Race #2: Hawthorn Cycling Club criterium, D Grade

One of the many things that stands out to me about Tim Krabbé’s classic novel The Rider is the way he weaves stories from previous races into the novel’s main narrative. I’d like to imagine that Krabbé has notebooks full of scribble about the many hundreds of races he’s done throughout his career.

And while I’m not saying I’ll ever be as good a writer as Krabbé, and while my racing career is decidedly shorter (I’ve done two races) and less distinguished (I’ve got one 3rd place) than his, I do like the idea of penning something short about each of my race efforts. Even if I’m the only one that reads them.

The first time I pinned on a number was in April last year when I rode E grade in the first Northern Combine race of the series. It went well, I enjoyed it and I swore I’d be back. It took me 10 months to enter another race.

A few weeks ago I finally got around to buying a racing license and when Fletch said he and fellow eQuipo tranQuilo rider Marcus Nyeholt were going to give the Hawthorn Cycling Club criterium a go, I had no real excuse. Particularly given I was between jobs at the time.

I rocked up far too early and after a bunch of warm-up laps, and after meeting with Fletch and Marcus and signing up, it was showtime. The marshall ran through a bunch of rules and precautions and before I knew it — and before I was ready — he yelled ‘off you go!’.

Fletch gets his painface on. (Image: Dave Williams)
Fletch gets his painface on. (Image: Dave Williams)

I’d been nervous all afternoon — it was my first crit and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. But as soon as the racing started (after 1.5 neutral laps) that nervous energy was gone and I was simply focused on trying to hold the wheel in front of me.

It’s an interesting course, the old ‘Teardrop’. It’s roughly 1km around and less than half of that is flat. From the start/finish line there’s a long descent around a sweeping left-hand bend after which the road flattens off, climbs a little, then flattens off again. Then you approach a very tight left-hand bend (a neutral zone) after which it’s full gas up the hill to the finish. That climb to the line is probably more suited to my abilities than the pancake-flat course at St. Kilda, for example.

I’d ridden the Teardrop on my own a bunch of times in the past and even had a tilt at pushing as hard as I could. But racing in a bunch is something else entirely.

A few riders jumped early and I found myself involved in just about every attempt to chase them down. I’m not sure if I was just feeling twitchy or if I thought one of the moves would stick or if I was just riding like a rank amateur, but every time there was a jump from the bunch, I felt compelled to follow. But it seemed to work. No-one really got away and we managed to keep things bunched up nicely.

And while I was keen to jump across to anyone that attacked, I didn’t when Marcus launched off the front about a third of the way into the race. But, as with all the other attempted breakaways in the race, his didn’t last all that long before it was reeled back in.

Marcus leads the bunch up the climb. (Image: Dave Williams)
Marcus (red and white, left) leads the bunch up the climb. (Image: Dave Williams)

Predicatably, the race got harder as we went along. In the opening laps I felt like I was dancing up the short climb, comfortably near the front of the bunch. But with every lap it felt that little bit harder. And that climb, combined with the chasing down of attacks, only caused the fatigue levels to build.

photo (1)

But the pace wasn’t relentless. There were two spots on the course were the pace seemed to ease off every lap: at the bottom of the descent on the back straight, and into the neutral zone just before the climb. Those short bits of respite were a godsend.

And then there was the fact we were racing at the same time as B grade. More than a few times they raced up behind us and the marshalls in our race would tell us all to sit up and let B grade pass. It makes sense — it wouldn’t be fair if a handful of D-graders leapt onto the back of the B-grade field — but it did mean that everyone got a rest and that any potential moves were quashed.

I reckon I spent most of the race somewhere in the top 5 positions, though rarely on the front. But when it came to crunch time, with one lap to go, I managed to find myself out of position. I must have soft-pedalled for only 3 seconds after the descent and before I knew it I was being overtaken on both sides.

I’d heard that it’s vital to get a good position coming into that final corner but I was too far back to be any danger. I gave it everything I had up the climb and crossed the line in 9th.

The good news was that Fletch had gotten himself into a good position for the last corner and came over the top in 4th place (and very nearly 3rd).

I’ve only done one crit but I think I can say with some certainty that it’s a totally different type of riding compared with, say, a training ride with mates or even a mountain climb. The crits are short and fast with almost no time to think, and yet there’s so much strategy to consider.

I felt like I learned a lot about crit racing just from that one experience and I suspect that with a few more visits to the Teardrop, I might get a better idea of what’s needed to win a race like that.

Either way, I had a lot of fun on Wednesday and I’m sure I’ll be back to do it all again. Maybe this time it won’t take me 10 months.

Thanks to Dave Williams and the Hawthorn Cycling Club for the images you see above. To see all the images in this set — which includes all races from the night — click here.

Previous races:

23 Replies to “Race #2: Hawthorn Cycling Club criterium, D Grade”

  1. Hi Clay – congrats on the win! That’s was me who locked elbows with you. I was a bit rattled but you seemed so relaxed about, I figured “rubbing’s racing”! It sure can be pretty tight for position before and after the hairpin. See you next time 🙂

  2. Hey Matt great write up! I think you and I locked elbows at one point, there was some jostling up that hill with people trying hold wheels that weren’t there anymore. I remember when your buddy rode off the front and was surprised you didn’t chase because you seemed hungry for action, but there’s no point chasing your mates down, you’ll only help the bunch catch up! Let someone else do the work, there is always someone (usually half the peleton) and if anyone in D grade is strong enough to hold a break they’re going to win anyway. The racing and experience is addictive glad to see your passion.

