Sunday, June 17, 2012

Insanely long national 25 report

A week on from the national 25 and I think I've finally got my thoughts together. It was definitely a case of mixed feelings about the event which was run on the A19 in North Yorkshire last Saturday.

There were some real highlights - elements of my own ride, which netted me 9th plus a national age medal for fastest 40+ rider; the battle for the win between Hutch, Alex Dowsett and Matt Bottrill, which eventually fell to Hutch with an amazingly good ride - one of his best ever; Julia Shaw's win in the women's, despite being affected by the day's events.

Collecting my national 25 age medal from Paul Curran and Sheila Hardy.
Photo: Mark Holton
Not good - and thankfully not worse - was the incident involving Jane Kilmartin who was hit by a driver and sustained some serious but not life threatening injuries. Also the weather was patchy at best and got quite bad for the last riders - me included. It was a real balance between braving the risks or staying safe and I wasn't happy with myself in the days afterwards for choosing the former.

Mark and Chas and a few others did the sensible thing and either didn't start or pulled out. It's a tough call to make as a rider, especially if it's an event you've targeted the whole season. Hutch clearly wasn't happy but he still raced ... and won.

Why do we do it? I think that although self preservation is a strong instinct, and it does kick in, there's also the risk taking for status instinct that can be even more powerful at times. As I've found, it's very hard to override this when you're in race mode. And having driven a bloody long way from Bath I really didn't want to pull the pin. I survived and had a pretty decent race but I've also been thinking hard about what to do to reduce or eliminate the risk in future in similar circumstances. More on that later.

Getting the race head on

I had been keeping an eye on the forecast during the week and it looked iffy, but you can never tell unless you're there. I was nervous because there didn't appear to be a reserve course so if it rained, tough - we had the choice of racing on a busy dual carriageway or not at all. The organisers and promoters have the power to call an event off, which happens relatively frequently in opens, but (as I subsequently found out) hardly ever in national championships.

I got there early while it was windy and there were reports of some heavy showers at the south end of the course, but I didn't know how bad and anyway the event was still running. Derek said that the road at the south end was rougher so spray wouldn't be a problem. The north end was smooth, however - rain there wouldn't be fun.

Then I saw Ryan Mullen's time of 48'48 to win the junior event and thought 'wow, he really turned it on', and figured that the top men would be in the 46 minute territory. I wasn't far out in the end.

Which wheel? I opted for the Enve - good choice
The women didn't post particularly fast times compared to the juniors, perhaps because the wind was more unfavourable but it was hard to tell. Julia won in a solid 54'57 from Ciara Horne (56'48) and Rebecca Slack (57'14). The news had in the meantime come through about the incident involving Jane and, given that one lane was coned off, we wondered whether that would be it for the championship. But no, the show went on - there was sufficient gap between the women's and men's events for her to be taken to hospital and the road fully reopened.

The wind dropped and the rain clouds threatened but didn't break. It was starting to look like ideal racing weather in fact. I warmed up for half an hour, feeling OK and now looking forward to getting on with it. Number pinning, general zipping up, suiting and booting followed, then the final 15 minutes before the start to complete the warm up. That felt good and I was ready. And the weather looked to be holding.

It'll dry up...
The start was in a lane, then you joined the A19 after a few hundred meters. Once on the DC I got up to speed and tried really hard to rein back my power. It's so important to relax at the start otherwise you will invariably overcook it. 5 minutes in and it was a little high but I felt sufficiently relaxed to be in control, so I settled. It was a headwind to the turn so I knew I could get away with going a little harder but still, that strategy can backfire if you go too hard.

The sight lines are good on the A19 as it's a very straight road. I could see my minute man in the distance and took time checks to see how I was going and also to help relax. After 6 miles I'd nearly caught him and went by him on the main climb, still conscious of riding steadily but pleasantly surprised with how I was going. Nearly 30mph average to the bottom of the climb and that was with a headwind - yep, I'll take it. I was in a good frame of mind at this stage, now quite confident of doing a decent ride.

It got harder over the top of the climb on the rolling roads which were more exposed to the wind. And the rain, which started at the top. It was OK, I told myself, it was still bright and this is probably a passing shower, or maybe one local to this end of the course. It got harder and I was soaked, with the rain beating off my visor.

I picked up a lot of speed on the steady downhill to the turn, braked firmly before the exit road which was quite sharp and made my way gingerly around the corners, across the bridge, and over the other side. Another few sharp grabs of the brakes and I was able to rejoin the A19 heading north.

I was kinda looking forward to this bit because I knew it would be tailwind to the finish and I was still going strongly. Suddenly my visor steamed up and my visibility was limited. Sensory deprivation is not a good thing in any situation and in some ways that was the end of my race. I knew how to clean it (index finger, wipe, repeat) I knew I'd be giving up time each time I did so.

