I’ve never been inherently sporty really, and certainly don’t have the background of youth competing that a lot of amateur cyclists seem to have lurking in their past. So, rather than feeling part of an inevitable season of competing year-in year-out, I always have to establish some goals to base my training upon, otherwise I really struggle to push myself.
And, along with the useful cathartic nature of venting about how badly things are going, this is one of the main reasons for this blog. Once goals are written down in black and white, even if they are theatrically paralleled by epic sporting duels from history in the minds eye of the writer, it’s a lot easier to hold yourself accountable to them.
All this takes me back to a time before the mountain, before clubbing, before cycling shorts with pads in and jerseys with pockets at the rear. My first ‘proper’ bike was proudly purchased in summer 2003, with the cashable benefits of being flattened by an errant motorist several months earlier. With absolutely no clear understanding of what it entailed, I knew that I wanted to buy a road bike and race on it. Not time-trials, proper racing – Tour de France style – a bunch of riders flying down rural roads, grinding up climbs, sprinting wildly towards the finish line. At the time my understanding was so limited I had no idea that amateur races were never place-to-place like on the TV, and my estimation of the effort required to actually take part in a bike race was woefully on the low side.
Fast forward nearly 9 years and I am a veteran of many road race starts, albeit mostly on ‘closed roads’ courses, some of which even resulted in a finishing position worth mentioning. I didn’t realise back in 2003 that it would take 3 years before i’d make my race debut and that even now my ‘proper road racing’ palmares would be limited to a handful of DNFs spread across the years.
There have been a couple of blips along the way where i’ve come close to throwing in the towel on competition. But, for some inexplicable reason, each year I find myself drawn back to racing and back to mass start racing. There is something magical about the fizzing sound that a peloton makes as it rolls across smooth tarmac – dozens of legs whirring in harmony, wheels and drivetrains spinning away. Time-trialling is a great way of exerting yourself physically but, with the exception of the odd hair raising descent on a particularly devilish course, is hardly an adrenaline filled endeavour. Road racing however is a truly exhilarating experience, the endless battle to hold position in the bunch of riders, the ebb and flow of the pace as riders launch attacks, team tactics unfolding as breakaways are formed and, often, the testosterone fuelled madness of the finishing sprint.
There is however a dark side to road racing, an occupational hazard that riders try to ignore, but which often preys on my mind. Recent events on the world stage, and closer to home, have reminded me once again of the reason why I sometimes want to turn my back on road racing. On 7th May, in faraway Denmark, the worlds greatest sprinters found themselves hitting the deck at speeds I can only dream of, but were largely lucky enough to be able to dust themselves off and limp over the line ready to ride another day. 24 hours earlier, in the Eastern Counties Cycling Association road race, an event that would doubtless feature on my racing calendar if I committed to a season of road racing, one of my team mates took a particularly heavy fall and ended up being air-lifted to hospital. Thankfully there were no life threatening injuries but it wasn’t the first time i’d heard of a trip to the hospital finishing off a day of racing.
It is the inevitability of crashing that makes it such an issue for me. It can happen to the worlds best, it can happen to the hapless amateur, and it can happen to me. More to the point, it HAS happened to me, and I have the chainring/forearm scar and bill for replacement bicycle parts to prove it. Aged 21, with no dependents and wild ambitions of climbing mountains like Lance Armstrong, it never occurred that it would be a problem. Aged 30, being able to drive myself to work every Monday morning with a full compliment of skin on my face and no broken bones seems less like a luxury and more like a necessity.
But the lure remains, watching the closing minutes of a Tour of Turkey stage last week rekindled the dream of riding away from the bunch in the closing miles and soloing to a glorious victory, arms aloft, although perhaps without the nerve wracking low speed crash and subsequent mechanical delay….
I need to set some goals for the rest of the year. I’ve got unfinished business with road racing, if I can shake away the nagging fear that I might spend the dying moments of a race surfing across the tarmac on my backside, it might just be the way to go for the remainder of the season…
Postscript: ‘Chute’ is the word that French cyclists / spectators scream whenever riders hit the deck. When this happens during a continental sportive it only adds to the illusion that you are a pro-rider in a first-week Tour De France stage. The reality of the situation is inevitably less glamorous.