Race Report. Wold Top Actif Road Race: or Last Chopper Out Of Saigon

A bike race is kind of like a puzzle. Often there are numerous ways to solve it, sometimes there is only 1. It’s dependent on the course and the riders you are up against. Some of the solutions are beautifully designed, think about Alberto Contador’s attack on the Vuelta Stage to Fuente De, others are totally inelegant, nothing more than hacks. I think I found the solution to the Wold Top Actif Road Race and it was firmly in the latter camp. It was the cycling equivalent of taking all the stickers off a rubik’s cube and then putting them back on so that each of it’s 6 faces is just one colour.

 

I’m riding solo today, without my erstwhile companion and teammate Phil. What the journey to Beverley lacks in chat is made up for in the lack of time spent waiting for Phil to do a shit at a service station/in a lay-by/in my house (delete as appropriate), or all three. Phil and I share a mutually destructive relationship. There are times when one or both of us doesn’t feel like racing, but as long as we’re both signed up, the momentum is unstoppable, and we will inevitably end up on the start line. We’re the Sid to each others’ Nancy. Today I don’t feel like racing, that’s probably mostly down to the fact that heavy rain is forecast in the Hull area for most of the morning. One time I was in Tesco and I’d been soaked through by the rain. My wet hands weakened the paper bag that I was shovelling chocolate raisins into causing the bottom to give way and a tide of chocolate-y ovals to spread all over the floor. Riding in the rain I’m about as effective as that bag.

 

Still, I’m here, parked up in a field, studying the demeanour of 59 other riders. Despite the fact that I’ve got a lot of experience racing my bike, and I’ve even won a couple of races, there’s something about looking around the riders getting set up to race that intimidates me. I think it still reminds me of that first time that you turn up to a road race, where everyone else looks like a pro, and you really don’t belong here. Perhaps other riders think about me like that, though probably not when I’m emptying out the contents of my bag, desperately trying to find my race licence.

 

Thankfully the rain has stayed away and the race starts for me as most races do, I go from on the rear bumper of the lead car to right at the back of the bunch, petrified by the risks some riders are taking to move up a few places. Here at the back of the group there is always a chance you’ll get caught out and dropped before the race has even completed a lap, and there are some riders alongside me who I certainly never see again. Luckily I know I can spend a bit more energy in order to make up any gaps, perhaps I am now one of those guys that I used to think looked so pro after all.

 

At the end of the race mywindsock.com will tell me that we’ve been riding into a headwind for 61% of the time. I still struggle to work out how this is possible in a course that begins and ends at the same point. I haven’t looked but I wonder if we’ve also managed to gain more altitude than we’ve lost. Perhaps we’re racing on a course designed by Escher.

 

The 61% of the time that we’re racing into a headwind consists mostly of an interminable climb that covers the back half of the course. The gradient never gets more than about 3%, but it’s exposed and relentlessly straight and that combination makes it one of the most demoralising stretches of road in Britain. Inevitably this is where the attacks happen. I’ve spoken about how in the rain I’m as effective as a wet paper bag. In the wind I’m as effective as a dry paper bag and yet again chocolate raisins will be spilled all over the floor of Tesco.

 

I’m strong enough to move up in this tough section, all the while hoping that the split will occur on my wheel. I’m not moved up enough when the days break goes on around lap 4 of the 8. There are more than 10 riders in the break and by the time they’ve got around 40 seconds, the bunch starts thinking about things that they’d rather be doing than riding into this pissing wind. This is shit or bust time if I want anything out of the race. I sprint off the front with my sights set on a rider who is flailing in no man’s land. No one reacts and I’m pulling away from the bunch. I catch the rider in front but he is unable to contribute to what I thought would be our chase, but what turns out to be my chase. Several minutes in and I’m within about 15 seconds of the break but I’m so far into the red that yellow is only a distant memory to me. Another rider bridges over and my hope grows but it’s clear to me that we’re not going to have enough to catch a group of riders who are clearly working well together. I sit up seconds before I blow up. I’m going to let the peloton catch me and then I’m going to jack this race in. We’ve let all the points go up the road so we might as well get back home to our families.

 

Out of the corner of my eye I can see another two riders motoring across to me, well ahead of the bunch. I realise that if I can conserve some energy I’ll have the chance to jump on their wheel. Fuck knows what the result will be but it’ll be better than going home to mow the lawn.

 

I latch on and do a total of no turns for the first few minutes, before I start to do token turns, in the hope that I’ll eventually be able to do proper ones. That happens a few kilometres later when we pick up the rider who I left on his own to continue chasing the break.

 

We’re working well, powered by two very strong and much fresher riders. Back on to the interminable headwind, heartbreaking section, and we’re closing in on the break. By the end of the section we’ve caught them. I try to count how many of us are here. The number varies between 13 and 16 because a few riders are sitting on without doing any turns. A group of 16 fills me with dread as I don’t want to be the only one who misses out on getting any points.

