Diary of a fourth category racer: January – And so it begins…

Tom Owen prepares for his first season as a bike racer

Can you feel it? That ever-so-slight frisson of fresh beginnings in the air? The intoxicating aroma of chamois cream and long-neglected dry chain lube. Slowly but surely, spring is appearing on the horizon and with it a new season of cycling, full of crashes, controversies and cake, both for the pros and for us lowly amateurs.

I have never raced my bike before, but this year I will be taking to the saddle and duking it out with the other newbies and novices in the wild world of cat. four racing.

I’ll be sharing some of my experiences and reflections over the course of the year in the hope it might get a few of you who – like me – have been working up to a race season for a while now, to actually pull the trigger and start competing.

The newbie bike rider’s training diet… #eatclean (Pic: Tom Owen)

But why race?

It all began, really, with the gentle subliminal suggestion of a mate. We were out for a ride in the summer and he said ever so casually:

“You know, I’m a bit past it, but you, you could still race if you wanted.”

Now, I am 28 and this guy is barely five years older than me, so neither of us are really teetering on the brink of decrepitude. Nevertheless, he and his wife have just had a baby (congrats!), so I think for the foreseeable future he’ll be doing a lot more potty training than interval training, and the only bottles you’ll find him domestiqueing these days are full of warm milk.

Regardless, the idea lodged somewhere in the back of my brain. If I’m 28 now, I’ll need at least one season of being absolute crap and just figuring out how it all works, so realistically I won’t actually be any good at this until I’m nearly 30. Most people agree that you’re at your peak fitness for cycling in your late twenties and early thirties, so if I don’t want to miss the boat I’ve got to get cracking. What if I’m the greatest undiscovered cycling talent of my generation?

This is to say nothing of the ever-present, somewhat childish desire to try and be like the guys I spend most of every day watching on TV.

The Bowman Palace, ready for the season ahead (Pic: Tom Owen)

It’s not about the bike…

First things first, if I was going to take this seriously I would need a serious bike. And given what I’d heard about rough-and-tumble category four racing, it would need to be a tough and durable machine that wouldn’t collapse at the first hint of a ten-rider pile-up. Strong and sturdy aluminium, then, would be my frame material of choice.

After much, much deliberation, with hours spent poring over relative weights and stiffnesses of different frames, I settled on the Bowman Palace. The brand is based in Kent, with their frames manufactured in Taiwan. The model is named after the Crystal Palace criterium race series, a firm fixture in the London amateur racer’s calendar, and the bike itself has circuit racing in its DNA. It’s twitchy, fast and packs enough of a kick to get you across the line.

For componentry I managed to grab a cheap Shimano Ultegra groupset in a Black Friday sale, some bombproof Campagnolo Scirocco wheels and Fizik finishing kit. The buying of these bits and pieces took a good four or five months, with weekly checks of all the main online retailers.

With the appropriate bits acquired, now all I had to do was build the damn thing. A winter spent watching instructional YouTube videos, tinkering with derailleurs and swearing – mainly swearing actually – and we were ready to rock and roll. I took the Bowman out for the obligatory test ride around the park to make sure everything stayed attached and as far as I know it did. Anything that wobbled free was presumably surplus to requirements as the bike still seems to be perfectly serviceable.

As an aside, thanks to the process of building this bike up I now own more esoteric bike tools than a small cycle workshop. If you would like to borrow any of them, please do shoot me a tweet.

Training in the Peak District. It’s not always grim up north… (Pic: Tom Owen)

Preparation, preparation, preparation

I’ve had a good winter. Training more frequently and with a lot more purpose than I have in the past – and by that I mean I rode my bike more than twice in December and ate only three times my bodyweight in cheese over Christmas.

What I’m trying to say is I’m hopeful of taking some decent fitness into the season. In terms of keeping up with the bunch in a race though it’s tough to know where you’re at until you actually step up to the start line. Will I get dropped like a slippery bucket of kippers, or will I  – as has so often happened in my wildest fantasies – kick the bike into TT gear and motor away from the bunch for a glorious solo victory, in the style of Eros Poli or Jacky Durand?

I’m only half joking about that. I have a loose notion in my head that I will be better off trying to get in breakaways than I will sprinting. This is based on my having never shown any ability in sprints for town signs and the like. Who knows though, I’ve never had a chance to find out that I also have zero talent in breakaways.

The other thing I’m expecting is crashes. As I hinted at the top, cat. four races have a reputation for having more pile-ups than a proctologist’s waiting room. It’s a combination of inexperienced riders, close proximity and nerviness that comes from (many of the participants) being in their first or second ever race. Hopefully I’ll manage to avoid any major ones, while getting used to riding in a bunch.

It’s time to make the jump from casual cafe rides to crash-tastic criteriums… (Pic: Tom Owen)

In terms of race programme, I am signed up to a couple of early-season circuit criteriums, the sort of thing where you all whizz round and round for 40 minutes then race five more laps after that, but as the season progresses I’ll be looking to expand out and do some proper road races too. If you know of an event that I should enter, maybe because it’s unique in some way or simply a great example of British amateur racing – please do get in touch!

Now, the only question that’s left is which shoe covers to buy? Couldn’t possibly show up to a race without that 0.03 seconds of aero-advantage.


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