on the Stang. It’s the big one.
I’m a subscriber to the Comic. Like most subscribers to the Comic i complain loudly and vociferously about the marginalisation of many of the traditional elements of cycling, especially club life and the UK time trial and hill climb scene. I also complain about the absence of race coverage of any depth and the paucity of results in favour of relentless self-promotion of their sportive series.
It was interesting to see Garbutt’s editorial this week bemoaning the standards of riding out in the sticks near Croydon or wherever the CW lodgings are.
“the rise of the rubbish rider is a step too far… ”
His solution is an interesting one:
“There’s much to be said for being a member of a traditional cycling club. So many of today’s newbie riders would certainly benefit from the experience”
All sitting comfortably next to the index:
Turn to page 22 for “CW’s latest sportive triumph”.
If CW had perhaps spent more time supporting the grass roots of cycling and club life and less time chasing the sportive dollar, Garbutt’s specious comments might make sense. The last Gran Bloato sportive I stumbled across didn’t have a club jersey in sight, no-one said a word to anyone else and I had to weave around the zigzag wanderers. Such is the egocentrism of the current bike boom; all digitised high score tables, massively expensive bikes and extortionately priced bike rides. The Comic is at the heart of the desperate race for bike boom quids, selling their past and readership for a few cheap energy gels and a some loose marketing copy pebbledashed with the words ‘epic legendary sufferfest’.
Being race fit is not the same as being fit. Racing is hard and unforgiving, whether it’s cyclo-cross, criteriums, downhill mountain bike or whatever other persuasion tickles your fancy. In order to race with any degree of success (contextualised to what success means to you) you have to be on it all the time. Every ride is a training ride or fits in to some sort of bigger scheme. It’s really hard work and when things start to slide, simply because of that big and sprawling thing known as ‘life outside of cycling’ it gets really really hard and can be utterly disheartening. It’s because the difference between racing and not racing is the edge. It’s the intensity acquired through being on it. If you can no longer replicate the intensity then the race is over, it moves on without you.
By way of a simple comparison, lately I have been trying to get back towards race fitness after a lay-off. I’ve still been riding my bike, but without the pressures of racing. Now I have reacquainted myself with the pressures and therefore I have been working hard in training. i rode back from Cheltenham last week at a 21 mph average speed. I took in some savage climbs and i tried pretty hard. And yet my average heart rate hovered in the 140s. I think I hit a maximum somewhere on Selsley Hill where it brushed 179 for about 10 pedal strokes. And i was trying really really hard to push it up.
In contrast, I rode the Minehead CC Hardrider, two laps of circuit near Wheddon Cross. I’ve done it twice before and it’s bloody hard work and technically quite demanding. Right from the start my heart-rate hit 170bpm and it kept climbing. I rode for an hour and 5 minutes and it hurt for the entirety of the hour and 5 minutes. In fact, it hurt more as time wore on. My average heart rate was 171bpm. I did ok, I came second behind a ferocious Robin Coomber who mullered it on the flatter sections to good effect. I am satisfied that I have rekindled some form, I am on course for the hill climb season and on an upwards curve. But it’s only happened because I’ve been training properly. This is why I admire racing cyclists; I know and understand the level of commitment that is required to compete.
Yesterday i went to Wales and rode a hill climb. I have been anxious to open my account this year, having missed the two Dursley promotions. It was a savage and unpleasant ascent up to the small village of Pantygasseg. It was much shorter than I would have liked, I hoped they were using the full valley road but in the event they went for the steep ramp at the top. It needed a huge effort, no real pacing, just an out of the saddle churn of the pedals and the capacity to ignore the lactic burn. it was horrid. I won by about 15 seconds and set a new course record. it wasn’t the most competitive of events, but I’ll take it. The good people of Pontypool Road Club were very friendly and welcoming.
Tomorrow I am using the Mercian to get to work. After spending Saturday astride the C-Bomb (which is currently tipping the scales at salacious 6.39kg) the Mercian feels like it’s made of girders.
It’s been a busy week. Last Sunday I went to the Welsh course. I had very low expectations but somehow came away with a 51.45. I would have taken this beforehand. It was a windy day in the Valleys. Wendy Houvenaghel was there, she turned in a short 54.
