This was my 4th year in Milan for the world's No. 1 Fixed Gear Criterium. The twisting city circuit in Milan's university district of Bovisa has always been my favourite circuit for its pure speed and wide corners.
This year I came into the race on the back of 6 weeks of near non-activity. I had been riding long weekend miles and the odd morning laps session. But I had no focused interval sessions or anything specific to the demands of racing Red Hook. So, essentially, I was feeling under prepared and not too confident in a decent finish. My heart rate had barely got over 170bpm in weeks and my legs were far away from the mid-season power that I had trained to this year.
The track day at the famous Vigorelli Velodrome has now become an established pre-race session. It's not only a beautiful and awe inspiring piece of architecture, but it’s a day to meet and greet, and get back into the fixie crit community.
I went out on 50/14, which was my chosen gear and higher than I’ve ever run for a Red Hook. It felt heavy! Or maybe I was heavy, I don't know, but it didn't particularly feel good. However, I did manage to do a few efforts with Veronika to get the heart rate up and open up the legs. But when I got home I switched up the chain ring and went for 48/14 for the race; my usual race gearing.
When I got to the now familiar circuit it was already raining very slightly and the course was getting damp. Open practice is the perfect time to test the bike and gear out. I started off with 48/14, but it felt spinny so I went back to the pits to switch it up back to 50/14 and head out for a few more practice laps.
It felt smoother and I could tell I had made the right decision. I would be very grateful towards the end of the race to have slightly more speed on those long corners and exits.
I was seeded 9th on the third row of a particularly hard heat with the top 5 riders ahead of me. You can look at this two ways - it's either more difficult because it will be fast and the guys at the front will push the pace. Or, as they are the top 5 seeded riders, let them battle it out and just stick on their wheels!
I chose the second option, to stick on their wheels. The course was very slick and slippy with the recent rainfall, so I raced somewhat conservatively to finish in 9th place! Exactly where I started and straight into the Men's Final.
It came to Final time and I was starting on the 9th row, aka 40th place out of 100. I was confident in the circuit and my handling, but not my fitness - I just hadn’t trained in the 6 weeks prior to the race. With the race being in October it had been very tricky to balance fitness and form. But here I was, ready to mix it with the world's best.
Milano attracts the best fans of the year, they speak to you about your bike, take pictures and are genuinely engaging. Red Hook completely breaks down the barrier between athlete and supporter, and it's refreshing to feel such passion from the fans. When you are on that start line with thousands of fans banging the advertising hoardings and ringing the cowbells you remember what you came for! I used to get more nervous, but now it's pure excitement just waiting for the roller coaster to kick off.
So much of the start in a fixed gear criterium is reliant on a quick and smooth clip-in. It's something I’ve worked on in training and it’d definitely recommend it to newbie crit racers.
Slam that foot straight into your pedal and Go!
Missing that first clip-in is disastrous and can really push you down the field quickly. It's not like a roadie crit where you can freewheel and find your pedal. Anyway, I managed a decent start, but couldn't really force my way up the field, I was in the first 40 riders and round the first corner before I start seeing red flags. There was a big pile-up right at the start of the race so they had to stop and restart again.
Take 2 - Same start and finally we are up and running - the nerves and tension dull once you’re hitting 50km/h on the back straight. I begin to settle into a rhythm (as best as you can when you’re at threshold and 100rpm). The pace was relentless with so many strong riders in the pack. I was still between 30-40th place, and basically hanging on to wheels and trying to draft as much as possible.
But then something triggered and I realised that I was feeling good, so I began to pick off riders ahead one by one and then tuck back in. I actually don't remember working on my own or in the wind for that long during the race. These races get so fast that you simply can't do it alone.
This year I’ve raced more than ever and it's taught me to use the circuit as much as possible - save energy where you can and, when you go, don't look back! The Milan circuit is wide in places and the corners are all very fast, nothing is so technical that it requires heavy braking. As such, many riders don't fully utilise the course, I often found myself cruising round riders past the apex of corners and through the exit.
This is going to sound silly, but I honestly attest some of this ability to playing Gran Turismo 2 on the PS1. Using the whole road, braking late, but smoothly and then keeping momentum throughout the course is essential for a strong race. Anyone can train hard and be at the required level of fitness for these races, but having the balls and the handling skills to navigate a peloton is not easy to learn.
I ended up with the leading pack and I could see it was all together as the leading Moto was visible. So, I knew that no break was established and that I could hang on for a decent top 30 finish. The last 2 laps were relentlessly fast and they hurt...a lot! My heart rate was already jacked, but it flew up past 190bpm and I was in the death zone! I can't maintain this for long.
I was coming though the last corner on the penultimate lap and there is a decent size pile-up which I narrowly avoid (45.05 on the video). This meant I lost a bit of speed and had to chase on. I managed to get back in contact on the back straight and then finish off the lap by sprinting past a few riders for 26th place. My highest finish at Red Hook and it caps off a really positive season.
On-board race footage from Owen: HERE
I've race more this year than any previous year and learnt so much along the way. My thoughts to take away our as follows:
· Train smart, rest when you need to and don't ride junk miles
· Race as much as possible to be comfortable in a pack
· Check your gear and equipment
· Have fun and don't take it to seriously! It's only a bike race
I'd just like to finish by paying tribute to the following brands who have supported the whole ELF team over this season and many before that:
Chrome Industries - Main sponsor, clothing, bags and apparel
Halo Wheels - Carbaura Track Wheels
Quirk Cycles - Custom Steel Crit Frames
Biehler Cycling - Custom ELF kit
GripGrab - Gloves, warmers and other vital accessories
Giro Sport Design UK - Cycling shoes
Vittoria UK - Tyres
Bell Helmets - Custom ELF helmets
Fizik - Finishing Kit
Jam Cycling - InfoCrank Power Meter
Muc-Off - Bike Lube, Cleaning products
Cole Coatings - Custom Painters
London Velo - Bike shop and mechanic services
Pulsin - Nutrition