Surrey League Barcombe (2/3)

Ride on Strava

Intro (only a month since my last post…)

This weekend was my first ever proper road race – 60 miles around the Barcombe circuit as part of the Surrey League, organised by Sussex Revolution RT . It is a fair way to travel for a race, so my teammate today, Dan Cooper, was kindly offering a lift. Yes – a rider from Kent, rode into London, to drive to Sussex, to race in the Surrey League..

The race comes after a huge summer of riding for me, with a solid 8 weeks of training since July with 3,200 miles covered. I’ve rarely raced, choosing instead to pick my events rather than just go after everything. I did the former with some success early in the season and fell apart afterwards attempting the latter.

The training I’ve done has become increasingly more specific for road races, typically with an RPR session stacked on top of hitting my 45min commute to Regent’s Park in the mornings for a decent 3h-4h. Sometimes even an evening session stacked on top of this to hit 100miles for the day too (a 100mi Eddington score is a long term target…). I’ve had a lot of fun and focused on enjoying cycling during this time. It’s been a mixed bag, but a lot of things have been ticked off recently that I wasn’t sure I was capable of:

  • Richmond Park TTs (1st and 2nd in the Road category)
  • Dunwich Dynamo 192mi day
  • London-Surrey Ride 100 (#notarace)
  • RPR Sub-5 Regent’s attempt (5.06)
  • 1 lap Regent’s solo road bike (5.34)
  • 2LSSS (5.58 + 5.58) – back to back solo road bike laps

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Anyway – all of this has been a part of trying to become a stronger rider in the long term, and having a crack at some late season road racing seemed like a great way to check progress and have a go at some ‘longer’ distance stuff. I decided on a taper (of sorts) for the week before, taking the Monday off and cutting the intensity from 3 days out whilst maintaining time on the bike.

An early start…?

Or not. Leaving my house at 6.30am to ride an hour across to Dan’s meant a lie in! Dan and I chatted in the car on the way down about the course, conditions and competition. It was pretty clear that there were a few riders we would have to watch and reports from a race on the same course last year indicated a breakaway was favourable. The Barcombe course has plenty of narrow roads and short line of sight sections where, it turned out, riders could disappear.

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Courtesy of Veloviewer

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I knew the finish was on a roughly 1 minute long undulating drag to the line, but the rest of the course was a complete mystery. The commisaire’s briefing assumed everyone knew all of the hazard locations that were read out (‘the descent from the village has a terrible road surface…sorry’), but unfortunately I had to find out where the hazards were at 40mph swooping around blind corners in full lean mode.

First hour

The race got underway after an unexpected 5w/kg requirement to hold on to the bunch in the neutral zone. My strategy was to learn and evaluate the course on the first few laps, watch the key riders and conserve energy for the business end of the race. Sitting at the back of the race isn’t advised but I wasn’t convinced that 1) a break would go early 2) the teams of 5/6 riders would allow breaks to go, or 3) that Dan and I wouldn’t be able to rectify any situation working together.

The roads were a little wet under tree cover and a few hairy moments marked the first two laps: a horse rider appeared to have been recruited to shut down a threatening early breakaway’s 30s advantage, and; some riders taking the wrong side of the road in a wet, pothole-littered chicane, covered in fallen leaves were routed in textbook fashion by an opposing team’s DS car travelling in the opposite direction to prevent them moving up to the front. Probably.

Lots of attacks came and breaks went, but collective freshness spoiled the party every time. Everyone wanted to be in the early moves, but most attacks happened on the downhills and on the west half of the course which had a cross-headwind so a lot of energy had to be exchanged for a small gap on the group. I watched on – the course had some nice long downhill and uphill straights where you could watch the action unfolding up the road – and wondered how much these guys would have left in an hour’s time. The first hour had some fast racing and a few strung out moments in the crosswinds, but nothing was let go and I’d done a good job of saving as much as I could averaging 203w / 282 NP.

