British National Championship Road Race

 

Give me six years, and I’ll make it to the British Champs“. A sentence I never uttered when I first started racing back in 2012. Even just a year ago, the idea of entering the British National Champs was a thought so daft I had not ever given it any thought, yet here I was; in the Isle of Man, lining up at the start with 134 other riders. Alex Dowsett a few riders behind, Ian Stannard and Steve Cummings, Mark Cavendish, et al., a few riders in front, waiting for the roll out. How surreal.

RacePrep

The weather was surprisingly decent – dry, pretty cloudy, with a reasonable but bearable Westerly breeze.

 

The course itself was going to be challenging (indeed, riders later commented that it was the hardest British National Champs course in a long time (if not ever) – Steve Cummings (the eventual winner) commented that it was the worst race he’s ever done!

 

Two laps of the IoM TT course – mostly rolling, but with two notable climbs; the first out of Glen Helen (that many folks completely overlook), and the second is the climb out of Ramsey, up to the top of Snaefel – the lump in the middle of the island that gives rise to the name The Mountain Course.

 

After the two laps (totalling around 122km, the race would pass through the Grandstand in Douglas then hang a right to begin ten laps of the finishing circuit of just under 7km per lap – a total of 192km (that’s ~120 miles in old money).

RouteMap

My original worry was how I was going to fuel myself for such a long race? I didn’t have anyone to hand out bottles and food. Then the realisation occurred to me that there was a time limit at the end of the second lap of the TT course – any rider more than eight minutes behind the bunch would get pulled out of the race. In short, I probably only needed to worry about food and drink for eighty-odd miles – not so much pessimism as realism!

 

As it turned out, a fellow Kinross CC rider, Kirsty Ellis, happened to be across as a spectator, and jumped at the opportunity to have an ‘official role’ – she became my Soigneur for the day!

 

Just before lining up for the start, I chatted with John Archibald (ProVision). He asked me if I’d signed the ‘big board’, to which I answered ‘No’ – I’d thought that was just ceremony for the bag name riders, but no, it was for all, so off I wheeled, halfway down the pit lane, to sign on in big print. The photographer took some photos, whilst the announcer announced, “…and here we have Andrew Bruce, riding for Leslie Bike shop and Biker’s Boutique…” over the P.A. system. Deary me! This was all very glamorous for an average Cat 2 rider from Scotland!

 

After signing, I turned to reclaim my bike, only to find three race fans having a good look at the hardware. “You’re going to win!”, one claimed as I un-propped my bike from the gate. I chuckled, “Nice if I did, but I’m probably the oldest bloke in the peloton today!”.

 

“With that bike, how can you lose?”, he commented. Well, a rolling chassis is no good if the engine is old and worn… The trio continued to drool over the bike. I gave a cheery grin and hoped they enjoyed the racing as I wheeled the bike away. “I have some serious bike envy!”, one commented as I left. If you can’t win, at least look good – and my bike was certainly helping on that front!

 

Back to the line-up, and riders were slowly gathering. I thought about wheeling right to the front as there was plenty of space – in hindsight, I should have done exactly that, but I thought it would not be good etiquette, so I took my place towards the rear.

1_Minute_to_Go

With much fanfare and cheering, we started to roll out, and the race was getting underway. The neutralised flag, held by the Commissaire poking up out of his car sunroof, kept us in check from the Grandstand and down Governer’s Dip. By the time we got to the sharp right turn at Quarter Bridge, the red and white chequered flag was pulled in, and the lead cars were pulling away; Kilometre Zero, and the race was on.

 

The roads around the IoM TT course have a great, smooth surface for the motorbike racing. There are no cat-eyes in the middle of the road, and it’s wide. The peloton was making full use of the width – kerb-to-kerb bikes, and pretty tight at that! I remember thinking that it felt more like a cross between a road race and a criterium race – almost elbow to elbow riding. Mix in some World Tour riders that you often see on the telly, with Chris Boardman or Sean Kelly commenting on their riding, a worrying thought entered my head – if anyone crashes, I’d sure as hell better not be the guy that causes it! Imagine being the guy to be remembered for ending a World Tour riders season!

