Diary of a fourth category racer: October – how I became the 21st-fastest journalist in the world

Tom represents Great Britain at the World Press Cycling Championships

I first heard about the World Press Cycling Championships (WPCC) two years ago, and I found the concept mildly amusing then. I pictured a bunch of slightly rotund journos puffing their way through a criterium-style race, with a secondary classement for who can put away the most complimentary beers the night after the race. When I told a colleague who works in PR about the WPCC, he suggested there should also be a World Championships for his profession, with the PR field setting off slightly behind and having to chase the journo peloton, but on more expensive bikes.

I wasn’t thinking of it as a race I might actually participate in. But then I started writing this monthly column back in January, recounting my experiences of a first season racing road bikes.

You’re supposed to have goals in cycling. Goal-setting is essential for success, say gold medal-winning athletes and performance coaches. And so, reluctantly, I decided to set a goal – something to ‘give shape’ to my season and provide a reason to train throughout the year (rather than losing interest halfway through the year and replacing gruelling training rides with dawdling glorified cake-trips around country lanes, my usual mid-season modus operandi).

This year’s WPCC attached itself to the final day of the three-day Riderman race in Germany (Pic: Sportograf)

The WPCC falls in October, the week after the actual worlds, so couldn’t be better placed as a season-closer. I decided to enter and see if I could become the world’s fastest journalist.

The 2017 edition of the WPCC took place in Bad Durrheim, a small town in the Black Forest area of Germany, and was attached to a much larger amateur race called the Riderman. The Riderman is an annual affair, sort of like a three-day gran fondo, with some of the best amateur racers in Europe competing for individual stages as well as the overall GC.


This link-up with such a well-attended race allowed us journos to join the third and final day of competition and race on the same closed roads (an 80-kilometre route that took in 1,100m of climbing) as the main race. This also meant we competed in the company of around 800 seriously strong European amateur racers, who were set off for the third and final day of their race in waves about five minutes behind the relatively small peloton of 60 journalists.

Needless to say, although the journos gave it a fair crack, we were pretty quickly caught by the fastest riders in the Riderman race, making it suddenly very difficult to identify which of the people in the peloton you were actually competing against. The only obvious way to identify a journo vs a regular racer (there were fewer paunches than I’d hoped) was by the yellow bib numbers the former were wearing (vs the blue ones given to normal entries).

And then disaster struck.

By the time we were caught, we’d been going at a fair clip for about 30 minutes, covering 20km already. I was experiencing some weird feelings whenever I stood on the pedals to kick back up to speed after coming out of the corners. It was almost like my frame was going squidgy under the strain of all my raw watts and the rear brake were coming into contact with my wheel. In fact, what had actually happened was in my inimitable inexpert and inattentive style, I hadn’t quite tightened the QR skewer enough on my back wheel when reassembling my bike in Bad Durrheim. Eventually, something had to give, with the wheel slipping free just enough to pivot and end up rubbing directly against the frame.

Bang in the middle of a peloton of 100+ very fast German blokes was an ‘inopportune’ time to come to a complete standstill. Fortunately, there were no crashes as a result, and once I ascertained what was wrong I was able to get back on the bike and continue – albeit, completely out of contention for the win, given the whole front of the press race was currently surfing along in the company of a bunch of Bavarain smash-merchants. Not even by engaging full go-for-broke TT mode could I hope to regain contact as a solo rider.

While I had harboured hopes in the weeks leading up to the race of a top ten, even allowing myself to dream of pulling on the special hooped jersey of the world journo champ (don’t worry, purists, it comes in non-rainbow colours), my mindset changed after that first mechanical. From now on it was all about attrition, using the groups of Riderman racers to carry me along, hoping to overhaul as many yellow bib numbers as I could in the process.

The 2017 WPCC attracted a field of 58 male riders from across Europe, while 17 riders entered the women’s race (Pic: Sportograf)

Giving up my solo TT effort, it wasn’t long before I was swept up in the second peloton on the road – another massive group of equally massive German lads. I barely had time to look down at my computer, but I could tell we were really motoring by the way my vision was sort of blurring around the edges like when the Millennium Falcon makes the jump to hyperspace. However, unlike previous races where I’ve been way, way, way out of my depth, this time I felt awesome. I was – semi-frustratingly given the mechanical – on one of those ‘good days’ the pros sometimes talk about. We even got to do that swooopy-round-both-sides-of-a-roundabout-in-two-single-lines thing they do in the Tour on a run into the sprint. That bit was banging.

