Thursday 30 May 2024

Operation Etape du Tour - May update

It's time to fit in some fast riding in earnest, so I took myself to take part in my local races. Crystal Palace park criterium on Tuesday nights must be the best work-out in town. Then over at Herne Hill Velodrome crit races you get to do the best bike handling in town!

Racing at Crystal Palace Park (photo: Honor Elliott)

In my preparation for the Etape du Tour it's important to get in some fast cycling. It's easy to go plodding around, particularly over long distances. So the way to ride faster is to well, ride faster.

I like to do track cycling at Herne Hill Velodrome, as well as doing training rides around Regents Park in Central London. These have definitely helped increase my natural speed.

But why not go one step further, and do some actual racing. I had renewed my British Cycling racing licence earlier this year, but didn’t feel quite ready to pin on a number.

At the epoch when I was cycle racing regularly, Redbridge Cycle Centre was just a schematic design on an architect’s desk, and people entered cycle races by sending their entry form with a cheque [remember them?] in the post.

I did do a lot of racing at the time. Over the summer months I would race maybe four times a week - at Hillingdon Cycle Circuit, the former Eastway circuit [now occupied by the Olympic Park], track league at Herne Hill, even a bit of summer cyclocross. A few of us got together and formed the original London Women's Cycle Racing League too, which we did as a way to encourage more women into racing. That was when I had more free time and fewer responsibilities. Then things got busy with work, especially as I worked abroad and in other parts of the UK and so racing died down.

I did make a brief comeback to cycle racing when I raced on a circuit at Dalton Barracks, Oxfordshire a couple of years ago. Nobody knew me, and the young girls kindly gave me encouraging tips as I was blown off the back of the group like a proper newbie! I concluded I was too old for this sort of thing and returned to my life in retirement. I would still do the odd bit of cyclocross racing, more as a way to brighten up a winter's day, than be competitive.

But in the end there’s always a little bit of hunger for competition that remains in you. Maybe it is that mid-life crisis that drives you to feed the hunger before old age really sets in – rather like my motivation for entering the Etape du Tour.

So I decided to ride the Crystal Palace circuit race. It's by no means the easiest one to start with. The circuit is only about one kilometre and during that time you have three tight bends, including one that is 180°, one on a fast descent, and another one around a corner obscured by a bush. The saving grace there’s a soft grassy bank to roll down if you go wrong there! Oh, and there's also a cheeky uphill – something you can’t avoid in that part of South London.

Crystal Palace Crit Circuit

It might be one of the scariest circuit races you can do - the organisers, Dulwich Paragon dub it "the best crit in town" - but it’s just a 10-minute ride uphill from my home, which doubles as my warm-up. I prefer to stay local when racing.  

Standing on the start-line in my Penge Cycling Club kit, alongside a 15-strong field of women who were half my age I knew it would be a fast race, but I had no expectation. That attitude meant that I didn’t feel nervous.

From the whistle, I was dropped by most of the field apart from one of the London Dynamo women. We were quite close together for a short while but then she put in a dig out of the saddle on the hill, and left me for dust.

As someone familiar with this circuit from doing my own training laps I know the course very well. But riding at race pace was a very different experience. I scared myself on the tight corners and at times had to slow right down, before accelerating back up to speed.

That put me at an even greater disadvantage, as I was probably using more energy than the other riders and would burn out quicker. Given the small field, I knew I would come last, so resolved to ride at my pace. I'd paid my entry fee, pinned on a number and so it was my choice how I would do my race!

These races attract a lot of spectators, so I got quite a few cheers of encouragement.  I must say I am grateful of their support - even if I barely had the breath to show it mid-race.

There are various racing going on simultaneously at this Tuesday evening event, so it's not always obvious where a rider is in a race, and pelotons tend to fragment with many riders racing around in ones and twos. So if you're on your own it's not an issue. Just stay off the racing line when a bigger group of riders lap you.  

I was lapped about three times by the top women. After speaking to them at the end I concluded that it doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are – Crystal Palace is a scary course for everyone. But you get such an adrenaline rush that you want to race there again!

I certainly hope to go back, regardless of where I finish. For me, it's the best work-out in town!

Another place to get a good work-out is Herne Hill Velodrome. Of course doing the regular track cycling sessions such as the morning sessions on Tuesdays or Thursdays is a great work-out. What I am referring to specifically are the races on a Friday evening.

Herne Hill Velodrome Crit Circuit

The folks at Herne Hill Velodrome have very cleverly designed a criterium course within the grounds of the velodrome that includes parts of the main velodrome and also the inner section of the track where they normally have sessions for children. Given how compact the area is, this has shown how creative course designers can be. What it also shows is how twisty and technical a course can be, and how much I need to practice my skills. On one section you come off down the ramp of the velodrome and drop down into the inner section at speed and straight into a chicane. It's not something that you want to get wrong - handily there is padding on the corner in case you do miss the corner!

I found the Crystal Palace course technical, but this Herne Hill circuit is technical to another level. One lap of the circuit is probably around 600m, meaning the tricky sections come round with greater frequency than at the Tuesday night race. There are no fast descent at Herne Hill, but you can gain high speed on the flat and on the ramp. With 180-degree and 90-degree turns a-plenty I found it hard to pick up speed, knowing that I would need to slow right down to negotiate these sections safely. 

In the old days when I raced at Herne Hill Velodrome there would be literally one man and his dog spectating. So for that reason when I turned up at the venue I hadn't even considered that anyone would be watching the race. I had been hoping to race in relative anonymity given that most of the other competitors would be younger women who would have been still in primary school when I was regularly racing.  

So imagine my shock when I arrived there to the sound of pumping music, a commentator on the loudspeaker and loads of people actually sitting in the stands watching, cheering while drinking beer. Crikey. That alone almost made me say to myself, "There's been a mistake. I hadn't meant to sign up for this - I should go home!" But I guess deep down I wanted to get a work out, regardless of where I finished in the group. So I just took the start line anyway.

Just as with Crystal Palace, folks cheered me on, but in even greater numbers than at Crystal Palace. It was actually quite fun being part of this dynamic event, even if I did finish in last place again. I must also admit that I wasn't out of breath at all - it wasn't for want of trying, but simply because the corners were so tight that there was a real possibility of stacking it if you went too fast. In fact, one woman did crash, though without any injury and she managed to get up and carry on racing. In a group that lapped me, one girl skidded when she applied her brakes to suddenly, which sent her fellow riders and myself into a brief panic. Thankfully she managed to stay upright. Those two scenarios were exactly what I wouldn't have wanted to be involved in, and was ready to be dropped in order to avoid that.

It was a good evening, and I was glad I went. If nothing else, the Herne Hill Velodrome circuit is a great place for improving your bike handling skills.

So between racing at Crystal Palace and racing at Herne Hill you definitely get in the best racing in town.

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