The Cranfield circuit is a short – OK, at 3.4 km, a very short – course and shaped like a buckled triangle. Starting from a roundabout, the course drops down a steady 5% decline. It’s a good, wide road with a gravelly left hand turn at the bottom. After the turn the road drags up, ascending some 30m over 1.8 km. The steeper sections are towards the end of the climb, but steepness here is a relative term since the gradient never quite troubles 5%. At the top of the climb there is another left turn along a flattish section of road. The first, exposed, half offers fine views across a wooded plain, only the grey, sluggish flank of the Xscape centre betraying Milton Keynes presence between the trees. Midway there is a blind left bend, sheltered by hedges, that takes you back to the roundabout.
The weather was mild and dry, but there was a strong headwind for the descent from the roundabout and a crosswind for the higher road. We had to race 22 times around the circuit before finishing some 100m or so from the roundabout. With this many laps, I suspected the gentle gradient of the circuit’s climb would soon start to feel less forgiving.
The race got off to a steady start and after a couple of laps I felt warmed up enough to ride off the front. Two riders had been away pretty much from the start and I decided to bridge across. I attacked just before the roundabout and soon had a gap, however, the headwind on the downhill was harder than I had anticipated; riding at 35mph took a surprising effort. My break didn’t last long, however, it did give the bunch some momentum to reduce the gap to the two escapees and they too were soon reeled in.
I stayed near the front and each time we came around to the climb someone would have a dig, but the gradient just wasn’t testing enough to really damage the peloton, certainly at this early stage in the race.
Two riders attacked on the downhill and I bridged across, however, as we came to the turn there were only a few bike lengths separating us from the bunch. We went round first, me in second wheel. The rider ahead pulled across and I went through. I did a turn and moved across, but there I stayed. I looked over my shoulder, no one was on my wheel. I continued riding, more bemused than anything, but expecting to be passed in a few moments, I hadn’t planned to break away. But I wasn’t. Indeed, the next time I looked the gap was bigger. I was setting a comfortable pace, so assumed no one in the bunch was willing to work. I just carried on! I stayed away, but not for long. At some point, either someone tried to bridge or else the bunch got bored with its club run pace and I was reeled back in.
The first 10 laps went by surprisingly quickly – each lap was taking a little over 5 minutes and the pace had been quickening. The attacks continued, but the nature of the circuit made it difficult for them to stick, although 2 riders did manage to stay away for several laps and briefly made a significant gap. It was during this break that I started feel a little uncomfortable with the race. The roads were busier than I had expected. The marshals did an excellent job, warning traffic and protecting us through the corners. Turning on to the finishing road there always seemed to be a car being held back by a marshal. However, as the 2 escapees drifted further away, so too did the lead cars and at several times no lead car was visible to us, even when riding at the front. This was particularly a problem on the finishing straight with the blind left kink. Along here the racing was typically fast with riders sprinting out of the bend after the climb and the bunch lined out and echeloning slightly with the cross wind. The tendency was to drift to the middle of the road and on a few occasions cars moving at speed came dangerously close to us on that bend. With such a gap to the lead cars, perhaps they were unaware more bikes were on the way? Ultimately we are responsible for our own safety and we were racing on the open road, with a duty to follow the highway code, but we could still have benefited from the protection of another race car between us and the break.
Into the final laps and the pace was lifting. At one point it looked like the bunch might split, but by the last lap we were altogether. Having spent some time sat in the bunch, for the final climb I had moved to a more forward position, but I was on the inside and a little boxed. A classic car rally was coming in the other direction and while some cyclists were willing to risk moving forward on the outside, I wasn’t, and my position started to slip. Around the final bend I was now too far back to realistically contest the sprint and finished safely in the bunch.
I was disappointed not to have finished in the points, by the end of the race I felt strong enough to have a go, but I’m not prepared to take risks with oncoming traffic – I love racing, but I’m not stupid. I enjoyed the circuit, and with the exception of a missing race car, it was an otherwise well organised and marshalled event by Spirit Bikes. The circuit was testing, more for the acceleration out of the climb than the climb itself; certainly there seemed to be a fairly high attrition rate. I was just unfortunate that the roads were fairly busy and, for me at least, the final lap coincided with a parade of open top bangers.