 

It was around that moment when Alex Dowsett passed me on my left hand side, through a non-existent gap. As smooth as butter, and without any fuss or commotion. How the hell did he do that? I was in awe. I’d never have dared such a move for fear of turning into a pinball, with my peers becoming the bumpers… Yet another illustration of the skills of these top riders, and the gaping crevasse to us mere mortal amateurs below…

 

Through Bradden, and on to Union Mills – My dad would be here, taking photos, but I’d already warned him that I expected the bunch to roll through at around 50 KPH (30MPH), and I was not wrong…

 

Despite sitting at the back (and getting a rather good tow), I could see that there were riders attacking off the front. I knew that I should be much further forward, but I simply couldn’t find any gaps I was happy to go for, the racing was that tight – at least from my perspective.

 

At least the pace was manageable. That’s not to say it wasn’t high – it was a high tempo, but nothing I couldn’t cope with…

 

Despite the headwind (well, head-breeze), we passed through Glen Vine and Crosby surprisingly quickly. Despite the small drags in the undulating road, there were no significant surges in pace.

 

My first worry, however, was the climb out of Glen Helen. It’s fairly short, but reasonably steep – so much so that the first time I ever rode round the TT course back in 2011 (as an entirely untrained cyclist), I had to take a wee breather about two thirds of the way up it – I knew no shame back then!…

 

We reached the crossroads at St Johns, and turned onto the A3. We’d be upon Sarah’s Cottage and Glen Helen pretty shortly, and I expected the bunch to put in a dig round the junction, but it didn’t.

 

Down into Glen Helen, and up the other side – goal number one was to stay in the bunch up this short climb. To my surprise, the effort didn’t seem all that much. Indeed, while most of us powered up the climb, there were a surprising number of riders going backwards, out of the bunch. I was definitely not one of them! Job done. Now for the rapid ‘flat’ section to Kirk Michael and beyond…

 

With a mainly cross-tailwind, the pace was rapid as we headed northwards. As we passed through all the wee villages along the way, crowds of spectators lined the streets, cheering, clapping, and general making lots of encouraging noise – to experience this atmosphere alone made the long trip to the IoM worthwhile.

 

With a couple of groups successfully breaking from the main bunch, we were now riding steadily, almost easily at this point. It was still wall-to-wall bikes, but not as tight as before. I thought about moving further forwards, and I should have taken the opportunity, but didn’t. I remembered Jason Robert’s advice – get off the front, into a break to give yourself a chance on the climb up the mountain – good advice not taken – I was too busy enjoying being swept along in the occasion…

 

Over Ballaugh Bridge (where the racing motorbikes typically leap spectacularly into the air), and down the Sulby straight – we were hitting the high 40s (kph) without any real effort. The motorbikes would be hitting 200 MPH along the stretch of road! Not sure if the speed trap along the straight was set up for us lot though…

 

Over Sulby bridge, the peloton started to string out just a little as we went up the brief climb at Ginger Corner. I was really enjoying the race, and my legs, lungs, heart, and head were all feeling great.

 

Before I knew it, we were at Ramsey and taking the sharp junction leading to the start of the dark shadow of the Mountain Road.

 

The mountain climb begins with a very short initial ramp before the climb proper, and the bunch surged a little over it. On the false flat leading up to the hairpin, I knew I should be further forward, but I fully expected to get punted on the climb, so I didn’t think there’d be any real difference.

 

Round the Ramsey Hairpin, there were crowds on both sides of the road cheering us on and clanking their cowbells. I took the inside line, preferring the steeper, but much shorter, gradient, and the tortuous climb up Snaefel had started.

 

The mountain climb can be split into two parts – the initial ramp which is steep and hard, then the more gentle drag to finish you off.

 

Once again, I recalled my 2011 ascent – a mammoth undertaking for me at the time, and I could recall the exact spot where I stopped, mid-climb, to eat a banana and take a couple of photos of the views over Ramsey down below – at least that was my excuse at the time – nothing to do with blowing up, oh no…

 

This time round, I was racing with the big boys, and I was only just starting to lose contact with the bunch at that spot.

 

I was riding level with Andy Brown (Kuota MetalTek) at that point, suffering as much as me. Misery loves company, as they say, so I didn’t feel quite so bad.

