"The new year means nothing if you're still in love with your comfort zone".
The author, Neil Gaiman, coined that phrase about writing rather than racing. The sentiment is just as apt however as we start to look to the season ahead and the start of the East London Velo Winter Series.
For some, racing at Redbridge Cycling Centre holds trepidation as with each lap of the circuit, riders are faced with the Hoggenberg; a 350m hill averaging 5.3% and reaching 10.4% at it's steepest. Sure, it hurts when tackled at race-pace. But as a rider, you learn to embrace pain. Hell, you even learn to love it.
The act of racing also pulls you outside of your confort zone as you're no longer an individual; you're a group. A collective. And you dance to the tune of that collective, rather than the intensity your heart and lungs would prefer you to race at. You're beholden to them.
Thirteen riders were on the line for the first Winter Series race of 2018 on a cold Saturday morning. The Met Office predicted temperatures of 4°C, but the virtual mercury in our Garmins were inidicating 2°C – and it felt it.
After taking the first lap on the front, nobody seemed keen to show their cards early on, although a touch of wheels on the first climb of the Hoggenberg caused at least one rider to hit the deck behind me. A "whoa" followed by that horrible, unmistakable noise of carbon-on-tarmac indicated someone had gone down. Thankfully, it appeared no-one was hurt and the riders who went down bounced up to rejoin the race.
Shortly after, one or two riders became detached from the group, but the bunch on-the-whole managed to stay together until Issy Zimmerman launched a break.
With a stiff, cold wind around the back of the course, the bunch allowed the break to happen, keeping Zimmerman on a leash of about 30 seconds. Some, such as Tom Slater from Sunday Echappé, called for the pace to be increased to reign Zimmerman back in, but there was general feeling that he’d tire on his own in the wind and would fade. I might have even commented that “the only place he’s going is in to the red”. I was wrong.
The board went up indicating five laps to go and Zimmerman still had a lead of between 25-30 seconds. At four laps to go, I noticed another gap of about 10 metres open up behind me at the top of the Hoggenberg. At this point, you’re faced with making a split-second decision. Do you love your comfort zone, ease off and stay in the bunch – destined only to contest the sprint? Or do you push out of your comfort zone, feel the hurt and give it a dig. I chose the latter.
I said to Charles Gaimster of Dulwich Paragon, who was right next to me "There's a gap there, do you fancy it?” His response was affirmative. We pushed on, down the sweeping left hand bend and straight in to the next hill; not as punchy as the Hoggenberg, but certainly more than could be described as a drag. No letting up on the effort as we come down the hill on the other side and in to the hairpin bends; crucially, out of sight from the bunch.
Over the next few laps, spectators were giving us the splits between Zimmerman up top and the bunch behind. Our pace-line was eating in to Zimmerman’s lead and holding the bunch behind us at about 20 seconds. This gave us encouragement as we fought to desperately hold that delicate balance between optimum performance and lactate burn.
Over the line, the bell rings. I shout to Gaimster who is leading the pace-line as we cross; “one final push”. I hear a grunt. We’re both focused.
Aware that the bunch would also be upping their effort level, it’s crucial that we continue to work together or we’ll be caught. We continue to belt it around the circuit, now safe in the knowledge Zimmerman is too strong to be caught. It’s between us and the bunch. The comfort zone couldn’t be further away from us right now. We approach the start of the climb and can see Zimmerman has disappeared around the bend to finish first and a lapped rider climbs his penultimate lap on the left.
Gaimster pushes on from me. The gap starts to grow; one metre. Two metres. Three metres. I slacken off. I can’t match what he’s giving up the hill. I turn to look behind me. Two riders are now on my tail. Did I miscalculate? Did we pass two lapped riders? Did someone make it over from the bunch? I can’t be sure. I increase the power. 600 Watts. 700 Watts. 800 Watts. I’m giving everything. I’ve fought to be on this podium, I’ve worked too hard to give up now. I daren’t look back.
I cross the line and glimpse behind me, the riders who were challenging for the podium have blown; it was a rider from the bunch and so the added effort was essential to make sure I took third spot. Relief.