 

For 3 laps we cooperate fairly well and there is no sign of the bunch at all. It’s obvious that the win will be contested amongst us. I’ve burned so many matches that I can only hope we get as close to the finish as possible before deciding to kick the shit out of each other. The final lap attacks are inevitable and they come at the worst possible time for me. I’ve just done a turn on the front, into that fucking headwind, when a big attack is launched. 3 riders get a gap and I can only hope to latch onto the final wheel in the group. I make it, like a soldier hanging onto the landing gear of the final helicopter out of Saigon. We eventually get organised enough to start shutting the gap to the front three but by the final corner I’m absolutely gassed and I know I have nothing left for the sprint. I let a small gap go, one that becomes a gaping hole, and I roll in at the back of the group to take 12th. Somewhere along the line we must have dropped a couple of riders but I have no idea when or where that happened.

 

I didn’t win but I got points on the board and confirmation that to get anything out of a race you have to be prepared to gamble and go all in

 

Thanks again to Jamie at High Peak Cycles for supporting the team.

And thanks to Wold Top Brewery and Wold Top Actif Race Team for putting on a great event.

Race Report. Southport CC Bickerstaffe Road Race: or Premium Thrush

 

During a Grand Tour all of the big riders are watched closely for signs that they may be struggling. Perhaps they were breathing heavily on a climb, not riding as aggressively as they would normally do, or developing a cold sore or other signs that they are run down. The day before the Southport CC Bickerstaffe Road Race and it’s lucky my rivals can’t see me. I’ve got angular cheilitis, basically a tear in the corner of my mouth, that to the untrained eye looks as though I’ve been messily eating pizza and not bothering with a napkin. A quick google suggests that this can be caused by a lack of iron, but I eat so much iron that Tony Stark could fight crime whilst wearing me.  Having ruled out a lack of iron it’s probably either a fungal or a bacterial infection that’s ruining my face. The internet tells me that the fungal infection is basically the same as the one that causes thrush, which is why I decide to slap on a bit of canesten cream. The package states that the product is “for use on the vagina only”, the potential side effects of putting this near my mouth are unimaginable, but I’m prepared to take the risk.

 

Many men have forged their reputations by laying down the rules of bike racing. For example there are people like Henri Desgrange, who came up with a set of conditions under which riders would race around a large portion of France. Then there are the riders themselves, notably those of the 1990s and early 2000s who were complicit in defining the rules of Omertà, which basically meant that “snitches get stitches”. In cycling terms this translates as “don’t mention the drugs we’re all doing unless you don’t want to have a career anymore”. Other rule makers include the Velominati, whose set of more than 100 rules govern how a cyclist should carry his or herself, sartorially, aesthetically and personally. Somewhere amongst all of these rules a few seem to have managed to avoid being laid down. Here’s an example: If you’re going to spit, pull out to the right and then spit to the right*. If rules like this had been clearly set out then it would most likely have prevented me from having to bollock some rider for turning to his left and gobbing on my leg barely 20 minutes into this race. I don’t want to get bogged down writing about how standards have slipped as it’s only a short leap from there to proclaiming that “they should bring back hanging”, but in this race I also had to have a word with a rider who thought that it was ok to fly up the inside of the bunch, just as we were turning left, because he was shouting “on your left.” Announcing the fact that you are a chopper doesn’t make it ok to be a chopper. If all crimes could be excused by announcing them just before you commit them then society would be in a right old mess. 

 

*swap right for left if racing in Europe.

 

Anyways about the race, asides from getting spat on and chopped, I find myself having a pretty decent time. The race is flat and brief, only 69km, there’s no real wind to speak of, and the course isn’t in the least bit technical. This means it’s fast and there’s almost no chance a rider of my dimensions and talent is going to get away, but this doesn’t stop me trying. The best it gets is when I attack as my teammate Phil is setting the tempo on the front of the bunch. I’m trying to bridge across to a group of riders about 15 seconds up the road. I make it about halfway when I start to fade and hope I’ve tempted another rider across to work with me. Turns out I’ve tempted two of them, but they both ride for Chronomaster and they’ve got no intention of collecting me as they fly past in search of the break.

 

Most attempts to get away will fail in the same way mine did, not enough strength to get away from a motivated and fast moving bunch. One breakaway that finds a novel way to get caught is a pair of riders who crash into each other on a seemingly benign stretch of road. For such a small group they make a big impact, creating a blockade across the road using only two bikes, two riders, a water bottle and a garmin. The patrons at the front of the bunch slow us down before we negotiate the improvised road block, and as usual after a crash, everyone immediately starts riding as hard as they can. I’m not sure who the riders who went down were, but I hope you’re both ok and back racing soon.

