Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spring Has Sprung

The sun is out and, instead of its once empty light shining coldly on us in the UK, there’s warmth bleeding through, it’s been coming for a week or two now, but today, in late March, that warmth is more than just a slice, it’s becoming more enveloping, more satisfying. Summer is coming our way and I welcome it with open arms.
Grey is replaced by blue, and fluffy white clouds instead of blankets of grey. Branches on the trees are beginning to disappear under a translucent cloak of palest green. Stop, and silence is masked not by the roar of the cold wind of winter, but the chirping, chattering and full-on song of birds, gloriously proclaiming to the world that life, so long suspended, has started again. Instead of hanging limply in spare rooms or spinning hotly in kitchens, laundry sways on the lines in gardens country wide. Fool hardy Englishmen anticipate summer by donning shorts and parading their flabby, pasty legs for all to see. Secretly they’re freezing; it’s not yet that warm.
Then there’s the scrape and squeal of up and over garage doors, the smell of leather evoking last summer’s glories, wafts of petrol and oil, the cough of electric starters and the blip of engines. Dark visors, sun speckles on dry roads, rolling from bend to bend, hedgerow a blur of brown and green. Too much speed, expensive petrol. Thrills. Mates, drinks and laughs in the sunshine.
Time for a ride then.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What Have I Done?

I never expected to win a race. I’m only really in it for the thrill and to do as well as I can, let’s face it, when you start racing at the ripe old age of 44, you don’t expect to do anything but lose weight, get fit and develop perpetually aching legs.

As normal, I’d fretted over the weather for the days leading up to Saturday, but the rain promised earlier in the week, had cleared by the time we stood chatting on the start line. Indeed, the roads were dry and conditions were similar to the previous race. That wasn’t the only likeness, as the group didn’t work as hard as perhaps it could have done.Dave Robinson and I had chatted at the start and decided to try getting away should this happen again, but I just didn’t feel up to it, at least in the first part of the race. It was evident from the start that only Dave and someone I believe was Christophe Demoulin from Peterborough CC, were willing to put in the bigger efforts: to be fair they both did more work than me, especially Christophe who put in some massive turns, which eventually proved suicidal. He even went off the front at one stage, both Dave and I managed to go with him, but never built any real gap, and were reeled back in by the others, who proved they could ride, they were just selective about when they did it. Tactics, I believe they call it: why ride hard, when some other fool will do it for you.

Whatever, we picked up the group ahead of us sooner than last week, about 11 miles in, which showed just how well we were going, some were dropped, others stayed with us. Having raced this course last summer, I knew it suited me. Though there’s a steepish hill a couple of miles in, it’s completely flat for the last four miles. My favourite part of the course is through the village of Ashley where a good surface helps you fly round two relatively tight, wide bends and a slight slope catapults you onto the last couple of miles of the course at a good speed.

 Out of Ashley at 30mph on the flat with 50 seconds lead on the faster riders, closing us down. Touch and go if we’ll make it. I took my turn at the front, everyone taking a turn, I found myself at the back of a long line of riders, all on the limit, scenting success. Was I too far back? Probably, but for some reason I wasn’t bothered. Round a bend and there were two horses in the road, though they tried to give us room, we all slowed. At the back I carried more momentum, slowed the least, when the road was clear I was back in the middle, about fifth wheel, powering towards the final 1km. It’s all a blur now, I remember saying "pain" over and over like a mantra, convincing myself to give everything. I looked over my shoulder and saw we had a gap, five of us, about seven more behind. Round the bend, onto the final 300 metre straight, I could see the chequered flag poking from a huddle of people waiting for the action. I was behind Christophe, who’d spent most of the last 5 miles leading the group, someone in white was on my right, others outside him. I desperately wanted to be conventional, obey the rules of the road and overtake Christophe on the right, but I was blocked and they were launching their sprint for glory. I’ve no idea if I changed gear, but I passed Christophe on the inside, and gave it everything I had. It was a long, long way to the line now. I felt my wheels spinning, my legs flexing: I knew I needed to pull and push on the pedals, that I should get lower to the bars. But I couldn’t. The excruciating lactic burn in my legs dominated me, but I kept going until weakness won and I sat down, pedalling but expecting to be passed any moment. The nearer I got to the line the more I realized I would win. I began wondering what to do. Should I throw both hands in the air? What about a one handed punch, making it clear I was too fatigued for a full on show of triumph. Just a shout of joy? I crossed the line, shoulders rolling and face like I was crying for my Mum. I let go a couple of loud shouts of “Yes!” Then found myself saying, “Oh that feels so good. Oh that feels so pain.” Hideous grammar, but spot on.

Stopped over the line, elbows on the lever hoods, head over the bars, breathing hard, legs numb. On my own. A winner. Really? I wasn’t expecting that when I ate my porridge.

Best wishes to those riders injured in the last lap crash.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What Am I Doing?

