Monday, 28 November 2011

Warwick Cycle Races 2010

In September 2009 I entered the Warwick Cycle Races, my first ever criterium, and a first taste of sporting competition since school. I started the race at the back of the pack and finished somewhere in the middle. At the end of the race, having enjoyed the thrill of speeding around a closed circuit, taking outrageous chances on bends, I solemnly vowed to win the 2010 Warwick Races. My plan was vague, but the ultimate goal was clear; to win category 4, the entry level event for adults. The lowest category race of the day, and generally filled with a rag-tag bunch of cyclists, some there for the fun of it, and others there to win. In 2009 I was there for the fun. This year I entered to win.

On the 5th of September 2010, I cycled in the rain to possibly the last ever Warwick Races. I had planned to meet my family in Warwick town square. I signed up for the event and collected our numbers, entering my son into the under 12's and myself into the category 4 race. In the rain, my son and I stood nervously whilst my wife and her mum affixed the numbers to our backs. Our races were the first two of the day. I walked Jake down to the start/finish and looked at the array of colourfully dressed kids waiting for starters orders. It was fairly obvious that having just turned 10 years old, Jake was going to have his work cut out around the streets of Warwick. The kids were largely wearing lycra emblazoned with club names, and it's fair to say they looked formidable. Jake was happy to wait with the crowd of kids on his own and I left him to get a good view of the start.

Five minutes later, the side-barriers were opened and the kids were allowed to make their way onto the circuit to the start/finish line. The experienced children took the opportunity to sprint the short distance in order to get a better starting position. I watched the start of their race with a degree of sympathy for my son. Last year he had raced the under 10's on a mountain bike, and cheerfully finished the race in an undetermined position. This year he had a basic racer, but was entering an older and more competitive age group. The kids were maturing, and the 12 year olds in the pack were soon to show the soggy crowds in Warwick just how fast pre-teens can go.

I watched his race begin and realised at probably the same time Jake did, that he wasn't going to be finishing on the podium. I then made my way to the gathering point for my race and cheered him on as he spun around the circuit.

This was part A) of my victory plan; to get to the front of the starting grid. After five minutes, my fellow competitors started to assemble around me, and looking at the motley assortment of riders, I knew I hadn't mistakenly joined a professional race. The group represented most of the feasible physical incarnations of lycra clad cyclists, ranging from the rakishly lean to the more rotund. After seeing the winners take their prizes last year, I knew to fear the riders with grey hair and bulging quads. I firmly held my place at the front, trying not to glare at a man who kept nervously knocking my precious wheels with his front forks.

The leaders from the under 12's flew past us on their final lap. First place was taken by Charlotte Broughton and she flew past our position as if she was taking part in a 50 metre time trial. The rain started to patter down on our cycle helmets with more persistence as nervous glances at the town clock showed our race was about to get under way.

After a year of preparation and planning, and summer holidays filled with beer and inactivity, I was in strange shape. My brain knew exactly what to do and my body was quite possibly fitter than it had been last year. However, it had spent the summer looking after children whilst my wife worked my days off, leaving very little time for cycling. I was going to try and start fast and expected to fade with style. I wanted a glorious few early laps before being swallowed by the pack.

Part B) was equally simple. I was to get to the front of the race as soon as the race started. This was fraught with uncertainty because I had no idea how fast people were going to fly off the starting line. And so I waited nervously for the whistle to be blown. One good thing I realised was I was using Mountain Bike cleats, which are generally easier to clip into than Racer cleats. Someone beside me clipped both in before the race started (leaning on the barrier) and was told straight away to get one foot on the floor. All good. The whistle blew and I clipped in quickly, spinning up the revolutions fairly easily as one rider went past into the lead. I latched onto his wheel like an over-the-hill Cavendish, snapping onto him like a piece of Lego. Another rider spun past both of us and I ditched my leader to go after the front-man. Again, this was an almost split second decision. I caught his wheel before he went too far ahead and after about a minute I found myself in third place. Judging from lack of noise behind me we had gained a lead on the others!