    My tactics earned me my first ever crit 1s placet, so it was a memorable race for me!

    1. Thanks for your comment Clay, it’s much appreciated. And congrats on the win! 🙂 I reckon I’ve learnt as much about racing on that course in these comments as I did on Wednesday night! 😛 Come and say hi next time we race together. 🙂

  3. Great write up Matt, you should definitely do it again (every Wednesday @ 6pm during daylight savings). Agree with Dave’s tips (hey Dave), talk to riders in other grades for more tips. Your race craft will develop naturally as you race more and try different tactics. You’ll also figure the best positions to be on the teardrop circuit.

    Just wait ’till you take your first podium envelope home earned on the toughest crit circuit in Melbourne!

    Keep it up!

  4. I would endorse some of David’s comments above. As a rider with no sprint (I run the 100m in 17s) I can pretty much only win in a break. It is a source of frustration to me that in the lower grades, riders seem to panic like herds of wildebeest when someone attacks and chase them down before they take more than a 5 second gap on the bunch.

    There is no need. Anyone legitimately racing in D grade will struggle to hold a bunch off when out on their own. Why bury yourself chasing them down for the benefit of your competitiors (ok, there is more of a motivation if you are riding for a teammate, but I suspect there are rules against this)?

    This is meant as a general comment – I’m only using Matt’s example as an opportunity to bring it up, not criticising him as the practice is pretty widespread. In simple terms, let me win you killjoys 😉

  5. Ha ha! The thought did occur to me when I saw one eqcycling go and one stay. But breakaways are a forlorn exercise in that race as the Marshall comes out and pulls the feild back with B grade appear

  6. Good write-up, Matt. Racing will definitely help you in your new job…

    Your first few races paint a pretty familiar picture. Feeling like you need to chase down every attack yourself, being in a good position all race, except for when it matters: these are all rookie errors we’ve all made when starting out. You will learn the ways of the Wily Force as your racing career progresses.

    Although it sounds like the ways of the Wily Force are already strong with you. Here’s a Pro Tip: it’s probably best not admit to “collusion” (blocking on the front of the bunch while your mate attacks) in a public blog. Cyclists can be pretty emotional people – even if we’ve all been guilty of the same thing on occasion – so you don’t need to make a target out of yourself unnecessarily. Every rider in a race has the power to injure and maim their fellow riders, so let’s all try and get along, shall we?

    It sounds like it had no influence on the outcome of the race, which is probably why trolls haven’t set fire to your blog already!

    I hope you wear your race license down to a plastic nib by the end of the year.

    1. Hi David,

      Thanks very much for your considered comment. And thanks for the tip. I’ve removed the sentence in question because, on reflection, it sounds far worse than I meant it to, and far worse than I suspect my action was. I should have said that I just simply didn’t chase him down — which is the truth. It wasn’t like I moved to the front of the bunch, cut in front and then slowed things down. I was already there, in second position, with Marcus directly ahead of me, when he jumped. I just decided not to cover the move like I’d been doing previously. And in terms of safety, I don’t believe anything I did was unsafe. There was plenty of room on either side of me for riders to pass and any slowing I did was just the result of soft-pedalling very briefly (rather than hitting the brakes).

      Again, thanks for your comment, and for your advice. I’ve definitely taken it on board.

      All the best,


  7. That same race was my 6th after a small gap of 23 years! Its a blast. Timing is everything really. Like you I spent the whole race in the first 2/3/4/5 (was next to you for a while) until the corner of destiny when I took it to tight and that was it.

    And yes, the nerves the first few were huge! And it turns out its great training for hills as your at peak effort the whole time.

  8. Come and race Sandown and Port Melbourne Matty Boy!

    Haven’t got a new license yet after being in Brazil – will pick one up in the next few weeks and be ready to roll 😉

      1. Sandown is a long way out of the way for most people, but is a great circuit and the ride out is a good warm up. The ride home is then a great way to rack up your kms for the week.

        You seem to have a pretty accommodating boss, who would understand you knocking off a little early to get out there, which is the biggest challenge.

  9. Great first crit Matt, well done! I rode the teardrop for the first time last night on the commute, pretty tight course! I expect to see you and Fletch mixing it up the front in C grade soon!

  10. Well done and interesting read. I also get nervous during the day on a Wednesday, but only because I know how much it is going to hurt. The Kew criterium doesn’t allow you to hide, and every lap the sharp little kicker seems steeper and steeper. It is the only circuit that makes me want to throw-up!

    Get back out there next week, and Fletch, you better win mate!

    1. Hi Josh, thanks for this! I’m definitely keen to have a crack at some Northern Combine races, and maybe some of the state open ones too. As for Buller, haven’t really thought about it. But with all the long trips I’ve been taking up north in recent months, it might be a bit of a hard sell, but we’ll see …

  11. A great first crit Matt! Initially it’s a lot to take in for sure. The fastest guy doesn’t always win and it takes concentration to ride smart and safe. Looking forward to seeing you next time!

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