14th June. British Cycling National Circuit Race Championships. Hillingdon.
Hillingdon. Not my favourite circuit. It’s too much of a “whoosh” circuit – wide, not many corners and far too easy for the bunch to whoosh along at 26mph making it really, really hard to get away. But it is the British Cycling Masters National Championships so for 1 hour plus 5 laps – I have to be there and give it a good crack.
The early rain had passed by the time I started my warm up but had left the roads wet. Riders from the first event of the day reported that the circuit was pretty slippery. Indeed there had been 3 crashes in their race. I didn’t fancy any of that and made sure that I ran my tyres a little softer than usual.
The race started fairly briskly. The first time we really booted down through the tailwind finish at over 35mph was a bit of a shock to the legs, but you soon get into the rhythm. I stayed attentive near the front and tried to infiltrate a few moves. But as ever for Hillingdon, nothing was sticking and the bunch wasn’t letting dangerous looking groups escape. With that in mind I was conscious of keeping a bit back and trying not to do too much work.
After about 20 minutes I got away with 2 other guys and for half a lap or so, I thought maybe the bunch was easing and that maybe we’d get a useful gap. But this was short lived and the bunch soon reeled us in. As we came back, there was an attack over the top and a dangerous looking break of about 6 guys dragged themselves away. This looked dangerous. Joining forces with another attacking rider I managed to bridge up. But having put in a big effort to contact, I found that that everyone in the break was finding it heavy going and that the break was only tapping through and not fully committed. Inevitably with so many riders up the road, the bunch was stung into action and it wasn’t long before everything was all back together again.
I had the feeling after this point, that the speed and the scramble to bring this move back had taken something out of everyone’s legs. Somehow the attacks that followed seemed to have a little less zip and people seemed a little less eager to chase things down. But try as people might, no moves of any significance where able establish themselves.
Until about 50 minutes or so when 3 riders launched off the front and everyone looked at each other. It was a good move. They immediately put their heads down and quickly build up a 25 second lead. There wasn’t much of an organised chase. Instead, recognising the danger, attack followed attack. The gap to the break would come right down. Then we’d ease up and it would go out again.
As we approached the hour mark I sensed that the bunch was tiring from the constant attacks. Having pulled yet another move back I rolled forward. It wasn’t so much an attack as a positive move to the front aimed at either catching people unaware or at maintaining some momentum in the chase. I put in a good turn. When I swung off I there was just one rider on my wheel and we had a good gap.
I had chosen my break-away companion well (OK, so he chose me!). Vince Halpern is a regular winner at Hillingdon, a strong rider – although unfortunately also one with a killer sprint. Still, time to worry about that later. First up we needed to put in some good turns and see if we could make any headway on the leaders.
When the five laps to go board came out, the leaders were still out of sight. But as we swapped turns, gradually we could see that we were edging ever closer. At 2 laps to go, we only needed to close another 50 metres or so. We had made good progress to that point and I was pretty sure that we would close them down that lap.
But we didn’t. Seeing us closing in, either the break pushed on a little or we faded a bit. Whatever, the result was the same. We closed up a bit, but not enough. As we took the bell, the leaders were just there, dangling just out of reach. I was already on the limit, unable to lift it just that little bit that was needed to bridge final few tantalizing metres.
As we struggled up the back straight I could see that we weren’t quite going to make it across as the leaders started to wind it up for the finish early. Looking back I could see an angry looking bunch at full stretch bearing down on us. We continued to swap turns. Round the final corner and less than 100 metres to go we started the sprint. Vince was edging away from me when – whoosh the front of the bunch came flying past and we were completely swamped. 4th to 14th or so in the final 30 metres of the race.
The three breakaways hung on to take the podium places that they deserved – just! It was disappointing to have been so close and to have not quite made it. But without myself and Vince dangling as carrots, I don’t think that the bunch would have got so close to the breakaway. They weren’t coming back. So I was pleased to have given it a good shot. Better to have tried for the win and failed than to have sat back and been sprinting for 4th. And there is always the LVRC Crit champs in September to look forward to!