I feel as though there are quite a lot of amateur cyclists like me out there: people who love riding their bike, but who have a competitive itch that isn’t properly scratched by the weekend group ride.
However, watching the pros on TV and thinking ‘that looks like fun’ is a little different from actually pinning on a number and doing it yourself. And it’s even further removed from making it to the business end of a race with a chance of winning.
That’s where I want to be by the end of this season. But it felt a long way off as I lined up with about 45 other guys at the start line of my first race – a Full Gas criterium on the purpose built outdoor track at Lee Valley Velopark, in the shadow of the velodrome used for the London 2012 Olympics.
Even getting that far wasn’t exactly straightforward. There doesn’t seem to be a comprehensive step-by-step online guide for getting into racing in the UK and from my initial research it wasn’t clear whether you needed to pass any kind of skills test (you didn’t) or what kind of license was required (a silver or gold racing license from British Cycling, plus a license for the Full Gas race series). Eventually, though, I got some answers from mates who had done it themselves and managed to navigate through the creaky British Cycling website to the point where I could sign up for a Category 4 men’s race (the lowest level of formal racing in this country – and where all first-timers have to start off).
On the startline, it seemed like a lot of the other guys where as nervous as I was. Most people were stoney silent – just as they had been as we lined up to sign on a few moments earlier. That created an air of tension and I found myself thinking back to a conversation that I’d had with a friend who used to race but doesn’t anymore. Why? ‘It seemed like someone was going home in an ambulance every week.’ Right...
Once we got underway, I was able to push those thoughts to the back of my mind. I didn’t have much choice.
If you’ve never raced in a pack of this size before at relatively high speeds (we averaged 40kph) then it takes a bit of getting used to. The most difficult moments are at pinch points – when the track narrows and space is suddenly at a premium – or on tight corners. Your instinct, as a novice, is to take the racing line around the bends in the way you would on the road. But when you’ve got riders on both sides of you, that isn’t an option. I found that I would also have naturally free-wheeled round the tighter bends, but do that – even on a hairpin – and you quickly find yourself going backwards, losing the wheel in front as everyone else keeps pedalling.
Every bit of advice I could find online about racing explained how important it was to stay near the front if you wanted to do well. As this was my first go, I decided that I’d be content just to stay with the main group, keep it rubber-side-down and, ideally, avoid finishing last. But hanging out in the wheels near the back it suddenly became clear how crucial that advice was. At every pinch-point and corner I was being forced to brake, lose momentum, and then put in a sharp acceleration in order to stay attached to the main pack.
So, about three quarters of the way through the race, I put in an effort to make it up towards the front of the group – and even put my nose in the wind at the head of affairs for a few seconds – before drifting back a bit. Things were going well.
But then: that noise that sets your teeth on edge, the death-rattle of carbon-fibre on concrete went screeching through the peloton as a rider to my right made an error. I had to brake to avoid him and got pushed back further, losing a fair few places.
By this time there were only a few laps of the one-mile circuit left (the format of the race was 40 minutes, then five laps) and precious few opportunities to move up. I had no choice but to cling onto my place as the race sped up and the peloton was strung out. I put in a bit of a dig at the end to snatch back a handful of places, but that was it.
Eventually I rolled in 29th – and unscathed. That was more than could be said for one guy, who, at the end of the race, was sat on a chair in the sign-on area covered in road rash. ‘I don’t think I’ve broken anything,’ he told me. ‘Don’t need an operation or anything like that.’ He’d just been in the wrong place at the wrong time and, I guess, paid the price for being behind the crash rather than in front of it.
More evidence, if it were needed, that being at the sharp end of the race pays dividends. Next time, that’s where I’ll try to be...
The author of this post, Edwin Smith, is novice crit racer by night, freelance journalist by day. You can find him on Twitter, @EdwinSmith and Instagram, @edwinthomassmith. His website is edwinsmithwrites.com