Tales from the peloton
The sun is setting as I arrive in Otley and for once in my life I’m not going to have to beg for my number at the sign-on while everyone else is lining up at the start line.
I must be nervous; I’m never this early for a race.
The signing-on lady gives me my number and she includes a sticky frame number in there too, so I can be identified by the photo finish equipment. I don’t bother telling her that I won’t be there for the sprint. If it comes down to a sprint on a circuit like this I won’t be participating – do I look like I have a death wish? Maybe I do, I must - I just handed over my racing license didn’t I?
I go and warm up, riding into the wind in bigger and bigger gear. You can’t start a race like this expecting to ride yourself into it. It’s in the first few laps that the real action happens, then the elastic snaps and the good guys ride away leaving us lower category riders to swear at each other for allowing the break to get away “Hold the f*$&ing wheel 81!"
I go and see my supporters (my girlfriend and a couple of friends) to give them my surplus clothes. They’ve found the pub in my absence and are happily supping pints in the evening sun.
Would it be so shameful to take my number off and join them?
They try to make conversation but I feel sick with nerves and I need the toilet again; too much coffee I guess.
I keep an eye out for riders I recognise from magazines. If I follow them, I’ll hopefully be in the right place at the right time to at least start the race. The race announcer, Eurosport’s Mike Smith, calls Chris Newton to the line, and there goes Malcolm Elliott after him. After a few short introductions the remaining 90 of us are allowed to roll over to the start line.
In a crit like this, your starting positiion is vital. Unless you’re a World Champion in some track discipline, moving up through the peloton is virtually impossible.
Damn, I’m too far back.
The circuit here is long by Brit Crit standards – 1.4 miles, which we’re going to ride for 55 minutes and then do a further five laps. That means an hour and ten minutes of pain at most. We start.
The attacks go from the gun. I’ve barely clipped my foot into my pedal when I’m sprinting out of the saddle just to maintain my position up the hill. It’s a 30mph speed limit up here and we’re doing 50kph – uphill. These guys have no respect for the law of the land, or the law of gravity.
The top part of the course is narrow and the surface is rough. I keep my hands on the drops the whole way, worried that I’ll throw myself off if I change my hand position at the wrong time. Worse still, I’d knock someone else off, someone who’s riding the Olympics.
The next bit is the part I’ve been most dreading – the descent of East Chevin Road onto Gay Lane. People have been telling me we’ll be going into the 90 degree lefthander by the bike shop at 50mph. The crowd aren’t stupid and most have congregated here, expecting a spectacular crash. They’ve been disappointed so far with the supporting races.
And we’re through - the crowd are left disappointed for another lap at least. The finish line is only about 60 metres past the corner and we’re quickly back on the hill, sprinting for all we’re worth.
The next few laps proceed in a similar fashion, sprinting, braking, turning, sprinting, turning, sprinting, sprinting, sprinting.
It’s not long before I realise that my legs aren’t actually feeling too bad at all. All that nervous energy and adrenalin at the start has left me feeling pretty strong and I start to think about moving up. The best place to move up through the group is on the hill after the start line; after that it’s too narrow or too fast to make a move.
Unfortunately everyone else in the 100 strong group is trying to make the same move as me. Every lap I’m thwarted by riders spreading across the road in front of me.
The laps go by and I have no idea how long we’ve been riding. Every now and then a name slips back in the bunch. John Tanner’s been in my section of the bunch for most of the race. Oh, here comes Rob Hayles. It’s getting quite dark under the trees on the top part of the course. That must mean we’re nearing the end.
Then the bell goes – five laps to go. Not far now Andy.
Next time round the tight fast bend by the bike shop I take a different line over the man-hole covers and clatter one too hard and my chain flies off. Damn. I shift the front mech to get it back on but it takes an age. Riders stream past me. I’m pedalling again, sprinting to get onto the tail of the bunch.
I’m lucky; there’s a crash on the hill - riders trying to move through gaps that don’t exist and getting tangled up. The crash slows things down and my chase is assisted by other riders.
I’m back with the peloton and we’re flying along the top part of the course. It’s strung out so I take the opportunity to swing out and pass some people. I don’t want to be this far back at this late stage of the race.
We pass through the finish line and we hear the commentator saying there are eight riders away. Next time round I hear “25 seconds". The bunch will be sprinting for ninth place.
That’s it, the race is over and I’ve finished in the pack. I did nothing notable all night and yet I still feel euphoric. Maybe it’s the atmosphere – it’s not often us 2nd cats get to race on closed roads in front of 4000 spectators; maybe it’s the fact that it’s over and I can relax.
1: Steve Cummings
2: Rob Hayles
3: John Tanner