Reports from the front line of grassroots women’s racing in the UK from feminist and second cat racer Hannah Nicklin. Let's go! 💪

5 Things I Learned from Crystal Palace Crits

Another Tuesday night, and another empty space in my week where Crystal Palace Crits used to be. When I started this blog I decided that I wasn’t going to fill it with a bunch of ‘then they did this and I did that and this happened’ style race reports; not that I was never going to post about races, but I figured I should only post about the significant ones – the ones where something changed, I learned something important, etc. etc.

a map of the circuit
The CPCrit circuit, at the heart of Crystal Palace Park

But the truth is, every single on of the Crystal Palace Crits I rode this year could have been one of those posts. It genuinely is (as far as I’m concerned) the best summer mid-week crit series in town, and on its tight, fast, technical course I think I made some of the biggest improvements in my riding, bike handling, and tactics this season.

But to go through every race would probably be interminable and end in a non-viral-friendly number, so instead, here’s 5 Things I Learned from Crystal Palace Crits 2017.

1. A microcosm of racing.

With a hairpin and blind corners, the intensity of the 2 passing men’s fields, the testing drag, varied road surface, and fast attacking style of the racing, Crystal Palace Crits often boiled down 10-races-worth of tactical thinking and possibilities into a single 40 minutes. I learned to love returning to it each week, ready to correct the errors I made the week prior and with new mantras in my head each time; ’be aggressive’, ‘move up’, ‘hold your position in the top 5 riders into the sprint’, ‘don’t get stuck on bad wheels into the corners’. It was a perfect testing ground for new approaches, and while as a sole rider from my club local to the race I couldn’t practice any team tactics, I learned an awful lot of how to be a solo rider.

2. Getting dropped.

me, riding crystal palace crit
Pic by Cat Gaskell, thanks, Cat!

There’s no room for error. With a full women’s field topping out at around 20 riders (full of strong e12s), and a fast, punchy  course with technical corners, there’s nowhere to hide, and very little time to recover. Half the field are usually dropped by the end, and at the beginning of the season, that was me. It took me 3 or 4 races before I survived in the front bunch.  It was really valuable to have my weaknesses and challenges exposed on the circuit, and to find them and fix them (positioning, picking good wheels, making myself really work to hold a wheel when an attack goes). I still haven’t made podium, but by the end of the summer I was regularly top 10, and at my best got a 4th and a 6th against some BIG HITTERS. There’s still lots I want to work on, too: positioning into a sprint, finding room, not being cut up, not backing off and giving up room, holding my ground, and giving it everything in a final lap/moments. These are the last part of the puzzle I didn’t have chance to develop (that and a breakaway win, plus team tactics!). I’ll return in 2018 though, looking for that podium.

3. You gotta be a contender, Hannah.

About halfway through the summer I was reporting back to Coach Huw how that week’s CPCrit had gone, and I realised that somewhere in my brain I was still putting the CPC regulars far far above me in terms of ability. Last year, that was totally true. This year I’ve learned a lot and trained in a structured way and I realised — sure I’m not better than them but I’m not substantially worse. And I realised I needed to flip that switch in my head from ‘don’t deserve to be here’ when I found myself in the final group coming into the last laps to ‘now it’s time to work hard and compete against my equals/near-equals’. It’s a weird little psychological thing but it made a big difference. The week after that realisation I broke the top 5. And seeing all of my races through that new perspective (i.e. I’m no longer ‘lucky’ to be in a Women’s Team Series bunch, I deserve to be there, etc.) is really valuable.

4. “If you can breathe, you can attack”

me, riding crystal palace crit on the front of the bunch
Can’t remember where on Insta I found this pic, but there I am, on the front!

My first attempt at Palace was towards the end of 2016, when I was still learning how to crit, and hadn’t done my first road race yet. My goodness it was a baptism of fire. I was hella green with no idea how to corner (I could follow wheels but not take corners on my own), and as I was dropped with a couple of riders, one of them, TC of Les Filles, quickly realised I was going to be no use to the group unless I could take the corners on the front. She then proceeded to give me an incredibly valuable 101 on cornering technique (she’s also a brill coach!) and I improved on the spot. This year a different Les Filles voice installed itself in my head: the inimitable captain of Les Filles, Nic Oh, whose Palace mantra is “if you can breathe, you can attack”. I’m still trying to unpick a conservative instinct in my racing style which is tied to the 5 years prior spent triathlon-ing and conserving and measuring my efforts. Now, I have to burn all my matches to find out how many I have, and I have to learn about what it feels like to attack, or to bridge to an attack, to sustain an effort; to ride aggressively. At Palace I found a place to begin to experiment with this.

5. A local community

And as the above suggests, half of the value of Palace is the fact that it has such a strong (and local! Only 10 mins away from me) community around it. You learn about other riders, you learn from other riders, and afterwards you have drinks with other riders in the pub. Obviously it’s not for everyone, and of course there are some people who can’t hang around, or don’t feel welcome, but I really did. Bike racing is something my friends, family and colleagues are largely supportive of, but also find it difficult to keep up with what I’m going on about most of the time. Being part of a community of like-minded women (all of whom have a spark of something exceptional about them, to be doing this stupid, exhilarating, aggressive, dangerous thing) feels really rewarding.

Roll on 2018! When (I’m stating it here, now) I will podium at Palace.

If I can breathe, I can attack.