East London Velo Winter Series #7 (Category 4)
Competition can do strange things to the mind, transforming otherwise rational beings into paranoid obsessives, hunted by conspiracy and inspired by hitherto unnoticed leanings towards voodoo and the occult. Perhaps it is for this reason that ritual and superstition are rife across the sporting world, reinforcing our childlike longing for the absurd and providing conveniently intangible explanation for events that so often defy conventional wisdom.
Who knows what rituals exist in the pro peloton, but the amateur cyclist seems a willing victim to this unique brand of madness. Heart rate monitors worn upside down, cycling caps back to front, a fir cone from the Bedoin Forest tucked eternal into the vortex of a saddle bag; all these and many more bizarre rites are observed by wheelers as humble as you and I.
It was perhaps inevitable, therefore – after last week’s assault on Hog Hill and a return to the same stage planned seven days later – that I would spend this past week searching for messages in the bottom of my bidon, checking for moon-dust around the rims of my wheels. What was I to make, for example, of an ambiguous line in Guillermo Del Torro’s latest film, The Shape of Water: “There is no profit in last week’s fish”. Was this a warning? And what of being handed the number 13 at the race sign-in on Saturday? Despite my shrugs and smiles, I felt the breath of fate, keen and close.
The stars had aligned in another sense too. Among the 33 riders lining up along the start line on this crisp February afternoon, there were no fewer than six previous race winners – most after just one race – standing now on the cusp of ascension to the gated dominion that is Cat 3. These included Rickard Barbet (Rapha CC), Nick Marriott (Onyx RT), Andrew Bradbury (Paceline RT), and last week’s winner David Bavin (Dirty Wknd), all of whom would have earned their place in that hallowed land before the afternoon was out.
So as the whistle went and the group rolled through with the sun strong and high in the cloudless blue sky, there was a confidence to some of the riders that had been absent the week before. Befitting of this swagger, the group was spearheaded from the off by Marriott and another rider from Onyx RT, Alex Moody, who were distinguished from the other riders as much by their disc brakes and skin suits as by their stature, resembling two Davids amidst a rabble of misshapen teenagers. They immediately set a fierce pace that had the pack bobbing and undulating as it snaked around the first hairpin.
The course is faster when moving anti-clockwise but even so, the pace the Onyx riders held for the first few laps was frantic and I found myself continually having to sprint to stay in the bunch, which would stretch out long and thin on the straights and then come together in a great sprawling mess at the corners. This made cornering dangerous and several riders came close to overcooking things as they sprinted into turns too hot.
In such a large group, positioning takes on much more importance. Riding towards the back of a group of 33 riders on a narrow and winding road circuit renders one a passive observer unable to affect the outcome of the race. But with the pace so high from the off, sheltering within the pack seemed like the only sensible course of action and I generally tried to stick close to Bavin and Fraser Duff of Dirty Wknd, who were my only reference point from last week and who both also seemed to be content to sit in and hold on.
Up top things were reaching breaking point and as the group thundered towards the fifth ascent of the Hoggenberg, Marriott and Moody rode off the front, opening a gap that had grown to 15 seconds by the time the bunch reached the summit of the climb. As we panted and pushed through the lap line, off to our left we could see the Onyx riders putting the hammer down, no doubt aware that they were on the cusp of what could be a race-winning move, and there was something majestic about the way they whooshed around the first hairpin and stormed up and over the crest of the peak on the far side.
The group gave chase with Jallani Quereshi of Crawley Wheelers, who had placed just outside the top 10 last week, taking the bull by the hoods and pushing hard on the descent in their pursuit. Being in a chase on a circuit is notable for many reasons, but one of those is that you occasionally glimpse the riders you are in pursuit of, framed momentarily amidst the foliage around the edges of the course. So it was that for the next lap we would occasionally spy the Onyx men, aligned in perfect two-up harmony, working hard to extend their gap.
