2016 Season: Racing Instead of Training and Breaking Through a Plateau


My phone keeps bleeping at me: ‘Odd Down Crit’ – like an hourly alarm. I keep just hitting snooze – a bit like I do when I’m on holiday and enter ‘Holiday’ in my diary with no specific time attached (causing my phone to remind me at random intervals that I am, in fact, not at work for most of the day except when that annoyingly newsworthy thing happens).

I’m not at Odd Down Circuit because I already got the points I need to upgrade my British Cycling license to ‘Category 2’ status – so I didn’t need to race today. Instead I went for a chillaxed spin at ‘how slow can you go’ pace to celebrate the impending laziness (followed by base miles) of the off-season.

It was never the plan to chase after a Cat 2 license this season. After 2015 turned out to be a bit of a bleurgh (plans to race triathlon, eternal running injury, new job adjustment et al) I discovered the track in November last year and intended to spend the season cutting my teeth on the velodrome at track league (not literally).

Spending hour upon hour riding nose-to-tail with a gaggle of large-quadded blokes that didn’t have any brakes meant that come spring I realised I felt more comfortable in a bunch (*surprise surprise!*). So thanks to the London Women’s Racing League training day I re-learnt a few lessons I’d tried to pick up during my failed crit racing year in 2013 (races ridden: about 3, number of six month coma inducing crashes witnessed: 1) and set about re-establishing myself as a bumbling Cat 4. Arm warmers round the wrists, flappy jersey, no glasses and everything (I seriously should know better, no excuses).

'Blending in' with the Army girls. Sans glasses.
‘Blending in’ with the Army girls. Sans glasses.

First up: several races in which I sat around the front, only to be swallowed up in the final metres by girls who had the foggiest what they were doing. A couple more when I was brutally dropped and spent the race leapfrogging between small groups (upwards and backwards). Oh and that one where I pedalled on the left hand bend at Cyclopark and NEARLY crashed (but didn’t).  Next up: first points after shadowing riding-bestie Cat to her first win. Then a ton of races, scooping up Top 10s here and there to claim 12 points required for a Cat 3 license and a further 40 for a Cat 2 license.

For someone whose early season plan was to ride track league (because there’s no corners and no one having any brakes feels safer), I guess it’s not self-horn-blowey to say I’ve done better than I expected at crit racing.

I did still ride track league, but only three rounds of the four event women’s series at Herne Hill. I skipped the ‘all together now’ men’s and women’s Wednesday night track league in favour of weekly training and learning – lost a bit of confidence after a crash mid season and it all being so new already I didn’t really feel ready for larger bunches (I’ll get there!). Racing in the women’s Bs I won an Elimination race and a Points Race, in the As I pretty much just hung on and learned I’d develop more race craft at the slower speed of the Bs. And that I SUCK at Scratch races and flying 500s.

Didn’t totally abandon time trials…

With all this on/off bunch racing – largely made up of easy in-bunch spinning alternated with ‘vom in your mouth’ sprinting – I kind of thought I would have forgotten how to time trial. So I totally avoided returning to my all-time favourite hurt-box discipline until August arrived and someone goaded me into turning up at Ye Olde Club TT in August. Turns out I’d not forgotten how to ramp my heart rate up to ‘just 20 beats off a heart attack’ and keep it there, because I grabbed myself a 1 minute PB on our 9 mile circuit.

That got the cogs ticking. I didn’t plan to time trial all year. But my TT 25 PB still sat at 1.00.36 on a really fast [read: drafting off almost motorway traffic]. I’ve done some 1.01s elsewhere but my yardstick course has always been the H25/8 where my PB was 1.02.19. So I signed up for an H25/8 in September. Unfortunately – dicey September weather really didn’t go my way and a real (Honest! Genuine! Weather warnings!) grind-inducing headwind on the outward bound leg resulted in just a 1 minute PB to give me 1.01.19.

Image: Sharon Reynolds - admittedly not actually from the H25/8
Image: Sharon Reynolds – admittedly not actually from the H25/8

Having spent the last few years genuinely celebrating miniature improvements of 5 seconds here and 7 seconds there, 1 minute was pretty cool. But it mainly served to re-ignite my desire to get closer to the Hour. I suppose the complacency of ‘maybe this is the best I can do’ had to crumble away when I realised the plateau of the previous years wasn’t ‘reaching my potential’ as I’d begun to believe, but more that I’d not been pushing myself training solo for TTs like I was on the track and in crit races.

Went well – more to do

For someone who spent 2015 feeling ‘screw it, I’m just not ever going to be fast’ and started 2016 planning to ‘ride track league and see how it goes’, getting my cat 2 license and a 1 minute 25 mile TT course PB represents – I guess – a successful season.

It’s not enough though – it never is. Sure, I’m proud and happy (British Cycling’s server is still recovering from my *refresh* fest on its points page) – but I’m all too aware that I’ve got a lot of points from doing a lot of crit races. Next year will no doubt be a learning curve and a hyperventilation fest if I decided to put my legs on the line and race some higher profile road races in bigger fields. And I’ve still not got that 1 hour 25 – which suddenly now seems so much more achievable if everything continues in the same pattern.

The best thing about this year?

Firstly: this season has mostly been about gaining confidence. Trying not to count the number of people who will beat me in the finish when still on the start line, trying to remember that I have as much right to the white line as the rider next to me. That’s a journey and my legs and I are getting there. Of course, legs getting stronger will always help out too: a lot of it might be in your head but much if it’s as simple as power to weight.

Secondly: I don’t think I’ve done a single pain cave Sufferfest session, solo hill reps session, or other non-sociable pre-planned ‘training session’ that’s all about thrashing my body into submission since spring.

I’ve not followed a training plan, I’ve not trained with power or ridden 2x20s or 4x10s or 5x5s. I’ve just dug deep hanging on to the Gabba tails of others at track most Wednesday mornings, tried to better my times on the local Hill Reps circuit on Tuesday lunch times (usually chasing or being chased by a MAMIL), and admittedly enjoyed quite a lot of sometimes hardcore press-trip rides with guys and gals just tons faster than me. Sure, it’s been hurt-ey at times, it always is if it’s working. But it’s been hurt-ey in a fun, confidence inspiring way. And it’s actually working. I hope it keeps working.

First up though? Off season. All the late nights, gin and chocolate ;-p

Time to recover now..
Time to recover now..

Published by michellearthursbrennan

I'm an NCTJ Journalist and work at Cycling Weekly. Previous to this, I was the Editor at Total Women's Cycling. I've also dabbled in marketing and copywriting - having been Marketing Coordinator and Social Media/Content Editor at Evans Cycles. My first job was working on a local newspaper.  I've written for a variety of titles on a freelance basis, too. I got into cycling when I entered my first triathlon in 2010. I now race crits, road races, time trials, and do a lot of track training for not very much track racing.

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