I've not raced a bike in over two years in a real race environment. Okay, I've done plenty of 'race simulations' with the FTR guys I now train with, but it's nothing like a real race with over forty riders in the field. Equally, I've never ridden a road race before, having picked up my Cat 3 licence in 2013 doing criterium races. This meant that in my first race of the season last night, I was feeling a little apprehensive to say the least. I've spent all winter cutting back on the junk miles of last season when my only goal was miles and instead focused on speed and power with the guys but even so, something never quite makes you feel comfortable before a race. Race day itself was spent frantically checking the weather forecast in the desperate hope that the impending rainstorm, or even snowstorm, would suddenly vanish from skies. It didn't. Once I was comfortable it was going to rain, I packed my full winter gear and headed out for the race. Unfortunately I was running late from a work meeting so in the truly glamorous heights of cycling had to get changed in the toilets at the village hall. Numbers pinned on, bottle filled, bike prepped and ready for a warm up I looked down and there were five minutes until the race started - damn.
Oh well, no warm up but I guess I can do that in the race right? We lined up for the safety briefing and I was joined by seven riders from my own club and three from the guys I train with at FTR. Plenty of familiar faces at least and a good indicator for where I should be in the bunch. Following a quick race briefing we set off behind the lead car for a few neutralised miles to get everyone safely down Pot Bank in such a big group. It turns out that a neutralised zone isn’t necessarily that steady and despite not having had time to warm up this was certainly doing the trick. I made sure I was mid-bunch when the flag went down and the race rolled out, following the wheels and letting others stick their nose into the wind. If I’m honest the rest of the race followed this theme for me as I put to use the advice given to me by Jamie “sandbag” Tweddell and simply conserved my energy. After a 150 mile ride at the weekend I assure you energy levels were reasonably low.
The first half lap was fairly uneventful as a brisk northerly headwind held the bunch at bay along the drag that is Pennypot Lane. Unfortunately by the end of Pennypot Lane the beautiful sunshine which had signalled the start of the race had drastically turned into a snowstorm. This slowed the bunch down even further as nobody could really see where they were going. Less than one lap in and everyone was soaked to the bone and shivering. My legs were pretty cold despite full winter bib tights and I honestly thought they were going to stop working on our first pass of the finish line.
It turns out my legs were working pretty well, much to my surprise. The finish line is on a hill and with the prime group up the road it was up to someone to drag us all up the hill. This is where I took the opportunity to warm up and hit the front, pushing the pace up the climb. Looking around the bunch there were still a lot of familiar pink tops and FTR kits through-out that meant the people I knew were still around me. The group came back together on the descent and onto lap two.
Heading back up over the Pot Bank climb I dropped off the back as my cold legs refused to work but Julian from FTR was there to shout some moral support and drag me back to the bunch. Once again, I sat back into the bunch and began to analyse the situation. Looking behind me I found there was nobody there and that this group of about 25 was pulling away from everyone else. Team-mate Tim and I saw this as less people to worry about at the finish.
It was still snowing hard towards the end of lap two and this forced even more people to pull out of the race as they began to suffer in the cold or couldn't pull the brakes anymore. It honestly isn't fun racing down a hill at 35mph and trying to work out if you're genuinely pulling the brakes or not. The bunch was down to about 20 as we headed into the village and at this point my last remaining team-mate Tim decided to call it a day; racing when you can't feel your hands isn't ideal and to be honest, anyone starting the race and riding for that long in the snow deserves some kudos.
So onto the final lap and the final ascent of Pot Bank. This is where the fun starts. The group were slow up the climb this time as everyone began to think of the sprint. It’s a well-known fact I can’t sprint so I was hoping for a good group to head up the road early. Lots of small attacks came along Pennypot Lane as riders clearly had the same idea but nothing was looking to stick. Once again I sat in and had another quick chat to Julian about who was left. Suddenly a rider in black was away solo and pulling out a gap on the group. He would stay away for much of the rest of the race, alone, with no-one willing to chase.
Heading onto the finish straight, two miles long, everyone lined out and began to reel in our breakaway leader. There were 15 people in this group so the odds weren’t looking too bad. 1.5 miles to go and in typical "Ward" style I hit the front in what I thought was an idiot move. I made sure not to push too hard at this point in the hope someone else would pick up the pace; they didn’t. Fine, let’s just self-manage and see what happens. One mile to go and I’m still on the front and pulling in the solo breakaway. Half a mile to go and I’m still on the front but suddenly two riders came flying past. No time to lose I jumped onto their wheel and closed the gap before anyone else could. One of the riders lost momentum, tired from the chase.
This left just me and another guy up front with around 400 metres to go and a chasing group behind. Not one for looking back we pushed on and I fell back into second wheel. Realising that I suddenly had some legs left I took one last look up the road and shot out from behind rider one to sprint for the line and cross with a reasonable enough gap for a small celebration.
Job done. First road race. First win.
It's fantastic to get a win and there are always people to thank when you do. Unequivocal thanks go to FTR Race Club for keeping me on track and making me work hard in their training sessions. Secondly, thanks to the organisers Ilkley CC - every single one of their volunteers had to endure that snowstorm without moving so I can only imagine how cold they must have been. Further thanks must also go to Science in Sport for keeping me energised and Madison Clothing for keeping me warm and have supported me throughout 2016.
One win under the best and 30 points to go until Cat 2. It's not going to get easier and I doubt I'll match that victory for a while!