I've been in a lot of (able-bodied) road races in my brief cycling career and most of them have gone the same way. I suppose I have made a fair bit of progress from a few years ago when I would get dropped almost right away and would either go home early with my tail between my legs or struggle on through the entire race on my own – usually getting lapped by the field several times (depending on the size of the circuit).
In the past year I have gotten a lot fitter and stronger and have managed to stick with the pack for the entire race and sometimes if the circuit was flat enough – managed to attempt to sprint it out for a placing at the end. I think I managed a 6th place in one of these races which to me... was a win.
To preface this story – I must admit that this particular race I'll be writing about here was a Vet's race; everyone in the field was over 40 (and most over 50). Don't get me wrong – these races are not easy as these guys have been racing for years and are strong. I have struggled to maintain the pace at times and it certainly is no Sunday training ride. But I've found that the level of my disability puts me nicely in the middle of this group with so serious advantage or disadvantage.
I've watched a LOT of cycling on the TV – probably thousands of hours. Most races seem to go the same way: early on a group of riders will try and break away from the main group, then spend all day out front building a substantial gap before being reeled in and caught before the finish line. Sometimes it's a few miles from the finish, other times it's a few hundred meters from the end. Very rarely does a breakaway get away and STAY away all the way to the end.
I have long fancied 'getting in the break' in one of these races. However, I have very poor race sense. I usually come to the front very early on and manage to try and jump into every move right from the start – inevitably burning myself out early on making jump after jump – and then missing the actual break that gets away while I'm sitting at the back of the pack recovering! Still, it hasn't stopped me from having a go. Much better to try and fail then to just sit in the pack the whole race and finish with everyone else.
|The bunch rolls out to the start|
So, getting back to the race in question... as I rolled up to the start I was feeling great; fresh and ready to have a serious go at this one. As the riders rolled through the neutralised start area (a mile or so), I slowly made my way up towards the front of the bunch. When the flag dropped and the race began in earnest, I was nicely positioned a few riders back from the front – and able to see everything that developed.
A few riders immediately had a dig and tried to get away – but nothing doing. Then the second wave went with just one or two people. I decided to do my usual thing and immediately jumped across. We started to get a gap but the pack reeled us back in.
Then another rider went off the front – not quickly but just slowly powering away. I jumped across to his wheel and began to work with him to build up a gap. When I looked around to see who was chasing, I was surprised to see the answer was no one! They had decided to let us 'go'.
I think a few people in the bunch must have looked at me (the guy with one leg) and the other rider (someone who hadn't done a lot in races before so wasn't considered a threat) as two people that wouldn't get far on their own – so we were given some room to ride. They never thought we'd make it to the finish together, ahead of the bunch. This was to prove a fatal mistake.
The other rider (Ewart Howkins of Weaver Valley CC) is a big guy. Well over 6 feet tall and built like a track sprinter. Possibly not the best physique for road racing, but looks like he could tear my legs off me (pardon he expression) in a flat out sprint. I assumed (and said this to him) that if we got to the finish together, I would be happy with 2nd place as there was no way I could outsprint him to the line.
And so we kept at it. Each taking a turn driving on the pace at the front. Building the gap mile after mile. Soon the pack were nowhere to be seen and we were well and truly out in front. I began to believe that we might actually make it to the finish first. And even began to try and formulate a plan on how I might try and win the race for myself. But just didn't think that I could get away from Ewart at any point.
Fast forward to the last few miles. We were still working together, but both very tired. I could see the pack now closing in (but they had been doing so slowly for miles). We still had an advantage but it was quickly running out. I was starting to panic and giving everything I had left to get us to the finish line. Ewart was also clearly struggling as every time he came to the front to do a turn, I could see he was going slowly.
|Ewart and I in the break|
The finish was at the top of a motorway overpass – which meant a slight uphill sprint to the line. This type of finish really doesn't suit me as I struggle to go fast when the road goes uphill (even a little bit). It's why I was convinced I had no shot at winning the race. I also knew I had to get up that little hill before the pack caught us or they would ride straight past me.
I didn't want to be one of those guys who spends all day out in the break – only to be caught within sight of the finish line and gets passed by the entire bunch. So, with one last glance behind me to verify that the bunch was breathing down our necks, I yelled at Ewart that this was it and we had to go NOW. I launched myself off his back when and powered around him as we hit the base of the final climb to the finish line.
Head down, I put every last ounce of energy into stomping on the pedals. I got about halfway up the hill before my leg(s) just about gave out, but didn't stop. I just kept on going, oblivious to the pain. I expected Ewart to come flying by me at any second to take the win, but it didn't happen.
And just like that... I crossed the finish line. FIRST. It wasn't pretty – there was no moment of sitting up and raising my hands in the air for the photographers. It was ugly. But it was a win. Within a few seconds the rest of the bunch came roaring past me – but it didn't matter. I had gotten to that line before them and taken my first win in a road race.
Many of the riders came to congratulate me afterwards (something that meant a great deal to me). Speaking to Ewart later on, he told me that he had suffered from some saddle pain and just didn't have it in him to sprint up the hill (although he still held on for second place).
The moral of the story: don't ever underestimate the guy with one leg. He'll surprise you every time.