 

Contact lost, we started to drift backwards through the race convoy. NRG Brother, Team Sky, Team Wiggins, et al.. Their race support cars passed us, and, each time, we tried to duck behind them to get what little shelter from the cross-headwind that we could.

 

As the gradient eased, Andy gave a dig and started to pull away from me. Not unexpected, but it put a dent in my morale. I simply could not follow. We were heading South Westwards, and our friendly cross-tailwind from earlier was now a cross-headwind. I’d held on up the climb as long as I could, and had actually performed better than I had expected – Jason’s advice echoed in my head, and the realisation struck that I had, indeed, made a tactical error. If I’d got to the front of the bunch before the start of the climb, I’d have had the length of the group to slowly drift backwards up the steep section, and I’d possibly have been able to keep in contact with the tail of the peloton by the time we reached the ~3% ramp, gaining shelter from the wind. I’d likely to have been able to hold on at that point over the rest of the mountain section, and stick with the group for the second lap…

 

Hindsight is 20/20, but there was not a lot I could do now – I’d been shelled out.

 

I picked up one rider, and we vaguely worked together. Further up the road, around thirty seconds ahead, was a group of six that had been splintered out the back of the bunch – if we could get across, we might still be able to make good on my mistake.

 

We rode, but my partner didn’t seem to have his heart in it. His turns on the front were briefer, and slower than mine, and I could see that the group ahead were not getting any closer.

 

We rode round the Verandah, a sweeping right hander, that’s edged on the right by a 6ft+ high wall/grassy mound. I hugged the right hand side of the road to make the most of the shelter from the wind afforded by the wall (the benefits of a closed road event). We reeled in another rider that had been shelled, but, for some reason, he was sitting out on the left side of the road, exposed to the wind and taking the much longer line round the bend.

 

I shouted to him in advance so he could take his time accelerating to our pace and tack on the back – the more the merrier, but he looked up and just shook his head in resignation. It was pretty clear that he’d had enough and the Grandstand in Douglas this time around was his destination.

 

The road across the top of the mountain is rolling, with a bit of a dip on the approach to the aptly named Windy Corner, and windy it was!

 

At a fair lick of pace (~50 KPH) I had to hold the handlebars tightly as the gusting wind pulled and pushed on my front wheel, trying desperately to send me anywhere other than my intended trajectory. I wrestled with the wind whilst wrestling with the temptation to give the spectators on the corner a wave and a grin. Their cheers were rewarded with a grin and my left hand vaguely flapping out from the drops in an attempted wave with my thumb still firmly griping the bar…

 

My cycle chum and I rode on, heading towards one of the highlights of the course – the descent from Kate’s Cottage to Creg-Ny-Baa – steep, straight, and, most importantly, fast. A great opportunity to squeeze as much pace as possible, just to earn some high-speed bragging rights.

 

A quick punch out of the saddle to get some initial pace rolling, before getting on the drops, and sitting on the top tube, crouching into as compact a ball as possible, thinking small, aero thoughts.

 

KatesCottage-CregNyBaa_Descent

Chris Froome earned some fame for riding like this on his descent down the Col de Peyresourde in last year’s Tour. He got into the crouch and pedalled, looking somewhat comical in the process. I found it hard enough just holding the position. Maybe my technique is wrong, or I need more practice, but my arms and legs were taking my weight – it’s just too uncomfortable resting much weight on the top tube. Cyclists are not known for their upper body strength, particularly in their spindly arms (well, let’s ignore track riders, and the odd world class sprinters). In my case, my arms were aching. Holding course was fine, albeit a little wavering and unstable, but holding weight?…

 

The Creg approached all too quickly, and I had to decide just how fast I could take the corner. Task number one was to get my backside back up onto the saddle without snagging the padding in my shorts on the nose of the saddle in the process – success!

 

Then to line up the turn. A wide, empty road, a perfectly smooth, dry surface, and a bike that handles superbly – knee out, right butt-cheek slightly off the saddle, weight all set up, round we go.

