As soon as I saw this event on the British Cycling race calendar, I wanted to be in it. The planned circuit was to start and finish in Whittlesey, the town where I grew up. I didn’t want to miss a rare opportunity to race on home turf, with rolling road closure, on the roads of my youth. I entered straight away.
As more information was released, I started to realise just what I had signed up for. At 125km it would be significantly longer than any road race I had previously entered (normally 80-90km). It was also being classed as a Regional A, so at the tougher end of the races for which I’m eligible. Add the road closures and you have an event looking to attract a strong field.
At race HQ I bumped into Mick Yates, an old work colleague and experienced racer. He commented, it would be a race for the hard men, what with the wind. I didn’t disagree, it’s just what I had been worrying about. I know the Fen winds. As a teenager I spent many hours exploring the local droves on my old MBK mountain bike. I would fly along the droves imagining leading a break in the Tour. Then I would turn home, against the wind, and once again swear not to ride out so far again.
We left the HQ for a ceremonial start from the town’s Market Square. The Mayor waved us off and the crowds cheered us away, something I’ve not experienced since riding the Smithfield Nocturne folding bike race a few years ago. Leaving the town we crossed over the Briggate Drain, here the road narrowed and as 100 riders compressed to squeeze through I heard a few curses as someone unclipped. Definitely a tight spot to watch later on. Over the bridge and the race was on and, predictably, the pace was fast. Heading along Glassmoor Bank the attacks started. One hundred fresh riders stormed into Pondersbridge, then along Oilmills Road where a strong tailwind further quickened the pace. Oilmills is long and straight enough to give a Roman engineer palpitations; with a tail wind my computer rarely registered below 30mph. The attacks continued.
We skirted around Ramsey Forty Foot, then cornered onto the Benwick road, a strange feeling after 5 linear miles. We sped through Benwick where the spirited crowd received us with cheers – well, they did have a beer tent – and then we were into the wind. Attacks continued, but more often the pace eased and the pack bunched, echeloning across the full width of road. When it could, the bunch was quick to exploit the rolling road closures.
We skirted through Whittlesey industrial estate and made it safely across the Briggate Drain bridge. Onto Oilmills Road the pace became aggressive, as the lead riders tried to force a selection. At some point a group did breakaway, but the pace never lessened. I was hanging on, but the racing was as hard as I had ever known it. Some respite came on the Benwick stretch. On the first lap, I had decided here would be a good place to refuel. I wasn’t the only one. Hands ferreted around in jersey pockets or whipped out gels strategically tucked into shorts.
On the third crossing of Briggate Drain two riders crashed into the bridge’s safety rails. The bunch didn’t pause as it sped along Turningtree Road.
Back onto Oilmills Road, the wind and the peloton again conspired to inflict more damage. You don’t need mountains to make cycling hard, wind and no shelter will do. In the wind the peloton is an unsympathetic and self destructive beast. Sure, it helps if you can hide behind other riders, on the Fen roads it is the only cover you’re likely to find. But when the wind is behind, the peloton rarely lets you do that. The front riders fly, going faster and faster. If the lead rider tires, another replaces. Riders are fed to the front to fuel the pace and the bunch stretches out into single file. You become a biomechanical link, pushing the biggest gear you can to keep in contact with the wheel in front. For all the strength at its head, the further back you go the weaker and more delicate the peloton becomes. It only takes a small gap, a metre quickly becomes two, then three, and you’re at the front of the wrong end of a split trying to fuse back with the stronger riders driving at the front. There is no place for weak links. You do not want to be in that position so you fight to stay in contact and hope for a change in direction to ease the pace. That was the third lap. A couple of times I came close to sitting up and letting the race drift away, but that was not what I had come for, I had to complete this race. So I survived the third lap but many others did not.
On Turningtree Road for the final time, there was a last chance to take on drinks. I had prepped my family and moved to the left of the road. Taking on board drinks in a race isn’t something I had done before and I was nervous (of course, I did not let Annis know this beforehand, I think she had nerves enough already), so when a rider came up fast and tight on my left then bumped the rider ahead of me, I saw Annis and shook my head to gesture no. I still had some drink, I had made it to the last lap, I didn’t want to end it with a crash now.
The final ride down Oilmills Road, while not exactly leisurely was certainly less vigorous than on previous laps. At this point I think three groups were established and I was in the third. There seemed to be an unspoken collective agreement to take stock and recover before the run into to Whittlesey. We had survived the furious racing of laps 2 and 3, now we were concentrating on completing the race. Riding through the farmsteads and villages I was able to soak in a little of the atmosphere. Outside their houses, at the ends of driveways, old ladies had set up tables and chairs to sit at and watch the race pass by. In Benwick young lads on scooters shouted encouragement, one tried to keep pace on his BMX. Perhaps one day he’ll swap it for a road bike. Cars were stopped at the side of the road, some sat in resentful silence for a bloody bike race, others cringed for wing mirrors, but they felt like the minority, mostly people wound down their windows and spurred us on. It was a strange experience, but I liked it.
The run into Whittlesey would be tough, that I knew. A hard right turn would take us off the circuit and onto Wype Road and Turf Drove. These are real Fen Droves. If you’re a geographer the best comparison I can think of is with a limestone pavement; if not, imagine 3km of brittle concrete road being dropped from a height onto the black Fen peat. Picture the cracked and fractured result: that is Turf Drove. Locals I know simply said, you can’t ride a bike down there.
I wanted to be as close to the front as I could for the drove. I started to move forward, but I cramped, not badly, but enough. I stopped moving forward and drifted to the back, then around a bend, I was off the back. I was riding on the right side of the road, and I looked over my left shoulder. A support car was moving to overtake, but something in my bearing must have made the driver reconsider. The last lap was almost over, the final stretch was approaching, I had no intention of being dropped now. I put my head down and pulled myself back into the group, I haven’t felt such relief in a race before.
We turned onto Wype Road. I had an idea what to expect, but nothing had prepared me for riding over that surface at speed. My legs were tired, but going over a smooth road surface, you can cope with the tiredness. Jumping across that cracked, jarring surface, making my legs keep the pedals turning and the momentum rolling, took a force of will. Halfway along, a Wisbech rider crashed, somersaulting into a field. It caused a few of us to slow and a gap opened between us and the bunch. We worked well through Coates and Eastrea and into Whittlesey we continued to share the load. We passed my old primary school, a few people lining the streets cheered us on. The police had closed the Cemetery Road roundabout allowing us to cross. We turned onto Eastgate and Market Street, passing the Buttercross. We were a way down the finish list, but that didn’t stop a sprint for the line. I was aware of people cheering and I heard my name called out, I was focused only on the line. I crossed last from our group of 5, but I had finished.
I came 52nd. Of the 100 riders who started, 61 finished. In the elite race, over 120 riders had started, 28 finished and UK Youth took a clean sweep. Mick was right, it was a day for the hard men. Given my position, I’m not among them, but I did at least finish, so I think I can settle for averagely hard (amateur)!
Finally it was a great event, and big thanks must go to St Ives CC (especially Tom Caldwell), Anglia Cycling (especially Colin Coe), Whittlesey Town Council, the police, the National Escort Group riders, all the other volunteers and of course Whittlesey and Benwick folk for their support. Hopefully the event will be back again next year, bigger and better, and if it is, hopefully I’ll be back for more!