25th Feb. LVRC Abellio San fairy Ann Crits at Gravesend Cyclopark
Openings weekend marks the start of the classics season in Belgium and for the last few years has also marked the start of my season with the Abellio LVRC crits at the Gravesend Cyclopark. The first race of the season is always a bit of a voyage into the unknown – how has my Winter training gone, how am I going to compare to my rivals? This year things were ticking over nicely until January. Then work went mental and I started clocking too many hours in the office and too few hours in the saddle. Indeed most of January instead of thinking that I could catch up a bit over the weekend, I found that I was so drained I was barely able to manage a recovery ride.
But I kept things ticking over and in February, things have been a little better. I’ve not been able to clock as many hours as I would have liked, but I have managed to get in some quality efforts. Making use of the only chance I would get to get out on Thursday morning, I did battle with Storm Doris and put in a few test efforts. 870 watts for 20 seconds. Not too bad for me, for February. If it comes to a sprint, I won’t be too far off. A timely confidence boost.
There are plenty of opportunities to psych yourself out before you even start the first race of the year. There is always lots of shiny new kit on display. There is a gorgeous all black Colnago and a rather fetching Pinarello with a flame paint job and matching all-in-one carbon “cockpit” that particularly catch my eye. Then there are the stories of recent foreign training camps with big miles and warm weather. Me, I’ve not ventured far from Newchapel and repeats on Outwood hill. But that fancy equipment that promises 34.7% more vertical compliance than last year’s model, which itself had a 16.29% stiffer rear triangle than the previous, previous model. Does it do the hill sprints for you? I think we know the answer to that! So don’t worry about anyone else. Control the controllables as British Cycling might say. I just get on with my pre-race ritual. Pin on your number, do your warm up. I might not be entirely up to date – but I’m good to go.
It’s pretty windy at Cyclopark and blowing directly across the circuit. Left to right and slightly against down the hill. Right to left and slight tail wind up the hill. It is a race that is begging to be split asunder. I aim to ensure that I am in the right group. After the pre-race pep talk from the organiser, we’re off. Paul James from Crawley Wheelers is keen to get things underway and is off the front from the get go. I follow second wheel as we close him down. The pace is kept fairly brisk as we drop down to the bottom of the circuit. I dive through the 90 left at the bottom of the hill first to keep things moving along and to keep out of any unnecessary braking that goes on behind. The pace is maintained back up the hill to complete the first lap. There are no attacks and everyone if watching everyone else. Around the second lap and it’s much the same. About time to shake things up a bit I think. Time to see who is awake. Who has the legs…
As we approach the conclusion of the second lap I put in a dig. I don’t go all in – it’s about a 75% effort. A probing attack if you will, hoping to drag a few guys away with me. But when I look round I am on my own with a 30 meter gap. I tap on regardless, let’s see if there is a response. I drop down to the top hairpin, and sprint up out of the corner. As I look back I can see good news. There has been a response. Two guys are coming across and the bunch looks stretched behind. I ease back a notch to allow the two to join me swiftly and am pleased to see that Shaun Williams, a rider from the promoting Abellio team and who is as strong as an ox is one of the two. We swap a few turns. I look back and another 4 riders are about to bridge. The four include Paul James and Craig Wilson from GS Vecchi. There is a bit of faffing about before we start working smoothly together. The last few guys across look like they’ve made an effort to get over and aren’t keen to press on immediately. But it doesn’t take long, and with a bit of shouting from Craig (I’m sure he’d view it as some helpful coaching about how to ride an echelon) we’re working together more of less smoothly.
There are plenty of opportunities to look back across the circuit to gauge where our pursuers are lurking. They are not far back to start with. But as we continue to collaborate what’s left of the group behind gradually slip away. Selection made, all going to plan so far. Now I just want it to stay together and I’ll take my chances in the sprint.
Things work out nicely for me. No one is brave enough to try and break things up until the 5 laps to go board comes out. There are a few strong attacks from Paul and Shaun. Craig counters a few moves, a guy form Sussex Nomads counters a few others and has a dig himself. I have the benefit of feeling strong and that I don’t need to get away to win. I am happy to let others attack and I have the confidence to let others counter the moves and keep my powder dry. If they close it down, I’ve saved my legs. If they can’t close it down, I feel I have the strength to attack over the top and close it myself. I am holding all the cards. Just don’t cock it up!
Into the last lap, and now I take responsibility to close out the last moves. With everything shut down it will be down to the sprint that I wanted. At the head of affairs, I lead round the final corner and up the hill towards the finish. With the wind blowing from the right, I am in the left hand gutter and waiting for someone to move on my right. I control the pace. I am confident that I can win a sharp explosive sprint and if someone wants to go early, I’ll cover that move and have them at the death.
250 to go and Paul, grunting loudly, launches his sprint in a fairly big gear. I’ve seen it coming and am onto his wheel immediately. It’s a really strong effort and we’re travelling at some speed as we round the final right left kink before the finish line comes into sight. With 150 to go it’s time for my counter. I kick hard and move to the right and up the windy side. Has Paul been saving anything? Will he be able to respond? The answer is no and I punch past and into clear air.
50 to go. I check left and right. I don’t want to “do a Caleb”! (http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/embarrassment-for-ewan-as-rookie-mistake-costs-him-breakthrough-win/) The coast is clear and I have time to get both hands in the air. Yeeeaaaaaaaaahhhh!
It might well be nothing more than an old boys race of little or no consequence at the end of February. But winning a sprint, any sprint, still feels awesome! Those gut wrenching hill sprints. That face stinging horizontal rain courtesy of storm Doris. It’s all worth it just to get your hand in the air!
So yeah, it’s only February. And yes, there is loads of work still to do. But it is a whole lot easier saying those things and really believing in “the plan” when you already have that first win of the season under your belt. Bring it on 2017…