bike racing: the penultimate guide: Bike racing 101 - part 5 - The race itself
# OK, they call your grade. Nervously you line up with a bunch of older experienced riders, some young enthusiastic guys, some kids and a few women who look like they've raced before. They may call your name off the startlist now. They may check you bike and helmet for compliance and safety. You check your tyres again and try to keep your heart from racing. Before you know it...
# Get ready, go! This is when getting your foot into the cleats fast, first time matters. Something to practice. Just don't panic if someone makes a jackrabbit start - get your foot in and get going as soon as you can
# OK, you are underway. Get on a wheel, any wheel, and try to pick who looks safe to sit on (or 'draft'). The regular racers will have good bike skills. Don't get in their way but do watch and learn from them. The older guys are probably crafty, sit really close but safely, dodge potholes, rarely do a turn and never attack until the finish line beckons...
# You settle in, probably mid-field or towards the back. They are doing turns up front. The first 6 riders are swapping off, seamlessly, so as one peels off (to the left, taking shelter from the wind coming from the right) another cruises up with little effort. This seems to go on for a while and you sit happily up the back just getting used to the corners and cornering with 20 other riders around you
# Try not to brake for corners. The guy on your wheel sounded annoyed when you hit the anchors 'for no *?*$*&*? reason!'. Momentum is important, so let's not lose it by braking when it's not strictly necessary. It just takes some practice to corner so faaast!
# OK, another lesson, don't cross wheels. That guy in front just moved across like that and almost took my front wheel out. Leave a gap, and sit to one side or the other of the rider in front
# I feel guilty sitting here at the back, so I move forward. I ease into the group of 6 doing the turns and someone leaves a gap, allowing me in... I take the hint and get on a wheel
# I now follow the riders as they move forward until only one rider is ahead of me and another is on my left. As the rider in front finishes his turn (it was short, they barely got to the front and they were done!) I feel an urge to surge forward but the guy behind me calls out "steady!" so I ease off. It's harder work out here in the wind and before I know it the guy behind calls again, irritably, "go left!". So I do
# As I go left (remembering the wind is coming from the right, btw) the rider on my wheel accelerates gently to take my place and I take the hint to ease off a bit. Before I know it he's coming off the front too and I'm heading backwards!
# I try to keep track of where I am and as I get back level with the guy I followed last time I look to see if there's a gap. Magically, there is! I just move across into the gap and get onto that wheel again. The last rider may even call "last" so it's obvious. Phew, so I've done a turn. Apart from a brief period in the wind I was actually on a wheel (or in the draft) pretty much all the time. I do a few more turns for practice and then drop back a bit to recover. That brief period up front is harder than it seemed to be at first, when you've done it a few times in a row
# Another lesson. As I go back to the rear of the bunch someone - probably the guy 7th from the front in the Discovery jersey - has attacked hard on the right. He surprised the 6 riders doing turns - I think he attacked just as a small hill started, too, so they were slowing as he was going. He took a flyer up the side. It's shaken the lead riders up and they have reacted individually to the challenge. Gaps are forming between riders.
# We were going at an easy 33kmh (still faster than I ride on my own, mind) before this happened, and now we are chasing this guy at 40kmh. I'm not sure I'm fit enough for this! I feel as though my heart may burst, my lungs are burning, I'm panting heavily and my legs are on fire!
# Apparently some people feel like me. Some hesitated before chasing ('no, you first. Please, after you...' kind of thing) whilst a couple of others jumped straight up to the breakaway. So now there are 3 of them working together just off the front. 5 riders are chasing them and I'm stuck waaay down the back with the rest. OK, I should have stayed up front.
# I'm stuck behind a wall of hesitaters and it takes a while to get to the front. I feel strong so I do a long turn and it takes a while before someone else helps out. Gradually we catch the 5 in front of us but the 3 others are now out of sight. We seem to ease off, which is good as I'm waaay over my regular riding speed and heart rate.
# Our speed settles and we grind away, taking turns again and whittling back the lead. We almost have them when the bell rings... last lap!
# We don't quite get to them on that last lap. They sprint and take the podium spots and I sprint with the main bunch and end up 7th. Good enough for a first race, anyway. And I have learned a few things about anticipation, teamwork, bike skills and what it takes to race.