As the race wore on the groups began to fracture. I stayed with the strongest riders in the second bunch, but we were shelling plenty of bodies and passing more and more casualties from the group up the road. There were also, regrettably, the victims of a few crashes strewn along the verge – an inevitability with a race this big. I craned my neck as we whizzed by to try and see if any of them had yellow numbers on.

If I have a strength then it’s climbing, while my descending errs somewhere between ‘terrified grandparent rides segway for first time’ and ‘Bradley Wiggins going down a slippery dolomite’. I found I was gaining ground each time the road went up, even managing to pick off a few yellow dossards, but losing places on the breakneck descents.

And then, disaster struck. Again!

With about 30 kilometres left to go I got a front wheel puncture on a 60km/h descent, with the handling on my usually super-nimble Bowman Palace starting to get spongy, then all-out wobbly. I just managed to avoid the barrier as I skittered into the verge on the inside of a bend, happy not to be over the other side, but unsure of what to do next. I had seen service motos with spare wheels along the course, but would one stop for me? When would the next one pass? Luckily it wasn’t long before a biker arrived with a full rack of DT Swiss hoops on the back of his machine. I have never been so pleased to see a burly moustachioed German man in full leathers. Unfortunately, when he saw me he pulled over onto the outside of the bend and the constant stream of racers plummeting down the hill meant I waited for what felt like an eternity before he could get across the road to switch out the wheels.

Tom Owen, WPCC race (Pic: Sportograf
Tom Owen, WPCC race (Pic: Sportograf

After a bit of faff, I got the wheel on and rejoined the fray. I had lost more time and was certain I’d seen a few flashes of yellow go past as I waited helplessly. Now I was on a real mission, to empty the tank completely in the final hour to see if I could bring back any of the other journos.

I joined a group who were riding well as a team, smashing along in the wheels and taking a token turn on the front every few minutes. As I filtered back down the paceline, I noticed a yellow bib number. With not enough racing left to catch up to anyone in a group ahead, beating this fella was my new sole objective. His bib number said his name was ‘Greg’.

Greg became my nemesis.

On the penultimate hill of the race, I came through onto the front and began pushing what I felt was a ‘respectable’ pace. I noticed quickly that there were fewer and fewer riders behind me – I was cracking the big lads. This was my opportunity. If I could get over the crest and down the other side solo, I’d have more road to play with and my shambolic descending tekkers would penalise me less.

I stood out of the saddle and kicked, clearing the crest of the climb with a few metres of gap. I pushed on, but could sense I had been caught by at least one guy. Glancing behind me I saw a couple of riders just off my wheel, but the group were further back still.

Tom embarks on a solo chase after an early mechanical (Pic: Sportograf)

Over my shoulder, someone said something in German.

“Ich sprache Deutsch nicht,” I wheezed. Pretty much the only German I know.

“Ah. Ok. We should wait for this other guy closing the gap. He is strong.” in perfect English this time.

Looking behind me I saw that I had one rider on my wheel, and the second pursuer was not far behind. After easing up temporarily to let him catch on, he got within a few metres then lost the wheel.

He shouted something in German.

“He says he cannot go harder, we should go on. It’s just you and me.”

Digging deep in my suitcase of courage [LINK], I tucked into the drops and pushed on, with my new breakaway buddy sitting in the wheel.

“I’m sorry, I think you are much stronger than me,” came the voice behind when I looked back – the universal invitation to take a pull. “I just need a few more minutes to recover.”

Grinding into the final incline of the day, a kilometre steady at 2-3%, I began to feel the strength going out of my legs.

“Pull through to the top of the hill and then we’re clear,” I said, pulling over to the left in an exaggerated style. Insisting this time that he pull. “It’s all downhill from that house up there.”

Tom Owen, WPCC race (Pic: Sportograf
Tom Owen, WPCC race (Pic: Sportograf

I’m sure you can figure out what happened next. We passed the house and my breakaway pal, with whom (I thought) I had forged a sacred bond by towing him up most of the last lung-shattering hill, promptly crested the ridge and ditched me. As he plummeted down the far side in a full Sagan-style aero tuck, the gap between us opened. I was going to have to get into the finish solo, and just hope that the pursuing pack (complete with my yellow-numbered nemesis) couldn’t close the gap.

It must have looked pretty funny for the crowds at the finish line seeing one guy in approximately 250th place on the whole race tearing himself to bits to finish ahead of some other dudes in 251–260th. But then, that’s bike racing; sado-masochistic silliness no matter what level you compete at.

In the end I came 21st in the journalist category. It was a fantastic way to end a first season on the road. Greg was 22nd, 34 seconds back. Sorry, Greg.

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