There are two sounds that every bike rider tries to avoid at all cost. The first is the noise that thousands of pounds of alloy and carbon make as they slide along a piece of tarmac – If that noise is coming toward you, you’d better react quickly before your own machine begins to amplify the sound. If that noise is you then it’s probably too late to do very much about it! It’s a very distinctive noise made more so by the fact that it is usually accompanied by a low oooooohhhhh from other riders, spectators or cameramen!
The second noise goes something like phhtt-phhhttt-phhhtt-phhhhtttt-phhhhhhh and means that a flint/shard of glass/thorn/scrap of metal has made sweet sweet love with one of your tyres. This, as Jim Morrison (The Doors front man, not that douche who pretends to be a soldier) once said, is the end – annoying, especially when it’s the first lap and you’ve travelled quite a long way to race.
Of course if you have a spare set of wheels and you are allowed a lap out then it’s all ok right? Wrong! I’d just about settled back into a rhtymn when, on lap five or six,…yep, you’ve guessed it phhtt-phhhttt-phhhtt-phhhhtttt-phhhhhhh…
But there’s no point sitting around and crying right,…Well that was two weeks ago – Time for round two!
So back I went to Cyclopark in Kent with a new pair of tyres and lots of determination (and I’m generally pretty determined so on Thursday night I had my race face well and truly in place). Cyclopark is a new facility near Gravesend and Canterbury and as well as a lovely looking BMX race track and street park and Mountain bike track there is a beautifully slick ribbon of tarmac for road racing. It is here that SERRL run their Thursday night race series as well as others and I had some unfinished business there.
The weather hadn’t changed much in two weeks – Rain was lashing the road upon my arrival just as it had done previously. Likewise I’d drawn the number 3 and kitted up in identical clothing before gingerly heading out for a warm up. Unlike last time however the track was smooth, clean, riding fast and there was a distinct lack of wind. For me this is just about as close as you can get to ideal! Now I had to capitalise.
Before, I’d been using a very lightweight full slick tyre – In wet weather the thin sidewall can become delicate as they absorb water and are therefore susceptible to punctures from debris that would normally not be a problem. It had been an error in my judgement to have used them last time out. For that reason I selected a slightly beefier pair of Continental’s finest racing tyres for act two. The Attack/Force combo has pleasantly surprised me in the short time I’ve used them. They are impeccable in the dry and have felt equally strong in the wet. The race on Thursday provided me with the final confidence I needed in both the front grip and the all-round puncture resistance. Obviously no tyre is completely foolproof, but Continental has pleasingly come pretty close with this fine rubber – Always use good rubber!
As well as the bike set-up obviously you have to feel right. You can normally tell as soon as you get on the bike how it’s going to be and unlike the last few times out, I felt pretty good in my warm up. I hung back on the sighting lap and lined up in the middle of the pack for the start – unlike a ‘cross or mountain bike race, road races usually start fairly calmly and the E1’s true to form rolled out chatting and settling into the ride. When it was time for us to go, the calmness had left the building! Everyone went like bullets! Happily I was feeling good and so when the group broke up I found myself near the front of the lead pack.
We worked hard for the first five laps to establish a gap to the other riders, but I’d made time to have a look about and do a head count. Nine of us in this group meant that staying clear would be crucial to us all earning points so it was in everybody’s interest to work hard and stay away. Even so there were constant breakaway attempts to chase down, but I’d begun to learn that you can’t chase everything down yourself and our group quickly settled down and was working well together.
Everything had started to make sense – I was tucking in behind other riders, I was doing a fair turn on the front, I was riding within myself and I was conserving energy. There is still a way to go, but something had definitely clicked!
After all the work we’d done in the early stages, we’d created a safe gap to the next riders and our pace had slackened off as everyone readied themselves for the sprint. I felt good on the front for a few laps, out of trouble and out of the muddy water that was coming up from everyone’s rear tyres. I wanted to stay in control and keep my glasses clean. With one lap to go I gave it everything I had to try and make a break for it, but heading down the first straight other riders had seen it coming and caught me so once again I eased back. I kept on expecting riders to come past and stayed over geared ready for the attack.
The hollow hum of a deep section wheel had started to come alongside me – this must be it, I thought as I raised my pace. A rider behind began yelling at me and I quickly realised that one of the Elites was coming through and wanted space. I sat up having spotted my mistake and to my horror both Elite riders and my own category were coming through! Here we go again I figured and stepped back on the gas as we headed up the hill for the last time. I’d lost momentum and with it a couple of places, but there was still some fight in me. Into the final bend I cut in tight on the inside and gave it everything I had to the line making back a place to finish in,…Well I’m still not sure actually. As this goes to press I think I was fifth but the result isn’t final yet!
My initial goal had been simply to complete the race. To score points had been a welcome reward for all my recent bad luck. Also it’s satisfying not just to be doing well against my own cat 4 competition, but also to be able to mix it up with the cat 3 riders. With a new bike on the way to finally retire my ‘cross bike from his road duties I’m beginning to get the hang of road racing – Now to take it to the road…
 There are four Categories in British Cycling Road Racing. You start at Cat. 4 and you have to earn enough points to move up to Cat. 3. You earn points by being in the top ten at races. Once you’re in Cat. 3 the plan is to move to Cat.2 and then finally Cat. 1 and then E1 / Elite. Often 3’s and 4’s race together and then E1’s, 1’s and 2’s have a separate race.