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 13.44.12.png

 

Somehow a group of 4 riders does manage to get away from the bunch to sort out the win amongst themselves, the rest of us are forced to scrap for the remaining positions on offer. This is the first race of the season that I’ve actually enjoyed, and I position myself well for the final corner before the sprint. Not well enough, though, as a slight touch of wheels in front of me, means the rider whose wheel I’m following, loses control of his bike, drops his chain, but brilliantly manages to stay upright. I have to brake hard and put a foot down on the road, which is the end of my chances to take part in the finale. My teammate Phil was on my wheel and is able to keep at least some of his momentum, but his day is over too.

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Coming up there are some races with actual hills in them so there hopefully won’t be too much of this nonsense.

On the way to the race Phil had been telling me about how the night before, he and his daughter had had fish and chips in a layby on the A6. He'd been telling he about an infamous murder that happened there in the late 80s. On the way home from the race, Phil realises that he was supposed to have picked her up from dancing about the 30 minutes ago. His father of the year award should be some compensation for the lack of points we managed to pick up in the race.

Thanks as always to Jamie at High Peak Cycles for supporting the team.

And to Ellen Isherwood for her always wonderful photos

We need to talk about potholes

I hate potholes so bloody much, not least for them forcing me to write a post containing the words "we need to talk about..." literally my least favourite trope of whatever decade we're calling the current one. However, we really do need to talk about potholes. British Cycling also need to talk about them, not least because a couple of weeks ago I sent them an email warning them of the dangerous state of the roads on a widely used race circuit and they still haven't replied. I literally need them to talk about potholes, otherwise it's just me talking to myself, and also it's just a bit rude.

As a bike rider I can put up with potholes, for now, probably because I haven't crashed thanks to hitting one. I'm lucky in that respect. I recently asked riders on social media to come forward with their pothole stories and I was absolutely inundated with broken bikes and broken limbs. Perhaps those people are also lucky ones when you consider that people have actually died as a result of hitting potholes.

I can put up with potholes because I ride alone a lot of the time, and normally that means I can easily spot any gaping fissures in the road and take action to avoid them. In a race it's a different matter. I recently competed in the Lovelo Cinelli Road Race in Buckinghamshire, a brilliantly organised and marshalled race, with full fields of 80 riders in both the men's and women's fields. To take part I needed to stay overnight in a hotel, as well as make the 3 hour drive each way, to and from my house. Add that to race entry and food, and you're talking around £150 to race your bike. I love racing so I'm prepared to pay this money. Who knows, if I win I might recoup two thirds of it.

The race was 2 laps and change of a 50km circuit on open roads. At the race briefing we were warned about the state of the roads and assured that the worst potholes were coned off, the slightly less worse ones had a ring of paint around them. It turns out that a ring of paint is not a forcefield and is of little significance when a race is completely lined out. The rider in front of you is not going to point out a hole in the road when they're putting all their energy into not getting dropped in the crosswinds, and even if they did it gives you the best part of a quarter of a second to react. The lack of warning when it came to potholes was irrelevant in the end as the potholes were often spread across the entire road. The fact that this race was taking place on the same weekend as Paris-Roubaix did not mean that it needed to be a tribute to the Hell of the North. My involvement in the Lovelo Cinelli Road Race inevitably ended with a puncture, as did the races of at least 20 other riders. In my mind it was a race that should not have been run, and certainly did not take into account the risk posed to the riders and their often very expensive bikes. I'm sure that a few riders will have destroyed their wheels during the race, and even more will need theirs servicing, but I don't think that anyone will consider this serious enough to take any action. I fear that what it will take is a serious injury or a death, something that is inevitable if racing continues to take place on such dangerous roads. Ours is already an inherently dangerous sport, there is no need to make it any more so.

I followed up the Lovelo Cinelli race with the FTR Milltag Spring Classic in Wakefield. Again the state of the roads was somewhere close to awful and again my race ended prematurely thanks to an absence of tarmac related puncture.

This weekend I didn't have a race, but I rode over to Yorkshire to watch my teammates in the Geared Up Cycles Road Race. I know the hazards associated with the roads in this area, last year I actually won a race that used these roads. Rolling around behind the bunch I had a chance to think about how I'd take on the course, a thought experiment that involved me considering where I'd need to place myself in order to miss the chasms spread across the apex on at least two of the bends.

I'm not asking that the roads be repaired so that I can race on them. What I'm asking is that race organisers and British Cycling consider the danger they're putting us in. A junior 3rd cat is not going to give up the chance to race and gain a few more points towards their 2nd cat licence, and neither is the thirty-something year old, who has spent all week looking forward to smashing themselves on a Sunday morning. There's very little chance of us organising a riders union to  stand up for riders' welfare, and it's unlikely that there's anyone in the bunch who will be a Hinault-esque patron, so we're racing unless told otherwise.