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A breakaway forms

Shortly after this, Dan thought I’d been dropped (or punctured) and he visited came to the back for a chat. We were talking about how we thought the race could be won by breaking away and where we thought the best places might be for an attack to make that happen on the last lap. The other option was the uphill bunch sprint (which I preferred), but the roads were so narrow that position would have to be made up a couple of miles out at least. At this point, the guy I’d marked as ‘#1 to watch’ – Paul Hart (he drove a 2-up break for the whole race then soloed to victory at the Cyclopark the week before) – had broken free of the bunch and was out of sight at every point on the course. I was adamant that he was alone and there was no panic, but Dan said he was with a few others.

Flyby would confirm that at 35miles in, and with 3 laps to go, Paul had over a minute on the bunch and was with at least 2 other riders. Crossing the line at 3 laps to go, a few more attacks went and another rider (Alex Donaldson from London Dynamo) made it across to the breakaway to make a 4-man group up the road. I started to worry a bit that we were now sitting in the cheap seats and, annoyingly, racing for the minor placings while the race was up the road.

At this point, the bunch had sat up on a downhill section and momentum carried me right to the head of the bunch where a few riders were clipping off the front. A bit frustrated, I had a dig to see what would happen. I strung out the bunch with a bit of help from crosswinds and pulled a few guys clear briefly, but we were closed down. After my third little dig was chased down, and the bunch had sat up to a casual 20mph, I hit it again at 1100w coming over the top of a rise and got some distance. Len (London Phoenix) was riding all out to make the wheel and Dan was at the front of the bunch to slow proceedings and expedite the escape.

I softpedalled to get Len with me as I had no idea how far ahead the break was. With the prospect of a long chase against a working group ahead, waiting for another guy was worthwhile. I was getting carried away and riding well over 400w and I felt I couldn’t wait for Len to recover after bridging – particularly as I was entering the hilly section where a draft wasn’t much use anyway. I kicked on solo and everything just felt amazing – I was comfortable drilling 420w in full flight, heart rate over 200bpm, railing the corners in a super aero position and I now had the breakaway in my sights on a long uphill section.

4 guys, a commisaire car and the red mini to mark I was coming back to the front of the race.

Bridging

It was either luck, intuition or a combination of both that I’d picked the perfect time to choose to bridge to the breakaway (unfortunately not racecraft – I didn’t know the gap). Their advantage over the bunch had been steadily falling over the previous ~10 miles and was sitting at about 30s. A window had opened where the break was close enough to be bridged to, but still far enough away to be out of sight and ‘out of mind’. Add to this the fact that Dan had moved with me to the front and was now nullifying the chase behind and a perfect opportunity was created. To say thank you for his loyal teamwork, I’ve plagiarised his flyby graphic below from his cool analysis of the race that you can check out here in his race report.

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To explain, the graphic above shows the breakaway (blue), me (red) and Dan in the bunch (black). The lines show the three groups and their relation to each other in terms of time/seconds. The graphic shows the breakaway was steadily losing time to everyone and on course to be caught. I attacked at ~41miles and closed the gap to the breakaway and made the junction at about 44miles. This was another important factor – I caught the break before the descent to the final climb and I was able to sit on for 2 minutes @ 185w to recover, before the hurt began again on the succession of hills.

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The bridge took just over 6 and a half minutes @ 355w and was my first real opportunity to ride a fast line through the corners. The course was like a rollercoaster and awesome to fly around as there were a few lazy bends with a small humped bridge just beforehand to give you a brief zero-g moment while leaning in.

Driving the break

I duly sat on the back for a mile to get my heart rate on the happier side of 200bpm and began working once we crossed the line for 2 laps to go. I wasn’t going to be much use if I didn’t sit in and I wanted the break to succeed. Of the four guys in the break (Paul + Alex + TAAP racing + Corley Cycles) the latter two were really suffering and rolling short turns. I was the freshest and started pulling some long turns ~400w, content that I wasn’t going to be attacked after riding back to my limit. This would also help the break recover a little and be of use for as long as possible – we still had 40 minutes to ride if this was going to work.

