Diary of a fourth category racer: August – appreciation of the form

Learning to enjoy racing, and the benefits of experience

This month saw a return to crit racing, after a dalliance with handicaps in July. While I absolutely loved the handicap format (in a weird, masochistic sort of way) the crit remains the mainstay of the amateur racer’s calendar – and it is also my most likely means of winning some more tasty British Cycling points.

These points, of course, are what determine whether or when you’ll step up from category 4 (rank amateur) to category 3 (slightly more experienced).

Ever since crashing in my first ever crit, racing in a large pack of 40+ riders has made me nervous – a big part of my enjoyment of handicaps was not being in such a large, unwieldy field. However, this month something changed.

Riding at speed in a bunch can be daunting at first, but the more you do it, the more you can take in (Pic: Charlie Woodall)


In my most recent race – a crit – I was actually enjoying myself. Yes, it was tough, but I wasn’t dying out there. I stuck with the pack (at the back, admittedly) while other riders around me slowly got shelled. Foolhardy attackers went off the front, blew up, got dropped, while I persisted.

In the end I finished a glorious 26th (ish) – the organisers of this particular race don’t give placings down that low, so we’ll never know for sure. It wasn’t a performance for the ages and I was never really in contention for a top ten.

So what was it that I enjoyed?

I think it was the fact I wasn’t panicking. Gone was the ‘Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, don’t crash, don’t crash, don’t crash’ internal monologue of races gone by, replaced with a cooler, more detached frame of mind.

Hurtling round in the pack at more than 40kph, I was still able to think about what I was doing. Where should I be on the track, which direction were the next three turns? How the hell was that guy with the beer gut keeping up with this pace?

I tried to move up. I took a few places in the bunch. A few bends later I lost these places. I took stock, then tried again. I watched out for ‘sketchy’ riders up ahead, made sure not to follow their wheels too closely. I felt like I was participating in the race, albeit in a largely tangential way.

I think this ability to detach from the hectic race around you and be more analytical probably comes with experience – an appreciation of the form. Like jazz music, which to the untrained ear sounds cacophonous, but to aficionados is the purest form of expression. I am starting to ‘get an ear’ for racing.

At one point, a guy overtook me, glided into the space between my front wheel and the next rider’s back one. In a flash I was one spot further towards the tail of the peloton.

He had taken a place from me by being smart and using his watts at just the right time. It was a slick move and one I grudgingly appreciated, where I might not even have noticed in my first race some eight months ago.

It’s a bit of a stretch to compare that with a Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solo, but you see what I mean.

It’s a far cry from the first race at Hillingdon back in February… (Pic: Charlie Woodall)

The finale of the race came around faster than it has seemed to in the past. I was ready, feeling fresh and looking for opportunities to move up. As the pace shot up on the final handful of laps, we dropped more and more riders from the bunch.

That bloke who’d been riding shoulder-to-shoulder with me all evening suddenly evaporated. My fitness and ability to hold a wheel was finally starting to benefit me. The front of the field whooshed away on the last half-lap, giving me no chance to regain contact.

I picked my way through the scattered remnants of the bunch and ‘sprinted’ for the line. Just because you aren’t going to win, doesn’t mean the experience of opening up a sprint at the end of a race isn’t going to benefit you in the future. I came away buzzing, with a renewed enthusiasm and confidence.

Zero faff, maximum fun

There’s a lot to be said too, for having experience of being at a race, not just the riding. Knowing how to attach a transponder to your front fork is something you only acquire by doing it a few times. If you are a dab hand at pinning on race numbers, it’ll alleviate stress in the immediate moments before the start – no frantic fiddling with safety pins for me this time out!

Likewise, knowing what you do and don’t need in your pockets on the way to sign-on means you need only visit your locker once. Instead of darting back to put your phone in or to retrieve your license from the bottom of a rucksack.

It’s all seemingly obvious and innocuous stuff, but being calm at the start of a race is a massive boost. You can’t lose a category 4 crit by failing to clip into your pedal at the start – which I’ve done several times in races – but it does set your heart racing unnecessarily.

And the guy with the beer gut? Pretty sure he top-tenned it.

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