I congratulate the two riders who finished ahead of me. We ride a lap together and gather our breath back. Gaimster tells me it was his first race; chapeau. They’re not always like this, but you’ll take them when they come.
We roll back in to the pits and fellow riders ask how we got on.
“Third”, as I beam proudly. I only started racing last year and frustratingly spent almost half of the season off the bike due to illness and injury. It’s taken a lot of work to get back to fitness and this was my first reward. The boy is back.
All race images: Wayne Crombie https://www.flickr.com/photos/139078327@N04/sets/72157664401903978/with/39510799512/
As I lined up for the first ELV Cat4 race of the new year I was far from settled. I’d turned up to the wrong reception desk for sign in with no cash, an expired license card (ironically arrived in the post that day), and no idea what to expect. Thankfully everyone at the Redbridge Cycling Centre was fantastic and all was sorted in no time. Triathlon is my primary sport but decided to try road racing. It’s my strongest discipline plus a few guys at Dulwich club had recommended Redbridge as a good place to start.
As I warmed up, taking the track in for the first time, the excitement and nerves began to set in. Going up the HUGE hill to the start finish line did nothing to calm either of these. So many questions were running through my head. Do I need the loo again? Why is it so cold (it was 4 degrees!)? Am I wearing the right clothing? Do I need more food/water during the race? Will I even have a chance to feed/drink? Why has everyone got such expensive gear? Is this really a Cat4 only race? Am I going to be dropped on the first lap? What if I crash? How fast can I take the downhill 90 degree bend?
Before I could overthink the commissionaire had finished and we were off. My heart was pounding probably more from the adrenaline, but I was keeping pace with the pack. This was vastly helped by the drop in pace towards the bottom of the track into the wind, then onto that dreaded hill. Much to the delight of my nerves everyone else seemed to be struggling as much as me so I started to feel more settled…until. BANG, rider 7 hit the deck just before the crest not even a full lap in. My nerves were all over the place again. I had been warned Cat4 could be ‘crashy’ so was quite relieved the field was only 13 riders, now 12.
Fortunately the next few laps rolled by without incident and I started to feel quite strong, particularly up the hill. There were a few breaks which came to an end in the windy section. The call from the group was to leave riders who went off the front as the conditions didn’t favour the break. As a novice I was happy to go with the flow. However, with about 25 minutes to go, a rider broker free. I was second on the road at the time but from the previous group calls plus this being my first race I decided to play safe and stay with the group. Impressively he had a 30 second lead within a few laps. No one had the appetite to chase him down, particularly through the wind, and the feeling was he wouldn’t last. My aim was primarily to finish but also to pick up any points. With one rider crashed out and 2 having dropped off the back a finish in the pack was a guaranteed point!
With about 15 minutes to go I found myself at the top of the hill with the pack spread out. I still had no desire to go alone, especially for 4+ laps! Then Andy Thornley offered a split. I was still feeling good so agreed. I sprinted down the hill through series of right handers and hairpin, desperate to make the move stick. I was worried I had gone too deep as I could feel burning. Fortunately Andy carried me through the rest of the lap, consolidating our break. Even with our effort we were still 30 seconds behind 1st place. Working together we managed to stay 20-30 seconds away from the main group and were slow eating into the 1st place deficit. Andy and I worked brilliantly together but it was becoming harder and harder. The comfort zone was a distant memory and I approached the hill with more dread as each lap passed. It was clear from the penultimate lap that we weren’t going to catch first place. What a strong ride from Issy.
Last lap and we gave it everything we had. I figured if we made it to the hill with a gap we would stay away. As I approached the hill one last time I glanced back. There was no pack but I wasn’t taking any chances. To add to the confusion there were some lapped riders in the mix. Half way up I saw Izzy finish. From there I stopped dropping gears, got out of the saddle and went for it. The line couldn’t come soon enough. I felt sick crossing the line but no one had passed me. 2nd place! I was really chuffed! All the hard work had paid off! I congratulated Andy and Izzy as we completed our in lap. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it. Although I suspect other races, even in this series, will harder. I was told the wind was light that day. Could have fooled me. It felt like a gale!
My aim now is to get my 12 points to progress to Cat3. 8 in the bag so I definitely plan on coming back. Watch this space.