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First Race Write-Up

Phil Barella, our racing secretary, asked me to do a write-up of my first foray into racing, writes Ben Speller. It’s not intended to be a definitive guide and a lot of it might be total rubbish! It’s just the conclusions I came to on my own from the minimal experience I have gained over three races and a couple of accreditation days.
I guess the seed of the idea to start racing was planted a way back, but my focus on other goals meant that it took me a while to actually put things into motion. I can certainly say that if I hadn’t joined the club I wouldn’t have taken the plunge; it’s good to have people around you who race already to encourage you, and to measure yourself against.
Additionally I made a couple of cycling New Year’s resolutions this year, one of which was to try road racing and once I’d done Liege-Bastogne-Liege I felt like I didn’t want to waste the early season fitness I had developed for it. I booked the first of the two accreditation days required for racing in the Surrey Leagues at Hillingdon; the day was run by Prime Coaching and was really useful despite there being a wide range of abilities there. As well as acquiring some cornering and sprinting know-how I learned how much fun it is to race in the 5-lap practice race at the end of the session. I won in a sprint from a breakaway of 6 or 7 and that was it, I was hooked!
I did the second accreditation at Cyclopark as soon as I could; it’s run by British Cycling and gave me further valuable insight into racing techniques and also some experience cornering on a much tighter circuit than Hillingdon, including learning the point at which I’d pedal strike when leaning the bike; very useful! I then began to look at what events were on, deciding that Dunsfold was the easiest to get to from the available Cat 4 races. I was also told it was a good course for beginners as it’s very wide and flat with no ‘proper’ corners.

The first race I went to, I was held up in traffic on the way and arrived 2 minutes before sign on closed, didn’t have any water or gels or a warm-up, so pretty much got straight on the bike and we were off. The first half a lap was at a pretty hard pace and I was second on to the front, thinking “If it stays like this I’m going to struggle!” but it turned out that the chap who led off the line was a little excitable and obviously I didn’t know any better so just kept with it. Things settled down and I ended up doing a fair amount of work on the front as the vast majority of people didn’t seem all that keen to work. I’d been told that it was a circuit where people sit in and wait for the sprint and it’s really hard to get a breakaway going, but I at least wanted to challenge that and test myself against the rest of the field. So I worked a lot harder than I needed to probably, but learned a lot in the process about my relative fitness. The biggest lesson of the day though was to come at the end of the race. I was in a good position in the front of the bunch coming into the home straight, when another racing noob decided to start his sprint, adrenaline got the better of me and I followed him only to realise 30 seconds later that I was cooked and the finish flag was still a tiny spec in the distance!
30 riders, most of whom I hadn’t seen for the last 30 miles went past me, and then to make matters worse I clicked up a couple of gears to try to go again and my calf cramped up completely. I rolled across the line a few places from last and feeling really annoyed with myself that I got it so, so wrong.
Despite my frustration I took away three valuable (if a little obvious) things from the experience:
1.       Stay calm and don’t start your sprint 1km from the line!
2.       Get there in time to warm up a bit, and take some energy drink and a gel during the race to avoid cramps
3.       I had done more work than most and not found it that hard, so I definitely had the basic fitness to compete
I then had to wait a couple of weeks to race again due to other commitments and was dying to put what I’d learned into practice…
Come race day I arrived in time to warm up, had some energy drink and a gel with me on the bike, and promised myself to play it a bit smarter this time. The race went out at a decent tilt again and I slotted in to the front few, pushing the pace a bit in turns and tried to initiate a couple of breaks, as well as reeling in a couple when they went. I don’t think I could just sit in for the whole race like a lot of people seemed to, it’s far more fun to actually try some stuff even if it uses energy and doesn’t come off. If nothing else it’s good training! On the second last lap I toned down my effort, sat in for a while then made sure I was near the front as we came into the home straight. At the point where I decided to launch my sprint there were two other riders in front of me, so I had to push my way between them (sorry Massimo!) and managed to nick 3rd, despite having gone the opposite way to the week before by leaving it a bit too late.
Useful stuff I took away this time was:
1.       I could still try a bit in the race and not cramp up at the end as long as I was hydrated and fuelled properly and perhaps allowed a bit of recovery time on the last lap or so.
2.       I needed to think a bit more about the distance to the line in the lead out in order to time my sprint better
3.       I had to follow the right wheels and make sure I wasn’t boxed in when time came to launch
4.       I realised that if someone goes off the front, and you slowly reel them back in that benefits everyone except you and them. If you jump, at least you give yourself a chance of getting away and don’t just bring the whole bunch back. Maryka described Cat 4 at Dunsfold as “chase and sit up” and that sums it up pretty well I think!
So I arrived for my third race with 5 points to get to hit 3rd cat which meant a fifth place or better, but really what I wanted was the win. I played it pretty similarly to the previous week, except that I decided to try to use the wind to attack a few times, and resolved to time my sprint better. I started to push the pace from when we first turned into the wind and had the whole field strung out in a line for almost the whole lap, so on the next lap I went off the front and managed to get a gap and keep it until my tiring and the tailwind in the home straight meant the chasers hitched back on. I tried maybe twice more to get away; once with one other rider and another time when a gap appeared by chance with a group of  5 or 6 but we were reeled in fairly quickly. It’s definitely hard to break away at Dunsfold without a few people really committing and getting organised straight away.
I ended up on the front into the wind for a few laps, mostly because it felt stupid that we were doing 17mph in a race and I’d even go so far as to say that I’ve begun to enjoy cycling into a headwind as a result! On the second to last lap I drifted back through the bunch to get a bit of recovery before the inevitable bunch sprint. Coming round the last few corners on the last lap I was positioned nicely at about 6th in the bunch and when the pace started ramping up towards the line I just hopped on to the fastest wheel until someone else looked like they were going quicker, then jumped on to their wheel instead, making sure I was on the edge of the bunch so I had space to go by them when the time came. With maybe 100m to go, I launched my sprint and managed to pass the few riders ahead of me, taking first place.

It was great to get the win and the points to move up to Cat 3 obviously, but I think the most satisfying thing was that I managed to put what I’d learned into practice.
Also I’d like to highlight for any other aspiring racers that all the racing, the commuting, and the weekend training rides leading up to this were all done on my “iron horse”, a 3 year old Specialized ‘endurance geometry’ bike which cost £800 new and is still running the Tiagra groupset. I will confess that I borrowed a pair of deep section rims from a friend for the last race, but I’d say that was more of a luxury than a necessity and didn’t cost anything. 🙂 So you don’t need loads of expensive kit to get into racing, just a well maintained bike, a bit of hard work and a competitive streak! 🙂
It just remains to say thanks to the people who encouraged me and helped me out with advice, kit, my lucky gel, and company on training rides. Oh and also to mention that I seem to be getting some serious peer pressure to shave my legs now, so any advice on products and techniques such as where to stop shaving to avoid the “hair shorts” look would be gratefully received!
Cheers and happy racing!