Lo did the digits change from 2016 to 2017 and lo did the season change from winter to a bit less winter but certainly not spring. Certainly not. Spring’s that bit where everyone does something nice down at the village green, lambs playfully chase one another and something else that I can’t think of about a meadow. If you think hard enough spring actually doesn’t really exist and if it does it’s obscured by that rainy and horrendous bit that starts somewhere in February and lasts until about the end of time. Where was I? Oh yeah!….. and lo did the cycling season start.
After months of lying dormant, if lying dormant means sweating away on a turbo trainer and occasionally venturing out into the Peak District, it’s easy to think about not bothering with doing bike racing. As always, over winter I’ve been wondering if I really want to bother this season. Oh yeah I’ve talked some mad game and made out like I really want to bother but it wasn’t until a well timed training camp in Calpe that I realised that I bloody love doing this. Incidentally a training camp in southern Spain does very little to prepare you for the realities of racing in northern England, but it does prepare you for the unrealities of what life could be like if a World Tour Team got a bit weird one night and decided to hire a 35 year old neo-pro from Glossop. It’s the unrealities that keep me going.
I’ve chosen to kick my season off at the Cull Cup. “Chosen” is perhaps the wrong word, there aren’t that many races about this early in the calendar so it’s more a case of I’m racing here by default. Saying that the Pimbo Races (Cull Cup and Duncan Sparrow Memorial Road Race) along with the previous day’s Eddie Soens Memorial are the classic curtain raisers for the season in the North West, and what better way to test your early season legs than smashing around an industrial estate? I’m surprised Valverde isn’t here.
The Cull Cup takes place in Skelmersdale which is the most Yorkshire sounding place to not be in Yorkshire. Think of Skelmersdale and you think of rolling hills and picaresque old fellas cooking up a scheme that inevitably ends with them rolling down said hills in an out of control bath. As I said it’s the unrealities that keep me going. Skelmersdale is actually somewhere that might be close to Wigan and we’re actually in a specific part of it called Pimbo. Pimbo’s a fun word to say but you’d be wrong if you thought it was a fun place to race. It can be but definitely not today.
Pimbo’s an industrial estate in an exposed area of the North West in a region at the mercy of weather fronts coming in off the Atlantic. What do you think might characterise racing in a place like Pimbo? If I told you that at the bottom corner of the circuit there’s a bloody great wind turbine would it help?
Before I get on to the race itself there have been some new developments for this season. Firstly the Seicento is gone. Gone for £54 to webuyanycar.com. £54 that me and the wife are going to spend on at least part of an anniversary meal. Trading in your car for food is always a sign that things are going well. The Seicento has been replaced by a new embarrassment. Namely a Nissan Micra, in Grimace purple, that is old enough to go to University. I remember taking the piss out of mates who had Micras when we were 17 years old. To finally own one myself at 35 is another sign that things are really going in the right direction for me. The car has spent the last decade being carefully looked after, sitting in a driveway outside a nice cottage, and being barely driven by a retired couple. Within a day of me having it there’s a filthy bike all up in its back seat, and my bare ass trying to get warm and dry in the driver’s. I’m going to pay for it to have counselling.
The other development is that I’ve moved teams. I’ve decided that racing for CC London whilst living about a thousand miles from the capital is probably not the best way to ensure you have teammates in the key stages of races and so I’ve joined Buxton CC who are based only an hour’s ride away from where I live. They’re practically local. Unfortunately I’m the only BCC rider turning out for the Cull Cup, and more unfortunately my new kit hasn’t been made available yet so I’m racing in a bastardised version of CC London colours. Before you warm me about being disqualified I should tell you that over the top of my long-sleeved CCL jersey is a gabba. Beneath it is a long-sleeved merino base layer. Can you guess what the conditions are like? Just in case you can’t, I’m also wearing winter gloves, tights, and overshoes. Yes it is raining. Heavily. It’s raining heavily and my Garmin is reading that the temperature is 1.3 degrees celsius. I’ll let you factor in the wind chill factor combined with the fact that I’m about to get absolutely drenched. I’ve done some rough working out and the combined effect I estimate to come in at around minus a million degrees.
