It’s 1am and after a fairly fashionable night in Islington, I’m weaving in between taxis and partygoers, racing the number 19 to Finsbury Park. By two o’clock I find myself rather surreally sitting in a bar where someone, who looks as though they may have escaped from a channel four documentary, is having an 18th birthday party. To my relief none of my friends can put up with anymore of the gypsy birthday and we finally retire to bed (if you can call camping in someone’s front room, bed) for the night.
Seven hours later and I’m amazed firstly by how much sleep I got and secondly by the fact that I appear to not have a hangover – result! As I sit up and stretch, my head feels fine, my back feels fine (cheers Therm-a-rest), even my legs feel good. All my “normal” friends that stayed the night had the luxury of real beds, and as anticipating queuing for a table for their Sunday lunch to be the most stressful part of their day, they all seem fairly happy to snooze the morning away. But for me, it’s time for a breakfast of rice pudding, peanut butter on toast and strong coffee followed by a quick shower.
All “smashed out in lycra” I’m ready for the off and so I say my goodbyes to a couple of very confused and bleary eyed friends who’ve made the journey downstairs to investigate the smell of fresh coffee. As I wheel my bike into the chill of a grey Sunday in north London I pull my buff up over my chin, close the gate quietly behind me and leap onto my trusty steed. After delivering me safely home for free in the wee hours, it’s now turned into a commute bike as I make first for my old haunt of Evans Cycles at London Bridge for a spare tube and some CO2, and then continue on southwards down Borough High Street, through the carnage of Elephant and Castle and up Red Post Hill before finally arriving at the mighty Herne Hill Stadium half an hour or so later.
Fairly sure I wouldn’t like to do that in rush hour, I headed to the race office to hand in my licence and pick up my number and timing chip. With the smell of embrocation lying thickly in the air I pinned number 32 to my jersey. I don’t know what it is with numbers, but as soon as I see mine I know if it’s going to be a good day or not – 32 seemed a tad underwhelming, maybe it was playing cool, or maybe it couldn’t be bothered, but as soon as I saw it I was thinking of excuses!
To be honest I didn’t need them (maybe it was playing cool), I put in some nice warm-up laps and quickly worked out where I could be fast. The cyclo x lap at Herne Hill usually goes the other way and so we quickly rode across the oval track and hit the woods along the back of the first corner – some lovely little technical bits. We then briefly came up onto the banked wall of the back straight before hitting the flowing section that lies far beyond the second corner and this was clearly the place to take advantage of having a mountain bike over a cyclo x bike. The final infield section was where I was always going to lose time, I just didn’t realise how much yet!
So at 13:45 the gun went and nearly a hundred daft looking, skinny, cold folks raced along the back straight and into the woods for the first time. After the usually pile up induced by excitable under 23’s we all clambered around, bikes on shoulder, until we’d made it back to the banking. Leaping back on I was still in a pretty good position and I could see the front, so with a little cunning, all would not be lost. In the second technical section people seemed to be holding me up and I worked hard to get around them, which is why what happened next (and then on every subsequent lap) was so frustrating. Happy to have a rest as we looped into the infield section over the oval, I was hit with the sledgehammer that is South London’s wind. I could do nothing as the train of riders that I’d beaten up earlier that lap, just chugged past me as if they were out on a club run. I couldn’t even hold their wheels!
By this point on the second lap, I’d beaten my demon (or so I thought) and caught the group up. Now all I had to do was stay with it taking advantage of some shelter from the wind, but even with that, they just roared off into the distance again. The same thing happened for six laps, and I just didn’t have the legs to fight any harder – they knew my bike could and would allow me to catch them up each lap, but they also knew that they would have the jump on me for the line – number 32 was proving to be a mischievous little devil.
It would seem that some of the guys in this group knew a thing or two about hurting mountain bikers and younger riders, because as we neared the end of our hour there was not just me falling off the back and then fighting to get back on, but a small group of yo-yoers seemed to have joined me. These guys would now become my target – if you can’t win, you at least need to pick off the weaker prey! And so with the bell ringing I kept it in the big ring and sprinted into the wind as hard as I could. I was caught for a lap by the winner of the race with two corners to go, but by that point I’d done the damage on the guys I knew I could beat and was pretty happy not to have to go out for another lap.
Last night’s excesses and the killer infield had taken it out of me, but I was pleased to have placed fairly well mid table and had got some cracking training in as well as refreshing some hard learned principals of racing. Namely don’t attack early on the first lap, because people remember not to help you when you weigh 60kg and the wind is knocking everything out of you later on!
Number handed back (lesson learned), licence retrieved, gillet and arm warmers on and time for a tea and a catch up with some old teammates before heading back into the gales for the commute back up to London Bridge and the train home. Great, no space on the train for bikes and no seat (where were all these people coming from) meant I was forced to plonk my boney behind down on the floor by the door with my bike wobbling uncomfortably next to me. After several “rehearsals” at earlier stations I finally pulled my tired body from the floor, clipped my helmet back on and shouldered the bike out of the carriage and up the platform for my last ride of the day.
Everything ached on that last seven mile ride home, but I knew that the tea and hot shower would numb any pain and I grinned to myself as I climbed the last ridge into my village. There’s nothing like collapsing into your own bed at the end of a hard day and that’s exactly what I did, dreaming happily of summer trails and numbers who would treat me more kindly!