 

The photographer sitting on the grass at the apex of the corner was in a prime spot to grab a photo – I faced the camera, and gave a big grin – I might be out of the race, but this was what riding fast was all about (at least in my book). I can only imagine a brilliant photo – chances are, I’ll never know, but at least in my mind’s eye, it was awesome! 🙂

 

The descent continued after the Creg, though at a lesser gradient. The 92 kph I hit from Kate’s, was down to a paltry 75kph after the Creg. Still pretty swift considering two contact patches the size of your thumb and nothing more than lycra to separate my skin from the road should anything go horribly wrong. Then again, these thoughts don’t enter your mind in such moments, otherwise you’d never ride so fast…

 

I wondered what had happened to my fellow rider so a look over my shoulder confirmed my suspicions – he was way behind. Whether he didn’t go aero, or just wasn’t pedalling hard enough, he’d been dropped. I didn’t expect he’d continue after Douglas.

 

I would though – I had full intention of riding the race so long as the organisers would allow it!

 

On up the little dig to Hillberry, and on to the mini roundabout that would lead me back to the Grandstand.

 

For the first time ever, I rode on the small section of the course known as The Nook. It’s only open during the TT (and the cycle race). Normally, traffic has to take the main road to the roundabout and turn right to get to Governor’s Bridge.

 

As I came round the sweeping left-hander, halfway along The Nook, I was faced with the barriers before the main road, and I was not really prepared for the severity of the sharp right hand turn. With squealing brakes almost drowning out the cheering crowd, I had a bit of a moment as I scrubbed off enough speed to safely make it round and onto the second part of the Nook. A bit more gingerly round the sharp left-hander, and I was back onto the main road and up the brief climb out of Governor’s Bridge, onto Glencrutchery Road just before the feeding zone.

 

I’d almost forgotten about bottles when I spotted Kirsty, perfectly holding up a spare bottle for me to grab. Unfortunately, in all my excitement, I’d hardly drunk any of my water – I had around one and a third bottles, so I didn’t see the point in taking the spare that Kirsty held up…

 

I shook my head as I went past, feeling a little bad that Kirsty had hung around for that one moment, and I declined the bottle…

 

I was always going to be an ‘also-ran’, with full expectation of getting dropped on the mountain – I’d achieved my goals (stay in touch to that point), so now all I had to do was ride round and enjoy the atmosphere, and riding through the Grandstand did not disappoint.

 

Both sides of the road, along with the grandstand itself were jam-packed with fans. They didn’t care that I was all on my own, clearly chewed up and disposed of by the bunch, an unknown guy, riding his bike. The fact that I had a race number on my jersey was enough to get the crowd cheering and whooping, banging the advertising hoardings in time-honoured tradition, and generally creating an unforgettable experience.

 

I might have a bit of a reputation for smiling and waving for the camera, but the Cheshire-Cat grin on my face could not have been stopped. I grinned from ear to ear and waved at the crowd as I rolled on through to start my second lap.

 

All the way through Douglas, there were pockets of crowds, enthusiastically clapping and cheering as I rode by. Down Bray Hill, I crouched on the top tube again – might as well try to look pro if folks think I might actually be pro… The kids that were spectating were suitably impressed. A surprising number of them around the course kept shouting at me to throw them a bottle. I declined – better to have them think I had bottles worth collecting, than oblige them with the disappointment when they discover my bottles were completely run of the mill bidon, about £2.50 from Wiggle, and suitably scuffed and bashed about…

 

Round Quarter Bridge, I caught a glimpse of another dropped rider a short way up the road. A minor increase in pace, and I was closing in on who I would hope to be my new comrade.

 

Around Braddon Bridge, I’d caught up, and we chatted briefly – at least I’d have company for the next 50km or so…

 

My new found friend, Mike, was a fellow Cat 2 rider from the South of England. We wheeled about at a fairly easy pace as we approached Union Mills for the second time. I decided to go on the front with the expectation that my dad might still be hanging around at the foot of Strang Road – and right on cue, there he was. Camera raised, and snapping merrily away. Cool, at least there’d be some photos (or so I thought – I later discovered that my dad had tried to take a video clip, but didn’t realise he’d run out of storage, so the camera recorded nowt!)…

 

We continued riding along, chatting, and failing to understand the attitudes of dropped riders that had thrown in the towel at the end of the first lap. It’s the British Nationals, for goodness sake. The roads are closed, the weather’s pretty decent, the roads are excellent – why the hell would you go all this way to ride forty miles and climb off your bike just because you got pumped on one climb?

