I’m a real mixed bag of emotions. Riding my first road race today on an unbelievably windy circuit in the Mendips has seen me through the whole range from elation to questioning why I even ride a bike at all.
Road race? Me?
If you had told me six months ago that I would be entering my first road race, I would never have believed you. I really hadn’t intended to at all, and when I heard that Bristol South CC were looking for a volunteer to accompany the Commissaire in her car to take race notes, I was quick to get in on the opportunity. What a great way to see the race unfold, I thought, learn about the discipline and support my friends involved.
Race organiser Claire Greenfield was having none of it. After being told that I should be racing and a couple of fun sessions at Odd Down cycling circuit. I took the plunge and entered.
On the day
The bike was sparkling, fresh new kit prepared, energy drinks and gels, van loaded and we were off. No cycling the day before despite being an absolutely gorgeous spring day felt like a crime. I set levels of expectation in my head to try and get over the nervousness; one lap with the bunch was all I desired, to hold on for one whole lap of the 8 mile circuit.
When I’d done a recce back in February, it had been a pretty blustery day but I had hoped we’d be in for some spring weather by the end of March. The sunshine didn’t disappoint, but wind like this was not anticipated. It was soon clear that we’d have a headwind for the long dragging uphill sections of the circuit and a tailwind on the road that’s slightly downhill to the top of Cheddar. Good news, I was told, as it would stop the stronger riders flying off on the tough sections and you could just tuck in. Simple, eh?
As I drove our team bus (quite literally, I had four of us in the camper) onto the parking field, it became all too clear the calibre of riders entered. Team cars from Team Ford Ecoboost, Fusion RT Fierlan, Bianchi Dama and Aspire HSS carried some of the UK’s top female cyclists.
The atmosphere built as we signed in and pinned on our race numbers. I was rather chuffed with my new Gorilla Firm kit – at least if I couldn’t go fast I’d look good! As we amassed for the Commissaire’s briefing there was a hubbub of chatter, nervousness and excitement in equal measure. Many of my friends were here racing for the first time too, right alongside these national pro team riders.
Time to roll out
Briefed and ready, sixty riders jostled for position as we rolled out of Priddy village on the neutralised section behind the lead official race car. Now I’ve done my fair share of group riding before, and even a little crit racing, but contending with fifty-nine other riders all working to get to that sweet-spot near the top of the bunch was a whole other ball game. Riders close and advancing on both sides, pushing you into the gutter, squeezing past you in the gutter, slowing quickly and surging forwards again; it was taking all of my mental concentration just to remain safe and upright let alone physically trying to keep up, and this was still neutralised!
Turning right out of Priddy onto the course, there was a further neutralised section behind the car before the race started properly. I’d been given some good advice by a good friend and keen racer before the start; ‘keep trying to move up or you’ll be going backwards’. It made perfect sense now, as everyone is trying to get near the front of the bunch where it’s more sheltered and you’ll be less likely to get dropped. A bit like swimming upstream I suppose – you’ve just gotta keep moving up just to stay in the same position.
Conscious that I was already breathing heavily and legs starting to feel the burn despite having only been going a few minutes, I did all I could to hold onto the bunch. I saw riders passing me on either side as I was washed back down the line from my good starting point towards the back of the field. How did they have so much energy? Pushing past with seemingly relative ease, my mind started to blacken as the self-doubt crept in.
Just one lap I had promised myself, and now I was doubting that I’d even do that. I’m a big believer in ‘what you hold in your bindi will come to pass’ – meaning what you think will happen, usually will. Despite this, I couldn’t help thinking how I wouldn’t be able to hold on any longer, how I wouldn’t be able to finish my one lap with the bunch, how I wouldn’t finish the race.
It really wasn’t long before I was spat out of the back and with legs and lungs on fire, reconciling myself to the fact that it was all over so soon. A glance behind me was slightly heartening; there were a few others just like me strewn along the road, probably just as bewildered and maybe as disappointed.
