Sunday was my first (and probably not last, but hopefully not very often) "did not finish" in a cycle race. A day later, I'm still kicking myself over it -- not the actual DNF itself, but the way it came about -- and I guess the best I can come away with is that it's a learning experience if nothing else.
I had done a Surrey League men's cat 3 race on the Dunsfold circuit back in March and done pretty well to stay with the pack, though in retrospect that course with its twisty narrow lanes, short descents and draggy climb is pretty suited to my abilities and weaknesses when racing with guys. The Walliswood course where we raced yesterday... not so much. Leona was right to be a bit worried!
We did a recce lap of the course about an hour before the race (Jim, Leona, another guy and I) and even at a nice warm-up pace it was over 30km/h. Jim commented on that but it didn't occur to me that this should be a warning. Mistake #1.
The race began and after a near disaster in the neutralised zone due to some poor road surfaces and a pack of 60 riders trying to avoid oncoming cars, the pace sped up. A few attacks went off at the first climb, but nothing too serious. I was trying to stay near the front and having varying success; the roads were really busy with cars coming at us, making riding on the right/outside somewhat stressful. After a while I moved to the left/inside, which was a bit easier though more risky for getting caught out by accelerations in the group. Mistake #2.
The second half of Lap 1 was marked by a sharp turn followed by a twisty rolling bit, a fast steepish descent with a crappy road surface, then onto a busy major road with a slight uphill helped by a tailwind. Starting the descent in the front half of the group, I was near the back by the end, but the bunch slowed considerably on the uphill as things came back together. I figured this would probably happen every lap. Mistake #3.
Lap 2 was more of the same, though instead of getting up to the front, I was caught out on the first climb behind some slower guys. Wary of putting out too much energy too early in the race, I decided not to claw my way back to the front and instead try to sit on for a bit. It's sort of dangerous to be near the back in such a large group as it's hard to gauge whether you're 40th, or 50th or at the very very back (to me, anyway). I didn't want to look around behind me, but if I had I would have seen that I was literally sitting amongst the rear dozen riders, not a good spot to be! Mistake #4.
Then it happened. Sprinting out of the sharp corner cost me some energy, and the twisty rolling bit didn't see me gain any position back. Suddenly the swift downhill appeared, I hesitated over some rough road and everyone who was behind me shot past me, including Leona. "No worries", I thought, gritting my teeth and giving the powertap everything I could muster as we turned onto the main road. "They'll slow down any second now". Except they didn't. Jim's power data later showed that that was the hardest section of the entire race, that five minutes from the A29 up past HQ to the lapboard. Whether it was an attack or just a general sharp increase in pace, I don't know. I could only watch as the group powered away without me in it. A minute or two later I saw Leona coming back to me as the guy in front of her was gapped and she was unable to get around him. We looked at each other and shook our heads, stunned by our combination of bad positioning, bad timing and bad luck at being caught out. 40km/h became 35km/h as the two of us worked together for another lap (passing more than one disheartened guy who'd also been dropped, including Mr. Gapped). But that was the end of our day in the bunch.
Funny enough, my power data shows I averaged the same watts for the lap with Leona as I did for the first two laps with the bunch, but at 5-6km/h slower, our choices were to ride five more laps alone or slow down and be lapped by the main field and try to latch on as they went by. And as it was my third race in eight days and I'd also run over 44km during the week, my brain decided my legs weren't up to either task so I called it a day as I cruised by HQ. Turned in my race number, got some food, and sat to watch the rest of the race unfold while I not-so-silently fumed at myself for being so stupid. Leona joined me shortly afterwards.
The rest of the Wheelers didn't fare so well either. Damien spent a lot time bridging to the break, then cramped with a lap to go and couldn't hang onto them. Jim got near the front on the last lap with a top 10 in mind going up the final 100m climb to the finish line, but cramped and literally had to limp his bike over the line. Andy was nearly taken out by a rider who cut the final corner short and had to settle for a finish in the bunch. Mickael, the ghost Wheeler, sat in the break for some time then disappeared and was not seen again -- not sure if he even finished! At least the afternoon's E/1/2/3 race was a bit more successful, with Steve Saunders taking 2nd place, Luke Wallis 9th and James finishing in the pack.
Damien and Mickael in the break, photo from London Cycle Sport
-- always stay near the front! even more important for me in men's races than in women's, and especially important when coming up to a tailwind or downhill section. These guys outweigh me by more than 15kg, so even if I were the world's greatest descender I'd still have to work hard to keep up. To that end, Olympic rowing medallist Elise Laverick was also in the race and did a great job to finish in the bunch. She is quite a bit bigger and stronger than Leona and me though!
-- keeping to the right/outside is nearly always safer from a positioning perspective than the left/inside, particularly on uphills. And since the roadside is often soft and uneven by the edge, it's sometimes better from a safety perspective to be riding the white lane line in the middle, oncoming cars or not.
-- a fast recce lap means an even faster race and even more reason to STAY NEAR THE FRONT!
-- never assume that every lap will be the same, and certainly never count on the bunch slowing down, ever. Luck is something that happens unplanned. Planning for luck to come through is a sure way to fail.
-- sometimes life is just like that. Accept it, learn from it, move on to the next one. At least I didn't crash out.