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I squeeze my grip on the bars a little tighter. Leaning the bike over, my sight is fixed firmly on the apex of the corner. I push the bike over onto its side, place trust in my tyres, my left knee swinging down. My fingers caress the carbon brake levers, just in case.
Swinging past the apex of the tight left-hand hairpin at the Crystal Palace evening criterium, I focus my eyes on my exit line. I choose a big arc through the corner, trying not to loose too much speed, the aim to maintain as much momentum as possible. Reaching the end of the turn, I let the bike follow its natural line, and reaching the edge of the Tarmac I stick the bike upright.
I’m out of the saddle now. Sprinting, pushing hard on the pedals. My right finger flicks the gear lever. Up a gear. And another. Turn the cranks over quickly, as smoothly as I can. I stay out of the saddle for half a dozen revolutions, no more, then sit back down. On the drops, hunkered down low over the bike, I try to get my body as aero as possible. Reduce the drag and reduce the effort repeating through my head.
A quick glance over my left shoulder reveals I’ve got a gap. A considerable gap, too. It’s getting larger, in fact, since my attack on the group up the long draggy hill on the proceeding lap. My heart is thumping, 180 beats per minute, more even. Too fast too look down at my computer, all my effort concentrated on pushing through the pain barrier. I press on. Deeper and deeper into the pain barrier.
I’m away, off the front of the bunch. It feels great. Liberated from the chaos and choppy riding of the bunch, I try to work on my advantage over the chasers. Getting to this position wasn’t too difficult, but maintaining it, as the laps roll by, is proving increasingly difficult. It’s too early for such an effort, I know that deep down.
The tight, short and fast circuit offers little respite for the tired, few occasions to recover. I can feel lactic acid coursing through every cell in my legs; they’re beginning to tie up. The ‘elastic’ is being stretched. Everything begins to hurt now, the intensity of this riding taking its toll.
I try to block out the pain. It’s hard. Cycle racing is all about suffering, and who is prepared to suffer the most. No one ever said it was easy. It’s proving anything but that right now. My body is clearly telling me to stop, but I ignore the feedback from the nerves, and push through it. I don’t want to back down.
The next corner rushes up, a fast right hander. No need for brakes, I push the bike down and through the corner into the downhill that follows with as much speed as I can. I flick up through a couple more gears and kick the bike hard down the hill and, travelling at a fair lick, allow myself, my legs, my heart, a very brief rest. It makes no difference; my heart rate is still firing through the roof.
Back onto the gas. I swoop through the most challenging corner, a left-hander with a blind exit that requires a fair amount of confidence. There’s plenty of grip, that much is true, and getting a good passage through this corner feeds you into the next left-hander, and the long hill that follows, with a decent wedge of speed. Marginal gains at play here, eking out as much speed from the course as possible. More speed carried through the corners saves a little power here and there. It all adds up.
Through the next left-hander, and I’m back onto the hill. It’s not that much of a hill, but on a circuit this short and with its tight corners, it really drains on the legs. I’ve geared down slightly into the bottom slope through the corner that leads into it. I concentrate on my cadence. No idea what gear I’m in, but it’s hurting my legs. Moving my hands onto the hoods, I lift my body off the saddle and sprint up the hill, taking the straightest line through the slight curves on this part of the course. Up a couple of gears over the crest and swoop along the start and finish straight.
Another lap completed. I loose count of the laps I’ve been on my own for. [Watch the lap board – ed.] It feels like forever, the heightened senses playing havoc with my peripheral vision and sense of time. I continue this effort for several laps. I know I can’t keep this up for the duration of the race. Too early in the season for me, my head is willing but my legs just aren’t up to full fitness yet.
Everything hurts now. My breathing is hard, it hurts to inhale. Sweat is pouring down my face, pooling at the bottom of the lenses on my shades, streaking and blurring my vision. A quick wipe of the spit and drool around my mouth with the back of my glove, a quick swig of water from my bottle.
My time is nearly up. My bid for freedom is drawing to a close. I can feel the group catching back up to me. Breathing down my neck. I look under my arm; the bunch is strung out up the climb, several riders working hard at the front to reel me in. I decide to keep pushing on, though the motivation for this move has dwindled, I may as well continue riding at this pace, let the peloton catch me rather than drift back voluntarily.
All too quickly it seems my solo breakaway is in its dying moments. I drift over to the side of the circuit, and the first rider of the chasing group rides past. Then the second, third, fourth. I drift back further down the group before I step back on the pedals and match the speed of the hurtling bunch. Spotting a gap I swing over into the confines of the large group of riders, and slot seamlessly onto a wheel.
My bid for freedom is done. I console myself with the fact that I least I give it a shot, tried to do something other than merely sitting in and waiting for the sprint. My battle with the pain barrier lost, the lactic begins to reside from my legs. My heart rate eases back down, my breathing back under control.
My encounter with the pain barrier over.