East London Velo Winter Series #6 (Category 4)
Alejandro Valverde aside, I would hazard a guess that at 34 years of age, most professional road cyclists consider themselves to be somewhere in the deep autumn or even winter of their careers. The elite among them look back contentedly on a palmarès that effectively sets them up for life, while others eye media opportunities and many more still plan the giving of their esteemed names to bike shops in Belgium.
A far cry then from the scenes on this inclement February afternoon, where at 34 years of age I was one of several first timers lining up at Redbridge Cycling Centre to spend the best part of an hour ‘hanging on’ in rain that never really started but never really stopped.
There is something curious about a bike circuit, imbued as a space with the same staid quality as an air hanger; it is remote regardless of its location. On sunny days, such places can take on a futuristic quality, all sharp lines and grand, modulating curvature. But when the cloud and rain dictate, the hard heart of these concrete hinterlands is laid bare, evoking cinematic visions of uninhabitable post-apocalyptic wastelands; unapologetic and uncompromising.
And so it was that in a turret atop the wind-lashed peak of Hog Hill, a group of 23 shivering amateur cyclists waited in varying states of consternation, excitement and foreboding, eyeing each other with a cannibalism that ranged from the Merckxian to the McCarthyesque.
Among their ranks, the Islington Cycling Club (ICC) were well represented. Fresh off the back of their efforts last weekend when they had placed 4th and 5th in their respective races, Peter Armitage and Jon Sutcliffe stood alongside the rookie, ready to do battle once more. We didn’t know it then, but by the end of the race Pete would have made Cat 3, Jon would be a hair’s breadth away from the same fate, and I would have my first points, as well as a punctured rear tire.
Several other teams stood in our way, however. Local club East London Velo and Richmond’s London Dynamo had five riders between them on the start line but it was a new, unaffiliated club called Dirty Wknd that dominated the pack with no fewer than seven riders chomping at the carbon fibre bit. They looked slick, young, fresh and confident and there were general murmurings before the start that a fast-pace was expected.
These expectations were realised as the group – moving clockwise around the circuit due to ice and grit on one of the hairpins at the north eastern edge of the course – set off at a pace that was hard enough to shed at least two riders on the first ascent of the legendary Hoggenberg, a 300 meter climb at an average gradient of 6% but which kicks up at the end to about 12%. Travelling in this direction, the Hoggenberg is not really the final climb as it dips into a short descent at the top, before ramping up again around the hairpin with the ice and grit on it and then levelling off for a 20-30 meter sprint finish to the line.
Perhaps emboldened by this dynamic finale to the first lap, Pete tested the water by pushing off the front at the start of the second and left the group to chase. There was some discussion at the front of the pack about whether or not to chase this attack down and although in the end they were happy to let him go off, Pete’s attack had caused a surge strong enough to drop several other riders and register the fastest lap of the afternoon.
Sitting in about fourth or fifth wheel as Pete was reeled in, I glanced around to see Jon on my wheel and a much reduced group – about 15 of us in total. At this point I thought we were in a breakaway, not quite realizing that with the majority of starters in this group, it was in fact, well, the group. Even so, I felt comfortable enough after three or four laps to take a turn on the front to keep the pace high but looking down and seeing my heart rate deep in zone 5 I was cautious not to get carried away and so settled in near but not right at the front. Here I remained for most of the race and it was a good place to be because it gave me an opportunity to observe some of the stronger riders leading the group.
Chief among these was Tom Stoneham from London Dynamo, who seemed to be dictating the pace most of the time, keeping it high and steady at about 40kmph average on the flat. He looked comfortable, poker faced, in control, and I was content to follow his wheel up the main climb if I could find it, safe in the knowledge that not much was likely to get away from him.
The high pace on the flat and the fact that the group incessantly attacked the Hoggenberg, which despite not being the final climb was certainly still the most significant section of the parcours, meant that before long we were in a front group of ten riders, which incentivised everyone to keep going, in the knowledge that doing so was certain to be rewarded with points.
Any expectation that this scenario might yield a more relaxed pace was misplaced however, as David Bavin and Jonathan Snell from Dirty Wknd started to take turns on the front, working with Stoneham to keep it breathless, if not quite breakneck, forcing the pace over the top of the big climb and pushing hard on the descent over the lap line.
By the penultimate lap it was clear that the majority of the group were just holding on, with Stoneham, Bavin and Daniel Baker from East London Velo controlling the race and this trio could easily have made up the podium had it not been for the Dynamo rider’s misfortune in getting a puncture at the start of the final lap.
I was so exhausted by this point that I harboured little ambition of a podium finish myself although I did feel that I was strong on the climb and that if I could make it to the top of the final Hoggenberg near the front and then push through over the top into the last hairpin then I would be in with a shout of not finishing ninth.
That is exactly what I tried and I think I got to the top of the climb in about third place with Bavin about 15 meters in front and Baker in second. But as I pushed over the top, Tom Vose from London Dynamo, who had been sitting in quietly all race, came around me just before the final kick up on the hairpin with the ice and the grit and I knew I wouldn’t be able to follow as he stormed away to beat Baker in a sprint for 2nd place behind Bavin, who had rolled through the line alone to take 10 points.
As the final little rise flattened out for the sprint finish, Pete came round me for 4th and I shouted and span and gave everything I could but my gear was too low and I could feel myself getting caught by another rider and as we got to the line together both Jon and I threw our bikes in a shootout for 5th and 6th.
As I freewheeled down the hill and began to be able to see and think again, I realized that my back wheel was punctured. Who knows when it had happened, perhaps on the grit on the last hairpin, but what it meant was that the final act of my first race was pushing my bike the right way up the Hoggenberg in the rain. Character building rating: 100.
Back in the turret, the commissaires initially had me down as finishing 5th, just pipping Jon to the line. However, this turned out to be erroneous, and the decision overturned, with the Hogwatch Review Committee eventually awarding Jon 5th and me 6th place. Hogwatch indeed.
This gave ICC an incredibly strong 4th, 5th, 6th and while it would have been great to get one of us on the podium, it did mean we walked off with the non-existant Team Prize with an overall haul of 15 points.
A note must go also to Guido Gessaroli, who brought his daughter, Stella (above), along to support the ICC racers and who whooped and cheered throughout the race, bringing the warmth and taking most of the great pictures above. And lastly, to the Uber driver who was kind enough to let me put my bike in the back of his cab after I had collected my second puncture of the afternoon, two kilometers down the road from Hog Hill with no spare tube and the rain lashing down. A fitting end to an afternoon that felt like a rite of passage.