Bike races are way down the list when it comes to councils deciding on the most important reasons to repair broken road surfaces, so we're always going to have to make do with what we're given. I just hope that the brilliant people and organisations who support road racing in the UK can take the danger more seriously, and put rider welfare before getting a race on.

Race Report. Frank Morgan Road Race 2018: or Phil's Calves.

We were on our way to Macclesfield General Hospital when I discovered something that would change my life, and the lives of every other member of the High Peak Cycles Race Team, forever. It seemed like an ordinary kind of day, a day where you’re taking your fallen comrade to have his shoulder looked at. Like any ordinary day on the network of A roads and motorways that criss-cross this blessed isle, we passed a service station. Normally the only thing that crosses your mind in a situation like this is whether you fancy a piss or a ginsters, or both. Not today. “This is where I got felt up” says Phil.

 

Pandora’s box had been opened and outpoured the tale of the time that Phil had been asked by Purple Aki, if he could have a feel of his calves. Phil’s got beautiful calves so it’s a surprise that this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often, but in this case, Phil became a victim of the north-west’s most terrifying muscle toucher. Later on, Ed would also have his muscle’s touched, legitimately and by a professional, They would reveal that he’s dislocated his shoulder. The last time I had seen Ed in the race, he had been nosing past me in the run up to the sprint. Unfortunately for Ed, as he was moving up on my left hand side, he was also 100% airborne, having used the rib cage of a rider from Team Chronomaster as a makeshift ramp. 

 Put this on your calves.

Put this on your calves.

 

Today it’s the Frank Morgan Road Race. The scouse world champs. The race where it’s always pissing down and about 1 degree. The race where I always have to climb off at the halfway point to wrap myself in a foil blanket.

 

Fans of this blog I must offer my sincerest apologies for this is my second race of the season. There does exist a race report for the first, but I deleted it by accident. Just as well as during the off season my writing skills have been neglected. Coming up with more than a paragraph about the Duncan Sparrow Trophy at Pimbo turned me into Jack Nicholson’s struggling writer from The Shining and my wife is still pretty angry about the axe that I put through the bathroom door. Having got that out of my system I hope that I’m now back in writing form, the racing form will hopefully follow.

 

The Frank Morgan Road Race is noted for it’s comprehensive road book. By comprehensive I mean an email that tells you the time to turn up. For the uninitiated it might feel a little bit like gaining access to some secret society, but the truth is that no one really needs any more information than “turn up and ride your bike” when the day involves 25 laps of an industrial estate. Ah the industrial estate, the engine room of Britain, the home of permanent jacket potato vans, and the traditional place where the north west cycling season must begin.

 

If you want any details of the actual race then I’ll offer them to you like the last bit of cereal in the packet. That is to say that this race report will mostly be milk and bits of muesli dust. What I can tell you is that I finished the race and that for the first 45 minutes I never really saw the front of it due to the wind coming from an unusual direction, meaning that it was too fast for me to do anything. I did get into a couple of moves in the second half of the race, but to use one of my favourite metaphors from this blog, they were like throwing a paper aeroplane out to sea. For a moment they looked like they might fly, and then they end up further back down the beach than when they started.

 New season new team. That's me in the green HPC RT kit.

New season new team. That's me in the green HPC RT kit.

 

At one point, with 5 laps to go, when I was in 3rd or 4th wheel, I had my teammate Phil behind me. I pointed out a very large pothole but Phil took that as a dare and rode straight into it. A couple of seconds later his tyre completely blows, a couple more seconds later and I hear him crash. Strangely when I find him after the race he’s completely covered in mud, I’m not sure how he managed this when there is only concrete as far as the eye can see.

 

One innovation that the Frank Morgan Road Race has introduced for this year is parking a truck on the circuit about three quarters of the way through. I don’t know why more races don’t consider adding obstacles for the finale. How good would the World Champs be if someone added rope bridge on the last lap? or if someone released a load of bees in the Roubaix Velodrome.

 

And so we come full circle. The sprint is coming. There’s just one more bend. There’s a compression in the bunch and the sound of wheels touching moves from right to left and then back to the right again. When it finally stops 2 or 3 riders skittle across the road and I have to brake to almost a halt. It’s at this moment when Ed tries, dramatically, to pip me in the photo finish. His airborne attack works but it’s not possible for him to sustain it for another 600 meters and round a corner. He lands 599 meters short of the line as I roll in and immediately turn around to see if he’s ok.

Podcast: SSCXWCITA17

Recorded a lot of stuff while I was out in Verona for the single speed cyclocross world champs. Put it all together into a little podcast which you can listen to below.

Report from the single speed cyclocross world championships in Verona where world champions were crowned, obstacles were set on fire, many crashes were had, much beer was drunk, and two tattoos were administered.