Waking up just fifteen minutes before I was supposed to leave and gingerly drawing back the curtain from the comfort of my snug bed to reveal the sprinkling of snow falling outside, I retreated back under the duvet. I wasn’t going to make the race today after all.
It wasn’t the end of the world. I hadn’t exactly had the best preparation; going to sleep in the early hours of the morning and my race bike was still in bits in the bike bag from Tenerife. And the snow? Surely riding to Bath in minus temperatures was a bad idea anyway, let alone racing.
After five minutes or so as I started to come to, the realisation of how ridiculous I was being dawned on me. Not only was there the Women’s 234 Cat race this week at Odd Down, as part of the Winter Series, but also a Women’s Go Race beforehand. From what I understood, this was a beginner’s coaching session, run by British Cycling and the hosts Westbury Wheelers, aiming to get more women into racing. Just what I was looking for.
A manic dash ensued to get kit, bike and myself fed and ready. What do you wear to race, and what on earth when it’s minus figures?! I plumped for layers; my thickest and cosiest baselayer, a jersey and my dhb waterproof winter jacket, with long roubaix tights. Riding the summer bike, I had to wear my brilliant white summer shoes with SPD-SL cleats rather than the MTB pedals I opt for in winter, which I soon learnt don’t get on well with thick neoprene overshoes.
Laden with bananas, flapjack, tools and spares as well as my British Cycling membership card and my £20 entry, I spun off as fast as I could along the Bristol to Bath cycle path. I’m sure it was a good warm up – and boy did you need it on a day like today – but I was constantly panicking about whether I’d make it in time for the Go Race. With ten minutes or so to spare, I signed on to the Go Race and the Women’s 234 at the Odd Down HQ, pinning the number 11 to my back with the help of the Commissaire from British Cycling.
The women’s Go Race was run by British Cycling’s Felix Young. Thirteen of us lined up by the start line to follow Felix’s lead, a number that’s growing week on week. There’s a real range here too, from proficient riders just getting into the racing scene to relative beginners, all eager to taste what crit racing is all about. For just £2 in advance or £5 on the day, it’s accessible to all.
The first task, Felix explained, was an individual one lap TT. We set off in ten second intervals and Felix timed how long each of us took to ride a single lap, so he could assess our current ability. The 1.5km cycling circuit at Odd Down is U-shaped tarmac track, with two tight hairpin bends to negotiate, so the practice is invaluable.
The next two exercises familiarised us with the sort of contact you might experience during crit racing. Many are experienced and confident riding in a group, for example on a club run, but this tends to be much more ordered, and of course much less competitive than racing. Under Felix’s instruction, we lapped riding closely in pairs, practicing placing one hand on our partner’s shoulder or touching elbows.
The final part of the Go Race coaching was a mini crit race, designed to simulate the feel of racing in a non-competitive environment. As the British Cycling Commissaire pointed out, launching straight into Cat 4 or mixed category races can be very daunting and scary, so this was a fantastic way for women of all abilities to get a taste for the discipline.
A handicap system set off those with the longest one lap TT time first, followed by groups of two to four in order of speed. At the back with SAS Karen and Westbury Wheelers Liz, we had quite some catching up to do to reach those women who set off first. Our coach emphasised here how important it would be to work together, so we quickly devised a plan and set off in pursuit of the other riders.
Taking turns on the front of our triplet, then communicating with a flick of the elbow and rotating to the back, we worked our way past each group of women gradually over the first two of our three laps. Into the final lap, I took a turn on the front first, followed by Karen and ending with Liz. Turning the final left-hand corner up and onto the finishing straight, I wondered whether we ought to stick together and finish as a three, or go for a competitive sprint. ‘It’s a race after all’, I thought, and as I saw Karen pull out to go for it, I clicked up a couple of gears and reached out of my saddle to get as much power into my sprint as I could. Karen had a few metres of lead but with all I had, I steadily gained ground to pip her on the finish line.
Cooling off around the top loop of the circuit, we congratulated each other for our awesome team work. For me that’s one of the best things about women’s cycling; whether it’s in a cyclocross race, on a club run or cheering on from the sideline, women tend to be so supportive, no matter how competitive it may be. Rolling back to our start we were applauded, and unbeknownst to us handed three white envelopes. I had never dreamt that this little race would carry prize money, enough to cover not only this session but also the entry fee for the following race too! Shocked, it didn’t really sink in that I’d won my first race ever.
Women’s 234 Race
There wasn’t long before the women’s 234 cat race, time for just a few laps to keep warm as the snow continued to fall, but thankfully not settling. Nineteen of us lined up near the start line for the Commissaire’s briefing, and today something a little different. With a range of abilities from novice 4th Cats to much more experienced 2nd Cat racers, the race would be handicapped, with the mass of ten 4th Cats setting off first, followed a minute later by the five 3rd Cats and finally the two 2nd Cats.
What struck me most at the start of the race was the pace and how I felt. Unlike recent cyclocross races, where you’re constantly maxing out on heart rate and effort mostly on your own for the best part of an hour, here there was so much benefit from being in the bunch. Although I was less than confident on the wet hairpin corners and chose a wide line, losing a little time and pushing to catch back on the group, there were also times where you could freewheel for a few seconds. It was completely different to my only other experience of crit racing at Westpoint, Exeter, where I was quickly off the back of the bunch in the first couple of laps.
It took quite a few laps of the circuit for the 3rd Cat racers to catch up with us, with the 2nd Cats joining the bunch just a few laps later. Rather than push on again, they stuck with the group, resting for a while. There were several attacks at the front, but they didn’t last due to the hairpin bends.
Looking down to check how long we had left, I could hardly believe that I was still in the race. Expecting no more than a lap or two, I was very pleasantly surprised that I was still in the game. At the back of the bunch, but still in there nevertheless. The pace seemed to increase with the more experienced racers starting to push on harder, and a couple of riders couldn’t sustain the pace and dropped off. It felt hard, so hard, but the thrill of being there, the cheers from the sidelines and the thought of finishing the race was enough to fuel the legs to keep going.
It’s a privilege in women’s racing to be able to ride alongside much more experienced and fitter riders in mixed category races, although not such a benefit for them. A few wobbles and altercations in the pack as we pushed on with the final three laps approaching. After falling off the back with a couple of others after one hairpin, I thought that would be the end of my race. Next thing I know I’m sitting on the front, not knowing what on earth I was doing!
Two laps to go. It’s still relatively steady. A bunch sprint at the end perhaps? Even in the last lap I’m hanging on to the bunch, the strongest riders seem to be positioning themselves tactically. Round the final corner and off they go; up and out of the saddle, pushing as hard as legs would allow. Most of the riders pulled off well away from my efforts, but as I remembered from cyclocross, it’s not over until it’s over. Approaching the finish, I’m amazed that I’m not last (my usual spot), and push hard to catch the next rider on the line, despite the fact that I can see she’s already stopped trying.
Elated, I joined my good friend and fourth to the line Meg for the warm down lap. To me, it’s a victory lap; coming in beyond the points threshold is irrelevant, as is finishing 14th. Simply finishing is winning in my mind, far beyond my expectation, especially managing to keep up with such accomplished riders for the majority.
All I can say is to those of you who think you can’t; you can. Who knows, you may even be pleasantly surprised with how you get on.
More information on the Odd Down Winter Series here.
Find the Total Women’s Cycling article here.