I first raced a bike about 18 months ago and the journey has been a steady stream of firsts: my first novice crit, my first e1234 crit, my first podium, my first road race, my first decent finish in a road race, my first win, my first series win, my first Women’s Team Series race, my first stage race, and now, in two days: my first UK National Series level race, the Lincoln Grand Prix.
This first is an extra bit special, though, because I’m on home turf. I grew up just outside of Lincoln, I spent 18 years 20 minutes or so from the heart of the cobbled, cathedral topped city. The peloton of around 150 women (including the best trade teams in the UK, and internationally known riders like Alice Barnes, Grace Garner, etc.) rolls out from Yarborough Sport Centre, where I used to train weekly as kid back when I was a swimmer. It’s a big first, and a delight to attempt it in familiar territory, and with the support of my mum, honorary soigneur for the day.
I’m sure I’ll write up the race itself, but as well as a more traditional race report, I thought it might be useful to touch momentarily on all the work and preparation, and the feelings of before: the anticipation.
What have I done to prepare for the race (aside from training)?
1. Day dream about winning.
Honestly, this is strategic. I am an insufferable optimist who has – for a profession – over-trained their imagination. The first thing I need to do with a momentous First is to imagine stupid beautiful stories of almost implausible situations where I win a race that it’s fairly certain I’ll be dropped from after a couple of laps. I have to do this because I know myself well. I know that if I suppress these kinds of thoughts, I won’t be able to find a good balance of ‘what if’ and ‘what is’, I’ll have to suppress them with negative stuff. So I daydream about winning. And it becomes a story that was told, and that I can put away for later.
After the ‘what if’ of the day dreams there’s the careful ‘what is’ of the course. Practicalities like time, transport and money will usually mean a recce isn’t possible for me, or I might be lucky to have caught a lift with someone and we’ll drive the course before warm up. But for Lincoln I was lucky enough to have the time to go home and hang out with my mum, and recce the course, and the primary feature: Michaelgate. A cobbled climb up to Castle Square in the heart of Lincoln. I’ve ridden the course and noted the turns, descents, landmarks, changes in road width and surface, noted where I’ll want to be positioned ideally in each case, and then done a punishing amount of reps of the climb, on the centre, left and right of the cobbles, learning the gradient, and the surface. My mum had a nice cup of tea and tooks some photos for me.
3. Stress dreams
This is not preparation so much as a thing I need to be prepared will happen. Typically before a big race – especially an early one, I will spend every hour-30 mins after 2am waking up having dreamt I was late for the race. That means I need to sleep well in the days running up to the race, so that I can make sure that I won’t be too ill-slept on race day. Although for Bedford my brain had all the stress dreams the week before and I was fine during the week! Today I had a stress dream where I was increasingly late for my sports massage, so maybe my brain has re-routed the stress dreams to a couple of days before the race? A+ good work, brain, if so!
4. Planned my travel and accommodation
Obviously. And in detail. Travelling with a bike across London (I don’t want to ride it, and it’s easier not to pack it in a bike box) involves a complex knowledge of weekend closures, tubes and trains that accept bikes (off peak Circle line is fine!), and the knowledge to navigate getting your bike on different train operators’ services (Virgin East Coast is a Guard’s Carriage deal, and to Newark out of King’s Cross, it’s usually at the rear of the train). My mum’s away so can’t pick me up from the station, but my Dad’s stepped in and we’re going to have a nice carby dinner before dropping me off at my mum’s and an early night.
5. Planned my packing
I’m tiresomely exhaustive about this. I have 2 basic packing list templates; overnight, and day-race. I then edit it to remove/add anything for the particular race/weather/travel/accommodation conditions.
6. Planned my day
Of course I’ve planned my day. And the day before. In minute detail. Starting with the key point and then working backwards always adding on 1/3 contingency to prep and travel times. Look upon my diary and weep.
7. Planned my nutrition
For Bedford I had this planned 2 weeks in advance and had it all delivered by Sainsbury’s on the day we arrived, and bulk made sandwiches and hotcross buns with nutella. For Lincoln nutrition is easier. Last week I bought in the ingredients for my Perfect Porridge at my mum’s (though it’s pretty easy to parcel up and travel with). My mum’s got the fresh fruit in so I’ll have my usual porridge for breakfast, and I’ll eat a high carb evening meal with my dad the night before. I’ve got 5 gels, 2 energy mix drinks, and a protein bar for after the race. I used to treat myself with nice food after a race, but I’ve realised now that the treat has to come the night before! It seems insignificant/obvious, but the mental switch was useful and I don’t crave stuff after now I know I’ve already had my treat.
8. Worked out my race goals
Despite the day dreams, I am not going to win this race. I’ll have done well to even stick with 3 or 4 of the 8 laps (especially as at this level there’s a very strict cutoff: 5 minutes behind race leader and your race is over). So what I need are process goals: what am I there to learn? 1) riding in a huge bunch of a national calibre and 2) this of all races is a perfect opportunity to force myself to position better, and improve my ability to do so before getting psychologically exhausted. The course widens and thins at crucial moments, and the route into Michaelgate itself is winding, with the road suddenly shrinking to a 2 or 3 rider width. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best climber in the pack, if you go in as 145th rider, you are likely to lose the front of the race. My job at Lincoln is not to try and finish, to support a team member, to target specific sections of the course, plain and simple my job is to just constantly work on my positioning. And dealing with the terror inherent in positioning in such a race.
9. Sports massage
This is a luxury I can’t often afford, but before stage races and big races I’ve recently treated myself to a sports massage 2 days before race day. It doesn’t suit everyone, but I’ve found that a combo of sports massage 2 days out and a carby dinner leave my legs feeling really strong. So I do that, for psychological reasons as much as physiological ones I guess: it’s good to find routine amongst the changing environment of different races.
10. Bike maintenance
Just the basic stuff, I’m no genius when it comes to this, but I’ve charged my Di2, cleaned the frame, chain and cassette, and checked it’s all working ok. And I won’t ride it on the road until race day if I can.
All of this is useful, obviously, but a lot of it is also a way of occupying my mind and covering every eventuality so that I can reach the start line in as best a condition as possible. It’s about understanding myself. Nothing takes away the mix of excitement and terror you can feel on a start line, but I have thought a few times how a lot of my career: performing week-long runs of one woman theatre shows, speaking in public, doing a PhD, has actually super-prepared me for the psychological game of cycling. It’s taught me to understand my mind, my body, and the difference between fear, excitement and anticipation. It’s also taught me that the hour or so before standing on a stage and remembering 90 minutes of words in front of a couple hundred people is always so much more terrifying than actually performing. When you’re performing, you’ve got a job to do, you are in the moment; you relate to the environment in which you need to do that job, and rise to the task, holding in your head your preparation, your routine, your previous experience, and your determination to make this time better, more powerful, more alive.
On the start line on Sunday morning I will be terrified. But if I’m lucky, that’ll be the worst bit. After a moment, there will just be the ride.