After it looked like summer had deserted us early this year, riders arriving at Little Milton village hall this weekend were treated to a perfect day for racing. Dry roads, clear skies, light winds and cool temperatures made for a good atmosphere as the riders signed on and made their final preparations. I love this part of the day, the inevitable pre-race butterflies always fade away as I pin on my number, get organised, warmed up and share a joke or two with friends and strangers.
Digital Keystone Shutt Velo Rapide had 3 riders in this race (Luke Souter, Timb Hiscocks and myself). The race was organised very well by Willesden CC in honour of former characters in their club history and there was a notably warm friendly atmosphere about the place. The route was just under 4 laps of a 25km circuit with flat or rolling roads apart from Claire Hill. While this isn’t a very challenging climb, it is the only decent lump on the profile so you do need to manage your effort carefully on it. I came 13th in my very first road race on this circuit back in April so had a half-baked plan I hoped to put into action. Luke also had an idea about where and when the opportunity for a result might come, so we began with something akin to a team strategy.
The race began at a fairly easy pace as riders warmed up in the still chilly morning. A couple of early solo attacks off the front were brought back without any great effort and the race settled down before tackling Claire Hill for the first time without any drama. As we began the second lap a few comments and jokes about the pace started bouncing around the bunch. I noticed that no-one on the front is ever complaining it’s too slow, only those free-wheeling in the bunch! An injection of pace on the second descent from Claire Hill finally got things moving and strung out. Eventually a solo rider went off the front and established a decent gap. There didn’t seem much appetite for work in the bunch and just when it looked like he might get away Luke went up and put in a big effort to bring him back. I was holding station toward the front and focussing on positioning myself well around the lap. My plan meant saving as much as I could for the end and I was able to use my knowledge of the course from April (and the Met Office weather app!) to stay out of the wind and keep as fresh as possible. Timb was also up the front of the pack for most of the race, doing a few turns and looking comfortable.
After the third time over the hill another solo rider managed to get away and built up a solid lead. With about 20km left the lead car pulled in behind him and I started to wonder if we were all going to be sprinting for 2nd as he was looking strong. No-one in the pack seemed to want to chase however all his efforts were for nothing as some farm traffic had blocked the road as we came into Little Milton village and the race had to be neutralised. Lots of sympathy for the loan rider who looked pretty down-heartened as we all regrouped behind the lead car. And so onto the last climb of Claire Hill and a small split at the front of the bunch with 5 riders, including Luke pulling clear. It looked like they might get organised so I put pushed my way through and put in an effort to get across the gap. No-one came with me and the 6 of us were off down the hill. With 10km left I didn’t expect us to stay away but I thought that it’s better to be up front on these narrow lanes as everyone starts to get nervous in the run-in. In any case, just as we were picking up speed we turned a corner to see yet another huge piece of farm machinery blocking the road and moving at walking pace. This time the race was stopped as the road ahead was cleared. Everyone together again and waiting in the sun for quite a long pause. Certainly long enough to feel the dreaded café-legs when we got going again.
With everyone bunched up and well-rested it looked like a big sprint was inevitable – but I had other ideas. I’d spent the race picking the spot to go, working out how far it was from the line and the landmarks that would be the cue to attack. The most important thing now was staying near the front without expending too much energy and not getting boxed in. I’d learned a lot from my race here in April and this time I stayed away from the roadside and managed to jump onto the right wheels as riders came up from the back. Then the rider in front of me pulled across and it was time to go. I jumped clear with everything I had and got what seemed like a big gap with 800m to go, Swinging to the right to get as much shelter as I could from the trees I sneaked another peek back as I neared the top of the climb – big mistake as I nearly lost it riding into the gutter! Heart in mouth time but I got it back on the road and pushed hard to keep my speed up. The bunch were gaining but not massively and I turned to focus on the line (and keep it on the road!). I shouldn’t have looked back again but couldn’t resist and saw two riders bearing down on me and the bunch spread across the road not far behind them. Please don’t let me be swamped by them! The first rider caught me with 30m to go and my disappointment evaporated when I saw it was Luke, with 3 or 4 bike lengths on the other chaser. A shout of encouragement to each other as he passed gave me the extra lift needed to hold on to the effort and finish in 3rd, around 10m ahead of the sprinting pack.
My best result in a road race so far and it felt great to be part of a strong team result. Congratulations to Luke for his second road race win of the season. He picked his moment perfectly and hopefully the points won will help put him back where he belongs next season, racing as a Cat2.