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A wet night in Wembley: An introduction to bike racing

Joe Robinson
30 May 2018

A wet and cold day in Wembley, my first experience of racing was a true eye-opener

It had been raining all day. The standing water on the circuit had reached a measurable condition and the multiple drain covers were glistening like the gold tooth of a dastardly villain. Two previous races before had been canned due to multiple crashes and our own race had been pushed back to escape the worst of the weather.

This was meant to be a fun introduction to what racing a bike is but from the steely focus of the guy to my right mid-trackstand and the loud countdown I got the impression it was going to be anything but. 

The Tour Series headed to its penultimate round last night: a short loop of a kilometre or so in the shadow of the vast Wembley Stadium.

Navigating the narrow streets, you shot in and out of sight of the stadium with the course's real test, besides the technical corners, being the uphill ramp and descent of Wembley Way.

A taste of racing

Before the real grit of the women's and men's professional races in the late evening, the organisers had decided to give amateurs a taste of criterium racing in Britain by hosting a short relay race for local teams, race sponsors, that kind of thing.

Having never taken to a startline of bike race, I couldn't resist putting my hand up when the enquiry of 'who fancied it' went around the office. 

I was excited. The competitive element of cycling was something I had never really experienced. I'd done the odd local Wednesday night 10 mile time trial but that lacks the adrenaline rush of actual racing.

The local 10 is usually more about avoiding traffic on a busy A road.

So came the day when I knew I'd be racing and I couldn't help but feel some pathetic fallacy was playing out in front of me.

Wet roads

While it was dry in the morning, the heavens opened at lunch time and didn't stop. With the pounding rainfall came the occasional rumble of thunder and crack of lightening.

As I reached Wembley only an hour or so before taking to the startline, it looked as if this weather was here to stay.

The course was slick and its rutted nature caused for water to bed in potholes creating an obstacle course for the impending races. 

Meeting with the rest of my guest team, a few other journalists of which we all had little racing experience, we were told the rules of the race.

Each rider would complete one lap before handing over to a teammate. The last leg of the relay would be completed by a professional rider. 

My nerves built at this point as we came only minutes from the start. We rolled around course on a sighting lap. The ramp to Wembley had water cascading down and its parallel descent was like an ice rink.

The backside of the lap was largely off camber and the final 150m had two speed bumps.

As we rolled to the start, we were introduced to our pro rider which went some way into settling my heart rate. Our team had been allocated the most decorated rider available, 12-time Paralympic gold medalist Dame Sarah Storey.

My fears of coming last began to subside.

First rider

In the spirit of it all, I volunteered to be our first rider off the line. Get it over and done with rather than play catch-up later in the race. 10 riders lined up for the start across the road, drenched in the rain that had yet to let up. 

The road ahead cleared of photographers which had momentarily allowed me to feel above my station and not the novice I truly am.

The countdown occurred and with the clip of my pedals, we were off.

The first two corners were taken with a large dose of caution. Two riders bombed the outside line surging ahead into the 180 degree corner onto the ramp.

Climbing the concrete slabs, I could feel my rear wheel fish tail as I rose from the saddle. I had to concentrate on keeping my balance and couldn't even allow myself a glimpse of the stadium. 

As we hit the top of the bank, disaster struck in front as third wheel saw his bike slide from underneath him. This caused us behind to divert course and take the long way into the descent. As we swooped down, my hands were full of brake lever allowing a gap to form just ahead. 

Rounding the corner, the road flattened allowing me to stretch the legs, chasing the more fearless descenders who had got a march on me.

Negotiating the tight bends, the banging of boards gave me added impetus as I clawed back the leaders. 

A left and a right, I was back in earshot of the commentator calling us home. The boards continued to bang as we sprinted 150m to our relay partners.

As soon as we hit top speed we were yanking on the brakes to stop in time causing one rider to come sliding off like Bambi.

I tagged my partner and gave myself a moment to catch my breath as we sat middle of the pack, fifth of ten teams. 

My teammates raced around, with one unable to avoid a spill, before Storey took the helm on the final lap. Rolling across the line, Storey had brought us home in fifth, a respectable placing.

On course, I felt like my bike was being pushed to the limit and that I was at maximum speed for most of the course. Any faster and I would have been on the floor.

However, when it came to the men's and women's professional race, I couldn't have been more naive.

Tom Pidcock on his way to the win. Photo: SWpix

A cut above

The likes of Ed Clancy and eventual winner Tom Pidcock took the corners at double my speed, not even considering a touch of the brakes.

Knee down, their bike handling was pushed to its limits but was largely not found begging unlike mine a few hours earlier.

Any dreams of racing crits were being crushed as I saw the masters at work. Racing the course was a thrilling experience but I was long way off of being able to race for real.

That being said, race winner and multiple World Champion Pidcock found himself meeting the floor mid-race, unable to stay upright in the wet, while I stayed upright the whole time.

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