21st March. British Cycling. March Hare Classic. Masters.
Some 33 years ago after a couple of “swim, bike, run” Rule 42 (http://www.velominati.com/the-rules ) violations I discovered cycling. In the autumn of that year I rode a couple of Evening Tens. But what I really wanted to do, what I really wanted with a passion, was to road race.
My Dad and I were pointed in the direction of Mick Perry and the “Secret Society” that was the Wielersport bike shop – hidden in the back of a non-descript newsagents in Bognor Regis. That winter I became a regular on the Wielersport Sunday chain gang and I was educated into the ways of being a “Road Racer”. I remember that on my first chain gang I got shouted at a lot about riding in a straight line; about which way the wind was blowing and was pushed and shoved into riding an echelon correctly. I learned quickly and I loved every minute of it.
On one January ride I remember giving it my all to stay with the group as they hammered towards the end of the ride – only to get popped of the end of the line some distance from home. I limped almost all the way home. But when I got less than 3 miles home I simply couldn’t pedal any more. I had to telephone Dad (from a phone box – it would be many years before the mobile would be invented!) to come and rescue me. But with each hammering over the course of that Winter, I grew a little stronger.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, the 1984 racing season finally arrived. My Dad took me up to the Eastway circuit to ride my first ever road race – the Junior event at the March Hare Classic. I was nervous and excited and terrified and looking forward to it all at the same time. I was under strict instruction from Mick Perry, that as this was my first race, my only objective was to finish in the bunch and that under no circumstances was I to even consider poking my nose into the wind at the front of the bunch.
I loved the thrill of riding in a big bunch right from the off. Sure it was scary as hell, but the speed was intoxicating. I was starting to feel right at home when after about ¾ race distance I seized on a bit of a lull in proceedings to get my head down and hammer it on the front of the bunch up the finishing straight past the adoring crowds of cheering parents. Woohoo look at me! I’m a road racer! But before I even got to the end of the finishing straight I realised too late that I was “into the red”. As guys dived past me into the chicane I was already on a backward trajectory before we even started the hill. By the top I was still drifting inexorably backwards and by the time we hammered up the home straight again I was hanging on the end of the line for grim death. By the top of the climb I was out the back door. Dropped. I joined forces with a couple of other guys and we managed to finish on the same lap as the bunch – but decidedly not in it. Mick Perry was there to watch his son Nigel in the juvenile event. I didn’t need him to tell me what I’d done wrong. But he told me anyway. And another good lesson was learned!
Fast forward to today. The Eastway circuit is no more (having been redeveloped as part of the 2012 Olympic Park). But the March Hare Classic is back, now held at the Gravesend Cyclopark circuit. By some diabolical twist of Einstein’s theory of relativity, during what appears in my head seems to have been like yesterday – it turns out that 32 earth years have passed and I am no longer eligible for the Junior race. Instead I can now sign on for the Masters over 40’s event. How the hell did that happen?
A fairly large field of, err, more experienced gentlemen assembled for today’s race. The weather was dry, but it was cold and there was stiff breeze howling across the circuit (cross/tail wind up the climb). It was the kind of wind that howled “bunch shredding” right through the vents in your helmet. So I was sure to play close attention to the head of affairs as soon as the bunch rolled away from the start line.
And it didn’t take long for the action to start. The pace was hot right from the off, with rider after rider accelerating away at the front and with moves quickly being countered. But the effect was to quickly string the bunch out into a long line and with the constant attacking it wasn’t too long before the inevitable splits started to appear. It hurt like hell, but I held my place in the front 8 or so riders. We’d probably done no more than 10 minutes when all that was left at the front were about 12 – 15 or so of the stronger riders.
There were a couple of other bunches scattered round the circuit, but they would never see the front again. After a bit of a lull for a lap or two while everyone recovered from the savage pace that had split the bunch, the aggressive riding started again and would continue for the next half hour or so. Riders would jump away in ones or twos and gain maybe 10 seconds. Then there would be a savage reaction behind, causing everyone to scramble for wheels. Several times it looked like the group might be split, but each time it came back together. We may have lost a few guys, but pretty much we were still together when the 5 laps to go board came out.
Over the next few laps Wayne Beba, who had looked to me to be the strongest guy in the race, tried to escape by attacking off the front through some of the sharper corners around the circuit. He nearly made it, but each time we clawed our way back up in twos and threes.
Coming into the last lap, Wayne tried again round the 180 hairpin at the top of the circuit. This time he made it stick as no one was able or willing to give chase. He went on to take a well-deserved lone victory. Behind, I found myself second wheel as we rounded the final corner to start the climb up to the finish. I had rehearsed in my head that I needed to jump early for the sprint, reasoning that with a cross-tailwind finish I should be able to hang on to the line. However, after a tough race and a hard final few laps – my legs just screamed “wait”.
Unfortunately I waited too long. A guy in blue shot past on the right, followed by another rider. Then another. By the time I was up to some kind of speed I had left a gap. Another rider came up my right-hand side and we bumped as I was attempting move further to the right to grab some slipstream. This unbalanced me slightly and I missed a few pedal strokes as I moved back to the left a bit. The gap in front widened further. Now I really had some work to do!
I got my head down and the gear wound up. I closed quickly on one rider and flew past at around 100m to go as he seemed to die a death. The guy in blue was long gone – I was never going to get him. But the other rider in front of me was there for the taking. I was closing fast and hoping that he was going to tie up. But he didn’t and the finish line was approach fast. I gave it a final effort and flung my bike forward in an effort to dive for the line. It was just enough to take 3rd place. Just.
So a bit of a botched sprint, but not too bad a result. I am pleased that I made the split in what had been a tough race. And I still cross the line thinking “Woohoo, I’m a road racer!” Was it really 32 years ago that that younger, fresh faced me rode my first road race at the March Hare Classic? Can I demand a recount please?