Monday, 23 March 2009

Pack Fill

Yesterday was my first road race ever, and I was more than a bit nervous. Given the dearth of women-only races around here, particularly on the open road, I thought I'd try one of the Surrey League's mostly-men cat 3 races. There were 65 starters, of which only 3 were women: me, and the two teenaged Trott sisters (Laura, a junior cat 2, and her older sister Emma, a cat 1 international racer). Somewhat intimidating to say the least, but with my new cat 3 status, perfect sunny and warm weather, and seven other Kingston Wheeler teammates joining me, it was the ideal setting for my first race. In fact, the race itself was put on by my club so there was lots of support on the road and at the HQ. Felt really good to see so many club members marshalling and helping out -- and taking photos like the one above (thanks to Luke Wallis' dad for that one!)

Road racing, I quickly learned, is a bit different from circuit racing. We did eight laps of a 6.5 mile course which was basically a rectangular route through country lanes with left turns to keep us from having to cross traffic. The roads can't be closed to cars, so even though the race was at 9:30am on a Sunday, we had our share of oncoming traffic (but thankfully no cars tried to overtake us!) English country roads are barely two car widths at best, and often more like one and a half with a dirt shoulders, which divided by two is not a lot of room to fit 60+ cyclists safely. Fortunately the roads we used were neither very winding nor very hilly, so the whole route had a broken centre line, allowing us to use the oncoming traffic lane to overtake each other.

I had gone into the race just wanting to finish in the pack and not get dropped, so I wasn't intending to attack or ride up front at all. But after the opening descent when I found myself close to the back, I soon realised that I'd have to work to move up unless I wanted to spend the entire race suffering from the accordion effect. Racing with men at this level, my strength is my ability to ride a long time at threshold, meaning a steady peleton pace would have to be pretty fast for me to get dropped. But my weakness as a sprinter became quite obvious as my legs started to tire from the constant braking and accelerating that happened with every corner, made worse by how far back I was. The only answer was to take my life into my hands a bit and ride in the centre of the road, overtaking riders when there were no cars coming, because the curbside meant getting boxed in on rough asphalt and going backwards.

By the 3rd lap I was trying pretty hard to move up 15-20 places in the pack on the uphill and headwind sections of the course so that when the section of long sweeping downhill with a tailwind came around, I could desperately cling to wheels as the 80+kg riders I'd passed on the hills zoomed by me at high speed. At one point, the group must have been trying to bring back an attack because the pace on the downhill crept up such that I was actually spat out the back for a minute or so until we reached the short climb at the beginning of the next lap where I could make contact again. Thankfully that was the only point where I felt like the thread was going to snap, and after that I worked even harder to maintain a good position in the middle of the group and anticipate accelerations and gaps opening so I wouldn't be caught out again.

From my vantage point 40-odd riders back and blocked by (erm, I mean nicely drafting behind) bigger riders, I had no idea whether a break had gotten away and if so, who was in it. Turns out that a group of seven riders went clear, which then later split into a group of three and a group of four, both of which held off the rest of us in the bunch by less than 20 seconds at the finish. The last lap was surprisingly mundane given how close the break really was, but I was happy just to finish upright and strong, even overtaking a few guys who misjudged the final steep hill and died 50 yards before the finish line. Many lessons learned for next time, but overall a great 2-hour workout in the sun with 65 of my closest training buddies.


Ade Merckx said...

Hey well done Maryka, and great report :-)

Ade Merckx said...

Hey Maryka well done, nice report too :-)