My First Road Race!Published on 4 April 2018
Having only raced crits on closed circuits until now, one of my ambitions this year was to enter and be competitive at some road races. Racing crits is fun and all, but road racing is what we watch on the TV and carries with it a certain prestige.
So with that in mind, last Saturday I found myself in a village hall near Tenterden in Kent, pinning some numbers on and lining up for the Tour of the Marshes Support Race. The race would be 60km in total, taking in 3 laps of a 20 km loop.
I have never raced my bike for more than an hour before, so doing this distance at race pace would be unknown territory. To prepare, I’ve been fitting in longer sessions on the turbo and have made it a goal to be training for over 10 hours a week, compared to around 8 hours last year.
Having scoped out the course on Strava and Google Street View the day before, it looked like there would be one decisive feature each lap – a 2 and a half minute climb up towards Tenterden past the local golf course. The climb averages 5% but kicks up to well over 15% for a steep section half way up. Looking at the profile for the course, the climb is followed by a flat section through the town of Tenterden and then a long descent down to the bottom of the circuit. This seemed likely to be the area of the course where attacks would go, presumably over the top of the climb and before the descent.
Goals for the race? As it was my first road race I was aware that I’d be on a steep learning curve, however I was not racing with any higher categories than my own (this was a Cat 3 / 4 race), so I would honestly be disappointed to be outside the top 20. Top 10 I’d be really happy with for a first attempt.
The plan? In all the 3/4 races I have competed in, its very unusual for an early break to stay away and win. With that in mind I told myself to ride sensibly and not burn any matches by chasing or initiating futile attacks in the first half of the race. If I could stay out the wind as much as possible, and be near the sharp end towards the end, I’d stand a chance.
The race set off from Hamstreet Village Hall as a neutralised convoy behind the lead car for 4 miles until we reached the course. I was towards the back of the convoy, so well sheltered from the wind, but still managed to hit 176bpm during this neutralised period, which is 91% of my max heart rate. Great, I thought… this wasn’t going to be an easy one.
The race got underway for real as we hit the town of Woodchurch and the lead car sped off with the motorbikes to clear the road ahead. As with most amateur road races, we were not racing on closed roads. It was the job of the race officials to stop traffic at junctions and give the peleton a clear run through. They did a great job all race, so shouts out to the South East Road Race League organisers for this.
I started the race towards the back of the 60-strong peloton, trying to slowly move up on the right hand side. This being my first road race, there were many things to get used to quickly, one of which was the sensation of being only inches away from oncoming traffic if you were riding on the right hand side of the bunch. There were a couple of moments when traffic came flying down the derestricted country roads towards us, only inches away from my right shoulder. I briefly thought about what would happen if someone to my left crashed or leant on me as a car was approaching in the other direction. Deciding not to dwell on it, I immediately blocked it out of my mind and got on with the job at hand.
After a few miles of racing we began to approach the golf club climb. As expected, everyone got out the saddle and used the fresh legs to hammer it up and over. It wasn’t a 100% effort but it was hard enough. A 626 W peak and average of 361 W for 2:33 is well into my anaerobic range. I’d moved up quite a few places up the climb and was now sitting about mid-pack as it levelled off and we began to pick up speed again and fly into the town of Tenterden. As the lactic acid began to sting the legs of the riders around me, the field strung out and we were now riding single file at 30mph through the town. I was behind a couple of bigger riders and despite the pace, I was feeling relatively okay in their draft. Feeling like I had covered any potential splits over the climb, and feeling safe in someone’s draft I lost concentration for a few seconds and didn’t realise that the strung-out peloton was beginning to split.
Looking out from behind the wheel infront of me, I saw a group of 20 or so riders 5 seconds up the road and they weren’t hanging about. It was make or break time.
The wheel that I was on seemed to be fading a bit so I made the decision to pull out from the draft and bridge across to the group up the road.
I came around the guy in front, kicked up to 730 W and got after them. I didn’t care if anyone came with me and got a free ride, I had to go now and go hard. What resulted was a 2 and a half minute effort averaging 359 W. This really stung. I glanced down to the Wahoo at one point and saw my heart rate up at 189 BPM. This is 98% of my max HR, and not a comfortable place to be! I knew I had to bridge across before the descent as I wouldn’t stand a chance of catching them once the road started going downhill. The descent was fast approaching and I had nealry made it but not quite. I kept pushing at over 400 W for a few more seconds and made it. Just. I latched onto the wheel of the last rider in the group literally moments before the descent started. Job done. For now.
Knowing that I’d made it across was a serious relief. I looked back and realised that no one had come with me. The second group on the road wasn’t even in sight anymore. I knew that if I had not made that move across, my race would be done and I would have no hope of getting a result anymore.
That first lap climb up past the golf course and the solo bridge across to the leaders that followed resulted in my best ever 7 minute power – 332 W / 4.99 w/kg (see image below.)
Whilst recovering at the back of the lead group I took some time to scope out the riders around me. There was a mix of bigger guys pulling everyone along and some tiny juniors that seemed to fly up every little rise in the road. I was pleased to see that my team mate Johnny had also made the selection and was part of the group. He must of played it smarter going up the golf club climb earlier and not been caught out like I had!
The rest of the race was fairly uneventful. One rider – Max had rolled off the front of our group towards the end of the first lap (not longer after I bridged across) and managed to hold a slender advantage on us for the entire race to take the win. I spent much of the remainder rolling at the back of the our small peloton, avoiding putting my face in the wind. We were chugging along at an average speed of 25mph so I saw no advantage in going to the front. Surveying the situation from the back, I saw Johnny roll off the front a couple of times, in an attempt to bridge across to Max, or at least spark some real drive in our group, but it was not to be and he slipped back into the group each time.
The finish line for the race was at the top of a small hill going through a narrow wooded section. I had scoped out the last few kms before the finish on the 2nd lap and made a mental note of where to move up on the final run-in next time around. As we came around the bottom of the course on the 3rd lap, the pace began to pick up as the group made a final effort to catch Max, who was only a few seconds ahead. Making up positions in this stage is difficult as the bunch is moving so fast but I did what I could.
Going through one of the villages a few kms from the finish, myself and one other rider began to make progress on the right hand side of the bunch. This seemed to be working until unfortunately a car appeared coming in the other direction and we had to press on the brakes and cut back in to the left to avoid an accident. Following this there were no more chances to move up. The group was building up to full-gas as the finish line approached. I managed to pick off a few riders that were blowing up as the finish line approached, including Johnny who had put in a huge effort all race but I wasn’t able to make any real impact on the main group and rolled across the line in 17th place.
I felt pleased. Normally I wouldn’t be happy with 17th but in a strong field of 60+ riders, in my first road race, over a distance I have never raced and finishing only seconds behind the winner – I was happy to take that.
Duration: 1hr 37m
Distance: 38.8 miles
Avg speed: 23.8 mph
Avg power: 227 W
Weighted avg power: 267 W