Off the back
What next? Well I had considered it before the race, thinking it likely that I’d be dropped at some point. I had vowed to keep going, at least until I was passed by the ambulance and categorically out of the race, and ideally for a few laps as practice if nothing else. I’d given up my whole weekend of cycling for this after all, so I wasn’t going to stop at four miles.
I pushed on just as hard, the adrenaline coursing around my body as my muscles screamed in agony. I turned left onto the best part of the course; the lane with a slightly negative gradient all the way to the top of Cheddar Gorge, and a mighty tailwind too. Feeling stronger and fast; this was my kind of riding. I pushed hard, full gas, on the drops until I ran out of gears and could feel the stab, stab, stab of my pedals. The bunch wasn’t far ahead, and I was gaining on them. My good friend Rose, and fellow first timer joined me as we powered down the lane in hot pursuit of the race.
I was overjoyed to have almost caught the rest of the bunch at the end of the lane as they slowed to negotiate the cruelly tight, gravelly corner. Descending is my thing, and I’d taken some great lines down that lane on the bends. Great it might have been, but now it was really over; as turning into the wind again and with a long drag, my thoroughly drained legs just had nothing left to give.
It had all happened so fast. I carried on for a while with Rose, then solo, still pushing hard but simply aiming to finish my lap. I was truly gutted to have been dropped so soon. I thought of the guys at The Gorilla Firm who taught me to cycle, had encouraged me and whose awesome kit I was privileged to wear. I felt like I’d let them down, let my friends down, and most of all let myself down. Of course I hadn’t expected much from my first road race, but I had hoped for more than this.
It became incredibly hard-going round the circuit as I turned into the full force of the headwind, where every little ramp felt like a struggle. Coming back to the start of the course I wasn’t ready to stop just yet; with the gathered crowd applauding me and cheering ‘keep going!’. A second lap came and went, occasionally buddying up with Laura from VC Venta or a lady named Claire, enjoying the flat out tailwind section and cursing the headwind drag. After the third lap, I’d had my fill, and rolled to the finish to see the girls come in.
So many thoughts had been running through my mind as I pushed on alone. I’d had a terrible preparation for the race today; I don’t train, but my rather turbulent relationship with food has taken its toll. In these moments I even considered giving up cycling altogether until the time when I felt strong enough to start again, healed in mind and body. After all, I know that’s the one thing that’s seriously holding me back.
Despite the waves of guilt and shame that I’d experienced during the race, pulling up at the finish to meet some of my friends brought emotions from the other end of the spectrum. There was pride and respect, as well as cuddles and endorphins. As we watched Meg Dickerson of DRK Racing smash over the finish line into 11th place, I was too overwhelmed with pride.
Casually pedalling back to the Race HQ and in the hall there were congratulations aplenty, so many familiar faces keen to hear how everyone had got on, such a friendly and encouraging atmosphere. It was a strong win for Adele Martin of Team Ford Ecoboost, humble and gracious in her victory.
Would I go again?
I’m aware that subconsciously I can tend to dress things up a little in an attempt to encourage more people to try something new and different, but I’m going to be totally honest here. I don’t want to put people off trying their first road race at all; this is just my perspective.
Today was tough, and that’s just a small part of road racing. The level of training and sacrifice that these women put in to get to this level in the sport is immense, and frankly, something I’m not prepared to do.
I’ve had a yearning for months to pack a saddlebag and head off, churn out some big miles and explore new territories. So for now, it’ll be my first and only road race, but there’s no reason to say that I wouldn’t give it another go another day…
An huge thank you to Claire Greenfield from Bristol South CC, and her army of marshals, motorcyclists, drivers and volunteers as well as the British Cycling officials for making today possible. Thanks to the crowds of supporters around the course for egging us on. Thoughts are with the rider from Aspire HSS, and wishing her a full and speedy recovery.