I head out onto the circuit for a warm up which actually makes me a lot colder than I was when I was sat in the Micra. Something’s gone wrong there but I’m too concerned about survival to bother working out what it is.
Pimbo’s a flat 4km-ish circuit with a slight drag up to the line. The slight drag is almost always affected by a strong wind. It could be a headwind or a crosswind but it’s almost impossible to tell the difference on a day like today. Almost always a day for a mass sprint you have to be terrible to get dropped but super strong to win. I was planning on trying to mix it in the sprint but with the conditions being so awful it’s now a day to go on the attack as much as possible. Morale is going to get very fragile today and I’m hoping that I’ve packed my morale hammer, although it’ll be difficult to get it out of my pocket in this weather. As it is I can barely hold a bidon.
We’re kept at the race start for an age in the pissing rain. Some reserves have very unsurprisingly been given a start. The only surprise is that it still looks like a field of close to 80 riders. Conditions in the bunch are the worst as we roll out. There’s plenty of shelter from the wind if you don’t mind not being able to see thanks to all the spray and being terrified that you’re behind the one rider who is going to use his brakes on a course that really doesn’t require them. Saving energy in the bunch also leads to being absolutely freezing so I put in my first attack as we finish the first lap. It goes nowhere but the tone is set.
A couple of laps later and I’m off the front again. This time a Chorlton Velo rider is on my wheel and we’re bridging to a few other lads up the road. It’s early but we’re collaborating so this might be the one. Or at least the start of something that becomes the one. Over the finish line and we’re gobbled up as the bunch still have way too much morale. The next few laps involved following moves but more importantly being near the front of the bunch where it’s less horrible. The rain gets heavier and the line always takes us through the part of the road where most of the water has accumulated. For the last km of each circuit it’s a constant blast of water to the face. If I didn’t know better I’d say every rider in front of me has a rear mounted super soaker.
In one post attack moment of relaxation I allow the bunch to swallow me up and end up mid-pack. It is absolutely terrifying in here with riders unnecessarily trying to fill every gap as we aquaplane at 40kmh.
Next time I move up to the front it’s with an eye on a handful of riders up the road. I put in a big dig into the wind and up the slight rise. There’s a rider on my wheel and we’re all set to bridge. I flick him through and he puts a dig in that leaves me reaching for his wheel. I never quite make the catch and spend the next half a lap alternating between going all in to bridge and going back to the group with my tail between my legs. I think that one of this group has pickpockets the morale hammer out of my jersey and there’s not a policeman in sight.
An hour in and it becomes apparent that I can’t feel either my hands or my feet and the first thoughts of calling it quits start to surface. Someone is using my morale-hammer against me.
Up the final straight and past the Micra where my wife is staying warm and reading a book I get ready to pull in only to be undertaken by another rider and forced to stay in the race against my will.
Once more around the circuit and I pull off on the right hand side this time. I’m instantly followed by Dave from Chorlton Velo, the only other rider I know in the race, and his teammate. Both are really strong riders and make calling it quits much easier to bare. We have a partial conversation but it’s now that I realise that my mouth can’t make the required shapes needed to make actual words. I’ve suffered before in bike races but never as much as when I get into the Micra and the feeling starts to come back into my fingers. The feeling that I’ve been oblivious to is extreme pain, maybe it’s frostbite, and it feels like all of my fingers have been slammed in a car door. It lasts for about 30 minutes. The pain helps to obscure the fact that I might be quite close to reaching the early stages of hypothermia. My wife wraps me in a space blanket. I’m feeling warmer but the inside of the Micra now looks like the aftermath of the Roswell incident. I’m half expecting a load of dudes in chemical suits to nab me and take me away to do experiments on. In a certain light Pimbo could pass for area 54, if that light obscured the signs for Kruger Industrial Smoothing and Vandelay Industries.
The last time my wife came to a race was the Frank Morgan Road Race 2016. That one was on an industrial estate and it absolutely pissed it down. I’m quite the catch.
Out of the window of the Micra I can see that a break of 6 has almost a minute on the bunch. The bunch is down to about 20 riders and a few of them are only there because they don’t know what else to do. The break don’t even look like they’re pushing on anymore but they should have this sewn up. Hopefully one of them will hand in my morale-hammer at the end of the day.