So the day finally dawned. Well, not the day – October’s still a little way off. But the day of my competition debut.

I’d been busy with various different things in the weeks leading up to the event which had meant that, while my training had suffered a little bit, at least I hadn’t spent much time worrying about race day. It wasn’t that I hadn’t done any preparation – Cam and I had visited Newport a week and a half before the event for a drop-in session, which had been… mixed – and I’d attended Dave Le Grys and Pete Mitchell’s Start Gate Clinic a week before.

I’ll cover the Clinic in a second post, but I’ll just say here that it was excellent and I’m so glad I didn’t just turn up and for the event and attempt a start from the gas gate for the first time. The drop-in session is worth a mention, though, because it illustrates just how naive I still am – and how many things can go wrong on a bike with no gears and an event that just involves riding round in circles a dozen times.

Alex had asked me to do three things – flying 8 and 6 lap efforts and a trio of hand-held start 250s. Knowing I didn’t have long to go and that my inability to ride the rollers to get properly warmed up was a handicap, I had intended to get that skill under my belt before I went. Work meant that I didn’t get the chance, so I took the turbo. But the smell of expensive tub melting and my recent experiences of killing my road bike in the trainer caused me to abort that, too – rolling round the infield as my only warm-up.

Still, I wasn’t expecting what happened. I dropped in from above the blue line and immediately my calves and quads were burning. I felt like I’d tried to do a full-on effort at the end of a four hour session in the hills. I managed three laps and had to come off the track.

I can honestly say it was the low point in my training so far. I knew I’d missed a few sessions over the previous couple of weeks, but the ones I had done had suggested I was progressing reasonably well – and I’d just come 110 miles for three pain wracked laps… There was no way I’d be able to get 8 laps in if I felt like that after 3 – and no way I would ever manage 12…

I rolled back in to the D and Cam said ‘Did you adjust your position after you changed the saddle? You looked terrible.’ He was right, of course, I hadn’t.

When I killed my Look road bike on the turbo, I had deliberately ordered a short-nose time trial saddle with the road bike and put the long, thin Road saddle that had been on the track bike on to the road bike. But when I put the TT saddle on the track bike, I’d just clamped it in temporarily and had always  intended to go back and tweak the position – but never got round to it.

The new saddle was a lot higher than the original and I’d also put it too far back. We adjusted the position but decided not to risk an 8 lapper – sticking to the original plan and going for 6. It was remarkable – no pain, no fatigue – 6 laps banged out at my target pace with no problems at all – and I felt that I could easily have done the 8, even if 12 still seemed a long way off.

The first held start was dreadful, but the second felt better and the third, apparently, looked like I’d done it before. It wasn’t quick, but the third standing start lap was over 3 seconds quicker than the first – and I’d be working on that the following weekend.

So, fast forward ten days and we’re on the way again. We check and re-check the contents of the car. Everything’s there, we’re absolutely sure. We drive off and get half a mile or so before I start to wonder if I brought the powder for my post-race protein shake… I know I have the milk – I’m just not sure I have the powder. Fortunately, Sarah – my long-suffering wife is following behind with my daughter Holly and my future son-in-law Alex (250 mile round trip for them, to see me – hopefully, ride for 4 minutes or so) – are following an hour behind us. We phone them and get them to bring some protein shake. One less thing to worry about. And, of course, when we get there we find we had it all along. But after the 15mm spanner incident… More of that in the blog about the Start Gate Clinic.

The rest of the trip passes without incident and we arrive and sign on. I get my number – 100, which for no logical reason, I decide I quite like and we set ourselves up. I know this environment – I’ve been in it dozens of times as a photographer and as parent/mechanic (OK, tool fetcher)/team manager/helper. But as a competitor is different. I’m not nervous – not even excited, as such – but at the same time as I want to put off the inevitable, I can’t wait for my event to start.

Oliver Hitchings has very kindly agreed to loan me a pair of Pro-Lite wheels – a four spoke carbon front and a disc rear. We put those one – double checking that the front is on the right way round – and the bike’s ready to go. It looks great – I’m starting to feel more and more like the bloke with all the gear and no idea.

I’ve been practising on the rollers and – given how late I started – it’s not gone too badly. I’m determined to do a proper, structured warm up. I have my music on my phone, my Bluetooth ear buds and I’m ready to go. I get up to begin the warm-up and remember the nice mounts the pro trackies have – just bent sheets of perspex or aluminium really, with bottle cages bolted to them – to hold a bottle and a phone or iPod while they warm up. That would have been a good idea. I get the music going, but in the skinsuit I have no where to put my phone. It won’t balance on the aero bars… I hand it to Cam, who puts it on the bench next to where I’m warming up. The music stops.  I don’t know why, but there’s nothing much I can do about it.

One of the other competitors has seen my (borrowed) RNRMCA skinsuit and comes over to chat about his time in the Navy. It’s always nice to swing the lamp, but this is not the time. But now it is time – time go to the start.

We had a plan for me to have a gel as I sat waiting for my heat. I give it to Cam as I start to roll round, but in the event we both forget all about it. Vern McClelland is calling me up to the gate and I’m on the bike…

The start’s not terrible – probably the best I’ve done – and I settle in to a rhythm. I’m very aware that I’ve not ridden the full distance and determined not to blow. Cam’s calling out times but I can’t really hear what he’s saying with the pursuit helmet on. I’m only three laps in and my opponent catches me. I knew he was going to, but I wasn’t expecting it to be this early. I still feel OK but I resist any thoughts of chasing after him – still determined to finish, above everything else.  
I forget that we start half a lap apart and in my mind I’m ready to be caught every three laps – but just as I’ve gone out steady, he’s gone out hot and although he’s within half a lap of me again by the end, he doesn’t catch me again.

I’m conscious of the amount of support I’m getting round the track. Cam and Holly are at the start, my wife’s at the entrance to turn 1 (turn 3 for me) and there’s a posse from Reading Track League at my first corner – turn 3 on the track. There are others, too, that I can’t place. It’s a big help.
I pass 9 laps – the furthest I’ve ridden ‘flat out’ – and realise that I haven’t been. I’ve been close to the pace I’ve managed in all my training rides, but I still feel good. I put the hammer down as best as I can – lap 11 will be my fastest of the race – and head for the line.

And that’s it. I’m done. Conscious of the fact that I’ve tried to stop too quickly on a couple of occasions, I let myself drift up and slow down naturally. The scoreboard’s showing 3:50 but I know that’s not right  – not least because it’s showing the same time for my opponent.

In the tr
ack centre people are congratulating me on going sub-4 minutes on my first attempt. I know I didn’t – Cam had be clocked at 4:09 – but for a long time I don’t know what I actually did. It’s a long 4:08 in the end. I’m disappointed, because I know I could have gone faster – but it’s on track with what we expected when we started – and 7 seconds faster than I initially thought I’d be capable of by October.

One thing’s for sure – with a month until I go on holiday – for 28 days – and just five weeks after I get back – every training day between now and the Worlds is going to be precious.

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