Lessons from my first bike race
In the four or five years since I started riding a road bike I’ve never really been interested in racing. I’ve been more focused on getting fit while training for and completing challenge rides like the Around the Bay in Day or the 3 Peaks Challenge.
But a few months ago I started thinking I wouldn’t mind having a bit of a go at this racing caper. Why not do something with the fitness I’d developed for 3 Peaks? These thoughts became more frequent as Fletch and Douggie started getting a few crits under their belt — including a one-two in their first race — and as 3 Peaks drifted further into the past.
So when Fletch sent me an email last week about the opening round of the Northern Combine winter road season I decided it was time to have a go. Short, fast crits don’t really suit the sort of riding I’ve been doing in the past few years — endurance rides with plenty of climbing — but a road race, I figured, would be more my style.
Along with the Donvale Demon I signed up for E-grade in the Jack McDonough Memorial Scratch Race, not really knowing what to expect. A lot of people, in person and online, said the decision to race E was a silly one and that I should have been focused on D-grade, if not higher. Allow me to share a couple of choice tweets.
@dahondude thought the Demon and I were going to steal the show:
@quamen was slightly more direct:
And @MrDanielStrauss was most flattering with his extreme over-estimation of my ability:
The Demon and I spent several hours researching the course (see map below), sussing out the profile and getting acquainted with the main climb. But even still, either of us really knew what to expect from the race. A few people had suggested we’d be racing against ‘kids and old women’ but once the start list was published it became clear it wouldn’t be that easy.
I recognised a few of the names from Twitter and Strava and a bit of research uncovered some basic info about our opponents. It seemed we were up against quite a few riders with race experience, including some with D-grade and above races under their belt.
We were taking the whole thing very seriously. We spoke about our strategy for the course.
Take it easy over the first two laps. Suss out the strongest riders. Mark any moves they made. Ride for each other. Attack on the last climb. Share the prize money if it came to that …
So on Saturday morning the Demon drove us up to Kyneton. After a quick warm-up and a rider briefing, A-grade through D-grade headed off to the start of the Kyneton-Pastoria loop we’d read so much about.
Not us E-graders though. We stayed back at the Kyneton Saleyards and listened to a marshall explain the plan. Turns out we weren’t riding the Pastoria loop — a decision that had been made during the week by the race officials but not communicated to anyone until five minutes before the start. A real kick in the guts.
Instead we’d be riding an out-and-back course in the other direction. A course that was less than 50km long, compared with the 64km of the Pastoria loop we were scheduled to ride.
That less-than-50km-long course quickly became 24km-long when it was announced we’d by riding as a bunch for the first half of the ‘race’, practising our rolling turns.
Now I’m all for giving people a safe introduction to racing — it was my first race after all — but to turn up and be told about the changes just before the ride started wasn’t all that impressive. I’m sure the Demon and I weren’t the only ones that researched the course. In fact, I know of at least one rider who came up especially to recon the course.
It would have been nice to have been sent an email explaining the changes to the race plan. As it was, the Northern Combine website — even yesterday, two days after the race — still showed us E-graders racing the same circuit as the other grades.
So after the explanations finished and the three marshalls were pointed out (‘these will be the guys who will look out for you on the road and keep you safe’), we rolled out into the unknown.
As you would expect, the first 24km of the ‘race’ were very subdued with the marshalls yelling out instructions and at least a few of us just wanting to get stuck into the action.
But once we reached the turnaround point and we’d all bunched back up it didn’t take long for the pace to pick up. A group of three or four made their way to the front and I found myself trying to go with them.
Whether it was the frustration of the events earlier in the day or a desire to be at the front regardless of the cost, I found myself burning plenty of matches to keep up with the leading group. For what felt like kilometres I was just dangling off the back of a group of five, trying desperately to bridge those final 20 metres.
I’d put in a huge effort to try and reach them but to no avail — they just stayed the same distance away. I was expending huge amounts of energy and I had nothing to show for it.
Eventually I had to make a decision: I could give it everything I had for a minute or two and reach the group, in the hope that I’d be able to suck a wheel for a bit and catch my breath. Or I could sit up, wait for the main bunch (including the Demon who’d missed the split) and work with some others to reel in the break.
Whether it was out of sheer stubborness, an ability to spot the decisive move or a bit of naivety I decided to power on and gave it everything I had. Finally I caught up to the leaders and hung on for dear life as I tried to catch my breath (and let my heartrate return to a manageable level).
