When I broke my clavicle in May, I was hopeful I might still race the Circuit of the Fens, almost two months later, but as the weeks passed it became obvious that the break wasn’t healing fast enough. My fitness was waning as rapidly as my enthusiasm for the turbo. There was no longer any avoiding the email to Tom, the race organiser, confirming I was withdrawing. It was not an email I wanted to write. The race starts and ends in my home town of Whittlesey. I had ridden, and finished, last year’s inaugural race, so to miss it this year was a big disappointment. Tom emailed back and asked if I would like to drive lead car one for the support race instead? I was pleased to be asked, and accepted…then checked with my wife.
Sunday, race day, arrived and I took my responsibility seriously – I washed the car. I also checked over the route for the nth time – there were a couple of interesting alterations from last year, but the race is on roads I grew up riding on; I know them well, although I never would’ve guessed as a teenager that one day I would be supporting a race on them.
I arrived at Sir Harry Smith School, the race HQ, early. NFTO were the keenest of the elite teams and a few support riders were hanging around, but otherwise it was quiet. That soon changed and a definite buzz started to grow. I got the car prepped while trying to eavesdrop on the Metaltek briefing going on behind me. I caught up with a few guys in the support race, including Wayne, St Neots’ lone entry, then it was off to the drivers’ briefing. After that the only thing left to do was empty my bladder; at 84 miles, the Circuit of the Fens is a long race.
Once the elite race rolled out, it was time for our convoy to form up. Being lead car I was first, obviously. We waited for the commissaire’s command to move. It was tense; I had pre-race nerves. We passed the time with last-minute radio checks. Opposite me the police and NEG outriders knocked down their visors then blocked the traffic. The race radio crackled into life: lead car one, start rolling out.
The route was cleared ahead and we proceeded in to town. At the roundabout, the marshals pulled aside the barriers blocking Market Street and I drove on to the circuit. The street was lined with more barriers and rows of people. Driving through them was an odd experience. I was the first vehicle the spectators would see. Until they saw the riders, I was, for a brief moment, the centre of the town’s attention. I stopped just past the Buttercross and waited for the Mayor’s official ceremonial start. I wound up the car windows to block out the crowd’s noise, I didn’t want to miss the command to roll-off.
The race start was neutralised. We kept a sedate pace along Station Road and over Briggate Drain, whose bridge had caused minor chaos last year. Once all the riders were together, the neutral flag went down on Glassmoor Bank. The race was on.
Immediately support were kept busy as a number of riders punctured. The broom wagon had grace to pace them back on, some managed it but others didn’t. Being at the front of the convoy I could see precious little of the action; on the Roman-straight Fen roads, with a couple of cars and a spare wheel decorated service bike behind you, it is surprisingly hard to see much in your mirrors. Still the race radio, my only link to the outside world, kept me informed. Riders were trying to force a break. Someone would make 10 seconds on the pack, hold it for a while, then get sucked back in and another one would try. But, a break stubbornly refused to form. Unlike last year, the race had no 4th cats and I think the more level field showed its greater strength. Last year dozens of riders were dropped on the first lap; this time, with a narrower, stronger range of ability, making a break, making it stick, was a far harder proposition.
Traffic was light and the NEG did a superb job marshalling what little there was on the road. They flitted past me with an occasional wave. Like busy, fluorescent orange bees, they were the real workers of the convoy.
We started to hear reports of a crash in the elite race. We turned onto Forty Foot and I saw vehicles parked on the left ahead. I called it in to the commissaires, and as I approached, saw they were race vehicles. When I drove by a rider was lying on the ground attended by race medics.
Onto Benwick and a good number of people were out to watch. As with last year, Fen folk had pitched up tables and chairs, outside isolated cottages and farms, for the afternoon entertainment. Some had decorated bikes. It was good to see.
The next communiqué from the elite race was to warn of a steam traction engine on the course. Turning on to Oilmills, after Pondersbridge, I saw the brown smoke, billowing across the fields in a noxious imitation of a Fen Blow. The NEG had it marshalled. Not great to have on the circuit, but we are, after all, racing on public roads.
Through Benwick for the second time. My family had turned up to watch and I gave them quick wave before accelerating round a bend.
Race radio started to report a second crash among the elites. The reports quickly became more ominous and the chatter turned to possibly stopping the race. It sounded serious. On the way back to Whittlesey industrial estate the race was neutralised. This was followed by an instruction to halt in the feed zone at Glassmoor Bank.
The police had blocked off the road just after the feed zone, so I stopped the race convoy in front of them. The next minutes were confused and concerned. Clearly a serious incident had taken place involving one of the riders. People hoped he was not too badly injured, but with an air ambulance called, feared what further news would come. Gradually, a clearer picture started to emerge. It wasn’t an elite rider, rather, a rider dropped from our support race had been in collision with the steam traction engine, still on Oilmills road. How far behind us he was, or what happened, I do not know and I’m not going to speculate, but I wish the rider a fast and full recovery. Thoughts must also go to the race organisers. Putting together the Circuit of the Fens is a huge undertaking. Scores of people had volunteered to help the event. So whatever the circumstances, having the race stopped, will I am sure have been a great disappointment to everyone involved. I know it was for me.
For the next hour the riders lazed around on the verges. I ate an ice cream in front of them. Then the call came through, the race was restarting, but on a truncated circuit. We were to drop one lap and miss the Pudduck Lane sector. That meant we would finish this lap, the third of four, then head back to Whittlesey on the planned route. We got back into our cars, the riders got back on their bikes and the convoy was ready to roll.
The race was neutralised along Glassmoor Bank, through Pondersbridge and Ramsey Mereside. The steam engine was smokeless and joined by a fire engine; between them, on the verge, lay a bike and helmet. It was a sobering reminder, as if any were needed.
After Ramsey Mereside the flag was dropped and the racing was back on. The riders had recovered, the neutralised start had warmed them up, but they had less than 15 miles to the finish. It was going to be quick.
After Benwick I moved on ahead to make sure the turning on to Wype Drove was clear and that the marshals knew we were turning a lap early. I needn’t have worried, this is a well-organised race and they already knew what to do.
Wype Drove is a wrecked stretch of concrete where vegetation flourishes in the cracks. I made sure I had plenty of space, but at thirty miles an hour the car was being bounced all over the place. Often I had to slow to avoid bottoming out – the Fens are flat, the roads are not. Despite this, NEG riders still found space to squeeze by. Around a couple of bends I could see the race running counter and parallel to me. The bunch was thinned out with a long sparse tail.
The drove ended and I pulled onto smooth tarmac, but the respite didn’t last for long. A left turn took me onto the broad gravel of Cross Drove. This, I thought would be fun. The gravel was dry, dusty and large. I was swerving around potholes, it was a tough, rough surface. I wasn’t at all surprised to see the blue signs of Sustrans’ national cycle network – it’s exactly the kind of crap infrastructure they like!
Seconds after the riders hit the gravel the broom wagon got very busy. The riders were split and perhaps as many as twenty had suffered punctures, but as the race book said, this wasn’t a day for light race tyres and pricey wheels. I had originally been looking forward to this sector – I’m quite happy riding my road bikes over gravel tracks, but I’ve never raced over one before. Maybe next year I’ll get to find out how I get on.
The run back into Whittlesey was fast and furious. The NEG and police riders were struggling to keep pace as we sped through the town. Over the roundabout, the barriers pulled aside. I heard someone shout “they’re coming” then I accelerated down Market Street, through the crowd, surfing a wave of cheers to the finish line. I pulled up on Eastgate, jumped out and took the numbers of the first three riders. The race was over. I look forward to it returning next year.