Diary of a fourth category racer: May – sometimes nothing happens

"No news is good news" can ring true at amateur level too

A race that passes without incident is usually a blessing. Just ask Tom Dumoulin.

This ‘no news is good news’ ethos is especially true at the novice level at which I’ve been competing. More often than not in a Cat 4 race there is a crash and at least one carbon bike that ends up shorn in half and “looking like a Brompton” (as another racer friend described it recently).

Indeed there are a lot of safety-related reasons to potentially talk yourself out of bike racing entirely.

Gruppo compacto means positioning is key – if you want to stay upright you have to get to the front (Pic: Charlie Woodall)

Ahead of their own first race, someone asked me a few weeks ago if racing ‘smart’ could help you steer clear of the pile ups. Or to put it another way, if it was only the ‘bad’ riders that crash. My honest answer, based on six-or-so races, is ‘no’. If someone goes down right in front of you in the bunch you’re cooked, whether your bike handling is on point or otherwise. Just ask Geraint Thomas.

The only way you’re guaranteed to stay upright is if you are right at the front. And you try sitting on the front of a crit race for 45 minutes and see if you wouldn’t rather have crashed into the grassy verge.

My most recent crit, though, really did pass without incident. Great news if you’re just hoping to get through to the finish and be at work the next day – but a bit of a pain if you’re supposed to be writing a bloody column about your experiences racing!

The race was a Tuesday night, post-work affair and it was one of the first times I’ve taken part in a race that featured both Cat 3 and Cat 4 riders. The difference in fitness was pretty obvious, with some guys getting dropped on the first time round the 1.6km lap, and others furiously attacking off the front to try and force a breakaway.

After five or six laps the race settled a little. Or rather, my heart rate dipped below 160bpm for the first time. It seemed like there wasn’t going to be a break tonight and that it would come down to a sprint.

When a race goes like this, the only thing that matters is your position in the bunch going into the final five laps. If you’re in the front third, there’s every chance you can get a top ten and some lovely, lovely British Cycling points. If you’re any further than that it’s going to be a herculean task to move up, and then still have the energy to contest the sprint.

As we reached the five-to-go point I was well back, where I had been for almost the whole race. It was now or never. On the long straight up to the start/finish line I put in an acceleration up the left side of the bunch and managed to get about halfway up the pack before the track narrowed and it got too congested to make any more places.

Four laps to go, then three. Things were getting twitchier and twitchier in the pack as the average speed ramped up. A rider ahead messed up a left hander and drifted out into the line of the guy behind and to his right. This sort of things usually creates a ripple effect, with the movements needed to avoid the swerving rider in front of you getting more and more pronounced. More often than not it’s the guys at the back who simply run out of room.

47th place… but upright, at least (Pic: Charlie Woodall)

Luckily, no one came down, but the disruption created by swerving out of line was enough to lose me ten or 12 places in the bunch. Somehow, by the time we were crossing the line to start the final lap I was at the back again, and blowing hard.

I finished 47th of 58. A pretty weak showing and a tough one to explain given I managed to place fourth in a crit on the same circuit last month. And yet I finished the race elated, just like I did when I came fourth. There’s something about surviving safely, about mixing it with some great quality riders, not getting dropped for the length of the crit, that makes even uneventful races seem incredibly fun and exciting.


Despite living in London, I’m trying my damnedest not to make this column all about racing in the city (see recent exploits in Devon). That being said, one of the very, very cool things about riding in the capital is that you can enter crits at the 2012 Olympic park on a purpose-built track there.

I did one of the Full Gas Summer Series events at the start of May and it was a brilliant test. The track is a really tough one to move up on, so you really have to fight for every place. It’s also very technical, with a total of eight turns, plus a very long straight that tends to have a full block headwind.


Racing here is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but should definitely not be missed out on if you get the chance. And all this in the shadow of the same velodrome where Laura Kenny, Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton dominated in 2012.

If you don’t fancy the competitive element Lee Valley Velopark has plenty time slots where the track is open to anyone who wants to pitch up and just ride at whatever pace they feel like, but it also has a lot of ‘proper’ races booked on throughout the year.


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