Diary of a fourth category racer: November/December – time to reflect

After a year of racing, what has Tom learned and how did it compare to expectations?

So it’s been a year of racing my bike as a category-four newbie. Although admittedly there hasn’t been much in my race calendar the last month or so thanks to this irritating thing we call ‘winter’.

Nevertheless, 2017 has been packed with a whole range of competitive cycling events, and I’ve definitely managed to answer a question I’ve always had about cycling: “What is it actually like to race your bike?”

The last lull before Christmas seems an appropriate time to look back and take stock of the season just gone. What did I learn? What did I forget? What prejudices did I get over and what new ones did I acquire?


Hunting the rush

There are lots of things that aren’t that great about bike racing. I have probably talked a lot about them over the course of the year, because it’s easy to complain.

What’s much harder to capture is the rush of racing, the indefinable elusive positive that sits on the other end of the see-saw and outweighs all the negatives.

It’s the amazing feeling you get from turning yourself inside out for an hour in pursuit of three British Cycling ‘points’ and a brown envelope containing £7 of prize money.

Bike racing is a big rush (Pic: Sportograf)

In my short career so far, there haven’t been that many glorious victories (none, to be precise), but there have been races where I’ve crossed the line 25th and buzzing from the thrill of competition.

If it was always like that, I doubt you’d be able to keep me away from the crit track. I understand a bit better just why Mark Cavendish is in such a foul mood when he doesn’t win – it’s the frustration of not doing your best, not necessarily the frustration of not winning.

It’s just that his ‘best’ is winning Tour de France stages and my ‘best’ is not crashing into the grassy verge at Hillingdon Cycle Circuit.

Nobody thinks they’re the chopper

Something I realised this year is I hate the word ‘chopper’. It’s used a lot by those on the ‘inside’ of bike racing to deride those on the outside – newbies like me, and people who cultivate a life outside of bike racing as well. People who aren’t ‘pro’ like them.

In its simplest sense calling someone a ‘chopper’ means they are not very good at handling their bike in the hustle and bustle of a peloton. Anxiety about this is well-founded, given bad bike riders tend to cause crashes that affect good bike handlers and bad without prejudice. Dangerous riders are a menace.

Dangerous riders are a menace, but patience is a virtue

But what you have to remember is that nobody goes out on a Saturday expecting to cause a crash. Nobody in their right mind would take the start thinking there’s a good chance they’ll finish the day in A&E. Bike racing is not a thing you can just do.

It takes practice, experience and confidence. Not everyone is good at it right away, but everyone believes they are a good bike handler. It’s one of the cruellest and most dangerous tricks that the bike racer’s psyche plays.

Be patient and kind. Don’t let your fear of a crash caused by another seep into the race, it only makes the whole thing more stressful and fraught, and probably increases the likelihood of a catastrophe.

Not as cliquey as it seems

When you first start racing, it will seem like a mafia. A closed world, intended to keep newcomers out with frustratingly poor communication, plus habits and traditions so old nobody remembers why they even exist.

There are two types of racers; lifers and latecomers. Lifers grew up racing bikes. Their parents and their first clubs helped them get into it. They’ve always done it, and they have little time for those who haven’t.

I am a latecomer and initially found, with nobody to light my path into racing, the process of finding events in which I could compete was really tricky and frustrating. It’s like those on the inside don’t even want you to start racing.

It’s not the closed shop it might seem either (Pic: Tom Owen)

A case in point is the system of licenses and memberships that British Cycling operates. To reduce it to its simplest, you need a Silver or Gold membership to BC, plus a racing license, before you can compete. It took a good few attempts at deciphering the British Cycling website for me to work that out though.

Fortunately, a lot of this apparent reticence to welcome new racers melts away as soon as you turn up for a race. The people actually making the events happen are enthusiastic and kind. They’ll make you feel welcome before the race and feed you tea and cake afterwards.

It is not a clique, or a secret society, it just happens the people who really, really care about bike racing tend to be really, really crap at marketing.

There’s more to life than crits

If you’re looking for races to get involved in as a newbie, the vast majority of ones you’ll find to enter are criteriums. Short, punchy and occasionally riddled with crashes, they’re not everyone’s cup of tea.

Criteriums are easy to organise, because you don’t need marshals to control traffic as you would on open roads. You need fewer volunteers to make a crit happen. London is blessed to have a handful of crit tracks, while Manchester (home of British Cycling) has only one. In areas where there are no purpose-built tracks, old airfields are often pressed into service.

But just because it seems like crits are your only option as a newbie in the dark days of winter, don’t think that’s the case throughout the season.

There are development road races, open to Cats 4 and 3 during the spring and summer – and there are also imaginative formats like handicaps, which pitch all levels against one another in the same race on a road course.

Criteriums form the majority of the racing calendar for newbies, but there are other options (Pic: Charlie Woodall)

These races are harder physically than crits, but also safer, and possibly closer to the way you imagined ‘racing bikes’. They’re a lot more fun, in my opinion, too.

Be patient, keep checking the British Cycling event finder, and be ready to chuck in your entry at a moment’s notice – as competition for places at races is high!

Just do it…

If I had one overriding takeaway from this first season, it would be to just go and start racing. If you want to, that is.

If you get to experience the rush just once or twice in a season, that’ll be worth it on its own. If you actually win a couple of races, wow, the possibilities are endless.

There are obstacles, yes, and you’ll find it hurts a fair bit if you turn up to a race undertrained. But the feeling of being within your limits as the peloton hurtles round a track at 45kph, looking for opportunities to move up the group, hunting places – is hard to match anywhere else.

I’ll leave you with a motivational gif from Mr Shia Labeouf…

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