On Saturday morning, I lined up for the final round of the London Women's Racing Summer League.
The league's organisers decided to end the season with a bang and the Brands Hatch Women’s Omnium was selected as the conclusive ‘race’. I use inverted commas because this was not just one race, but three: a 2 mile time trial, 30 minute crit and 2 hour ‘road race’ (still on a circuit) – rolled into a day-long sufferfest masquerading as a social occasion.
- London Women's Racing League:
- Nominated as a finalist in the 2016 TWC Awards for 'Best Initiative'
- Aim: increasing participation at women’s races in the South.
- Headed up by one of TWC’s regular writers, Beth Hodge, the league has created a suggested calendar of events for local women to target
- Basically 30 women at one race as opposed to ten women at three races.
The Omnium was one of a wide range of events taking place on the same day: Revolve24 at Brands Hatch also hosted solo 24 hour races for crazy individuals who wanted to tackle the hilly course for a full day and night, as well as those who wanted to complete the effort in a team, or over a shorter duration such as the 'walk in the park' option of 12 hours [note: not really a walk in the park].
I started this season as a Category 4 racer (eg: doing my first races) – and the event leaves me just a couple of points shy of a Cat 2 license. The season’s crit racing and track training have taught me more than I feel I’ve learned in the past few years cycling solo. And the inimitable efforts of bunch racing have meant I’ve gained more speed and strength than I ever managed on my own over years of time trialling and solo sweating on the turbo trainer. That’s not to blow my own horn and say I’ve become mega strong: more that my efforts to improve alone clearly weren’t working. The carrot on a stick of racing others has proved to be significantly more successful.
The inimitable efforts of bunch racing have meant I’ve gained more speed and strength than I ever managed on my own
The Brands Hatch event was by far the biggest day of racing I’ve completed so far. The field was pretty strong and even the BIKE channel were there (#pressure) - so it goes without saying it was a learning curve. But we all know that learning curves always take you upwards in your journey on the bike.
Here are just a few lessons from my fullest-on day of racing, thus far…
Make preparation time
Dear organisers: I am that girl that decides what she’s doing tomorrow the night before. Yes, it’s riders like me who mean you can never be sure how many you’ll have on the start line.
In the case of the Revolve 24 Omnium, I didn't sign up in advance – and the weather forecast looked horrible. I actually made the decision that I was going to race at about 7.20am on Saturday morning. Sign on was from 8am and the TT started at 10am.
The result was that I stuffed my kit into a bag and left. I really could have done with a skinsuit for the TT, a LOT more food in my kit bag, and basically more preparation.
In fact, here's me, pretty much in my pyjamas, with a very large bag of kit - hoping it might contain half of the things I actually needed:
— LWR (@LDNwomensracing) September 10, 2016
Readers: do not be like me. Plan your events in advance, take it easy for a couple of days in the lead up, pack your kit bag the night before and get an early night. You do need LOTS of food, and a sports drink/hydration tablets (especially if you're prone to cramp).
In a two mile Time Trial, every second counts
I’ve got a history with time trials: I’ve ridden countless 10s, 25s, a few 50s and one 100 mile TT. I’m pretty comfortable with the idea of ramping my heart rate up and holding it there as required.
A two mile time trial is not something I’ve ever done before – and it was my worst result of the day. However, looking at the time, I was just three seconds off tenth place – which would have got me an extra British Cycling point and might have seen me claim my Cat 2 license for the year, too.
Three seconds is taking a corner better. It’s tucking into the bike better. It’s wearing a skinsuit. Or not setting off with a FULL water bottle in your bottle cage (yep, I did that). Over a short event, it doesn’t matter how hard you think you’re pushing: every. second. counts.
Hang in there, you can keep going (even when you think you can't)
So much of racing is in your head.
The crit race was only 25 minutes, plus three laps. I set off telling myself ‘there are some girls in here that are mega strong, I’ll just try not to get dropped for as long as possible’.
As is nearly always the case at a crit race, lap one was strong and surge ridden – no one was going to make the going easy. After fifteen minutes, I was still there – so I bargained with myself that I’d do my best to hang in until three laps to go. With one lap to go, the bell rang and: I was still there. Coming into the sprint, there were less than ten riders in front of me, and clear space either side. I charged for the line, waiting to feel the rush of air as the entire field overtook me. The rush never came, and I reached the line in fifth place. Que: feeling of disbelief.
I spent the hour long interval between crit and road circuit race experiencing more disbelief: that we were yet to ride another two hours. The predicted rain had held off thus far, but blackening skies suggested we were going to get wet, too.