Part C) was always going to be a contentious part of the plan, but I had surmised through the lazy summer that if I was going to contend for a podium spot, I wasn't going to be doing any work at the front. Quite bluntly, I planned to be a wheel sucker. Now I'm not entirely sure where I stand on this, if it is unethical to let other riders soak up the headwind. What I do know is, by not helping at the front means the average speed of the lead group will be reduced, thus increasing the likelihood of being caught up. I had to take my chances. As it turned out, there was no way I was going to take the lead. Just hanging onto the wheel of the 2nd place man was enough to almost kill me. I saw them exchange a quick verbal agreement and soon afterwards they started switching places to keep the speed up. They glanced at me puffing away a couple of metres behind and must have seen that I was on the ragged edge.

After about five minutes into the thirty five minutes race, I felt that the time had come. It was make or break. Every time we came out of a bend the two leaders would nudge ahead, carrying themselves out of range for me to draft them. After a complete circuit of playing catch-up I realised my end was nigh. The bursts of power required to keep up were wiping me out. And then, as if by magic, we hammered round a bend into a thicket of brightly coloured stragglers. We had started to lap the back of the pack. The circuit is generally the width of a road, but in the rain a bend can easily wipe out a rider going in too wide or too narrow. This is exacerbated by the numerous metal grids on a couple of the steeper bends around the course, which act as skid pans for the unwary. Our pace slackened as we navigated through the back-markers and I felt my energy levels bubbling back up.

After twenty five minutes in the drops, my hands were numb and shifting was becoming a slight issue. Rather than feeling the gear shifter, I was knocking the lever in the place I thought would change a gear. Fortunately the two leaders had now slowed their pace slightly and I decided to spend the rest of the race in the big ring, using power over cadence to carry me out of the bends. In the final five laps of the race I started to feel other riders gathering behind me, but I don't know if they were enthusiastic stragglers or the main pack having caught us up. Regardless, the final part of my race plan was about to be executed.

Part D) was theoretical. There are too many variables to have a concrete plan for the end of a race. However, finding myself in this situation, I wanted to take the lead on the last lap. I knew that I had enough power to give the other two some grief on the big straight before we hit the slope up to the finish. We raced into the final lap to the ringing of a bell and Hugh Porter shouting my name out to the crowds as I powered into first place! I pushed down through the town square in the lead and flowed through the next two gentle bends. At this point, I was primed for victory. I felt strong and was about to hit the longest straight in the race. I cranked up the speed into the sharp left bend, leaning into the bend and pushing my outside pedal down. Suddenly I felt and saw both of my wheels lose traction. The bike commenced an unstoppable acquiescence to the power of raw physics. The next thing I knew I was on the floor, tangled up in my bike. The bike I use for everything. The bike I need to get to work. I looked at it and saw straight away that it was broken. The front wheel looked twisted and the frame was at an odd angle to the handlebars. I started swearing loudly. Not only had I crashed, I had wiped out one or two riders behind me. I shouted the "F" word about five times before looking up at an elderly couple who were staring at me. I remember saying, "I apologise for my bad language" before following their gazes. I looked down at my arm and noted with mild interest that I appeared to be able to see the layer of fat under my skin along the left forearm. The other riders had got back on their bikes and were finishing the race as I picked up my bike and walked back towards my family.

Three steri-strips later and it was almost as good as new.

I have to say that after the initial outburst, I looked at my bike more objectively and found that the handlebars had twisted in the fall. Nothing was actually broken on the bike. My arm looked like it would need stitches and I knew my family would be worried, so I met up with them and impressed the kids with my wounds. Whilst sitting in the Ambulance I spoke with the son of a guy I had wiped out in the crash. I asked him to apologised to his father for me, but the lad sounded impressed at his dad's performance anyway. The eventual winner turned out to be one of the guys who had lead for most of the race, so I didn't feel too bad. Apologies to anyone harbouring thoughts of malice to the idiot who crashed and ruined their race. Later in the day there were more crashes, and I understand some of the bikes didn't fare quite so well.

After a few moments of panic I realised the handlebars were twisted, not the entire bike.

I have a scar which will probably over-heal and stay with me for the rest of my life (I was right about that), which is cool. I have now been in a race and had Hugh Porter shout my name, which is great. I've also learned a lot about racing in criteriums, some of it quite painful. I will no longer take such outrageous chances on bends, in the rain. At least not for a while.

The races went on all day, concluded by the professionals ripping up the tarmac, victory taken in a sprint finish by World and Olympic Champion Ed Clancy over Jeroen Janssen in second and James Moss in third. Warwick Cycle races may never take place again, and this is a real shame. It seems ironic that when British cycling is reaching new heights this event is facing its curtain call.

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