Racing Bikes: Giving it another go
I had a go at racing back in 2014 over at Dunsfold, the home of the Top Gear Test Track. A bit of a novelty location, and in no way any reflection on the course for the Cat 4 race that was actually held on the perimeter road around the runway. Part of the track did follow a road used by Top Gear, but it's a straight forward loop with a slight shimmy at the back of the course before the start/finish straight. It's a windy and exposed course and, back then, was a pretty open race with 60-80 riders lining up each Friday night for the 4ths race.
This was my first race, well before I had a full race license, and I was roped in by the then cafe manager at G!RO in Esher, Josh Evans. Going to a race with a team mate makes a big difference, and can help make the whole thing so much easier, especially if they have an inkling as to what's going on.
The race itself was a bit of fun, but didn't inspire me at the time. We both sat close to the front for the most part doing almost all the work pushing the pace and closing down some ill-fated breakaways. It's a tough course to make that stick due to the wide-open straights and lots of wind. The race was neutralised with about 2 laps to go to let the ladies 3/4 race, which we'd only just passed, through on their last lap and sprint. With the neutralisation and a bit of confusion, I drifted to the back of the bunch, and by the time the bell went for the last lap, I was a long way from being able to get to the front to contest the sprint. It seemed that the entire bunch was simply on a chaingang for 40 minutes, with the whole lot blocking the road for anyone wanting to come from deep. I finished 42nd or thereabouts a little disillusioned with it, but glad I'd given it a go.
Fast forward 4 years. I've come a long way since then, completing in a very different kind of racing in the Transcontinental twice and the Italy Divide, with a bit more space and requiring a little bit more time commitment. I'd also learnt an awful lot about riding bikes all over the world; in groups, with lots of friends, on cafe rides, chaingangs, some sportives and lots of long distance - but always just for fun. I've always been a bit against racing crits and maybe a bit afraid of Cat 4 specifically due to the reputation of it being a bit crashy at times. In fairness, a lot has been done by various leagues to fix this - from British Cycling's Race Smart campaign (https://www.britishcycling.org.uk/racesmart) and some league’s requirement for some race training accreditation to be done by riders before they can race Cat 4. The accreditation requirement has been a bit of a barrier for me with most local races in the Surrey League, as these sessions have always been at the wrong time, poorly advertised and often in far off places that, if you don't have a car like me, are just not accessible.
Through the past 4 years I've been part of a community of cyclists, which will inevitably include those that have done races. G!RO Cycles also had an initiative to put together a race development team, G!RO Prestige, to try and inspire and support those who want to race, and to help give them some training and opportunity. So over this past couple of months, I've had a bit of an urge to have another go. Encouragement from friends and a little bit of FOMO meant that I signed up for a go at the West Thames 4ths series at Hillingdon cycle circuit in Hayes. I'm familiar with the track through some 10 mile TT's I had a go at, and the field that signed up was a good size for the track.
Race 2 - dipping the toe
Race day came, and after an hour of commuting from work in heavy traffic in London I signed on, pinned a number and had a go.
I had a lot of fun. I had two team mates, Paolo and Seb and we were all wearing G!RO Prestige kit. It was fun using some simple tactics in the race to help teammates, and was great always being able to find a friendly wheel to follow. When I could see one teammate attacking, I'd roll to the front and ease up a bit. When we brought one back in, I found my moment and attacked. This was great fun, and in my first attack, I managed to stay off the front for nearly 4 laps. It might have been my undoing when I did the same a few laps later. This time, I managed a little over a lap before the bunch closed the gap. They didn't pass me though, just sat on. Which was also part of my undoing! Half a lap later I rode off the front and, coming into the next lap, two riders had bridged across. Neither wanted to do any work and before long I was back in the bunch somewhat empty. I was cooked, so decided to sit in the bunch and hopefully grab a point or two at the end. Being quite tired, I didn't fancy mixing it in the sprint with a few uncertain wheels. I surged through without sprinting to a respectable 12th, but without points. Needless to say, I'd learnt a lot!
Race 3 - getting in the groove - FTW
I wasn't planning on going back, but with lots of banter with friends again I was encouraged to go back with a plan to get Paolo his last 2 points for his Cat 3 promotion, and some tactics for the win. It was a slightly smaller peloton this time, and after Paolo, my only team mate in this one, was part of a move that was brought back early I found myself coasting past the slowing bunch and on another counter attack. In my mind, I was thinking this was going to be last week all over again, but I found two riders bridging across about a 1/4 lap later. Once we joined forces it was just a case of working together for the rest of the race and holding a gap. Paolo hadn't realised I was in the break so spent about 5 laps close to bridging the gap, but it held until the bunches resolve broke. We put in about 3/4 of a lap into the main group, and were getting close to lapping the peloton when the board came out early to signal 3 laps to go. We continued to work well, and then on the bell lap started saving our legs a bit for the final run in. I'd managed to get a good position, and legs were feeling great so opened up a strong early sprint from the last corner. I carried this on all the way to the line taking the win by about a wheel.
Race 4 - Going for Cat 3
After last week’s win and 10 points, I only needed 2 (minimum 8th place) in order to get Cat 3. A 3rd Category license is permanent, so it is as much an enabler for future races, as it is for being a significant milestone in the race categories.
An old friend who got me into cycling, Rob, had been inspired by a few of our ventures into racing and decided to come and give it a go. It was great to see him there and I tried my best to guide him in the things he should be doing to help him get the most out of the experience.
We pinned our numbers, a little too late for a warmup lap, but I'd already cycling over from work so was not a big deal. A quick briefing from the commissar and we were released.
One guy shot off on an immediate attack. I figured, why not! Chased him down, and one other lad followed. After we caught him he almost instantly blew up. It really pays to watch who's following your solo break, as a little less exertion could have allowed him to stay in the break.
So, there were two of us, it was the end of the second lap and we agreed to stick to doing half lap pace line. I think the bunch had a good go at chasing us for about a lap, but they soon sat back and thankfully for us didn't chase any more. We worked well, and I kept on shouting encouragement to keep him motivated. We had no idea if there was anyone in between, so we kept working pretty hard for the remainder, but it was important to believe the break was going to stick.
As with the last race, the commissar called the 3 laps to go early to prevent us sprinting into the back of the bunch on our last lap.
It was only now we started easing a little, and on the last lap I let Cameron hang on in front a little longer before pulling alongside before the sprint to congratulate him on some top work. I think I waited till about 200m to go before sprinting and managed to get a nice big gap with a bit of a kick. Wasn't sure how much so rode to the line this time, although completely forgetting to celebrate!
Second win in two weeks, and now with 20 points a 3rd Cat in the bag.
The camaraderie in racing is a bit of surprise, and is really cool. It makes the whole racing experience so much more than stressing for 40 mins and burying yourself to get a few points. It kind of makes it worthwhile. Racing with friends makes it for me, but also making new ones on the day, in the bunch or fellow breakaway riders.
I found I learnt a lot in my 2nd race, which really helped me with winning the last two. I think that is really important, unless you're so strong you can ride the bunch off your wheel for 40 minutes, you need to learn how the race evolves, reacts and when to make your move. Also, you need to learn what you are capable of. It's always good to push yourself to find those limits.
It's also occurred to me that I really should have given this a go earlier, as I've found I really enjoy it - or is that the winning part?! I can recommend to anyone who's considered it to just have a go. As long as your careful and ride smart, you will have a lot of fun!
The TCR is now only 2 weeks away for me, so will be reducing the risk of falling off and not racing till I get back. It may be that I'm also very conscious that the 3rd Cat races may be a little harder!