Where I screech around Bristol’s narrow streets and get introspective on racing
Getting back from a Copenhagen work trip late the night before probably wasn’t the best preparation for my 3rd race of June. This was the Bristol Grand Prix – a city centre crit race in Bristol.
I was excited for this race for two reasons. Firstly, it was the only women’s Cat 4 only race that I’d found this season within a reasonable distance of home. Category (Cat) 4 is the category all new racers start off in, and you need to earn points by placing high in races to move up to Cat 3, 2, 1, or Elite. The men nearly always get a Cat 4 only race, and these sell out. As there tend to be fewer women racers, we all get piled together in a mixed Cat 2/3/4 race. This means that the newbie riders are competing against ladies who have been racing for years, and are significantly faster, which can be a bit demoralising. I was looking forward to racing against ladies who (theoretically) were a more similar ability to me (and prepared to be even more demoralised if it turned out I was still significantly slower…). Cat 4 doesn’t mean novices only though, some can have been riding and doing TTs for years but just moved into road races recently.
Secondly, it was in the centre of Bristol, which is near where I grew up so is a city I know quite well. I was looking forward to throwing myself around (in my eyes, in reality probably crawling as I slam on the breaks) the sharp corners of my childhood.
I got there pretty early as my clubmate who I got a lift with had a morning start time. This meant we could sneak some extra practice laps on the figure of eight course before the races started. We noted the sketchy corners and narrowing of roads, and I could tell that climb up to the finish was going to burn after the 10th time. It was a fun course though, and as we came back to the car park we looked at each other – “Again?”
With races going on all day it was meticulously timed – 30 mins before the start there was a race briefing, then we got led out by the pacer car, got 10 minutes to practice the course, then the race started with 1 lap behind the car. After it pulled away (up the hill) the strong riders attacked.
I found myself at the back of the pack (again) and went into the red pretty much straight away to try and move forward.
There was one very tight corner – “the hatch” – where the road narrowed, there was a smattering of cobbles, a 90 degree turn, with manhole covers through every line you could take. There was no option but to slow right down, and a couple of riders in other races overcooked it and there were some bloody chins walking around, but thankfully no one seemed too battered.
Racing in the city centre was epic. The route went round the back of the Hippodrome theatre where I’ve seen many a show, and another tight corner up the beginning of Park Street, past the cathedral. Crowds of people lined the barriers, and made thunder as we sped through the laps, with a commentator trying to keep track of which riders were where. I couldn’t keep track of which riders were where.
About half way through the race the bunch of riders I was with began to pull away as I started to run out of steam. I would catch up with them on the downhills as they slowed for the corners, but then they’d pull away a little further each time up the hill. I know one of the reasons my second half was slower was psychological – I didn’t have anyone’s wheel to chase. But also my lungs were burning and my legs were dead weights.
There was confusion over how many laps we had to do. The race was 30 minutes + 3 laps, but as the laps were so short about half the field got lapped by the leaders, often during the finishing straight, so it was unclear if the signs for ‘1 lap’ were for the leaders or for the others. In the end I just carried on until I got directed off the track and back to the HQ. Where I sat on my bike, forearms on handlebars, and tried to get my breath back without vomiting.
No one had any idea where they came (except, I assume, the winner) so it wasn’t until the results got posted up (very quickly) that I found I hadn’t been last! When asked if we would do it again, one of the girls behind me swore she was never racing again. It had been her first race, and it was a fast and furious introduction into crit racing, which it seemed had been too much.
I got a bit philosophical about racing on the drive home, and contemplated on the point of entering races when I clearly was so far behind the other women in ability. But then, should you only compete when you know you’re better than others? Was there any challenge in doing something when there was no possibility of failure? Was it just my ego that was protesting at not being very good at something? That I had put myself forward but been found wanting? Was I being a bad loser? I decided I would be back next year if possible, if only to support the provision of a Women’s Cat 4 race, which I thought was important. If people only entered when they thought they could win, it would be a very small field.
Each time I finished near the back of the field strengthened my desire to get faster. But what if I put all my effort into training, only to find I was still at the back of the pack? That would hurt, but I think I would have more respect for myself for trying and failing, rather than not trying at all for fear of failure.