Team Cutters complete the Nocturne. (l-r) Matt Barbet, John MacLeary and David Arthur (photo © Joolze Dymond)
“We’re going to be called The Cutters”, Captain John said.
“That makes us sound like hairdressers”, I replied, revealing my complete ignorance of the apparently seminal 1970s cycling movie Breaking Away, from which our captain had taken our team name.
My racing credentials were equally non-existent, but, never one to shirk my riding responsibilities, I’d agreed to take part in the IG Markets Team Challenge; one of several events during the London Nocturne designed to whet the crowd’s appetite prior to the pros taking to the streets. The weekend before, I’d done the 120km Dragon Ride Medio Fondo at an average pace of 31kmh, so I figured my legs were in good enough shape, even if the mountains and valleys of South Wales bore absolutely no resemblance to the 1km circuit plotted around Smithfield Market. Still, our team of three was completed by a secret weapon in the form of Dave “Shiny Boy” Arthur, from this very organ.
The competition took the form of three solo events followed by a team relay, and so, it was Captain John who lined up along representatives of the 11 other teams for the first one: a 10-lap criterium. Despite our stealthy kit, he stood out like a sore thumb.
We were wearing black Rapha, garnished only with the Italian tricolour on the left arm and old-school white socks. Many of the others seemed to be sporting a hotch-potch of old t-shirts, baggy shorts and messy sponsored jerseys that made the old Mapei kit look like a classic piece of minimalist design. They had vaguely familiar long-winded monickers too, like PriceWaterhouseCoopers LLP and Team Schroders. The Cutters they weren’t.
Racers they most certainly were though, and the crit took off at a furious lick. Now, Captain John likes a fag, and those years of puffing on them soon began to tell. He was eventually blown out of the back of the peloton like a smoke ring on about lap four. Eventually, he came home ninth out of the 12, narrowly beating the bloke competing on a fixie because his geared bike had been nicked. Not exactly an auspicious start.
However, remember I said we had a secret weapon? Well, Shiny Boy didn’t disappoint. His solo effort came in the one-lap time trial, and to say he blitzed the field doesn’t do it justice. As a Dave-coloured blur flashed past my eyes, for a moment I thought I was watching Fabian Cancellara in the Tour prologue. He took maximum points. We were back in the game.
That meant the pressure was on me. My turn had come, and it was in the 100m sprint. Commuting on a single-speed means I’m not too bad at turning a large gear pretty quickly so I knew I was in with a chance. It also helped that I was the last one to start, and was able to watch several of my competitors struggle to push too high a gear down the straight.
I hit the 100m marker already flying, but didn’t make the same mistake. Instead, I was a whisker away from the point of spinning out, feeling like I was channeling Cavendish, getting low over the handlebars and pushing hard through every revolution. It paid off – I came second. We were now also second overall going into the final event: the team relay.
Whilst I know my strengths, I also know my weaknesses. Clipping into the pedals is one of them. Sometimes it takes me so long, the lights have changed back to red, so I decided to take the first leg. Hand-overs would be done by a high-five, and the faint whiff of overall victory was beginning to become more heady.
There was a brief rolling start, and then the klaxon went. I knew I had to get ahead to avoid any trouble in the pack, and so I put everything I had into the first corner. The guy on the fixie held on for a few metres, but I rapidly edged him out. I was leading, and made for the second, a tight right-hander, like my life depended on it. Big mistake.
I was going too fast, I couldn’t go where I wanted and my desperate braking only resulted in a skid. The heavy, painful-looking crowd barriers were swiftly coming my way and before I knew it I was over the top of them and landing on my helmet.
The onlookers went ‘ooh’ as my closest competitors streamed by, and despite being shaken, I leapt up and straight back on, but went nowhere. My chain had come off. The crowd’s sympathy turned to guffaws of amusement.
I swiftly pulled the dropped chain back onto the big-ring, and spun the pedals. As I hurried to try to get anywhere near the back of the pack, my fickle audience suddenly began to applaud my decision to carry on regardless, and not throw in the towel. This attitude towards bike racing is one of the things I love about it and now, for once, I was on the receiving end.
I completed my lap, handed over to Dave, and explained to Captain John what had happened. Before the relay was over, another racer would crash, but his injuries would land him in hospital. I was lucky to get away with swollen knuckles and a stiff neck.
As it was, we finished the relay third from bottom, but came fourth overall.
Captain John was happy enough, and celebrated accordingly. I nursed a beer or two while watching Sky’s Alex Dowsett put in a truly-breathtaking performance to lap his fellow pros and take the elite crit in true style.
Even though we hadn’t won, and my tumble headlong into the crowd was as far from stylish as you could get, I admit I did feel a flicker of pride when a friend said you’re not a true racer until you’ve crashed with a number on your back. Now I’ve done it, I want to do it again. The racing that is, not the crashing. Once with a number on your back is plenty for anyone.