I guess this race started for me before the weekend when my younger daughter’s nose began to run. On Bank Holiday Monday she was running a fever and on Thursday morning Chicken Pox was in the family again. The whole time I’d kept my fingers crossed to remain bug free. And I was for Sunday’s Baxter and King race, hopefully I would remain so for the first of the NCRA summer races.
The NCRA Summer Series is a set of six 30 mile handicap races open to 4th to 1st cat riders. For this series, I’m being joined by fellow St Neots rider, occasional triathlete and frequent time trialist, Tim. This is Tim’s first season of road racing and this the first race.
The race was held on Thursday at the Middleton circuit; a concave rectangle stamped on the Northamptonshire, Leicestershire border in the Welland Valley. We arrived early at Rockingham Forest Wheeler’s club house (surely the best appointed club house anywhere?). The warm June sun was shining, so we set off to recce the circuit. We rode at a reasonable pace, although I flagged a little into the gentle south easterly wind, but after a banana and some energy drink I perked up
Tim and I were to set off together in the 2nd group of 10 riders. Tim looked relaxed as we were called up to the start line, then we were off. A brief fumble clipping in perhaps betrayed Tim’s nerves, but his composure soon returned and along with a couple of Rutland riders we were at the head of our group setting the pace.
As we headed towards the course’s only real climb, a 40m ascent up to the village of Bringhurst, the four of us decided to organise the group on the descent. So, pulling round the tight left hand bend from Bringhurst, we quickly settled the group into through and off. We worked well maintaining a fast tempo; a racing chain gang eager to catch the group ahead and escape the one behind. However, as we crossed the River Welland and hit the drag up to Ashley, the organisation started to fray. Things fell back together again as the terrain levelled off again, but as we turned into the wind the strain became evident and one of the Rutland riders started to slide off the back.
Approaching the second climb up to Bringhurst Tim and I found ourselves at the front again. Tim looked strong and appeared to be enjoying himself. I wasn’t. The climb is in two parts. First an initial lurch up, followed by a level section. Then, the gradient rises again, at first gently then kicking steeply up as the road enters the village. Half way up the second section my legs melted, muscles I thought I had drained away. Tim passed me, then a second and third rider. I dropped down into the little ring, my legs briefly responded to the easier gearing, then faded. I’d cracked. The other riders dropped me and as I crested the hill there was 50m of dead space between us. I sat on the drops, head down and tried to time trial myself back in. After half a mile I could feel the slack air behind the last man and drafted, but I couldn’t hold them.
I needed rest. My legs were weak, my head was aching. I had some drink and food, pressed on and thought about 4 DNFs in a row. Soloing into the wind along the back straight, my group remained just out of reach. I soft pedalled, my legs having nothing more to offer. 4 riders from the next group passed, I didn’t even try to get on. The race was over, only another mile and I could quit. A support car overtook and called out. I didn’t catch it, so looked behind me. I could see the Rutland rider I had started out with and behind him a larger group. Maybe.
I eased up and the Rutland rider caught me, moments later the bunch swept us up. A gradual acceleration as riders rushed by. My body protested, fatigue tried to press home then the last man went by. We jumped on his wheel. I was back in the bunch, at the back, but back. The bunch rode through the finish line for the final lap taking me with it.
The Bringhurst climb would be the test. If I could get over that, I knew I could finish, even if the bunch later dropped me, I would go the distance. But if I cracked, that would be it, a slow shameful ride for a fourth, consecutive DNF. I was at the back, no riders for me to slip by, I had to hang on. As we started to climb I beat out an even cadence, trying to relax my legs, not that they had the energy to tense. I sat back in the saddle and hung off the bars. The rider next to me stood out of the saddle, his breathing laboured, and started to lose contact. My head pulsed within my helmet, but I made it over.
The miles were ticked off, and I saw my original group, merged with the first, flicker into view through the bunch. I looked out for Tim, and was pleased to see him still there. We soon picked them up, the slower riders drifting to join me at the back, but Tim held his position in the front quarter.
We closed the final miles down at a rising pace, the mood of the group heightening. Passing the 1km marker (no flamme rouge here) blood drained from my core and strength flowed to my muscles. The sprint was coming on, but I was at the back, the roads too narrow and the bunch too dense to move through. We rounded the final bend, 200m, the pace quicker now. The tail end diluted across the road, I easily filtered through, until the pack became too concentrated. I saw Tim out of the saddle, sprinting in space ahead, then we crossed the line.
Tim gained his first BC point in his first race coming a very respectable 10th. He also came away with a new regard for the bunch sprint – the front really is the only place to be if you want to win. I drifted in somewhere in the middle, a trembling wreck with a thick head, but I’d finished and broken my duck and for that alone, the pain and fatigue of the past one hour and fifteen minutes had been worth it. Pride was restored. And the next time I’m feeling a little under the weather, will I race or listen to my body?