Not having an alpine singletrack commute means that I probably spend more time on a road bike than I would really like. It’s mountain biking that sparks my fire after all. However, time commitments, ‘real life’, and claggy northern terrain have, over the years, resulted in road bikes becoming a valuable and necessary tool.
But the thing is, dare I say it, I have really started to enjoy riding on the road. The convenience, the ‘quality miles’, the sheer speed, the effort and adrenaline have resulted in the road riding being the perfect compliment to long distance mountain biking.
It had to happen. I decided to enter my first road race. Well, I say my first; I ‘dabbled’ quite a few years back, at the famed ‘Willy’s races’. Maybe my head wasn’t in the right place. Maybe I didn’t have the resilience that I have developed through mountain bike racing (getting dropped is a very lonely experience). I really didn’t enjoy it. I did a couple and sacked it off as a bad idea.
So when the two day Tour of Northumberland popped up, I surprised myself by REALLY wanting to enter it. In fact, I had developed sufficient confidence in my ability that I wanted to enter the Elite / 1/ 2 race. With essentially zero experience. What the heck; I prefer to choke on my own lungs and get dropped by the good guys, rather than get around the 3/4 race which I was confident I could do. A ‘result’ was of no interest to me either way. I just wanted to enjoy a proper hard work out and get a sense of what the fast guys pace was. I messaged the organiser with my request. Amazingly he accepted my entry (I am very grateful for this). I was the only completely inexperienced 4th cat in the field. Well, I was the only 4th cat in the E /1 /2 field full stop.
To say I was nervous on day one is an understatement. Nothing has taken me so far out of my comfort zone for a long time. This was a good thing. We all need that sometimes. But was I getting ahead of myself?
The course was essentially flat. My least favourite terrain. The race was neutralised for a mile or so. Then it went off. Like a rocket. Learning bunch position / road skills at this speed was a bridge too far. I hung in for dear life and yo yo-ed near the back. The bunch lined out pretty quickly, indicative of a high pace. Lack of experience and confidence left me dangling off the back… flat fast corner… other riders struggled. The elastic snapped and I was on the end of it. Wooosh! It was like I’d opened a parachute. Loosing the wheel in front of me exposed me to the wind and essentially blew me backwards. I watched the bunch sail into the distance. I may be inexperienced but I’m not stupid. Sitting up I waited for the 3/4 bunch to catch me and I completed their distance, desperately trying to get my head around this dark art.
I sidled off home with the amazingly supportive Charlotte and James (well, I’m sure James would have been if he’d known what the F was going on).
At home I had a bit of a lip quiver and then gave myself a stiff talking too. You WILL go back and try again…
Day two felt different from the start. A couple of the teams had burnt a lot of matches on day one so the pace was easier from the off. And it was hilly with one steep pitch. And my legs felt great! So armed with a (little) bit of experience and a huge desire to not be the first man dropped (again), I dug in pretty hard when the pace lifted. Get to the half way point and take it from there I told myself. This was echoed by Chris Mather from M Steels, an experienced racer in the bunch, who was a constant source of advice and motivation before and during the race.
The middle section of the race was probably the toughest – for a solid lap and a half the pace went high; long periods of lining out and one moment of panic off the back which forced me to sprint probably harder than I ever have to get back on just before the road turned down again… Phew! I started to believe I could finish in the bunch. This was my realistic target.
The run in to the finish included the steep climb. The final charge went earlier than I had anticipated. Hesitation and lack of experience on my part saw me, (amongst others) getting shelled with a few hundred meters to go and I finished just outside the main bunch.
The release of tension was incredible – apart from working hard physically, my brain was fried from the concentration. If you haven’t road raced and think it is ‘dull’ then rest assured it isn’t; the intensity of the bunch and the tight space you share with fellow racers is something that you rarely experience in mountain bike racing. And certainly not at 40mph. It took a couple of days to come back down from the high. I loved it. I’ll be back. A bit of road racing will only compliment mountain biking, not replace it.
I rode my superb Trek Emonda, supplied by M Steel Cycles. This bike is a superb climber and handles amazingly on rough technical roads. For someone who is essentially not a road racer but wants a fast and agile bike for climbing and flicking through corners it’s perfect.
The guys in the bunch were super friendly and that feeling of being ‘a pigeon in a flock of seagulls’ (Bike Snob NYC’s tongue in cheek description of a mountain biker in a bunch of roadies) soon passed. Huge thanks to Chris Mather and Ronnie Batey for their advice and support and well done to them for putting in solid rides on BOTH days!