Back racing bicycles in the real world

I know it might come as a surprise, but aside from spending too much money on fancy cycling kit and generally being a bit of a knob on a road bike, I do actually quite enjoy racing. Specifically, time trialing. Where once I treated TTs as extra training for non-drafting triathlon races, these days I guess I’m what they call “a tester”.

I’ve done a bit of cyclocross (enjoyed it, I was crap) but I’ve always been too scared to try my hand at crit racing or road racing. Not because I’m a wuss on a bike (far from it) but because I know I’d have to start at the bottom and I’ve heard and seen too many horror stories of crashes to really want to risk it. I trust my own bike handling skills, I just don’t trust all those other Cat 4 racers!


So I’ll stick to Time Trialing, at least until next ‘cross season.


Of course, like a lot of places around the world, we’ve been on lockdown in the UK since March. I managed a cheeky early-season 10-mile TT on the Castle Combe racing circuit in February and then another on the ‘Bentley’ course in Hampshire in March (got a course PB), but then all the races started to get cancelled.


No one was more upset than the founders of the new cycling club I’d joined, Newbury Velo. The club was founded with time trials as one of its core target activities, so it was gutting to see the races wiped from the calendar.

Undeterred, our founders stayed in close contact with the TT governing body in the UK, Cycling Time Trials, and as lockdown was easing they secured special dispensation from the CTT to hold two socially-distanced events prior to the official restart of local club-level TTs (open events are still on hold) on July 13th.


And so nearly 60 of us signed up to race the not-especially-fast H10/3 10-mile course just outside Newbury on Monday 6th July. The organizing team did a fantastic job and everything went smoothly, from the temperature checks and number collection, through to the timed exit of the HQ car park and allotted arrival times at the individual holding pens at the start. All a bit weird, but if that’s the price of racing I’ll take it!


After months of ‘racing’ (badly) on Zwift, it felt great to be outside again. Real bike, real wheels, real rider weights, real aerodynamics, real conditions. Zwift racing had suggested my power was ok (even if, in all honesty, I struggle in the ‘category A’ that I’m forced to race) so I was keen to put that to the test.


My time to go and, thanks to social distancing, no push off. So naturally I fumble the pedal clip-in a little, but I’m soon on my way and, thanks to the slightly downhill start, picking up speed well.


I look down at the Garmin and I’m about 40 watts over FTP. Woah Nelly, better rein that in before you explode, especially as I know there’s a short-but-sharp hill to climb in a mile or so. I settle on a touch over estimated 20-minute power, willing to push it a little and see what I’ve got left for the return leg (back into the headwind and slightly uphill, I probably should have rethought that strategy).


But it feels good! Outside again, 45kph or more. Head down in a tight TT tuck (shoulder still sore from where I’ve torn my rotator cuff, but man up). I can’t see anything ahead when I really tuck though, so I have to be careful. I’m not sure if it’s the new contact lenses I got a few months ago or I’ve got the helmet on slightly wrong, but the top of my vision is a bit skewy and disorienting, so I have to hold my head a little higher to get my vision straight. Not perfect, not a disaster.


I keep telling myself to keep pushing hard, that this is where I can make up some time. I try to fool my brain into believing that the 20 or so seconds it will take to navigate the roundabout that is the turning point on the course will be sufficient to give me enough rest to attack the second half of the course.


It isn’t, of course, and that headwind makes its presence known immediately. What was nearly 50kph in one direction is now barely 38kph in the other. Better dig deep.

There’s a point on the course, about 13km in, that looks (through the distorted vision of a TT helmet visor) just like the point that’s at 15km. So it’s always disappointing when you realise there’s still 3km to go, not 1km. But it’s time to dig deep.


And that uphill in the last 2km that always feels like a decent descent in the other direction doesn’t quite feel so bad when you know you’ve got three minutes or less of racing left to go. Then you try to get as much speed as you can down that same sharp hill you attacked in the first five minutes of the race. Sometimes I can hit 70kph down there. Not tonight; that headwind.


I see 22 minutes looming close on the Garmin. Dammit, I really wanted sub-22 tonight, but the return leg has been slower than I wanted (couldn’t quite match the power of the outbound leg, no surprise).


Now just dig deep and try to remember where the finish line actually is. I always forget and I always leave too much in the tank. I sprint too late.


I cross the line, shouting my number as I go, in 22:12 [official]. A new course PB by a mere seven seconds, but I’ll take it. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a course power PB by about 15 watts. And given I messed up the last kilometer, that bodes well.


My time is good enough to take first place among the club riders but such was the popularity of our event that riders came from far and wide to participate and I only scrape fifth place overall (out of 55 or so).


Still, we are up and running! And the next race is this coming Sunday. Can’t wait.


Big thanks to the organisers and volunteers; literally couldn't do it without you!

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