This was in stark contrast to the chasing group, which by the foot of the next Hoggenberg had resorted to bickering over who was to take on responsibility for the chase, with Shaun Terry eventually coming through to lead the group up the big climb. With such a lack of coordination, it was no surprise to discover that the Onyx riders had extended their lead to 30 seconds by the time we got to the summit.
Now seven laps in at a pace that hadn’t relented since the off, an unspoken agreement seemed to wash over the group: the break would be allowed to go. The race for third was now on.
Not surprisingly, the pace dropped off and the group kept it steady for a couple of laps. Having been deep in the red at points earlier on, I was relieved to have the recovery time and I sat in the wheels for a couple of laps. Having caught my breath now, I used some to chat briefly to the rider next to me, who I recognised from my pre-race research to be Rickard Barbet, winner of a previous race at Lee Valley, where he had finished first ahead of a large field. His was definitely a wheel to watch, as was that of Andrew Bradbury, who now headed the group, distinct in his blue and orange Paceline skin suit and notable also as another previous race winner.
The presence of so many riders of calibre as well as the fact that the group was still 20 strong had me concerned about getting lost in the bunch if it came to a sprint finish, and as we crested the Hoggenberg once more and got the shout that five laps remained, I felt fresh and recovered and that I might try and shake out a few of the hangers on, in the knowledge that if I failed to get away then I would have time to recover.
I came to the front at the top of the Hoggenberg and nestled in behind Bradbury through the lap line, hitting the hairpin nice and fast and carrying the speed into the little kick up climb as I attacked. Coming over the top out front, I hit the descent as hard as I could, thinking that some riders would be looking forward to recovering here and that the group could split. I managed to open up a gap in the bunch, taking the corners as fast as I could but the nature of the course means that it is hard to keep a gap on this section and sure enough the bunch seemed to be strung out but holding on. I was still leading the group as we went into the next ascent of the Hoggenberg but was caught as we went up. I sat back in.
With three laps to go another two riders tried the same thing. More surging. More sprinting. Then they were caught. So as the penultimate lap came and went, with all the surging that had been happening there were a lot of tired legs and a bunch sprint felt like a sure thing.
Positioning was everything and Duff and Bavin went straight to the front as the final lap started, with me hot on their wheels. With Bavin in front of me, I had one of the three wheels I wanted, knowing that if I could follow him up the final climb then I would likely be close to the points. But about halfway through the lap there was a surge as a group of riders came through on the right hand side, jostling for position as we neared the foot of the Hoggenberg, and I found myself boxed in behind Bavin with riders on either side of me and the group about 15 strong now.
As the gradient kicked up, Barbet, who had been in the group coming round the outside right, shot off the front with a huge kick and started the sprint early. With Quereshi and others giving chase Bavin and Duff went, with the latter taking the turn at the top of the climb wide and carrying his pace into the finish line. I was on Bavin’s wheel and right on the edge of being in the points and as I threw my bike at the line I felt I might have just crept into the top ten. (Video of the sprint for 3rd).
Over a minute before the sprint, the breakaway had rolled through the line together, with Alex Moody taking all ten points ahead of his teammate, Nick Marriott, making it an Onyx Racing 1-2 and capping an imperious debut performance from the South African rider as he looked down from the top of the proverbial box.
After a wait, the commissaries confirmed that Barbet had stormed his way to 3rd with Quereshi just behind in 4th. Duff’s outside line had carried him to 5th ahead of Bradbury with Bavin and myself having to settle for 8th and 9th respectively, just behind Alistair Holland. Charles Butler of Cambridge University CC completed the top ten.
Prize for hero of the day goes to Paolo Puggioni (above), who finished 15th in the Cat 4 race and then went on to contest the 2/3/4 race immediately after. Chapeau! And the award for unsung heroes of the day has to go to all at East London Velo for organising the event, and in particular Miriam, who cheered and danced the riders on ceaselessly throughout the race as she marshalled a corner. Thank you also Roger Maidment for all of the great photos above, capturing perfectly what was a great and memorable day out for all involved.