Town Centre Crits – A young man’s sport!
So that’s it, my 2016 road season is over, just a couple more time trials before racing for this year completely draws to a halt.
My final race was the Sid Valley Town Centre Crit and it ended on a high note with a second place – being nipped in the sprint by Josh Croxton ( Exeter Wheelers) for the second time in as many weeks.
25 years ago, town centre crits were my thing – quite different to circuit races like the Velopark, with multiple tight corners, varying road width, narrow sections, road furniture, left and right handers – the stop/start nature of the racing really suited me. With advancing years and the disappearance of my fast twitch muscle fibres, these are so much harder, the repeated near dead stop sprints take their toll very rapidly and I much prefer a circuit where it’s fast all the time, rather than stop/go efforts.
Sidmouth was a proper town centre circuit, very technical, tarmac, cobbles, pavers, gullies, drain covers, left and right turns in quick succession, big crowds and crowd barriers at the edge of the racing line. In short, a circuit which would reward good bike handlers and those brave enough to take corners fast with very little ( and I mean almost no) room for error. The bike handling/bravery aspects, I could cope with – the problem for me was a succession of low speed corners which would each be followed by a sprint back up to full speed before the braking for the next. Thus 3 x 10 second all-out sprint intervals every 1.2k lap and each only 20 seconds after the last!
As predicted, this proved a problem – the race started very fast and on the technical circuit the 45 rider field was strung into one long line, with every rider praying the one in front did not let a wheel go! A few times they did but I was able to nip around and close – each time moving closer to the front where the I knew the concertina effect in and out of the corners would be lessened. Hitch and Ian Cullen where both in close attendance at the front – remarkable given that they were only just back from the 3-stage Vire race – both using their race craft to good effect.
After 15 or so minutes of racing I’d worked my way into the top 7 and got my nose in the wind (and some sections were very windy!) a couple of times but it was so hard just maintaining position. 5 minutes later Elliott Redfern (Rapha Condor), the rider in 5th place hit the barriers on the cobbled corner exit, the 6th place rider (just in front of me) couldn’t avoid him, somehow I managed to, but I pulled my foot out doing so. I managed to get it back in and sprinted off, but now 50 yards behind a lead group of 4 and 50 yards ahead of the 20 or so riders still left in the peloton – stuck in no man’s land – sit up or chase? I opted for the latter and spent 4 laps ‘in the red’ before making the junction, almost wishing I’d come down myself!. By now my pulse was at 195 bpm and I was struggling to cope with the efforts out of the bends and really not enjoying myself. As I caught the leaders, they eased, allowing the chasing bunch to remake contact – all that effort for nothing!
The pace didn’t relent, but the faces at the front changed with Ed Hatfield from Bournemouth, chasing his first cat licence prominent, together with Ash Towey from Mid Devon, Adrian Reynolds from Taunton RC and Sam Birkenshaw and Josh Croxton of Exeter Wheelers all making appearances at the front end. After that it was 30 minutes of purgatory – a pulse way higher than it should be and no easy sections in which to recover. It was at this point in the race that my race experience started to pay. On the two slowest corners riders were coming to a near standstill and then having to re-accelerate from low speed – creating a massive workload. I adopted a different tactic, laying off the wheel in front by one to two lengths into the corner, so that I could pick my line and not brake so hard, I could then accelerate up to the rider in front as I exited the corner at greater speed. This made the efforts far smoother, and avoided the power ‘spikes’ twice each lap which meant I was able to start to recover from the earlier efforts, hopefully leaving me fresher for the finish. The difficulty with this tactic was that if I left too big a gap, another rider would try to come around me and drop into it. This is where the bravery part came in, elbows out, holding the line, not yielding and on a couple of occasions leaning onto the other rider who was trying to force his way in. With those tactics adopted, I was able to maintain 5th or 6th wheel whilst I was recovering and now comfortably holding position. With the race so fast and technical, there was no time to look around, I could see what was going on ahead but had little awareness of what was going on behind or even how many riders were left in contention after the earlier spill and the relentless pace.
Up at the front, Ash put in another of his strong performances, attacking constantly, he was clearly one of the strongest of the 20 or so riders left. If we can convince him to curb his enthusiasm and save his ammunition for later in the race, I’m certain he is going to develop into one of the region’s strongest riders.
I spent the last ten minutes willing the line judge to hold out the ‘3 laps to go’ board – unfortunately my concentrated thoughts were not enough to speed up time and I had to wait for the scheduled 50 minutes to take their natural course! As is usually the case, the production of the lap board saw a number of riders who had spent the race in the bunch, suddenly appear at the front and the pace to lift by 3 miles per hour. It was comforting to see a number of Mid Devon team mates appear with Mark Coombe and Dave Johnson now both at the fore. With the sudden influx of riders there was a danger of being swamped and I found myself back to 8th or 9th wheel with Ash Mark and Dave all ahead. I pushed on the penultimate finishing straight to move up to 5th wheel and then fought hard to maintain position on a very fast last lap.
The penultimate section of the course featured a strong head wind and I suspected that the lead riders would wait for the finishing straight to start their sprints, however with a strong tail wind finish, it made sense to ‘go long’ sprinting early and carrying high speed into the final bend with the hope of hanging on. That’s just what I did, 100 yds before the final bend, I sprinted up the left hand side of the road as the peloton started to track right, in readiness for the final left hander. I passed the 4 riders ahead of me, carrying far more speed, taking the corner at a far shallower angle but crucially having the inside track, meaning the riders behind would have to adjust their lines. The shallow entry gave me a wider exit, but the dry conditions meant grip was good, and I was able to maintain control and resume my sprint with 200 yds to go – legs searing with lactic. With 75 yds left there were no other riders in my peripheral vision and thoughts turned to what victory salute I would give – however it wasn’t to be and with 50 yards to go Josh Croxton came off my wheel and flew past me putting a length into me before the line, with Ed Hatfield behind us in third, a couple of lengths back
Ash was at the fore coming into the last bend but might have been swamped. Dave Johnson produced a good sprint to take 4th or 5th with Julian Pitocco appearing to make the top ten too. I was pretty pleased with 2nd – especially after having felt so bad during the race – from my perspective it was definitely success through ‘race craft’ rather than ‘race form’ – but you’ve got to play with what you’ve got! It’s certainly convinced me that town centre crit’s are a young man’s game!