24th August. British Cycling. Hillingdon Mid-week Masters
The Masters Wednesday evening crits at Hillingdon are always popular events that attract a good field every week. Races are always run at a brisk pace and if it comes down to a bunch finish, then positioning and timing of your sprint are critical. In last week’s race I was well placed coming into the sprint finish, but hesitated slightly with around 250 metres to go. This moment’s hesitation proved disastrous as I found myself unable to get back on terms with those who had jumped earlier than me resulting in a 4th place finish (2nd in the over 50 age group). But a lesson had been learned.
And so to this week’s race. Another bright sunny evening and another good field of riders. As ever the race was run at a quick pace (around 26mph). Despite the pace, for the first 20 minutes I felt super easy, covering moves and maintaining a good bunch position with ease. When the legs are good and the racing is “easy” (these things are relative!!) you start to sniff the possibility of a result.
About 20 minutes in there are a flurry of attacks. I cover every move, force those that I think have a chance of success. It is difficult to force a breakaway at Hillingdon, particularly with a large bunch of wily masters racers who know the score, know how to race, know who the stronger riders are and are ever vigilant. But I have a sense that this week a breakaway might be possible. The full on aggressive riding continues for a full 10 minutes or so before; punch drunk riders finally relent and there are a few minutes of calm.
Following a further flurry of attacks I sense another lull is coming and decide that this might be an opportunity for a surprise attack. Another rider, Toks Adesanya (we have previous history (in a good way I should add!) at Hillingdon – see previous reports) has the same idea and makes a move. It’s not so much a violent attack, more a rolling through hard as everyone else eases off. I follow and glancing back see that we’re clear of the bunch. Toks leads down the finish straight. I take over and push hard up the back of the circuit to try and establish a lead. I glance back as a swing over. We have a gap, but it’s not much. We press on, continuing to swap turns. Ouch this is hurting! A lap later we are joined by another rider. Now this could be construed as great news as it’s someone to share the work load. But actually this is generally a bad sign. It means that the gap is bridgeable. And if one guy has made it over, chances are others either have fancied their chances or are about to give it a go. Sure enough within half a lap a strung out bunch has clawed us back. That’s the end of that move.
Now I need to be careful. It’s an ideal time for counter attacks to go. But at the same time I need to try and let my legs recover a bit. And all the while I need to maintain a good position at the head of affairs. At Hillingdon, a momentary ease or lack of concentration and you can be 20 or 30 riders down the bunch. If that happens you have no chance of responding to any moves and it can take a couple of laps to thread your way back to the front. And if that happens in the final few laps – well, you have no chance of getting to the front again. So I spend a little energy upon recapture, to ensure that I jump back into the bunch at the sharp end of things.
I ride conservatively for the next 5 minutes or so, keeping an eye on things but also working hard to stay in the shelter and keep out of the wind. All the time I am on the look out – where’s one of those big riders, I’ll sit behind him and get more shelter. When there’s an acceleration – where’s one of them “tester” types, I’ll get a more gentle acceleration back into line on his wheel. The little things, they all add up.
Oh, now that’s a spanner in the works. The sky turns black and seemingly out of nowhere we get one of those summer downpours. Gentle rain at first, but very quickly it gets heavier. And then there is thunder thrown in as well. That’s got everyone’s attention! The race continues, but the nervousness on the wet corners is palpable. Fortunately I switched my race wheels to autumn tyres last week (the green band on those Vittoria CGs is so class!) in preparation for a bunch of country lane road races that I have coming up. And I got caught in a similar downpour while sat on the M25 on my way to the race. Expecting that it might be headed this way I was running my tires slightly softer than usual. So if it wasn’t for the amount of grit I’d get stuck in my teeth, I would have been grinning from ear to ear!
The last 5 laps or so where a bit or a blur. To be honest I can’t recall who attacked first – but with 3 laps to go I was off the front with 3 other riders. We had a gap and we were pressing our advantage and I thought that we had a good chance of making the distance. But alas it wasn’t to be and as we took the bell the bunch latched on to our group. Not realising that contact had been made, the guys on the front of our breakaway pressed on with the bunch lined out behind us. But as we turned the corner at the bottom of the circuit, the attacks came over the top.
Position at this late stage is critical and so despite my legs still reeling from the breakaway efforts of the last few laps I accelerate to push my way into the line of attacking riders. I struggle to force my way in – no one wants to give way at this stage of things. But as we reach the corners at the top of the circuit I drop into third wheel. Try and relax round the bends. We’re still single file as we approach the 250 m to go point…
Legs to brain – “we’re hurting down here, probably best to wait a bit…”.
Race control to brain – “no ****** way, look what happened last week!” And with that the emergency override lever is thrust forward to the max.
I jump out of the saddle and open up the sprint. I am quickly round the two guys in front of me and was we round the last corner I have my nose in the wind and am leading the gallop home. But the zing in the legs isn’t there, the breakaway in the closing laps having taken the edge off my power. As the road dips slightly downhill, I drop back into the saddle and click up another gear hoping against hope that I can hold of the surge of riders that I can sense gaining fast on my right hand side.
At this point I can feel no pain. There isn’t enough bandwidth in my consciousness for such things. All I can think is push, push, push – more speed required. Back out of the saddle the closing speed of the rider on my right is slowing. But he is still inching ever closer. Pretty this isn’t. This is sprinting ugly. This is in the trenches, hand to hand, gritted teeth combat. 50 metres to go. Jeez this is going to be close. One last effort and I throw my bike at the line.
For a few seconds there is nothing. Then I remember that I am still on my bike and needing to balance and steer the thing! Then the pain consciousness connectors get reconnected and I discover that my lungs are rasping for air and that my legs are feeling like jelly. I manage to look up. The guy to my right acknowledges me. “Did I get it?” I ask. “Yeah by a tire width” is his response. I sigh and then reply “Thanks – and great sprint!”
I hope I don’t have to do too much more “sprinting ugly” again this year. But if that’s what it takes to win, it’s good to know that it’s there as an option!