22nd March. British Cycling. Velofait Crits. Ardingly Showground. 2nd & 3rd Cats.
According to that famous Shakespeare quote: “Double bubble is sure to be trouble – said the first witch”. Actually I may have got that a bit confused. Whatever! It was a double bubble weekend for me this weekend with the March Hare on Saturday and then the inaugural Velofait crits at the Ardingly Showground today (Sunday).
The weather was cold, overcast and with an icy wind blowing across the showground – but at least it was dry. The circuit was 1.4km round. Actually more rectangular with a square chunk taken out of it than round. But you know what I mean. A whole bunch of 90 degrees corners and plenty of loose gravelly bits about – pretty much what you’d expect from a showground.
With 55 2nd and 3rd cat riders taking the start, it was obvious what was going to happen next. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure if my early season fitness was going to be up to the challenge. There was no way that a bunch that big would be ever be able to stay together on such a tight circuit. It was all I could do not to laugh when, in his pre-race talk, the commissar suggested that as this was a new circuit for everyone, we ought to take it steady for the first few laps while we got to know the circuit. He then proposed that we “roll away from the start and not start racing until he blew his whistle”. To quote one of my teenage daughters – “yeah right!”
With the traditional “away you go then…” away we went. I was pleased to get my foot in the pedal first time and sprinted from the line as hard as I could to make sure I was in the front half dozen riders that thundered down to the first corner like the charge of the light brigade atop our carbon stallions. Out of the first corner and sprint for all your worth for the wheel in front. Next corner, repeat. And again, and again, and again.
Young Liam Yates seemed to be at the head of affairs doing most of the damage and looking for all the world like a slightly more slender version of Yates senior. No doubt he’ll fill out over the next few years and the likes of mere mortals such as myself won’t get anywhere near him in races!
The pace was diabolically fast. Everyone was on the max, trying to keep in touch with the wheel ahead of them. Upfront, Liam and 4 or 5 other stole about a 20 metre gap. Then there were another 4 or 5 guys, then another short gap and then about 4 or 5 guys in front of me. After a furious 5 or 10 minutes the front groups merged and when I did manage to take a glance behind there was no one there. I was Tail-end Charlie.
The pace didn’t ease. Attach followed attack and with each, our group fractured into ones and twos as everyone fought to get back on terms. I was absolutely on the max. About half an hour in, I could sense that a few of the guys in front of me were starting to crack as they struggled to close gaps out of the incessant corners. With all the effort I could muster, I moved up a few places along one of the straights. When I looked back half a lap later – they were already gone.
Things settled down a little for the next 15 mins of so. I think by this point, a lone rider had already disappeared up the road. I confess I was more worried about hanging on than I was about watching what was happening at the front! But I was clear that there were only 9 of us left in the break.
We had been lapping riders pretty much from about 10 minutes into the race. At about the 50 minute mark are larger group appeared on the horizon. These 15 or so riders were all that was left of the bunch. Experience told me what would happen next. I’ve seen it before on these kind of tight circuits. It’s almost impossible for a reasonable sized break to make a clean pass of a larger group down one straight of a circuit like this. That means that there will be a squeezing together of the groups around at least one corner, and in the ensuing mayhem the breakaway often splits. And if it doesn’t actually split, then it’s likely to hurt a lot.
I should move up. I knew I should move up. But I was clinging and moving up simply wasn’t an option! I would just have to hope for the best. But as we approached the back of the bunch, there was an attack from our group and as expected, an intermingling of groups ensued. There was much shouting of “left” and “right” as we made our way through the maelstrom. When we emerged the other side, the five strongest riders had about a 20 metre gap on me and three other 3 weaker riders. We gave chase, but it was hopeless and they pulled, inexorably, away from us.
After a few more laps the 5 lap to go board came out and this was marked by the bunch recapturing my little band of 4 riders. The commissar did shout something about the bunch leaving a gap. But by that point in the race, he was going to have a real struggle to separate the groups. And to be honest, I was pleased of the company as by this point efforts into the wind were killing me! The four of us from the break remained at the head of affairs, all keeping a close eye on one another, none of us wanted to let one of the others steal a march.
With three laps to go I was starting to think about the sprint. Chances are, the last lap would be run flat out. I would need to be right up near the front and with only about 150 tailwind metres from the last corner to the finishing line, leading through the last corner wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
But around the back of the circuit I start to sense a softness in my rear tire. No, surely not. I bounce in the saddle. Hmmm, not sure. Round the next corner, bounce, bounce. I’m still not sure. Round the final corner and into the home straight. Bounce, bounce is met with a thud, thud of rim on tarmac. I don’t believe it. I raise my arm and swing out of the line.
As I reach the start finish line I shout to the commissar that I have punctured. I skid to a halt and rip out my rear wheel. Wheel bag is unzipped, and out comes my spare rear. At this point the commissar shouts across the circuit that I can’t re-join the race and that I can’t have a lap out as there are less than 5 laps to go. I am to stop. But I am already tightening the skewer. I shout back that I was in the break and I was a lap up. With that, I am on my bike and away with the commissar still protesting that I can’t have a lap out. We can sort this out later. Right now, I have to go…
I ride the last two laps alone and am relieved to finally see the chequered flag. As I cross the line, I slow up, ready to have a discussion with the commissar with a request that he check his lap counts. But there is no need. As I cross the line and before I even stop, the commissar is already apologising and telling me that I have 10th place. He hadn’t realised when I stopped that I had punctured out of the break.
It’s obviously disappointing to puncture out so close to the finish. But at least I managed to hang on for 10th place. I’m pretty sure that that will be the hardest single British Cycling license point that I win this year! More than the final result, I am pleased that once again I managed to make the selection. I may have been hanging on for grim death – but I was there!
This double-bubble race weekend marks the end of my “Build 1” block of training. I can now look forward to an easy week to hopefully unwind the fatigue that I have accumulated of the last few weeks. How much rebuilding and repair can the body manage in a week? A miraculous amount as it happens. Just one week after his triple heart bypass surgery my Dad was home from hospital. Another week on and he is looking remarkably well. His “Build 2” phase, leading up to him being able to play golf again, is going to last a fair bit longer than my next 4 week block of training. But before the summer is out, he’ll get there.