I then took things easy on the Monday. It was wet and dank. On Tuesday I headed out to Didmarton for a Hardrider. Incidentally, the surnames recorded in the parish graveyard, and in that of the Didmarton Congregational church, include: Baker, Bickerton, Borham, Cox, Gould, Lucas, Pritchard, Short, Rice, Robbins, Till, and Tuck. The race was a chastening experience, i was well beaten by several other people I have been beating relatively recently. My legs deserted me and the headwind was cruelly indifferent to my lack of form and general fatigue.
I rode slowly to work on Wednesday through the dank and murky mizzle.
The weather has since atoned for its derision and nastiness with a couple of days of glorious sunshine. It looks suspiciously like it might be a floaty weekend. Therefore it is inevitable that my race is cancelled due to roadworks.
I shall be busting out the C-Bomb tomorrow for a ride around the North Somerset environs, dreamily contemplating the distant prospect of a return to form, one day.
As much as I’d like to think otherwise, time trialling is a resolutely amateur sport. I don’t mean that I favour the professional set up per se, in fact, i’m a fervent believer in the noble ideals of amateurism and ideologically opposed to the apotheosis (or nadir) of professional sport. I sometimes like to think that my racing victories somehow have some sort of national context and represent an elite level of competition. In truth, there are a handful of competing riders within each district who could hold their own within the higher echelons of elite and professional racing. Matt Bottrill is one, Jeff Jones another, I am not one of them. Occasionally I come up against a professional, and occasionally I even finish within the same time zone, but generally, i compete amongst the ranks of equals, those tying down a full-time job and wrestling with the demands of life; trying to compete, but only competing with an array of competing interests. I settle for half, and I like it better.
Generally i ride anything between 40 and 70 races a year, sometimes more. I rode 40 opens in 2011 and probably a similar number of club events. In order for this to happen an army of willing volunteers have to be mobilised, giving up their free time entirely willingly to organise the events for people to race. For the past three seasons I’ve also been organising races, with varying degress of success. I can’t say i ever willingly chose to take on the promotion of an open time trial; someone asked because no-one else wanted to do it and I said yes. Had I known the level of hard work and the time frame involved, I might have said no, and most years when up to my eyeballs in race entries and struggling to work out how many marshalls i need I tend to say ‘never again’. I’m silently envious of those who organise a 10 or a hill climb, with their one marshall, a couple of signs, balmy afternoon starts and a time frame of about half an hour.
Bristol South CC organises several events including opens at 10, 25 and 50 miles, a mega-hilly in the Cotswolds and a season-ending hill climb at Burrington. The chairman organises a road race, and several other club members also organise events for the WTTA. In addition, like most clubs in the country we run a weekly time trial series on Wednesday nights; this is often the first introduction for racing for many people and leads to bigger, scarier, faster things. In short, the club actively promotes cycling at a grass roots level.
Last weekend I organised the club 50 for the third year. I’ve learnt several things: riders are very appreciative of a well-marshalled course; the quality of the cakes is important and a degree of (legitmate) flexibility within the often heavily intransigent CTT regulations can go a long way. I’ve been plotting and planning it for ages. There are several deadlines you have to adhere to and all sorts of risk assessments to be done. the hardest thing is probably the marshalling – it involves convincing people to get up at about 4am on a Sunday morning to make their way down the badlands of north somerset in order to stand at a roundabout for 3 hours.
I am indebted to the support of those who made the trek. In many ways, it’s what club life is about. Being a member of the South offers the opportunity to race and ride with peers, to socialise and share stories, become a part of the wider narrative arc of cycling and experience what it means to find unsullied heroes like George Keene or Chris Holloway, or Jon Kempe, rather than placing your faith in the endless loop of betrayal represented by those corrupted and in turn betrayed by the professional sphere. It also offers the chance to give something back, by putting on events for other people to enjoy and to make the arrangements so that they can ride, unencumbered by thoughts of anything other than riding as fast as possible and experiencing the untrammelled joy of racing on the road.
I don’t ride the 50; it’s a little bit too complicated and it’s not really my sort of event. I did ride the mega-hilly – that would be a bit like organising your birthday party then watching everyone else eat the cake and take the plaudits. Not riding gave me a bit more time to take a few pictures, until the starved competitors returned and I had to man the catering stand and make infinite cups of tea. A picture probably tells a thousand words, so I’ll stop writing.
Thank you to everyone who helped and everyone who raced. See you up the road.