The bell rings in our left ears as we cross the line. The brass clang fading behind us as we organise ourselves into the first bend of the final lap of the Surrey League 4ths at Dunsfold Aerodrome.
This is it. This is the last lap. You’ve got to be happy with this, no? You’ve survived 8 laps of your first ever race. Your first ever closed circuit criterium. You haven’t been dropped from the bunch. You haven’t been shouted at. No punctures. Your bike hasn’t fallen apart at the seams.
The other riders are all kitted out – S-WORKS, Dogma’s, Aeroads… they’re all less than 20 cm from your elbows. And you’re up there with them. You can hear their breathing. They’re danger-close.
You can feel something different on this last lap. The bunch slows slightly. Perhaps this is because everyone wants to stay on the track for a little longer? Perhaps they know something others don’t? Hold your racing line. Stay up front.
Your Surrey League Race Day Preparation days are fresh in your mind. Instructor words are echoing in your head ‘Rule No.1 – Hold your Line. Rule No.2 – Hold your Line. Rule No.3 – Hold your Line.’ Protect your wheel. Be assertive.
The riders form a train into the first long straight. The wind has picked up. No-one wants to spend long at the front, one by one peeling away to rest back into the pack. 2 miles to go.
You’re in the first group. The bunch has split now. Two trains side-by-side navigating the top bends and roundabouts of the course. Neck and neck as pot holes approach from nowhere and everyone looks after each other by shouting. The wind hits you as the bunch loops toward the finish. Everyone closes up, slows and then lurches. You remember your team mates texts before the race ‘watch the surges’ and ‘good luck’.
Riders left. Riders right. For 10 seconds there’s a break. It’s closed down quickly. 20 riders have managed to stay together, hard at it and then slowing. We all sit back a little. Half a mile to go.
And there it is. The last bend of your first race. You realise this is what it’s all come down to.
Everything they said at the Club about this final straight and it’s all happening in slow motion. You position your wheel onto the rider in front. The first rider? That means you’re second. Really? You sit up. You look down the deceivingly long piece of track ahead. The bunch is tight now. The front rider is looking back at you. He doesn’t want to go. You’re not either. Riders close behind you and you start looking back under your right shoulder. They’re all there, weaving and jostling for positions. Expectant and grimacing bespectacled faces. You’re glad you’re up-front. 400 metres to go.
Concentrate on your position. Look ahead. Listen to what is going on. Feel the Force. Ha – it feels like an eternity. 300 metres. 250 metres. The chequered flag appears now. Blurry and flapping in the wind that is now head on into the bunch. 2 riders ahead of you. One rider ahead of you. 200 metres to go.
Then suddenly it all changes. The positioning. The tactics. The talking. The clicks. The energy. It all changes. The track ahead feels like it has just widened to the length of an aircraft carrier. What has happened to the uniformity? What has happened to the teamwork? 150 metres.
Riders come up on your left. Your right. There’s a 3-man breakaway. You try and get on the wheel of the third rider. They’re accelerating. You dig deeper. The noise is increasing now. The metallic sound of a spinning chain, now replaced by the force of rims and tyres, whirring and punching forward. Keep looking ahead. Do not look sideways. You’ll lose your focus.
150 metres to go. You’re burning your second-to-last match down to nothing. You strike another one. You’re still at the front. Shouting. Grunting. Riders closing around you. They’re all just shapes in your side vision. 100 metres to go.
The last match is burning fast. 75 metres. Come on. 5 riders in front now and accelerating. Don’t let them get away. 50 metres.
You can see your Club colleagues and your family raising phone cameras. The chequered flag is suddenly further away than ever and still the sprint is getting faster. What? You can’t hear anything behind. Are you alone? It’s chaos. Your vision is closing. 25 metres to go.
The wisp of smoke from your last match is close. 30 miles of strategy is about to be blown into thin air. 15 metres. One last dig. You’re line abreast with 5 riders. Where did they come from? Perhaps you’re in the Top 10? Who knows.
10 metres. Cheering. Shouting. Groaning. Grimacing. Aaaaaahhhhhhh, push harder. Harderrrrr.
Whoosh. The flapping chequered flag calls an end to the melee. The last lap decided it all. 30 miles of strategy came down to 200 metres of sprint. One for all and then all for no-one. It’s that brutal. A hand pats you on the back. You pick your head up and look around. It’s over. Bitter enemies in the final metres of sprint, now gasping for air and congratulating each other.
You realise this is what it’s all about. The teamwork, the exhaustion, and the fact that you lost everything you thought you’d gained in the final metres of the sprint. You laugh out loud. That was one of the most confusing experiences of your life. Incredible.
The ‘what ifs’ and ‘should haves’. All of that can come later because it’s just as your Club Secretary said ‘at the finish you’ll be wanting to know where and when you can race next’.
You hunch over your bars, look back on the light fading over the last lap of your first race ever, and all you’re thinking about is ‘where do I sign-up for the first lap of the second race of my life’.
(aka The Beginning.)
Farnborough & Camberley Cycling Club