I knew that it would be hard, but I also knew that it would be easier on my new cyclocross steed rather than the chunky hardtail MTB that I had ridden my first race with just a fortnight before. But what I had not anticipated was one of the toughest rides of my life, squeezed into forty relentless minutes.
Preparation is king
In terms of preparation for a race, I’d pretty much ticked off all of the don’ts. This included three pints of cider in Small Bar, a very late night (or rather early morning) to bed, a late breakfast just before the race and leaving late so that I was panicking pedalling across Bristol, Hengrove being much further than anticipated and fearing that I wouldn’t make it there in time to sign on. All this left little time to have a quick lap of the course, but more importantly I wasn’t mentally primed.
On the whistle
The vets and women were racing together today, separately from the seniors. A bunch of forty five vets set off first, with us six women held back and started one minute later. I didn’t know any of these ladies but that didn’t stop us having a chat, it was Kelly’s first cyclocross race and she was eager to start with nervous anticipation.
The whistle sounded and off we went, always keen and strong at the start, fresh legs and a fresh course (although holding up well this time of year, we’ve yet to have enough rain to help churn up the track into a mud bath). With a few spectators at the start, it always spurs you to push harder. Today was only my third ever cycle race, second cyclocross race, and first on the CX bike, so I was hoping again just to get through the race and gain more experience, so the feeling of starting off the first lap in second place chasing the leader was amazing. I can do this, I thought, I am strong enough, this will actually feel like a race today with tactics and chasing rather than my first experience of just hanging on for dear life.
It was all going so well until I overcooked the corner and nearly ended up in the tree. In the buzz of it I stumbled and put a foot down, awkwardly heaving myself and the bike around the trunk and back on two wheels, grinding off again in too high gearing. Back down to fourth or so in our little ladies bunch, but no matter, I can make it up or hold on in there, or so I thought.
The course at Hengrove was mostly flat, no major hills at all and just a set of three barriers to dismount for but some of the more able men were bunnyhopping them. Almost all of the course was on grass, some quite long, which was deceptively draining, the added resistance sapping the strength from my legs. Most notable of all was the twisty-turny course (technical term there), where after every grassy straight there was a tight set of chicanes to navigate through a few hazardously placed trees or a maze on the grass marked out simply by banner tape. For someone who’s not used to the technical side of cyclocross, this soon slows you down, no matter how fit you may be.
We continued around the track, now spacing out as the strongest and more experienced riders ploughed on out front. Unlike my first week at Netham, there were very few spectators, just a few couples or men getting ready for the seniors race, watching either at the start line or analysing my (lack of) skill as I dismounted and ran over the barrier set.
Soon it was just me and Clare behind as the rest of the women were gone, and it was now that I started to feel a little worse for wear. I probably shouldn’t wear a heart rate monitor, because seeing your heart beating at over 100% of your maximum is never a consoling thought. It was tough, giving everything I could to just hold on, Clare right on my tail, slowing right down on every set of corners and then pushing on again along the grassy straights.
I expect that I would make a terrible racer, as I looked back over my shoulder to Clare and cheered words of encouragement. ‘We can do this’ was not only positive self talk for me, but I also thought that if we stuck together we would feel stronger and be more likely to get to the end of the forty minutes of pain alive. I soon learnt that although that might have been helpful for me, Clare was much stronger and didn’t need me at all. After a lap or two she pushed on past and sailed off into the distance.
I was despairing. From starting off so well and feeling so eager to race my new bike, the only thing I wanted to do now was to abandon it, to hop off where no one was looking, hide in the bushes and cry until it was all over. I had slowed right up, motivation all gone, legs tired and starting to feel a little woozy. Fifteen or twenty minutes in perhaps, still so much further to go. Will ‘Hib‘ and Dom ‘Yellow Steel‘ had just turned up, racing next, and were cheering me on between the trees. If it wasn’t for them being there for me and having been so patient and encouraging at our CX practice earlier that week I would have been even more tempted to just give in. But I couldn’t let them down.
I’ve never been a quitter but I have abandoned rides three times before in my two year long cycling career, twice completely out of my depth on club rides and once when heading out with friends but more mentally out of my depth. Today was going to be another one of those days. But what would I tell people? Everyone had wished me well on my first race on Wout the Colnago that I’d been proudly introducing this week, and they were eager to hear how I’d got on. What would be my excuse? There was nothing wrong, it was supposedly a relatively easy course, I had the right tools for the job, it was a gorgeous afternoon – the only problem was me.
The doubt hit me like a tonne of bricks. I had been making so many improvements in my cycling over the summer and really building my confidence and now it seemed like it was being shot to pieces. I was all consumed by negative thoughts – you’ll never make a good cyclist – you’re too fat to race – everyone thinks you’re rubbish.
I was lucky enough to hear sports psychologist Ali Mahoney speak the day before at the Womens Adventure Expo. One method that she described was the practice of positive self talk. As she quoted Henry Ford;
Whether you think you can, or that you can’t, you’re probably right.
It was then that the decision was made – for me to win today it would simply entail finishing the race. This didn’t mean easing up though, I would still push on despite feeling like I wanted to hurl the lovely tropical granola all over the track.
Every word of encouragement helped, from more of the seniors turning up to confused dog walkers and families, every little cheer lifted my mood and some people were even lucky enough to receive an exasperated smile. With just two laps to go I could have jumped for joy as I heard the sound of my good friend Meg scream at me from the start line – she’d made it here to watch even after racing herself in a crit that morning in Bath.
The corners were coming easier now, I was trusting the bike more and more, leaning further in as the boys had been trying to teach me. I just had to keep telling myself it was nearly over. At last the bell rang and the final lap sign ready as I crossed the timing mat for the penultimate time. The course thinned out as I was no longer being lapped, all the strong veterans were already finished and starting to recover. Thrilled to have nearly finished, one last time over the barriers and towards the finish with a grin plastered across my face.
Finally over, for today
That chequered flag waved just for me. I may have been last but in my mind I was a winner – just hanging on in there and persevering even though I felt horrendous was achievement enough. It’s about setting realistic goals and expectations, being kind to yourself and remembering that you’ve got to start somewhere.
Roll on next week for another hour of pain.
Click here for the Western League Cyclocross and more info on how you can get involved.