The Surprising Silence of Winning
One of the things about learning to race bikes is that (at the beginning, at least) winning stuff is actually kinda rare, definitely once you get past the novice races into strong 3/4 and e1234 fields. It’s such a combination of tactics, strength and teamwork, that if just one of those things doesn’t line up, it can be the difference between winning and minor places. I went from Cat 4 to Cat 2 in my first full racing year, but I did all of that without actually winning. I got a strong second place behind then-club-mate Tina Winzer (now Hartwright) at a pretty easy 3/4 in Dunsfold, but before this year that was my highest placing.
Until this winter, when I won my first race and my first series. I did the Dulwich Paragon Winter Series at Lee Valley (which, by the by, was very well run, Dulwich are the best), a weekly series of 4 floodlit crits. Originally I was just testing myself after a winter of training with Huw, and only planned to do one or two of the races, but after the first couple I rearranged my work commitments so I could attend all 4. It became a new – and reasonably hard to articulate – challenge for me, not just to perform in one race, but to return against a similar field and learn and plan and execute.
I surprised myself by a strong second place in the first race (which was ridden in pouring rain) with a reasonably strong but small field, 5th Floor rider Sophie Edmondson pushed the pace primarily to keep us all warm! The second race had a better turnout, plus a very controversial break of 2 that rode away on the back of the men’s race, and mixed signals from commissaires that meant we let them ride away, but again, in the bunch sprint I was second to Sophie for a fourth place. Suddenly I was in the running for maybe coming 2nd or 3rd overall, I thought, it was obvious to me that Sophie would win, and what I really wanted was to beat one of the dodgy-break women for the second spot. There were lots of riders on the start line at the third race, and I was frustrated to find myself boxed in in the sprint, but thankfully, so was my rival! This left Sophie in first, my rival in second, and me in third place overall. It all came down to the final race.
The primary thing I wanted to push myself to learn was performing when there was something at stake. I know it doesn’t sound like a great deal, but to be at the front of the race, dictating my position, rather than coming from the position of underdog, was a step I needed to take. I discussed tactics with Huw, and with my super great teamie Emma Jane Hornsby, who was just getting back to road racing after a winter of Cyclocross. We agreed I’d keep an eye on any breaks with Sophie or number 2 in, Emma would chase anything else down, and if it came to a sprint, she’d lead me out. I’d never been led out before! I’d never really had to think on my feet so much, and I really liked it. As someone from an academic/writing background a lot of the thinking I do is long and slow and revised many times before it is tested. In bike racing I have to do high speed thinking. Moving from endurance training in triathlon to explosive training in bike racing required me re-training my muscles; activating the fast-twitch muscle fibres. And similarly, bike racing re-trains my brain for complicated split-second assessments of tactics, I find it very satisfying.
The final race was well attended, and fast. There was the occasional break, I covered half of them. Advice from Huw was to mark number 2 as closely as I could but it was obvious from the outset, that she was planning on staying very protected the whole way through, so instead I focussed on the stronger looking attacks, seeing if I might jump across to a useful break of 3 or more, and reduce the field to 3 or 4. This did leave me exposed a little bit, and Emma was great, shouting at me to get off the front when I needed to. Emma was incredible, and closed down a couple of dangerous looking solo attacks, so that in the end it came down to the sprint. I aggressively positioned myself second wheel into the last lap, and Emma came up and sat on the front, I know that she was working incredibly hard, and now I can see why a lead out is so brilliant! I didn’t feel like I was working at all. We rounded the final corner into the straight and people started to move over the top of Emma. One of them was number 2, who had been invisible until that point. I made a split second decision, and accelerated onto her wheel, I stayed there as long as I dared, and then came out around her, and sprinted.
It was my first win. Sophie was unfortunately boxed in, and so 1, 2, 3 from the previous week’s standings became 3, 2, 1 for the final league result. I had been aiming for second, but, astonished when they announced it, found that I had won overall. I think you can see that delight in my face in the ‘podium’ photo (me and Sophie, number 2 had left by that point) at the top of this post.
I had done what I set out to do. It was perfect. The summation of planning, training, teamwork and tactics. I learned I can perform under the pressure to perform, and I also found out what winning feels like. It feels like silence. It’s like a loud, welcoming silence. Just you, and the finish line, the noise and the sweat and the bikes and the bodies, behind.