For personal reasons, December was a bit of a difficult month and that’s primarily why I haven’t blogged for a few weeks. Every now and then, life can catch you by surprise, disrupt your routine and rhythm and play havoc with the obsessive compulsive cyclist’s finely tuned plans. It’s not all doom and January gloom, however; sometimes a reminder about life’s priorities can be a good thing and that’s something I’m going to remain mindful of going forwards.
Belated and philosophical New Year’s Resolution dealt with, it’s time to talk cycling.
I haven’t blogged for a few weeks, but training has been ticking over. With my job involving unpredictable hours and daylight limited, after much deliberation I decided against following a specific programme this winter. It would only have been destined to fail, and I’d have wound up frustrated and resentful at missing sessions. Instead, I’m free-styling the dark months; riding long, slow miles outside when time and weather allow, and making the most of my turbo trainer and Zwift subscription when I can’t be arsed to find three base layers, two pairs of overshoes, leg warmers, glove liners, ear muffs and seven spare inner tubes on top of the usual kit.
Breaking the base tradition – a bit of winter racing
I’m feeling pretty strong (for this time of year, anyway) and hitting my numbers with relative ease during turbo sessions (time for another dreaded FTP test, maybe?) But smashing a Sufferfest is ultimately just a means to an end; to see what real-world progress I’m making, I wanted to test the legs a couple of times on the local race scene – and where better to do that than my club’s (East London Vélo) Winter Series at the punishing Hog Hill?
The ELV Winter Series is friendly and accessible grass-roots racing on a testing track, with two races on offer (a 4th Cat only race and a Cat 234 race). It runs for 8 weekends through January and February, and it’s great value ( £12 per race pre-entry via the British Cycling website or £20 EOL). Still 5 weekends left, so take the plunge and get signed up!
ELV Winter Series 2017 races 1-3 (Cat 234)
So far, I’ve raced the first three races in the series. Reading back-dated race reports can be a bit dull, so instead here follows a quick synopsis and a few realisations / lessons learned – accompanied by some pretty awesome pics taken by ELV’s self-appointed photographer, Pete! (If you want to see more pics from the series, check out the ELV Flickr page).
I’d like to give a big shout out to the ELV guys who have cheered me on (and in Alex’s case, given up a racing opportunity to let me have another go), and also to the Hornchurch CC guys who’ve made the effort to get along to Hog Hill and stand around in the freezing cold – it’s appreciated! Great to see a couple of the Hornchurch guys getting involved in the racing this year, too (well done Jack and Steve on a couple of good performances).
Race 1 (07.01.17)
Despite the sketchy conditions and a slippery circuit, the pace was quick, with Theo Modell (Corley Cycles) and Colin Ward (Essex Roads) constantly looking to push on and break the bunch. My plan was boring but effective: fight to hold the wheel in front, keep an eye out for gaps developing ahead and make sure I was still there or thereabouts with 1 to go, before using my weight advantage to try and nick a couple of places in the final charge up the hill.
The race played out as I had hoped. It was great racing alongside Chris (strong and experienced 2nd Cat team-mate), and I was grateful for a tow back through the field during a tough lap when my concentration had lapsed and a gap opened in front of me. Held my own in the sprint and even passed a couple of guys just before the line.
Race 2 (14.01.17)
Buoyed by the confidence boost of scoring points in Race 1, I was looking forward to getting stuck in for more of the same. I knew I could hold my own in the bunch and the hill hurt others more than it hurt me, so again I planned to stay quiet in the top third, let the hill work its attritional magic and hope I had enough left in the final stages to place again from a (fingers crossed) diminished group.
After a slow opening lap, the inevitable attacks started every time we hit the hill. They seemed more dynamic and powerful than the previous week, with riders practically coming to a standstill, glancing at each other, and suddenly laying down huge watts in an attempt to snap the pack.
With one lap to go, my group was down to 11 or 12 with a handful of riders strung out just ahead. Using the same old tactic (conserve, conserve, conserve from the downhill to the back straight), I sat in the wheels until the beginning of the slope and gave it everything, just holding off Sam Thienel for 6th place. Sam edged me in to 7th last week, so it was good to settle the score and have a laugh about it with him during the warm-down.
Race 3 (21.01.17)
I was supposed to be on marshalling duty this week, but was offered the opportunity to swap with one of the lads who was due to race. Having gone so well in the first two races, I couldn’t turn the chance down.
There were no major attacks today, and to be honest a break never looked likely, but the race was nervy early on (due to a bigger bunch) and it felt quite tactical, with a couple of guys deliberately stalling the bunch to give team-mates a few metres. All part of the learning experience for me.
Ultimately I wasn’t quite at the races (well, race). Sitting too far back and perhaps intimidated by the size and quality of the field, I had to fight hard to get in position for the final lap and hesitated too long before launching my final effort. I struggled to navigate traffic up the final hill, and came over the line a slightly disappointing 12th. I say disappointing; I hadn’t expect to score in the first two races of the series, so it’s all relative.
Hog Hill take-aways: lessons learned from the Winter Series
I won’t be racing next week as I’m definitely marshalling, and given my goals for later in the season I plan to get back to some bigger and more consistent miles. But these three races have done me a lot of good; I’ve picked up confidence, a handful of BC points and some solid experience racing at a new level. Three lessons learned:
1. Don’t stalk the start-list before the race
Doing this is stupid. It only brings about doubt and negativity when you realise you’re up against bigger, badder riders with history at a high level. I did it before Race 3, and after seeing the quality of the field, I think I subconsciously told myself that my natural place in the bunch was a little further back – and that cost me during the race. Further back, you’re forced to take poor lines and a big, energy-sapping effort is needed to move up before the final charge. Lesson learned, and I’ll be looking to push forward in the pack and ride nearer the front next time.
2. You deserve to be there
On a more positive note, I’ve earned my right to race these guys and I’ve shown I can stick with the best of them for [most of] the race. The self-confidence is coming at last. It’s good to feel part of a race, rather than being dragged round in a nervy vacuum. I need to start throwing caution to the wind and really test myself with some attacks and breaks; if you don’t try, you’ll never know.
3. Know the demands of your race
My power stats from these races have been really interesting and they reveal a lot about the physiological demands of crit racing at a half-decent level. Most telling of all is the huge gap between AP (average power) and NP (normalised power) in each of the three races. Put simply, the numbers show that I spent a LOT of time doing very little (or nothing), and a LOT of time absolutely hammering it. Being competitive in crits at Hog Hill is about explosive power, knowing when to use that power, and ability to recover and explode repeatedly. It’s as far from as steady-state effort as you can imagine. Plan your training accordingly.