 

We rode on.

 

Just after Greeb Castle, I realised there were three convoy vehicles behind us, driving an echelon, flashing amber lights on their tops. The dreaded back of the convoy, and the broom wagon! I really didn’t want to get pulled before the end of the lap, so we pushed the pace and got back to something vaguely approaching race pace (that’d be my level of race pace!).

 

Just before Glen Helen, another rider caught up from behind (I suspect he’d stopped and had been chatting with someone at Ballacraine, saw us, and decided to carry on with some company). It turned out to be Ben Heatherington (not that I realised this at the time). Ben and I did the lion’s share of the work on the front between us, while Mike, burst beyond belief just sat on the back and took a free ride…

 

Initially, this was fine, but it became a bit irritating as we worked our way towards Ramsey with Mike not even rolling through as a token gesture of thanks for Ben and my efforts.

 

As we hit the climb out of Ramsey, Ben hit a marginally harder pace and started to gap Mike and me. I considered pressing on to stick with Ben, but I really didn’t see the point in flailing myself to hold his wheel when we would still get pulled at the end of the lap, so I just cruised.

 

Sitting at 290-300 Watts, the climb was steady and comfortable. Despite this, Mike was blowing hard, taking shelter on my wheel, and occasionally gasping for me to ease up a bit. I was shocked.  When I’d originally lined up to start the race, I’d fully expected to be the weakest guy in the bunch. Clearly, I underestimated my abilities – I was the *second* weakest guy in the bunch!

 

With Mike gratefully sitting in, we cleared the climb, and headed across the mountain top – a long, winding road that is fairly barren save for the Mile markers and occasional landmarks such as Guthries, The Black Hut, and the like.

 

After what seemed an age, we got to the last section of climbing, after the tram lines at The Bungalow. It’s a cruel part of the course where you think the climbing is done with – the final mountain sting before the descent.

 

Up to the highest part of the course at Brandywell, and we could relax a little as we descended through Windy Corner and beyond.

 

We soon rounded Keppel Gate, the beginning of the descent proper, and I decided to put in a kickstart to the descent – my last opportunity to hit some high speeds. A good kick, and I was off (and I suspect this was where Mike was also off – off the back!).

 

Into the Froomey tuck and down the descent for the second and last time. There were still folks hanging around at the corner at Creg-Ny-Baa, cheering, and I took the bend with a little more confidence than last time.

 

A quick look over my shoulder at the end of the straight confirmed that Mike was gone.

 

Riding tempo, I pressed on until I got to the top of the rise at Hillberry, where Johnny Waterson Lane meets the A18. This was where the finishing circuit joined the main circuit. I was well outside the time limit, and the barriers had been brought across the road. A couple of marshals flagged me down and told me the obvious news. I was out – to be expected.

 

Timing chip removed, they explained that I could continue round the course to the Grandstand, but I should keep well over to the side, and make sure I don’t get in the way of the race should they catch up as I roll along.

 

I rolled along, and they didn’t catch up – thankfully. I didn’t fancy the thought of the lead riders fast approaching, and me getting in the way. In this respect, I’d prefer to maintain a low profile!

 

I rode on to the feed area, where I caught up with some familiar faces. My race was over. It had been the most amazing road race experience to date, but now it was time to become a spectator, and cheer on the guys that are several levels of ability above me – quite an amazing site.

 

A hard race on a tough course – Steve Cummings (eventual winner) later commented that it was his hardest race ever. Folks recognised that the course was one of the hardest courses ever used for the British National Championships (if not *the* hardest). I’d like to think that the main circuit was the most brutal – I never got to see the finishing circuit… 🙂

 

In the run up to the event, I had been nervous, and a bit anxious as to what to expect. Having gone through the experience, if anyone asked me if I’d do it again, my response would be a resounding “Absolutely! In a heartbeat!” (which, at peak heart rate would be about a third of a second…

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