As it turned out, it was a great decision. Our group of five or six stayed away until the end of the race (all 24km of it) and we even managed to open up a gap of three of four minutes.
There were times when it was quite easy just to sit in the group and get dragged along but on other occasions — including a climb of probably 1km or so — I was doing everything I could just to hold on. I had hoped that my 3 Peaks training would have given me some advantage in the hills but I was at my absolute limit trying not to get dropped.
The top of the climb came just as I was about to give up the chase and as we all caught our breath, I managed to work my way back into the group.
As the kilometres wound down, one of the commissaires — hanging out the window of a car driving the opposite direction — yelled out ‘1.5km to go!’
There was no immediate reaction from the group but as we neared the ‘finish line’ things started to get a bit more hectic. There was a scramble as we all fought for a wheel and the pace lifted.
Tucked comfortably behind another rider I looked ahead and saw a flashing orange light a couple hundred metres up the road. ‘That must be it!’, I thought.
I looked back, jumped out of the slipstream of the rider ahead and gave it everything I had. I found myself passing the other riders in our small group quite comfortably and with around 30 metres to the line I was well clear. I was going to win my first bike race!
And then I looked ahead and saw another flashing light a little further up the road. A look back at the first light showed I’d been sprinting to be the first to reach a line-painting truck. The second flashing light? Another line-painting van.
As my head dropped I saw ‘197BPM’ in the bottom left corner of my Garmin unit; the highest heartrate I’ve ever seen. It was going to take me a little while to recover from that effort.
Sure enough, just beyond the second line-painting truck I could see a small bunch of people on the roadside and a chequered flag being held by one of the race officials. By this point I’d fallen behind two of the other riders in the breakaway (who might have been sprinting for the truck too, I couldn’t tell) and I was doing everything I could to hold off the rider just behind me.
I crossed the line in third place and quickly realised that one of the two riders ahead was a marshall; one of the three guys who had been singled out at the pre-race rider briefing. Beauty. Second place. I’ll take that!
But as it turned out, I wouldn’t. Despite being flagged up as a marshall, despite calling out instructions during the neutral section of the ‘race’ and despite not wearing a race number, the guy that crossed the line first was awarded first place and took home the prize money. Bizarre and, I might add, a little annoying. (More annoying for the fourth-placer-getter, Sam Slaney, who thought he was in the money!)
I took home $20 for third place — not quite enough to cover the cost of entry but certainly better than nothing! It’s a result I’m happy with but one that I was pretty much expected to get, if the above tweets and other comments are anything to go by.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect of the race but one of the things that really stood out was the intensity of the effort. Riding an event like 3 Peaks is a true endurance event. You don’t ride at a high intensity, but you do ride for a long time. Racing (or Saturday’s race anyway) seems to be done at a much higher intensity for a shorter period of time. It was a strange adjustment to have to make, both physically and mentally.
So, should I have raced E-grade? Or should I have started in D?
I think I made the right decision and despite the little frustrations along the way, I found the race to be a rewarding experience. I learned a lot about cycling, bike racing and about myself as a cyclist.
I learnt what it’s like to suffer at your limit with no real way of telling if it’s going to be worth it. I learned that I’ve got a reasonably powerful sprint. And I also learned that finish lines are designated by chequered flags, not flashing yellow lights on orange trucks.
I have no idea how well I would have gone in D-grade but I might just get to find out this weekend. I’ll probably pin on a number for the Hell of the West, an epic-sounding race near Bacchus Marsh that supposedly has a nasty 1km climb that averages 13%.
In closing I’d like to say thanks to Josh, Tim and Sam who all raced E-grade with me (along with another 15 riders or so) and who all came and said hi after the race. That was a nice touch and was greatly appreciated. Thanks too to Jem for having a chat at the presentation ceremony.
Thanks to Preben Kohler who came and found the Demon and I before the race to say hi. It was good to meet you!
Thanks to Ben Douglas (AKA the 3 Peaks Lanterne Rouge) and Peter English — A-grade riders who picked up fourth and fifth on the day, respectively — who took the time to speak to a lowly E-grader and impart some words of wisdom!
Thanks to Fletch for pushing me to sign up and for the terrific ride back to Melbourne after the races. Great idea mate!
And thanks to the Donvale Demon for the lift up to Kyneton and for motivating me to enter the race. I’m sure you’ll bounce back from Saturday and instil some fear into your competitors once again.
Until next time, stay safe on the roads and remember, don’t wind up your sprint until you see the finish line!