... a question I asked myself on the drive along the A14 to the first race of the year. I’d caught myself asking this before, but now, with my 46th birthday only three months away and a new season started, really, what was I doing? Had I done enough training? Had I done the right training? Had I eaten enough? Had I eaten too much? Was I plain old too old? Was I just a rubbish cyclist? 
I was en route to the first of a five race handicap series, where the riders set off in groups depending on ability. So the slow, fat and less fit riders go off up to ten minutes ahead of the most fit, fast and talented riders. In a positive frame of mind, I used the hour long journey to contemplate all this and all I managed to surmise was that this was not going to be fun and humiliation was the probable result of my impending and puny effort.
Arriving, I felt no better. Those around me were obviously experienced and knew what they were doing, even the fresh-faced riders from Loughborough Students CC. Childish insecurities maybe, but I felt entirely out of my depth, just as I did when floundering in the deep end during my Cub-Scout swimming badge test in 1976. I signed on and read of the handicapper’s grave error, placing me in the fourth of six groups, giving me kudos for fitness and experience I really don’t have.
The casual chat of club mate Mike relaxed me on the warm up ride to the start and I felt OK as the first three groups set off. Any feeling of confidence didn’t last long, as the initial pace was horrendously fast; a well organised group of those students, their earlier confidence fully justified, blew our group to bits. Off the back within five miles, I was left panting and contemplating the not unexpected ignominy of spending the afternoon riding round on my own, or arriving at race HQ hours before any other rider, then furtively escaping in my car before anyone noticed. I don’t expect to win, ever, but I don’t want to be last.
Over the ensuing miles, I found myself overtaking the odd rider, and eventually being caught by the group who started three minutes after me. I tagged on with them, finding a good pace for a while and making sure I did my share of the work. Sure enough though, my earlier labours took their toll and, a couple of slightly alarming, though small vomits later, I pulled out of the line and had a rest. A short pause for reflection, and resigned as I was to failure, I stood, pressed on the pedals and got back up to speed, determined to finish. Again, I picked up a few riders, including Nigel, another club mate with whom I worked until the finish, though he won the uphill sprint for 32nd place. 
The second race of the season was on the same course and, despite the rigours of the previous week, my journey was not complicated by self-doubt, just panic at the realization that much of my intended hour for changing and warm up was being lost in a traffic jam.
Sign on revealed the handicapper had realized the error of his ways, placing me in the second group; much more to my liking. The initial pace was again fierce until one of our number, obviously the handicapper’s mate, escaped to win the race with a lead of 1.25. As he disappeared up the road, we collectively relaxed a bit, though some more than others, our group not working together as well as it could have, with three of us left to do the majority of the riding. We were moving pretty quickly though and, when I saw Dave Robinson, from Kettering CC crest the top of a hill well ahead of the group, I went after him, shouting, “We’re away, we’ve got it if you want to!” This was my first ever break off the front a group and it felt liberating: however, now the seeds of both hope and dread began to form in my mind. Hope, because it would be great to go all the way to the finish; dread because, if we did, it was going to hurt quite a lot.

Breathless and off the front
After a mile or so, I checked over my shoulder a couple of times and noticed we had a reasonable gap, but with the road ahead turning into the wind then crossing an airfield, I didn’t expect it to last. Dave asked me if I thought we had a chance of staying away, it was unlikely and I told him so.
Swallowed up, we carried on the routine, soon picking up the first group on the road, which had set off three minutes before us. Not many of them wanted to work either, though one of those who did was a woman so small, following her gave no shelter at all. Crossing the airfield for the last time, a glance backwards revealed the swarming mass of the rest of the race closing in. They were however, a good distance back and we only had about four miles to go. We might do it.
We swept through a junction onto the main road, I was second wheel and felt a tap on my back as Dave flew passed me. One last ditch effort? OK then. Out of the saddle, accelerating I got onto his wheel as we began to drop into the village of Welford. I’ve no idea what speed we were doing, but it was exhilarating, wind and the whoosh of tyres on tarmac the soundtrack. A quick check and I saw the wheel of a following rider close behind. There was no getting away this time, but at least we’d tried. Second wheel, behind someone else now, I took the left turn at the bottom of the hill for the last time. I was whooping with joy, it was brilliant, bike cranked over at about 25mph, and I told a marshall as, out of the saddle, I accelerated up the hill, out of the village one more time. 
At the business end of the race now, I found myself on the front, not for long as I was passed by someone with a solo finish in mind, but his effort didn’t last long as Dave overtook him. We powered on, but the catch was inevitable, and we were soon passed by a heaving mass of bikes and panting riders. I pushed my way into their line and shouted at Dave to do the same. I don’t know if he did. We dropped down the final hill, round the bend into the darkness of the trees, passing the 1 km marker, the whole race, 50-odd riders together in a seething mass of sweat, colour and spinning wheels. I couldn’t force a gap to shelter from the wind and save my legs, but it wouldn’t have made a difference. A group went, going for the sprint. Out of the saddle too, the lactic burn in my thighs was too much and I sat again, clicked up a gear and rolled over the line. Panting, hurting, thrilled and happy. There’s always next week.

Thanks to those at Kettering CC for their help with first photo.