Monday 10 September 2007

Tour of Britain at Palace

So it all happened yesterday - the second high profile bike race to start in London -this time, the Tour of Britain.

We weren't in Central London this time, but in the South London 'burb of Crystal Palace Park. Ok, it's not exactly Westminster or Trafalgar Square, but it's still picturesque, with a circuit that makes for great racing. It's also, most importantly, five minutes from my house. Very convenient !

This proved to be of particular benefit to me as I was racing in the women's support race at 10am. It's a real joy to be able to just fall out of bed half an hour before the race starts, get your kit on, take your bike and roll up to the start line ! Well, actually I did have to get some breakfast (a couple of hours before start time); I also had to clean my bike, sign on, recce the unfamiliar part of the circuit which had been specially opened up for the race. So it wasn't quite the seamless transition I might have wanted.

My race was short but not sweet. A clash of women's events meant that numbers were down on previous years. Where there'd normally have been around 40 riders this year there were just 13. Despite the low numbers, gaining a top 10 place was still going to be a challenge given the quality field that lined up at the start gantry.

Once proceedings were underway and we had taken in the elements of the circuit at race pace I quickly realised how tough the course was. The fast descent past the athletics track did not provide much momentum for us to tackle what followed - a flat section into a light head wind, followed by a narrow strait up a 10% "power ramp", which led us into a 200m section of steady climbing, before completing the lap via a fast chicane.

A tough relentless course. Crystal Palace holds a summer league on a short version of this course. Many people fear it and the ruthlessness of the corners and the climb, which riders negotiate about every 2mins on the 800m circuit. I had foolishly thought that this longer version wouldn't be as bad as the Tuesday circuit as we'd be doing a full 1.5mile circuit so there'd be more recovery time between each ascension of that hill.

There probably was more recovery time, but I didn't notice it as the breakneck pace was forced by Marianne Britten (Severn RC) and Charlotte Blackman (London Dynamo). My legs were in pain on the climb and going through the fast flat start/finish section did not provide enough recovery before having to push hard to keep up with the attacks on the descent. So my first few laps were spent hanging onto the coat-tails of the peloton.

Though the climb proved a little tight and led to bunching, the area was still big enough to accommodate our intimate group. However, as in race situations there's always the inevitable squeezing through to get nearer the front. This squeezing through and elbowing led to handbags between a couple of girls, and one of the riders hit the deck. Other riders weren't too happy that they were almost brought down, and some were dropped after being caught up behind events.
As I'd not been able to keep up in the thick of things I was "lucky" enough to not be affected by the incident, and just witnessed it ahead of me.

It did make for a bit of a post-race talking point - unfortunately overshadowing the talk about the race in general, the course, the fact that the women managed to catch the junior men who'd set off a minute ahead of us, and the overall magnitude of the occasion.

Shortly after the crash I was dropped for good (as were one or two others) and I continued round the course as fast as I could while riding through the pain. There were still sizeable crowds spectating at this early stage in the day, and their cheers really gave me a boost to continue.
Stanley was also offering to buy me lunch, as an incentive to finish the race. After 8 laps the race was over, with Janet Birkmyre (Planet X) again having won from a small group of contenders. I finished a lap down on her.

Racing lesson of the day : For a sweeter race at Palace I need to cause myself more pain in my training sessions, and be near the front when going up tight hills !

After my race, I felt a lot more relaxed and enjoyed catching up with loads of cycling folks I hadn't seen all year, plus others that I normally only ever see in bike kit. It's always nice to discover how nice someone's hair looks - or doesn't look, as the case may be !

It was funny watching team cars struggling around the course to keep up with the international professionals during the prologue, as they whizzed around the chicanes and sped up the hills. (Actually, a few of the pros struggled up THAT hill.)
The sun shone, conditions were warm, there was a real festival atmosphere, and Mark Cavendish (T-Mobile) won the Prologue, to everyone's delight.

The Tour of Britain will continue it's way up North, eventually finishing in Glasgow next Saturday. Good Luck to the riders !

photos by : John Mullineaux, Belinda Sinclair and Stan

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