I bargained with myself that I’d ‘start’ the road race. Clearly everyone else felt the same, because rolling from the line, the pace was fairly sedate. My legs felt like they’d been replaced with two slabs of lead – and I had no idea if I could ride them into submission over the next two hours. I bargained to hang in there for sixty minutes. Entering the second hour attacks began to rain down – as did the actual rain.
Brilliant end of season race on the tough Brands Hatch motor circuit. Beth taking in the action from the car. pic.twitter.com/R1WjRFXG6m
— LWR (@LDNwomensracing) September 10, 2016
On countless occasions, I wanted to just let go, drop off the back, roll into the pits and out of the race – but at every attack I found my head shouting to my legs: don’t let it be this one. Eventually the lap board appeared: heralding three more ascents of that blasted hill, followed by that nasty left hand corner and the long draggy climb on the other side.
Brain to legs: You’ve done it all about 15 times. Why give up now?
So I didn’t. And I was still there at the finish, riding into the top ten and seventh overall across the three events. I’m pleased I didn’t give up and roll into the pits, now.
Climbing hurts everyone - but do use your gears
The Brands Hatch Omnium was the first race I’ve done that included significant climbing. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever changed out of the big ring in a race.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever changed out of the big ring in a race. That record stopped on the track in Kent.
That record stopped on the track in Kent. The Druids Corner was the real killer – and before long I was dreading the next ascent every time we crested the hill. Following a descent, the road ramped up again for another steadier ascent of ‘Hawthorns’ into a headwind. The up/down pattern continued throughout until we’d drop into the finish line to start all over again.
I’ve never classed myself a climber – and it’s not an area where I believe myself to excel. However, before long I realised it wasn’t just me that was hurting: the constant resistance from the road was putting the pain into everyone else’s legs as much as my own.
So I stopped telling myself that the hill was the bringer of all evil, and just worked on getting up it, using as little energy as possible every time. And that meant using the small ring, spinning the pedals instead of grinding where possible, and not wasting valuable watts allowing my mind to tell my body that it was useless: because that’s not helpful for anyone involved in the conversation.
Lower your tyre pressure in the rain
I did mention the black skies, didn’t I? Well they did materialise into wet stuff. About thirty minutes into the two hour race the downpour began, continuing on and off for the remainder of the event.
I’d seen the forecast – I could see the sky – I should have figured out that it was going to happen. Instead, I set myself up at the line with 90psi in my tyres.
Funny story: the previous weekend, I’d turned up at a race 5 minutes before the start and raced with my tyres at 60-70PSI (I did say in point 1 I’m not always totally organised – I’d been at Eurobike all week in this case - 'nuff said). I knew they were low, and acceleration felt spongy – but man did cornering feel good!
The Brands Hatch race included a few corners, but only one that was significant. As the rain came down, that left hand bend became a skating rink and claimed two riders in a crash (they were fine, and got back on after a lap out). I felt my bulgey 90PSI tyre almost slip out from underneath me twice and desperately wished I’d just taken a second to let out a bit of pressure.
Hanging out with girls who race all day is really fun
On it with the pro stretching, professionally advised by @active_fantastic ???????????????????? Having SMASHED race 1 and 2 (winner winner) @mathildepauls does now need all the help she can get mind ???? @sigmasportbikeshop @ridecannondale @maviccycling @castellicycling #winner #fasterthanyou #leggy #leggylegend #womenscycling
The percentage of women who want to spend their Saturday getting their heads kicked in by other women on bicycles is fairly small – vs the general female population. Therefore, when you rock up at a race you’ve got at least a little bit in common with everyone there.
The breaks between the Omnium events meant that there was plenty of time for: coffee, chat, a bit of yoga and swapping racing/riding stories and miniature gear reviews.
— LWR (@LDNwomensracing) September 10, 2016
I don’t need to add many more words to that one: hanging out with other girls who race is special, and I think all of us appreciated having a full day as opposed to the staccato conversations that pepper individual races.
Finally: Don’t ride on the rollers next to a metal chain
Last one – don’t set your rollers up next to a long, metal chain, hanging from the roof of a garage under the expectation that you can use it as your handle to start and stop. As I learned, what generally happens if you touch the chain is that it moves, wrapping itself around your foot, causing you to fall in a fairly painless but highly embarrassing chain of events.
If all of this sounds fun, but racing seems like a scary adventure - check out this post for some tips on preparing for your own first crit and road races.