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.