Racing London Nocturne on Saturday 9th June was a pretty last minute decision. Having watched last year's pro teams fly around the City of London circuit last year, I never thought they would let a cat 3 rookie like me race. However a 2/3/4 cat race in the mid afternoon popped up on British Cycling (thanks for the tip, Mike). Armed with just the assumption that this wouldn't be your average Lee Valley crit, I decided to sign up. Because why not?
Actually getting into the race wasn't really part of the plan, but those are the kind of details you think about later. With about a week to prepare for the race after Spain, it was a case of trying to rest the legs as much as possible and convince everyone around me that I was totally not phased at all whatsoever. Nah ah, Just another race....!
When you usually do most of your riding early in the morning, and are in The Dynamo eating pizza at 1pm, it's hard to prepare for a race at 5:50pm. However there is only so much hanging around you can do, so before long I was riding the 5 minutes from Hackney down to the Guildhall for signing on. 20 odd years of racing motocross (different machine than crit racing, but essentially the same principle) and signing on still brings nerves, excitement and an awesome thrill. The fact that signing on was in the Guildhall courtyard was extra special. The first office we had at Dirty Wknd was around the corner, so this definitely felt like a home race.
Arriving in plenty of time and chatting with other riders, it quickly became clear that everyone else was doing something I was not - warming up. Standing around not wearing a skin suit, not warming up, I definitely felt very amateurish. But as a first timer at Nocturne, with a simple goal of survival, I was an amateur. I took a little comfort in the fact that we were held in the starting pen for a while, hoping that my competitors would cool down a little. We were told it would be a rolling start. It wasn't. I had hoped my competitors would cool down. They didn't.
Sprinting out of the pen, unable to think why everyone was pushing like it was the last lap, my heart jumped into my adams apple and blood sarted leaking out of my left eye. Just push - just keep in touch. Can't think, just pedal. It was definitely a bit of a surprise then when everyone came to a screeching halt on the line after all. I'd hit max heart rate, and we hadn't even started yet - brilliant! However, with the sweet smell of carbon and cork wafting in the air, it became clear that I had made my first mistake of the race. This super fun 'pre sprint' was to get to the front row. I was now on the back row, and the race was essentially over for me. I'm telling myself it was that, not the fact that I'm not as fast as the other guys. Definitely the positioning!
The race did get underway and it quickly became even more clear that this was going to be a very uncomfortable 30 minutes. Sprinting, jostling, more sprinting - the pack became hugely spread out right away as we navigated the technical horseshoe around the back of the circuit. It became very clear now why everyone had sprinted so hard before the start - positioning was everything. The fact that the majority of the guys contesting the race win had started on the front row said a lot. The winding course and high tempo meant that it was hard to move up. That and the fact that in the early laps I was putting out a thousand watts just to try and keep up with the back of the back of the bunch. For riders like me, that was never going to last long!
For the contenders up front, this was of course the plan. Get rid of the also rans like me, and create a smaller group in which to work to the line for a reduced bunch sprint. Much safer and easier to manage. My race certainly slowed down a bit after the first 5 laps as others were spat out the back, and the 'hangers on' began to form groups of their own purely with survival on their minds. I hope to god the front guys slowed down a little bit too, or that's just inhuman! With the field fully strung out, heart rate starting to dip a little bit below 180 bpm, I started to find my rhythm a little bit. It was at this point I started to look around and realise just what a spectacle it was. The entire course was lined with people cheering and banging, and I began to feel really proud to be racing. More on the support later.
It was quickly becoming clear that I was a bit faster than the guys around me in the tight turns, and quite a lot slower on the straights, I started to press my advantage in the technical sections. Getting gapped on the flat is never fun, but I was able to sail round people in some of the turns, and started making my way up from group to group. Alas this meant a fair bit of time in the wind, but I always like having a target in front of me, and I'm not very good at sitting in. This means a lot of turns on the front, but weirdly I quite like it. My game plan shifted from survival to not getting lapped.
I'd found a few guys to work with and the need to vom had reduced a bit, so I was actually starting to enjoy racing London Nocturne. Sort of. The overwhelming level of support around the course was incredible. Members of the club had set up on either side of the first bend so there was a huge roar every time we went through. I even caught site of the 'Go Dirty Dave' sign a few times. Thanks for that Adam! As well as our cheer squad, there were many other points I could hear my name being shouted out which was awesome. Big thanks to Alison and the Bella Velo ladies on 'crash corner' for shouting encouragement. And to everyone else I couldn't see. Home field advantage is very real, and your cheers and shouts made me push as hard as I physically could.
However, the dreaded outrider did eventually come past, signalling the front of the race approaching and my impending lapping. I've been lapped many times on a motocross track in my career; whether by a national champion (deserved) or your my brother (totally undeserved). It always hurts, not matter how much stronger they are than you. However it was quite cool to see the bunch come through, looking like proper cyclists who know how to race crits. One day! And I managed to make it to the very last lap, which isn't so bad. Next year, the plan is to warm up, get further up the field at the start and not get lapped.
Would I do it again? A race that is as unsuited to my riding 'talents' as it is possible to get, in a field of riders who are much better than me? Absolutely! I am a very firm believer in improving by pushing yourself and a race like this pushed me to my limit. I don't mean it improved me fitness wise - if anything it probably took about three years off my life - but as improving racing smarts, bike handling and tactics go, it doesn't get much better. So I will enter next year, and I will attempt to do much better. And if you get the chance to enter I would absolutely recommend it. Lastly - huge shout out to Amy Marks for entering the Women's Elite Race in only her first year of racing - massive effort, of which she should be very proud. Great work Amy!