The break was communicating and rotating well but there was an underlying uncertainty about our gap and whether we were trying in vein to stay away. When I bridged I was given helpful time gaps 5 or 6 times. In the lead group, we had no idea of our gap so there was constant looking over shoulders.

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I grew ever more cautious as we got closer to, and took the bell for, the last lap. The lower of the two red lines on the graph above shows my w’ (i.e. my matchbox). When I joined the break I was keen to work to see it succeed after committing so much energy, so I pulled strong turns (the line fluctuates up and down as I burn matches riding >threshold. On Dan’s flyby graphic, we gain 40s in 6 miles on the bunch once I join the break and pull.

After the initial enthusiasm, I remember there’s still a race to be won and some very crafty riders in the break – some recovery is needed to mark the moves when they come. I stop digging so deep on my pulls, try to avoid pulling turns downhill (where more is saved by drafting) and keep an eye out when I’m on the front for anyone planning to jump me at the end of my turn.

Fortunately this doesn’t happen. On the final lap, Paul attacked the break on the first steep climb after the finish. I spotted his movement and got to his wheel to grind out my response of 700w for 20s. We’d gapped our two remaining break mates and Paul was calling me through to keep driving the pace… Really?!?  I came through but the attack hadn’t shaken off the other two. Predictably, now nobody would work and we still had an unknown gap and 6 miles to go… The cat and mouse had begun and threatened to throw the race for the break.

Then came a horrible moment. The commisaire’s car that was following the break was overtaking us. I thought our gap must have fallen below 30s like neutral support in a pro race and it was all over. Then the comm said ‘2 minutes’. I couldn’t figure out how the hell we had 2 minutes* and everyone in the break checked that we hadn’t misheard. Everyone then chilled out (kind of) and rode tempo until the final 2 miles. Then the cat and mouse resumed…

*[As it turned out, we held 2 minutes to the bunch, but a few riders clipped off in between and were closer than that..].

I was happy to lead out the final climb if necessary, but I was thinking my % chance of winning goes up if I sit at the back and can see exactly what the other 3 guys are doing. I was pretty sure how it would play out but the TAAP racing guy hadn’t done any work in the last lap – he was an unknown quantity as he had responded to Paul’s last attack and done the least work. As it turns out, he was the first dropped and just didn’t have anything left. He knew this all along but stayed with the move to retain his 4th and not get dropped before the final climb, which was smart riding.

I’d looked at the final climb with Dan beforehand and noted the speeds/wattage of the bunch sprint last year. The gradient averages ~5% but it fluctuates between flatter and steeper pitches. As a result, having a draft is a huge advantage. Knowing this, I made sure I was positioned last and as soon as we hit the bottom of the climb Paul went.

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It was a very strong acceleration and I needed to snap up to 1200w to make Paul’s wheel. Once we got over the first undulation, we were up to 20-24mph for 30seconds where I have a big draft advantage. At this point I was in a lot of pain, hoping not to cramp, but was spinning a high (110rpm) cadence and waiting for my moment. I could almost tell the thinking of the riding in front… just one more acceleration and he’s gone… I kept seeing these surges and looks back as the road meandered left and right, but I know he has to slow down… I kept my head up waiting for the last curve of the road and that last little rise in gradient. As soon as the finish line came into sight around a bend at about 100m to go – this was the moment – I clicked it down two gears and kicked it up to 1000w for a few seconds and instantly got the gap…and the hands in the air for the win.

Just after a moment’s hard breathing and contemplation, Dan flies in over the line for 5th, way clear of anyone behind. Turns out he marked the chase, followed a move and ended up soloing home the last lap @ 373w taking almost a minute out of the break’s advantage. What a beast. Sweaty skinsuit hugs don’t happen often, but the occasion clearly called for it. We’d said before the race that the goal was an RPR victory – I knew when I had the opportunity that I had to win as Dan was sacrificing his race chances playing the team role behind to help me have a shot. 1st and 5th is a solid result and we celebrate with some tea, cans of coke and the obligatory chocolate orange.

The final stats:

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As ever, thanks for reading.

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