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Gemma does the South East Women’s Road Race Championships

There were around 30 riders on the start sheet for the South East Women’s Road Race Championships on Saturday 4th June. I had a nose through the list of riders and teams a few days before, recognising a lot of them for different reasons. Some a rather reassuring “I think I have raced with them before” some a slightly more concerning “haven’t I seen them on the TV?”

So this being my first race on open roads, twice the length of any I have attempted so far and with tough competition meant I was extremely nervous. I don’t usually suffer with nerves, so this was quite an experience for me, and the nerves only died down once we rolled out of the HQ.

As the bunch was gathering in the car park I positioned myself at the front, as in my head if I start in a good position I am more likely to stay in a good position. The start was neutralised, while the lead car guided the group from the HQ onto the course safely. After a minute or so, an arm leant out the window and waved something at us to indicate the race had started and the pace increased significantly. The race was held on the Handcross circuit, which is around 9 miles in length and contains one short sharp climb, and one long 2 mile one.

The first couple of miles of the course were fantastically flat and fast which was great fun, and I was happily bobbing along in about 8th wheel. I maintained my position in the front half of the bunch for most of the first lap, slipping backwards a little on the long climb but hanging on until the top for some much needed recovery on the fast flat section. Half a lap later we hit the short sharp climb, and as the bunch pushed on in the back of my mind I was thinking about the large distance still to cover and allowed a few riders to pass me while keeping to what I felt was a more controlled pace.

(Images courtesy Huw Williams)

Shortly after this two riders attacked at the front of the group, opening up a lead of 50 metres or so. There was a slight rise in pace from the bunch but nothing to worry about when safely tucked out of the wind. We shot down a fast decent before beginning the long climb for the second time. The two rider break was still a short way in front of us and the pace as we started up the climb was fast. I was feeling the burn from the effort, but in a sustainable rhythm in the rear half of the bunch on the inside. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a rider moving at what I would call a suicidal pace up the outside of the bunch, about 3 riders away from me. Second glance confirmed my fears, said rider was none other than our current national hill climb champion. As she stormed up the outside of the pack, the bunch continued to push hard and as my heart rate hit maximum, legs and lungs screaming in pain, I started to slip further and further back.

By the top of the climb I had lost a whole minute on the main bunch, but at least had recovered a little from the intense effort. A rider from Dulwich Paragon came along side me and optimistically said “we can catch them”. I chose to believe her for now, and we blasted off onto the faster section, taking turns leading and recovering whilst hoping the bunch will have inexplicably slowed. Another two riders managed to catch onto our wheels, so we had a group of four to work together for the remaining 30 miles of the race. We continued to push a good pace, but it became apparent (Mark was at the side of the road cheering and offering advice) that the gap was only growing between us and the main bunch, so we settled into a good but more comfortable pace, riding through and off.

30 miles into the race we took a sharp left turn, and as I tried to shift onto the small chain ring, it slipped off and I was found rolling along staring at a useless hanging chain thinking “great, race over…” None the less I jumped off, put the chain back and carried on. The group I was with saw what had happened and appeared to have slowed a bit, so I woke up my best time trial legs and put in a solid effort to get back to the group. I had almost caught them as we were approaching the crossroads at Warninglid, but (of all times now!) there were 3 cars between us causing me to slow up and them to slip further away again. Traffic out the way, I carried on in time trial mode for about another mile before I latched onto the rear of the group.

Settling back into the group I knocked back an energy gel to get me through to the end. During the penultimate lap, we picked up another rider to grow our group to 5, but there was a sense of tension and a few whispers which put everyone on edge. Coming into the finishing straight, with one lap to go, the finishing flags were waving ahead of us causing some confusion. People at the side of the road were shouting “sprint! Sprint!” so I went for it and was edging towards the front but the finish line came too soon and I finished second from our group, placing me in 22nd overall.

Some great racing from two other local riders Emily Mcloughlin (Aprire HSS) and Chloe Weller (Army Cycling) saw them finishing 4th and 5th respectively.


Gemma Hayes

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