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My first road race

Peter Stuart
25 Jun 2015

Cyclist’s rookie racer decides the time is right to experience the true essence of competitive cycling.

Plenty of riders have made the same journey as me – from the Sunday club run to the sportive, to the cut-and-thrust of the race circuit. I have a feeling that to really earn membership into the ranks of the fully fledged cyclist, however, I have to go up against my peers in a properly sanctioned road race. But as I discover, it’s not as simple as turning up on the day with a bike and a positive attitude.

Each weekend, road races are held on a variety of official courses around the country, and the popularity of them is staggering, with many restricted only to members of an official league, with riders requiring a certain number of racing points. Many sell out within hours. Luckily I’ve managed to find an event that’s slightly undersubscribed (a rare occurrence indeed) and secured a place without being part of a team. It’s a 117km race (nine laps of a 13km loop) in Welwyn Garden City, part of the Eastern League, and it’s on open roads.

Wet behind the ears

On race day it’s pouring with rain and I’ve barely slept. Racing is always nerve-racking, but the idea of being in a jostling peloton while mixing it with traffic has me genuinely scared. Amateur road races almost always take place on open roads. That brings with it certain obvious dangers and, although rare, accidents do happen. The most notable in recent years was the death in 2013 of elite rider Junior Heffernan, who hit an oncoming vehicle on a fast descent. But the dangers are minimised as much as possible thanks to the conscientious efforts of organisers and marshals.

‘The rules and regulations on how to organise events are now very strict to ensure rider safety. It makes it a little bit frustrating trying to get it right,’ says today’s race organiser, Stavros Socratous of Finchley RT. The measures include three cars to sit ahead of and behind the race, as well as between the main group and the breakaway where necessary. For certain courses, and in the event I have entered, National Escort Group (NEG) motorbike lead riders are also required to warn traffic of upcoming riders and ensure roundabouts and junctions are clear when the pack arrives. The officials have no authority to stop traffic on open roads, so marshals will request that car drivers stop at junctions, but should drivers ignore these requests and drive into the path of a moving peloton, the riders must stop.

Despite this, and the weather, race HQ (a local football club) is crammed with riders ready to race and a few dozen on the reserve list hoping for a place. ‘The police don’t like us,’ shouts an official during the briefing, ‘and that’s why it’s important to obey the rules. If you cross over a solid white line, or move from the inner lane of the dual carriageway – you will be disqualified.’

Duly warned, we line up behind the race director’s car for the neutralised start. Accelerating to race pace in a pack of 70 riders on open roads is alarming, but I can soon see the appeal. With the support cars and motorbikes in close proximity, and with a feeling of tension buzzing through the pack, this really does feel like the racing I grew up watching. Ahead, riders begin to jostle for position as the initial neutralised phase ends. Feeling slightly out of my comfort zone, I drift to the back of the group.

Once off the leash, the pace explodes and I have to sprint to keep up. As any keen tactician will know, riding this far back in a group offers the benefit of shelter from the wind, but has its disadvantages. I can’t see the road ahead, so corners and shifts in gradient come as an unwelcome surprise. Several riders attempt to force a break, but an excited bunch is chasing down anything that moves. I’ve been edging forward where possible, before sheepishly drifting back each time I fail to take a corner with enough speed. After only 40km has passed I’m certain I don’t have long left in the race before my reserves of energy are totally spent.

Then the rain eases for 20 minutes, and so does the pace. The efforts of the first hour have taken their toll on many, and we settle into a more consistent rhythm. As we tick off the fifth lap, there’s a move ahead. Two riders have made a break, and two others are trying to bridge the gap. Given my woeful sprinting prowess, finding a place in the break is my only hope of a respectable result, so I ditch caution and set off at full speed to escape the pack.

Through the industrial outskirts of town I’m in pursuit. With the race spread out between four groups, the cars can’t cover each section, and a van somehow finds its way in front of me. I overtake it and dig deep to catch the two ahead just as we approach a long dual carriageway. Working together – although after the breathless chase I can’t contribute much – we manage to latch onto the two leaders just as two others bridge over to us. We’re now a fully fledged breakaway. When the race director’s car moves in behind us, we know the gap is over 30 seconds. For three laps we work as a chain gang, and I find the effort overwhelmingly hard. Then, to our shock, the director’s car passes us just as we reach the final lap. The pack less than 30 seconds behind.

Boom and bust

We’re caught by a group of riders, at which point one of my original breakaway comrades pulls off and goes back to the clubhouse. The effort of breaks and chasing packs, as well as the day’s meteorological misery, has seen the original pack of 70 riders whittled down to 23. A rider with a beard pops off the front, but no one is willing to chase. Some are saving energy for the sprint, others are too exhausted. I know I have no hope in the sprint, so for reasons I can’t exactly place, I set off in pursuit, in a move so blatantly reckless that no one attempts to pursue me. The group falls back, but the leader is a far-off dot. I hunker down, rest my hands on the bars and ride as fast as I can. When I reach the base of the climb at the end of the dual carriageway, the pack is close and I realise my number is up. They sweep past me on the ascent. Ahead, the lone rider manages to stave off the pack, while a heated sprint takes place for second. I roll in one minute behind the group, and finish 22nd.

I’m soaked, frozen and exhausted, but I’m satisfied that I have now had one the truest tastes of the sport. It was tough, but I’ll be back.

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