My first road race: expectations surpassed

Road races differ when compared to crit races, because a criterium is generally an hour long, often held on a purpose built course (with the exception of town centre crits etc), and always on closed roads.

Having graduated from time trialling (10, 25, 50, 100 miles all ticked off..) I had an inkling I might enjoy road races because they’re longer, and typically less surge-y. Good for someone who has been working on their kick, but will always be a little bit of a diesel. However, the introduction of pot holes, gravel, and white lines to remain within adds a technical element that meant I’d stuck to crits up until the weekend just gone.

Saturday: Lee Valley Crit

Having taken a couple of weekends off bunch races (for TTs and general ‘life’) I was a bit disappointed with 7th at the Hackney CC crits at Lee Valley on Saturday.

The 50 minute women’s race was notably surge-ridden – with riders like WNT’s Keira McVitty letting the pace slow right down before pelting it off the front. I probably raced a bit negatively, chasing a couple down and not really making any attempt to bridge. I did take my turns when we got small gaps in an attempt to help break the field up – and I know if I’d not chased, someone else would have – but I didn’t feel I’d raced that well. Still 3 points to my name and a good enough position with a fairly competitive top 5. And a vow to try harder to break and bridge next time.

Top ten were…

1. Holly Hoy – Cycle Team OnForm
2. Keira McVitty – Team WNT
3. Christine Robson – VC Londres
4. Elisabeth Anderson – CC London
5. Claire Hammond – Twickenham CC
6. Shula Hagan – CC London
7. Michelle Arthurs-Brennan – Norwood Paragon CC
8. Elizabeth Hughes – CC London
9. Agata Woznicka – Sunday Echappée
10. Emma Claxton

Sunday: MK Road Race

Collecting prize winnings for 5th 🙂 Image: John Lloyd

I was still undecided if I was going to race the Milton Keynes Central Road Race on the Sunday until – well, Sunday. It seemed like a good first race – a nice healthy but non intimidating number signed up in advance, 2/3/4, and fairly close – so no danger of driving 3 hours to ride for 20 minutes.

I felt ok on waking up, weather looked good (didn’t fancy a first road race in the rain), traffic looked good for 1pm start. No real available excuses, even my kit bag was already packed from the day before (with last night’s hand washed skinsuit hanging in the shower).

Lovelo Squadra Donne had about six riders (of 38 starters, I think – though only 29 finishers so maybe some DNS as seems like a high DNF..). I went for a warm up recce with two really friendly members of the Lovelo crew – killed the time by asking for any key tips they wished they’d known in advance of their own debut road races. Nothing major – just to watch out for riders crossing the white line, try to sit in the first third to keep out the way of any potential crashes or drop-worthy gaps in the peloton.

A domestic UK road race is generally held on an open road, but there’s a lead car, a couple of motor bikes, and a follow car, with marshals ‘controlling’ traffic at junctions. We sat behind the lead car for the three mile stretch to the start. The neutralised zone felt neutral for all of a mile, before the pace sped up. Riders were moving up on every side – and I found myself going backwards.

If you squint real hard, you can see me – right at the back of the picture…

Image: Simon Blackwell

We rode through the start/finish, and I was – frankly – a bit surprised – I thought we’d already started. It felt like it. I found myself chasing hard on a few stretches, losing ground and believing it was only a matter of time before I was dropped.

However, around half way through the first lap, I followed a rider up to the first third, and made it my mission to stay there.

A few attempts to snap the cord were made on the first lap. I almost ended up on the wrong side, allowing a little bit of complacency to delay my reaction as the rider in front of me drifted back. I rode around and jumped onto the back of a group of about five break-hopefuls. However, it wasn’t long before we became aware of the presence of the bulk of the peloton, perhaps a little reduced in size.

I dodged a falling bottle – a green bidon belonging to a girl who only had one. Very nearly had it roll into my path, but thankfully the camber of the road saved me. Corners felt fine, the front riders would generally smash it out the bends to try and drop some from the rear, but I was always close enough to them that I didn’t have to go far into the red.

There was a prime on lap two – so I expected a surge towards the line, which was of course located at the top of a short 200m ramp. I kept myself around 5th wheel, and as expected, the front four attacked to battle it out for the prime. My goal: don’t get dropped. And I didn’t. Job done. In fact, I was somewhere in the top 10 – that did seem like a good omen, but I was keen not to get ahead of myself (sometimes a race seems like it’s going super well till the bit which actually matters, eg last 200 metres).

The attacks quietened down significantly for lap three (of 4) – the peloton had reduced in size from 38 to around 20 (at a guess), we had a stiff headwind on some longer straights and a fairly regimented chaingang lasted for about one rotation before the bunch resumed a random allocation of position.

By the end of the second lap the group had reduced in size significantly. Image: Simon Blackwell

At some point, one rider decided to use a short ramp as a springboard, emerging over the white line and flying past the bunch – the road was straight and she had a good view – which made the decision even more remarkable since there was oncoming traffic. Not smart – but perhaps she’d not seen the risk on the way. She cleared the group with plenty of time, but received a lot of tutting.

The bargain I’d made with myself was just to use the race to learn – I’d hoped it’d break up significantly and I’d find myself in a small group – a nice setting for teaching myself the ropes. The race had indeed splintered, but I was still with the lead group as the bell went.

There was one rider from Fusion RT, I had her down as a potential for the win (I was right), so did my best to stick to her rubber, putting me about 4th wheel. One rider did have the same idea, continuously trying to intercept. In the end I rode under her on a corner (to be fair, there was tons of room) and found my space on the Fusion wheel well cemented.

There was a gentle, but notable, climb in the last mile, followed by a flat stretch and a further 200m ascent. There was a major surge on the first climb, but sitting  in the wheels it was fairly easy to hold on. Come the final stretch, it was every girl for herself – one rider went, the rest of us followed.

Plan: start on Fusion’s wheel, try to lose as little ground as possible. Image: Simon Blackwell

I expected more wheels to come past me on the uphill finish – but instead found my own taking ground on others – crossing the line in 5th, gulping for air.

The top ten were:

1 Tina Hartwright – Fusion RT/Fierlan
2 Sophie-Jo Wylie-Morris – Backstedt/Hotchillee
3 Fiona Redding – Radeon-Bike Science
4 Alice Lethbridge – Lovelo Squadra Donne
5 Michelle Arthurs-Brennan – Norwood Paragon
6 Jennifer Allum – PMR@Toachim House
7 Ingrid Matthews – Hitchin Nomads CC
8 Jennie Tillott – GB
9 Hannah Graveney – Liv-AWOL
10 Danielle Forshaw – WyndyMilla

All in all – for a first go that was really all about learning and ‘not getting dropped’ – pretty good. The result puts me on 25 points too (once BC gets my page updated) – which means Cat 2 license is in the bag for 2018, now, too.

Not only that, but I can stop telling people I’ve ‘still not done a road race’.  I feel like I’ve been cycling long enough that these milestones should be done and dusted, really.

Finally. I genuinely believe that a winter of club runs with Norwood Paragon helped me out with the technical elements of negotiating uneven surfaces, gravel and the such at speed. I spent most of the colder months pointing out that the Sunday club run didn’t differ that much (for me) to a women’s race in speed or intensity. I’m not sure I made it home with the bulk of the group on so many occassions but it was excellent preperation – especially since in a tight group of two lines, any instance of not holding your line is in fact more prominent than in a road-consuming bunch. (FYI we’ve got a group of new female members and very keen to recruit more…)

Report Neutral Service CC here 

Images You can find Simon Blackwell’s here and John Lloyd’s here

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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