Going up the first drag was OK, trying to hold the speed above 26mph all the way which I nearly managed, but I'd gone too hard and got a stitch at the top, a rare thing in a TT. I tried to ride with it but the visor issue was bugging me too much so I backed off for half a minute, tried to breathe my way out of it, repeated this for the next 10 minutes or so until it went.

All the while the rain was hammering down and it was quite dark overhead. If anyone was going to make the decision to stop it was me, but I was locked on course with the desire to finish still quite strong. I trusted in my rear light, my white booties, my yellow number, the warning signs on the (few) sliproads and the other riders behind me, who would at least alert drivers to the fact that there was something going on involving bikes. There also wasn't that much traffic and one would hope that drivers pay more attention in the wet - I certainly do.

On the return leg, in float conditions...
Photo: Nick Hanson
At the bottom of Clack Bank on the way back I was committed to making it to the finish, it was only 10 minutes. But here on the smooth roads the spray was bad and I was doing a lot of mental finger crossing, as well as hoping for the best for my fellow riders still going out the other way. At this stage I was very uncomfortable being on the road but not terrified or perhaps rational enough to pull over at the first layby. I guess the prospect of freezing to death deterred me as I really hate getting cold. Looking at it objectively now, no-one should have been riding on that road in those conditions. I have changed my thinking for the future.

I had my computer on distance and was counting down the kilometres. It didn't help as I thought the finish was another mile off than it actually was! I saw it with about 50m to go and didn't even bother sprinting, it wouldn't have made a difference. I just felt slightly cheated that I didn't get my last mile windup in to add another watt to the average. Small things eh.

It didn't take long to get off the road, get showered and warm and look at the damage in the HQ. By the time I saw the results board the race had been decided with Hutch taking it from Dowsett by a small margin and Matt finishing third. Quite an astounding result given that Dowsett wasn't there to lose and he knocked out 410-415W to finish second. But as Hutch said, he concentrated on the details and rode his own race right till the end to pull back Dowsett in the closing miles. Astonishing.

I felt for Matt, who'd done the best 25 of his career but still been beaten by 1'35 by Hutch. All three deserved their medals.

I finished up 9th, which I wasn't disappointed with at all. Only 19 seconds off fifth too, so it was a close game and me losing my nerve on the way back might have cost me a few places. Still, I came away with an age group medal for best rider over 40 and I was pretty happy with that. And overall, my form seems to be coming back so I've got a more positive outlook on the 50 in a couple of weeks.

Reducing risk

This has been at the top of my mind for the last week, coupled with a considerable amount of discussion on the TT forum.

On the organisational planning side, course selection is very important. The suitability of this course for a national championship was raised by Hutch in the leadup to the event - it's got to be used for six or seven hours, which means traffic should ideally be at a minimum (or zero!) so as not to compromise the safety and the fairness of the race. It shouldn't be compromised by adverse weather (it's June, it rains) or if a dual carriageway course is used, then there needs to be a nearby backup just in case.

This is all possible (the 25 in Boroughbridge two years ago was excellent, last year's in Devon wasn't bad and next year's looks good on paper too). One of the good things that has come out of this year's 25 is that according to Cycling Weekly, CTT national secretary Keith Lawton will recommend to the national committee that the safety of a course in difficult conditions will be carefully considered.

For my own part, just as a general precaution, I'm going to ensure that I give my visor the proper treatment each time so that it doesn't fog up. I've been experimenting with a few things this week based on the advice of a colleague, and I think I've got something that actually works. When I'm convinced I'll post a video. I've also bought an RSP Astrum rear light, as I'm not confident in my Exposure Flare when it's wet.

I'll also take note of alternative ways back to the finish if I get into a similar situation with the weather like that on a dual carriageway again. As well as being mindful that there will be other races, no matter how far I've driven, and other people in my life who are counting on me staying whole. I would like it to be otherwise, given the emotions at play, but I don't want to have to rely on someone else to make a decision about my safety. Belt and braces.

Now had it not been for the traffic, I would have enjoyed Saturday's race a lot more. Rain can, at times, be a bit of a buzz when you're on a bike.

Coming up

En route to 20:02.941 in the Kinetic One 10 #4 at Castle Combe.
Photo: Neil Davies
I've not been idle since the 25, getting some quality training in this week and coming oh so close to one of my pre-season goals: to break 20 minutes for 10 miles on the Castle Combe circuit. I had a good ride in Wednesday's Kinetic One 10 to clock 20:02.941 to win it by 38sec from Ben Anstie. Not quite 30mph but at least more than 48km/h, which I'm pretty chuffed with considering there's zero traffic and nowhere to hide on that course. It was only 13 degrees but calm, which helped a lot I think. Great fun too.

Hopefully that bodes well for the national 50 in Cornwall in a bit over a week. I think should do well in it, provided the weather's reasonable and we all finish. Hutch and Matt will likely duke it out for the win and Julia's the fave in the women's, while Mark, Scott and myself should all be up there. A top 5 will take a good ride I know, but I appear to be back on the upward power curve again so fingers crossed.

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