Red kites gathered over the Northamptonshire countryside. Riding invisible thermals their forked tails angled them to trace graceful arcs across the summer sky. Beneath them we assembled at the top of Southwick Hill which would serve as both start and finish for the race about to unfold.
From the start line the circuit descended towards Oundle. At the hill’s base the route turned sharply left on to the circuits only straight and fast stretch of road. From there the course twisted around with several leg-sapping bends before returning us to the base of Southwick Hill. Rising at a steady gradient, the ascent was more of a long steep drag rising about 50m over half a kilometer. We were to ride the circuit 5 times.
This week the groups were reshuffled. The top 5 from last weeks race, including Tim and competition leader VC Rutland rider, Gary, joined me in the next group back. Ahead of us were 3 small groups and behind us 9 riders in two groups. We comprised the largest group having over 20 riders.
From the start three Fenland Clarion riders took charge of our group leading a determined pursuit down the hill. As we came around the first bend I moved up to the front along with a couple of Rockingham riders. I hadn’t seen where Tim was, but then I hadn’t looked back.
Heading onto the winding country lanes the group failed to organise; the same riders contributed at the front, with the rest being content to sit in. With the constant accelerations back to the same high pace, perhaps other riders were just hanging on. On the first drag up to the finish line the front of our bunch kept together, but Fenland Clarion refused to ease up the pace. They were intent on riding this race hard and gave no respite to the back. The Red Kites instinct for carrion was looking promising.
The second lap followed the same pattern as the first and as we started the third I needed a break. I still hadn’t seen Tim, so I decided to drop back and make sure he was OK. I slipped back 10, 11 riders and was surprised to find I was at the back. No sign of Tim, no sign of the VC Rutland riders. Our group had halved, whether we had forced a split or riders had just been shelled off the back I didn’t know. What I thought I knew was that in a handicapped race the groups are meant to coalesce, not collapse. True, the odd rider might lose contact if their form is off, I did in Middleton three weeks earlier, but twelve riders?
Fenland Clarion maintained their grip at the front and with a steady turnover of Rockingham riders to help out we continued to average over 25mph. I went back up to the front a few times, but although I felt good, I knew I didn’t have the legs to keep working at the front, at least not at the speed being set. Besides, there would soon be a bunch sprint to think about.
We started catching odd riders from the lead groups towards the end of the third lap. As we ascended to the finish line, the first group came into sight and were swallowed up on the decent. At the end of the fourth lap we caught the last of the lead groups. So we started the final lap with a clear road ahead and half our original group behind.
Now the mood in the bunch changed. The Clarion riders became less willing to work at the front; understandable given their dominant contribution throughout the race. As we turned into the wind the pace slowed. No one was willing to sacrifice for the bunch. We stalled for the closing miles trundling along at a picnic pace until the last bend and the long drag up to the finish.
Immediately a Clarion rider attacked, another jumped on his wheel and more riders followed. I sat back in the saddle and ground out a high tempo to keep in contact with the leadout. The front of the bunch was stretching out, but no one was passing me. I moved passed a couple of riders, one gasping with the effort, the other realising anymore was futile. I was into the top 10, but a gap was starting to open. From the knees up I still felt good, but below my calves writhed, urging me to ease up. Instead I jumped up and pushed down on the peddles, fully committing myself to the sprint. But the gradient made it a sprint in slow motion. I was gaining ground again and passed another rider yet I was going nowhere. I pushed harder willing my muscles to untie. The road ahead leveled off. Time quickened around the leading riders and they surged forward. Then I was there too, the pressure slackened, I shifted gears and sprinted to the line.
I counted the riders ahead; 7, I had finished 8th. After a hard race I had got my first top 10 placing for the series.
I turned around and headed back to the finish line to wait for Tim. Riders continued to cross the line in ones and twos. The scratch riders crossed, Gary, the competition leader just behind them, but still no sign of Tim. Eventually he crossed the line with LLP Arbis rider Karl, also from our group. Chatting with them afterwards I soon learned conditions had been rough at the back. Caught off guard from the start they hadn’t rallied to Fenland’s clarion call soon enough. Consequently they had struggled to keep up, burning up too much energy as they fought to regain contact. The constant accelerations quickly eroded the group and a steady stream of riders fell off the back. Within a couple of miles the damage was done.
Whether or not it was the intention of the other clubs to give last weeks winners a kicking I couldn’t say and for the dropped riders it was certainly a harsh lesson on reading a race. However, VC Rutland still got the last laugh. For the 2nd week one of their riders had won.