Diary of a fourth category racer: February – First race, first crash

Smashy-crashy at 'Spillingdon' as Tom pins a number on for the first time

As I rolled up to the start line I felt trepidatious. I was racing for the first time, at Hillingdon Cycle Circuit, a course so notorious for crashes that it is affectionately (or perhaps not-so-affectionately) referred to as ‘Spillingdon’.

Chuck into the mix some of the foulest weather I have ever ridden a bike in (icy rain and a little bit of snow right before the off), plus my general nerves about racing for the first time, and it was always going to go badly.

After a couple of laps to recce the course, I took my place pretty far back on the starting ‘grid’. In truth, there is no grid, it’s just five lines of riders trying to nose their bikes as close to the front as possible. And then I waited for some sort of safety briefing, like you’d get at a sportive where they bang on about it not being a race, to ride sensibly, obey road laws and so forth. Except this was a race and the bloke charged with giving us the briefing seemed more than happy to just let us crack on.

Tom embarks on his first race at the Hillingdon circuit in west London

“Welcome to the sixth race in our winter series here at Hillingdon. Good luck. Go!” was about the size of it and then we were off.

Having checked out some other riders on Strava who’d raced here the week previous, I knew speeds would be somewhere around 38kp/h average for the 40 minutes + five laps we’d be racing. Now that sounds fast, but the drafting effect we all know from riding in a paceline is amplified massively by being in a 40-strong bunch. The speeds, although high, were really pretty comfortable and I was even able to have a cheeky, short-lived dig off the front once things had settled down after the first few turns around the circuit.

One of the things I hadn’t been prepared for was just how much yelling there is in a race. Seemingly, there is never not someone shouting the word ‘Line!’ Usually this is an attempt to remind the person ahead or to the side of you to stay on the same course throughout a bend, but equally I think I saw it used more as a warning before the yeller performed a particularly chancy manoeuvre of their own. If in doubt, shout “Line”, seems to be the rule of thumb.

Of course, after a few laps I just joined in, yelling “LIIIIIINE!” frequently and indiscriminately, and peppering in a few “STEADY!” and “WOAAAH”s for good measure. It seemed to be doing the trick until we neared the end of the allotted 40 minutes of racing. With the sight of the first lap board approaching, the tension clearly ratcheted up a level.

Coming round the final bend into the straight, right before the first of five finishing laps, it all went terribly wrong. Ahead of me in the bunch someone lost their wheel, going down really hard. With an almighty clatter, punctuated by the agonising scraping of carbon on concrete, more riders came down, perhaps two or three. The last thought that went through my head as I drifted out to the far edge of the track to try and get round the crash was, “I think I might just have got away with that.”

And then the next thing I knew I was flying through the air, upside down, watching my brand new Bowman Palace float across the grey, grisly sky above me. Bugger.

The fact I landed on the grassy verge beside the track definitely saved me from any serious injury. I slowly picked myself up and untangled my limbs from the frame of the bike. Dazed, looking around, I was by far the best-off of those who’d crashed. The guy who’d come down originally was in a bad way, clutching the telltale collarbone and not moving very much. I wanted to get out of the way – the bunch would be rolling through again in about two minutes. I felt basically fine and barring a clod of earth stuck into the end of the left shifter, the bike seemed alright too. So I hopped back on and pedaled gingerly down towards the finish line.

I’m not sure what I was expecting – perhaps to be delicately tended to by a group of sympathetic nurses, impressed by my heroism. Unfortunately there were no nurses, but there was the same no-nonsense bloke who’d started us off. He came bustling towards me as I rolled towards the timing hut by the start/finish.

The circuit isn’t known as ‘Spillingdon’ for nothing

“Don’t worry, you can take a lap!”

‘I can do what?’ I thought. Sensing my dazed perplexity, he tried again,

“You can sit this lap out and join back in on the next one.”

Oh great, I have to go back in. I’m not allowed to just slink back into the clubhouse for a conciliatory cup of tea and a biscuit? Super.

Sure enough, the peloton swung back into view and I gamely jumped back on. The pace had dropped, clearly to allow time to clear the human and bicycle detritus from the course. In fact, we proceeded round a couple of times through the circuit before the flag was dropped. As soon as it was, the five-laps-to-go board came up and we were back to frenetic racing.

Too shaken up by the crash to really mix it in the bunch, I gradually got dropped further and further back – giving away vital position for the inevitable final sprint. Not one to go out weakly, I decided to chuck in one more ‘heroic’ attack, which lasted all of 100 metres before being reeled in again on two laps to go.

My eventual placing of 26th was pretty much to be expected on a first race, but certainly something to try and improve upon next time. If I can stay upright, I reckon I could be in with a shout for a top ten.

Tom is continuing to train – and eat – like a champion

A word on race training

Depending on where you decide to race and the events you want to take part in, you may have to complete one or two race training sessions before you’re actually allowed to compete. As far as British Cycling is concerned you just need a license to race, but it’s down to the event or series organisers as to whether they let completely untested riders take to the start line.

Later in the year there are a few events I want to take part in that are run by a series that does require you do a couple of training sessions, so I thought I’d get them out of the way early. Ironically, falling on a date after my first race, I signed up for a training day – also held at Hillingdon.

The course was about three hours of practical, spent outside on a freezing cold crit track running some race-specific drills and generally getting used to riding in proximity to others. While some of the stuff covered was elementary, overall I was super impressed. I’ve already been cornering a bit tighter and deliberately bumping into ride buddies to spook them a bit on training rides.

Definitely recommended, even for those who aren’t actively thinking of racing – the course I did was run by Spring Cycle Coaching and Seven Hundred.


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