16th May. TLI National Circuit Race Championships. Rhyl.
As I reported last week, my training has been going well although to date I don’t seem to have been able to demonstrate this in any races yet. But I can feel that a performance is due soon. This year’s training has been all about preparing to be in peak form for this race today. Training began in earnest back in November. I have hardly missed a day since then and have this year managed to stay healthy. If I only win one race this year, then I would like it to be this one. This is the race which I consider is my best chance at finally winning a National Champion’s jersey.
And so to the March Tracks circuit in Rhyl, North Wales. The circuit is about a kilometre in length; fairly narrow; fairly twisty (although no corners that require breaking for); completely pancake flat and due to its proximity to the Irish Sea, eternally windswept. Today was no exception with a howling cross-headwind blowing down the home straight.
The TLI Crit Champs are run off with A & B cat races (40-44 & 45-49 year olds) run concurrently over one hour plus five laps. One race, two jersey’s at stake. A race within a race! This always has some interesting tactical repercussions, although after 4 or 5 years of trying I am starting to get the hang of these!
The earlier Senior’s race (for those less than 40 years old!) was completely shredded by the cross winds with no groups bigger than 3 riders being together at the finish. As my race rolled away from the start, I could sense a certain trepidation within the bunch. So around the first corner and into the tailwind I decided to see who was paying attention from the off – and attacked immediately. The move was fairly quickly covered and I was back in the bunch before we hit the headwind up the home straight. As the bunch slowed into the headwind I decided to repeat the trick. This time I got a slightly bigger gap, but the move was again short lived and once again I was reeled in before the home straight.
A few laps of toing and froing followed before first one, then another and then a third A cat rider slipped off the front of the bunch. With no B cats up the road, myself and the other Bs sat back a little while the A cats hesitated. By the time half a dozen or so A cats got themselves organised into some sort of pursuit it was pretty much too late already. The 3 As at the front had joined forces and were working well together. It was all the chasing As in the bunch could do to peg them. Inevitably as the laps passed, the 3 riders out front gradually increased their lead.
As we approached the half hour mark I reckoned that the lead had inched out to around 40 seconds and it was fairly obvious that the pursuing bunch weren’t going to close things down at the current rate of progress. As the steam ebbed out of the chase, I could feel crunch time brewing. Sure enough there followed a series of attacks with riders launching themselves off the front of the bunch. I saw Paul Thursfield (winner last year) and another strong B cat make the move and knew that this was THE move. I quickly attacked and set after the breakaways. It was all or nothing pursuit and after an intense three quarters of a lap or so I closed down the 30 meter or so gap to make contact with the group. One more rider made it across after me to make a group of seven riders; 3 A cats and 4 B cats (Paul, myself and two guys from a team sponsored by Kuota).
This group quickly settled down and although we never made any headway on reeling in the breakaway, I could see that the remnants of the bunch were fading fast. With one of the A cat riders missing turns, I too decided to follow the rule that’s states “you should only do as much work as the least contributing rider in any move”. With no interest in catching the break (them being all A cat riders) and considering it unlikely that the bunch would be able to catch us, I saw no point in doing any more work than I absolutely had to. Plus looking at my breakaway companions, I could see that I was easily the smallest guy there. If our group was to break up and this was to turn into a Cancellara-esque time trial power-fest, then I would be sure to loose. But if it all stayed together then I fancied my chances in the sprint. So apart from the usual occasional swearing and theatrical waving of arms (particularly from one of the Kuota guys), things stayed pretty calm and settled for the next 20 minutes or so.
At around the 50 minute mark the inevitable happened and the two guys from the Kuota team started taking it in turns to attack. One would go and then it was down to Paul and myself to form and unspoken alliance and to reel them in. As soon as we pulled one back, the other team mate would attack over the top and we’d have to repeat the whole exercise. The first few attacks were pretty savage and it was a real struggle to bring them back. But as we neared the hour mark I could feel that the strength was draining from the attackers and that I was starting to feel much more comfortable in pulling them back. Indeed, I was starting to feel in control of the situation. Knowing that attack would follow attack I was feeling strong enough to be able to hold a little back from the pursuit, confident to leave the lone attacker dangling out front a while longer and delaying the renewed pursuit.
The hour passed and the 5 laps to go board came out. As yet another attack was closed down and we all looked at each other waiting for the next move, there was a shout from behind and the 3 A cat leaders flashed past us. I had been so wrapped up in our own battle that I had forgotten all about them. They too were involved in their own battle and were similarly engaged in cat and mouse, stop start racing. They got about 30 metres up the road from us and then eased back. We respectfully eased back to let them continue their race and this effectively put the lid on further attacks from our Kuota duo. Perfect. This year, the effects of having two races in one was really working out for me. Could this be the year?
The “truce” lasted a couple of laps before, I suspect with the Kuota duo realising that their chances were slipping away, the attacking started again. The first savage acceleration took us back past the 3 leaders. Then we eased up and they came back past. It all became a bit chaotic and words were exchanged as the two groups ebb and flow.
We take the bell and round the last lap. With two corners to go the two groups are now literally side by side around the corner. With two championship jerseys at state the adrenaline levels are sky high and the guys at the front of the respective lines are bumping shoulders and leaning on each other through the bend. There is a lot of swearing and for a moment I fear that there could be a crash. As we approach the final right hand corner, which is an almost a 180 turn, I am a little far back but moving forward up the outside. I take the corner very wide to stay out of trouble. Thankfully everyone makes it through the corner and onto the finishing straight.
As I exit the corner I am wide on the left hand, and windy side of the track. Far from ideal. As I look to my right, Paul is ahead of me and already out of the saddle and charging toward the line. But this is no time to be worrying about looking for a slipstream. No time to be concerned about an “ideal lines”. No time for finesse. This is a time for head down and give it all you have. It all comes down to this. All those cold winter miles. All those hours on that damn turbo. All those gut wrenching hill sprints. Now is the time to reap what has been sown.
As I surge forwards I am immediately making up ground. The gearing feels perfect and as I push against the pedals there is no pain in my legs. The only sensations are the wind rushing past my ears and the finish line in my sights. With 100 meters to go, I am already past Paul and with my legs still pounding my senses are straining to the max to detect any signs of riders approaching my rear wheel. 50 meters to go and I can sense nothing but clear air in my wake. I know that I am going to make it and as I cross the line I punch the air in delight. Yes, finally, a championship win!
Come Monday morning, my alarm will go off at “too early” O clock; I will take the girls into school as usual and then make my way into work. My blackberry is already telling me that I have 140 unread emails as punishment for taking Thursday and Friday off last week (Thursday to marshal bike transition in Copthorne School triathlon. 5 and 6 year olds doing Triathlon in proper Rule 9 conditions. How awesome is that! And the Friday to drive up to Wales for this race). On the outside life will continue exactly as it always has. But, as I sit at work on Monday morning sipping my first coffee and as I ponder how I am going to get through the next week, on the inside I shall be smiling. On the inside I am different. For the next 364 days I am a national champion and beyond that I shall forever be a “former national champion”. Awesome. But I guess I’d better get back to those emails…