Robin Parker writes…
7th June. British Cycling Masters (45-49) National Road Race Championships, Leighton Buzzard
It was suggested to me this week that my race reports almost made road racing sound like fun – with the emphasis on the almost! I responded that road racing certainly is fun (or words to that effect!). I perhaps should have considered my response more carefully as there are some events that stretch the concept of “fun” to the very limits…
British Cycling Masters National Road Race Champs. Absolutely top draw field (Elite and 1st Category riders aged over 45!); 6 laps of a fairly flat circuit with a short climb up to the finish each lap. The weather forecast wasn’t good. But hey, who believes the forecast? When I arrived and warmed up it was dry and warm. But by the time we were sat on the start line the rain had started. By the time that the commissar announced that there would be a 5 minute delay to our start as the race ahead of ours (the 40-45 age group) had been sent off course, it was chucking it down.
I nipped back to my car, put on an extra jersey and slapped some embrocation on my legs in the hope that this might a least provide a little water-proofing. I needed it as it wouldn’t stop raining until after the finish.
So the plan for this race? Pretty similar to the LVRC RR Champs 3 weeks ago. Sit in, conserve energy, hope that the “big names” tire each other out and then take any chances that come up in the finale. So for the first lap I sat well back in the bunch. I couldn’t really see what was going on, but I gathered from the time checks that 3 riders had escaped and established a minute lead. But I was feeling pretty good. First lap was very comfortable for me, if very wet.
Lap 2 was more of the same. I moved up a little and saw another 2 riders move clear of the bunch and the leaders were the best part of 2 minutes up (according to various time checks that we were getting). But I kept my powder dry – if that were possible in the downpour. By now the puddles were starting to grow and I was starting to worry that the cold would get to me before the end.
By lap 3, the pace was starting to hot up. And not the kind of organised pace that you see when pro-teams get themselves organised. This is a quality amateur field. And that means constant changes of pace as rider after rider tries to force a break; realises that the bunch is still in contact and sits up only for the next attack to launch down the road.
And then it happened. The unmistakable, squishy flat tyre feeling from my rear wheel. Sometimes you can ride for a while, not quite sure whether you have a puncture or not. But not this time. I could feel rim on road and the bump, bump, bump of valve on tarmac almost instantly. Hand up and a rapid fall back through the bunch. Ordinarily that’s it. Race over…
But this is the National Champs. Toot, toot on the horn and the mechanics landrover skids to a halt in-front of me and the guy is out of the driver’s seat in a flash. “What do you need?” he shouts. “Rear wheel, shimano, 10 speed!” I reply. In the few seconds it takes me to get my wheel out and cast it aside, he’s there behind my bike fitting a new wheel. It’s fitted in a flash; I clamber back onto my bike and with a mighty push – I’m off.
Toot, toot. The landrover comes past and pulls in front of me. Now a landrover punches a big hole through the air. But even tucked up behind it, it was still bloody hard work. And with the puddles turning to mini floods all over the place, it was pretty hair-raising as well. It seemed like forever, but it was probably only about 5 miles or so before the next toot, toot on the horn and the pace finally, finally eased a bit. Just the last gap to the back of the bunch to bridge. I draw alongside the landrover and an outstretched arm offers me a final helping hand – literally. I gratefully accept a hand-sling through the window and close up behind the commissar’s car. Straight around that; try and grab a bit of draft from the NEG motorcycle outrider; and then rejoin the back of the bunch.
Kudos to that mechanic. That was an A1, pro-tour level wheel change and an excellently executed pace back to the bunch.
So I’m now thinking about taking a bit of a breather at the back of the bunch for a while. But I have rejoined an angry peloton. It’s lined out and riders are starting to be spat off the back. This is no place to stay. I battle my way back towards the front. I eat and drink, but I can tell that the chase has taken a lot out of me.
Lap 5 is more of the same. Attack follows counter attack with the now reduced bunch splitting and reforming as riders scramble back into contention. Up the climb to take the bell and I can feel my legs starting to cramp as the gaps open all around me as riders are scattered up the climb. There is a furious pursuit into the final lap, and I am just clinging on for grim death now. I wish that they would slow up at the front to give my aching legs a rest. They don’t. But I have to hang on. Not because I have any desire left to win. No. The changing rooms are the other side of the finish line. If I am dropped I am not sure that I will have the strength left to make it back to my car!
Finally as we get to within a few kilometres of the finish, the pace eases up a bit. The breakaways have succeeded for the day, and thoughts in the bunch are now turning to the finish. Well I’ve come this far, maybe I should give it a shot also. I move back to the head of the bunch. There are a few riders firing off the front in ones and twos. The bunch is hesitant. Everyone has tired legs.
As we reach the foot of the climb, the pace winds up a little. I need more speed to maintain my position ready for the sprint. But as I press the pedals, I realise that there is nothing leg in my legs. The tank is empty. There is nothing to be done. I switch to the small ring and drop like a stone through the surging sea of riders. Click, click, click, click – push, push, push on the lever. Damn, there aren’t any more gears! What was a big ring climb in the race has become a Zoncolan-esque monster in the space of about 50 metres. I struggle past the line of spectators who have no doubt come to admire and cheer the awesome sprinting prowess of the leaders. I am soaking wet, cold, covered in mud, doing all of about 4 miles an hour and must look about 80 years old. I receive a solitary “well done mate” and just keep pedalling until I reach the changing rooms. I can’t stop, I might not get going again!
Now about that “fun” that I was talking about. Well, sometimes road racing can be more of an “experience” that is fun to look back on. And there’s always tomorrow…