In past times, I have joined in the general contempt for those who only follow. By which I mean, the great majority of those who race, mostly hoping just to “get round”, have a workout, be part of the spectacle and the experience, and earn their self-respect for the postmortem over coffee afterwards.
That was never enough for me: I wanted to be in the moves, all over the front, making the break. And so I often allowed myself an unspoken contempt for those who settled for merely finishing, who risked nothing, who just stayed in the wheels. What kind of racing was that, I wondered. Why bother?
This stance of mine was, of course, hypocritical since all it took for me to adjust my ideas about an acceptable ride in a race was to find myself, on certain occasions, in a field in which I was very clearly out of my league, and then my goal was nothing more than to finish. Simply not to pack. So what was I then, but the ultimate follower, the absolute wheel-sucker?
There was the time, some years ago, that I tried to ride the Rutland-Melton CiCLE Classic—then Britain’s first innovative answer to the spring races of northern Europe, with critical sectors run on roughly-paved, sometimes gravelly, narrow farm roads in rural Leicestershire. The event would attract most of the domestic pro teams, plus a sprinkling of foreign internationals from Ireland and Belgium. Along with a bunch of domestic nul espoirs like me from the local racing scene.
I made it in the bunch for the first two laps of the reservoir, run off on wide, smooth A-road tarmac at about 30 miles an hour, despite my getting caught up in a stupid tangle at the back of the peloton at one stage and having to chase back on. There was not that much tactical sophistication about that race for most riders, because, at a key point that everyone knew about, there was a right-angle left turn off the main road onto the singletrack lanes. If you’re not in the top 30 into that turn, you’re basically done. It’s a sprint, lined-out, full gas, for several miles straight after. I fought for position, went over my red line for the last five minutes before the turn, and just about made it into the top 130. So, yeah, I was done.
The race was up the road, irretrievably, within seconds. But I plugged on, following wheels through the farmyards and the dusty tracks, and about two hours later, I eventually caught up with Warrick Spence, a former international mountain biker from New Zealand, whom I knew from the London racing scene as a much more talented racer than I was—someone who was generally breathing through his nose when I was balls to the wall. At that point, I decided there was no disgrace in following his wheel home. As I remember, we cut the course, and still rode in 20 minutes behind the sprint finale.
Those days are necessary checks, perhaps, to one’s illusions about one’s abilities. Despite that, in my limited, weekend warrior road racing career, I mostly thought of myself as an animateur, not someone content to follow wheels. It was a matter of pride and self-image. But time, in the sense of age, has overtaken me.
There is a pure, mathematical quality to this. I can ride comfortably for two hours at 27mph average in the magnificent slipstream of a large field (as long as the parcours is flat); but if you ask me to ride at 27.5mph off the front, I’m good for about a quarter of a mile. Then I need half a lap at the back to recover. So I have zero capacity to affect the outcome of a race, and have had to adjust my expectations accordingly. I am now pack fodder, part of the anonymous swarm of the bunch. So I must seek my bike-racing pleasures where I find them—somewhere toward the back.
It is amazing how satisfying it can be, for instance, to finish a race, an entire season even, without crashing. On the one hand, you’re not at the sharp end, bumping shoulders in the testosterone haze at the front; on the other, you’re in the part of the field where riders crash each other out sprinting for 47th place.
So it takes a certain skill and know-how to steer away from the liabilities. Just as there is a sneaky joy to be had in realising that if you stay on one side of the bunch, you’re more out of the wind than the riders on the other side. In a sense, the whole game of competition has changed from using more watts than the other guy, to using fewer. It’s old-geezer guile against dude-bro machismo. Fakery and bluff can go a long way in making other riders think you’re still a serious bike rider.
I never thought I would be that guy, the anonymous rider in the wheels. But I’m there, and I realise there are lots of racers who are doing it, honing their skills, managing their efforts, with grace and dignity, and they’ve been there far longer than I have. I still have a lot to learn about bike racing.