Diary of a fourth category racer: June – five lessons I’ve learned so far

Overseas trips and illness give Tom the chance to reflect on the season to date

A hectic month meant June didn’t go quite as planned: because of an overseas trip to Sierra Leone (planned) followed by a nasty bout of malaria (definitely not planned), I wasn’t able to do the races I wanted.

It’s the first real setback that I’ve encountered in my first season racing bikes. That’s if you ignore the absolutely honking great crash I had in my very first race, of course.

While illnesses and injuries definitely happen, it’s always more galling if you feel like you were in pretty good shape when the misfortune came along. Often it’s actually the training that leads to the problem.

Swapping the UK for Sierra Leone meant little time for racing in June…

A friend who used to race bikes as a pro told me that he always had his best results when he could feel he was a few days away from coming down with a cold. It seems like to perform well in cycling, your body must perpetually be on a knife-edge of illness.

Of course, malaria has a lot more to do with getting bitten by mosquitoes than over-training.

So, with no racing to report on, I thought I’d use the latest instalment of my newbie racer blog to reflect a little bit on the first half of the season – yes, we are past halfway in 2017 already. Whoosh!

Lesson 1: train hard, rest harder.

The year began with some fairly horrendous rainy crit races and some even more horrendous training rides in close-to-zero conditions. I asked myself, was it worth it?. Was this having any effect on my fitness? Why did I seem to be getting slower, not faster? Will I ever regain sensation in the little toe on my right foot?

Is clocking long hours in the saddle in the winter worth it? Absolutely…

In the end though, I saw the results. I took a week or so off from training in early February and that gave my body the time it needed to rebuild. And then after that I was flying. Lesson number one, something that will be music to the ears of my fellow #couchpeloton brethren; rest is just as important as training.

I’m paying more attention now to how my body feels, watchful for those telltale signs of disrepair and fatigue creeping in.

Lesson 2: sometimes the break does get away, just not very often. And it’ll be horrible.

A training camp in Majorca in March really dialled in the fitness and led to my best result in a race so far, fourth place in a crit at Hillingdon, west London.

Generally, in a fourth-cat crit, the breakaway is doomed (Pic: Charlie Woodall)

The conventional wisdom is that in ‘cat four’ racing (the lowest tier you can compete at), breakaways are nearly always doomed.

In this case, I made it into a break and we stayed away. It was an incredible rush to cross the line ‘in the points’, but equally, one of the most exhausting hours of bike riding I have ever done in my life.

Lesson 3: appearances can be deceptive, or ‘stop looking at everyone else and ride your damn bike’.

When you arrive early for a race there is not a lot to do, other than look at the other competitors and try to make yourself feel better (or worse) about what’s to come.

These are some typical thoughts that go through your head as you apprise potential foes, pre-race:

“Crikey, I hope he’s here for the E123 race, he looks fast.”

“I reckon I’m faster than him, he’s got an actual beer belly.”

“Ah, I remember him, he’s the guy who always attacks and never makes it more than 10m off the front.”

“I think he caused that crash I was nearly caught up in last week. Better stay away from his wheel.”

“Shaved legs, pro. Hairy legs, no.”

“That bike must cost nearly eight grand! Bet he’s good.”

All the gear, no idea? It’s no use pre-judging riders before the race starts…

What I’ve learned is that these snap judgments are nearly always wrong. The bloke who shows up in a custom skinsuit with an £8k bike and warms up on his Wahoo Kickr in the car park while his wife and kid stare on in a sort of forced-supportive boredom, will undoubtedly get shelled out the back of the cat four race within a couple of laps.

That guy with the beer gut, meanwhile, will spend most of the race on the front of the bunch, dishing out obscene levels of hurt to everyone around him.

The best thing you can do is focus on the wheel in front and just keep pedaling.

Lesson 4: shouting!

I love shouting. I do it all the time: at pro riders on the TV who I think are ‘being lazy’, at van drivers on my commute, in the bath… I just didn’t realise I’d get to do so much of it in bike racing. Rugby, sure, loads of shouting. Pedaling a bike in circles, somehow, way more shouting.

Shouting is fun (Pic: Cordelia Preece/Tavistock Wheelers)

Perhaps it’s the high-stakes nature of the sport – one crash and your lovely carbon bike is turned into a highly carcinogenic bundle of firewood – that makes people so vocal. Maybe there are just a lot of angry men who don’t like their jobs racing cat four. Either way, I’ve seen experienced bike racers prevent crashes with the sheer power of their voice alone. That is like literal Harry Potter magic.

It really doesn’t matter whether you shout, “Line!”, “Woah!”, “Easy!”, or “Wingardium Getoffmylinesir!”, shouting makes everything better.

Lesson 5: goals

They say it’s important to have a goal to train towards. During winter that goal was ‘not getting absolutely binned in my first race’. Which I think I managed admirably, until the aforementioned crash. Then the goal became, ‘get some BC points’, which eventually I also achieved. And then the season began to drift a little.

As the weather improves, more and more people have begun their season, so the standard of competition creeps higher and higher. It seemed harder to get points as the fields of races swelled. I didn’t have a ‘target’ race, because crits are all largely the same. I was stuck for inspiration.

And that’s how I ended up entering the World Press Cycling Championships. Yes, that’s a thing that exists. It’s in Germany.

Perform reasonably on debut? Check. Win actual money? Check. Conquer the world? Be right back…

The event is at the end of the road season and comprises a whole weekend of journalists of various ages and in various states of disrepair competing in an ITT, a TTT (based on nationality) and the centrepiece road race on the final day.

My goal is now to win that road race and be crowned the fastest journalist in the world.

They say aim high, right?


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