After the lessons I took away from last years qualifications at London RHC, I knew I had to approach this years qualification session differently.
Lining up at the start line for my qualifiers - in almost an instant I had picked to follow two riders from Maloja Pushbikers, and then Paul Vannotti from Disorderly Habbits (who won the Thundercrit a few months ago) joined us too. As soon as we left the start line attempting out first hot lap I see a yellow warning flag waving, I didn’t have much chance to react while going around corner number 1, I see bikes and bodies everywhere.
I made a quick decision to go into the hay bale to kill the momentum as it was the safest option. I hit the bale with my front wheel, doing a somersault, my bike going 180 degrees in the air and over the barriers with my feet still clipped in. I quickly unclipped, pulled my bike out and checked for damage - everything seemed to be fine so I hopped back on the bike. As I ride away from the accident I hear someone screaming in pain and still on the ground. I continue around the course and see the whole field is stopped at the start / finish line. I see my train of Maloja Pushbikers and Disorderly Habbits sitting at the back so I join them once again after they let us restart.
In the qualifiers you just need to set the fastest lap time possible, so we let the main bunch go and gave them a gap in the front. I definitely could have pushed harder, but opted for staying on the safe side and just hoped that I did ok. My qualification position after the final group went was 66th - that meant I went straight into main race and didn’t have to do last chance race.
A few hours later we watched the women’s race get annihilated by Dani King - she lapped every single woman and was just hanging at the back, trying not to lap the remaining two girls. Then it was our turn.
Straight away after the start there was a crash before turn 1, I went around it, then there was one more on the corner 3, I went around that one too, but it created a gap between me and the main group at the front. It all went downhill from there. After all the crashes I was overly cautious riding behind people in front of me and opened a few more gaps.
I tried to bridge to the main group which wasn’t too far. After a few laps I found myself working together with 5-6 people, but it was too late. On one of the laps, just before the finishing straight a man suddenly stepped out waving a blue flag, it was very unexpected and it was another moment too close to crashing, as we had to ride into a small area with people walking everywhere.
Turned out there was a motorbike not too far behind us and we were bound to get lapped. I didn’t finish the race, but in the main race results it says I’m 74th. Not too bad, considering I didn’t even make it to the main final last year, but not how I was initially planning on finishing. The field is getting stronger with lots of professionals, national champions, Olympians and other very strong riders. Most of us do this as a hobby and we still have to pay for everything ourselves by having a day job.
The women’s field had a somewhat staccato qualifier, stopping and starting frequently due to three separate crashes on the same corner. Despite this I’d managed an alright fastest lap time at 22nd fastest out of 50 riders, this meant I started in 22nd place on the starting grid of the main race. There were a lot of fast riders in front of me and I was determined to hang on to this lead group and not get gapped immediately. David Trimble counted us down and as expected the first riders instantly sprinted away. I was ready for it and followed, careening into the first corner at a much higher speed than I had in the qualifiers.
The first few laps of the Red Hook Crit are the most fraught, as you’re throwing yourself around turns faster then you previously thought physically possible, leaning further and further towards the ground and praying that your still-turning pedals don’t make contact or your tyre doesn’t slip out from beneath you because you’re basically riding on the side of it instead of the middle. Or worse, misjudging the trajectory and heading inescapably towards a barrier or hay bale. The only seed of reassurance you have to cling to is observing that the people ahead of you who are going the same speed aren’t wiping out, therefore the laws of physics are on your side and you should, in theory, be fine.
With the first laps out of the way I felt a bit more confident and was still technically in the lead group, although it was just one long string of riders as the pace was high. But before long, the firepower of Dani King and the other top riders started to open up splits, and a top group of about 11 riders started to move away from everyone else.
Spotting gaps everywhere I realised I needed to move up, but the course was so twisty and narrow that there were only two straight sections to comfortably do so, so each time we reached the longest one I’d leapfrog up the group until I eventually saw Juliet Elliott and Marion from Team Standert and a big gap to what was now the lead group. Seeing that they were fading a little I used my remaining momentum to pass them and go on the front, keeping the speed up and flinging myself around the corners. Then I looked behind me and realised that rather than taking a turn on the front and towing the chasing group I had actually dropped them and was in a solo breakaway! Whoops!
I could still see the leading group ahead of me, and I briefly entertained the idea of trying to bridge to them alone. For about 0.1 seconds. Ha. I knew I had no freaking chance of catching such a high quality bunch of riders by myself, so rather than go out in a blaze of glory I eased off and waited for the chasing group. They whizzed past and I slotted in about 7 riders back, and feeling comfortable I stayed there, but every few laps someone would overtake me so I’d drop one more place back, which was dangerous. I figured it was time to move up again. Aoife from 5th Floor moved up alongside me and I figured she was thinking the same.
But before we could do anything we suddenly saw blue flags – the colour to notify lapped riders to leave the course – waved at us. What!? But we still had 12 laps left, and we were a strong group…how could we be lapped? Stubbornly we ignored it and carried on, but then we heard the sound of the sweeper motorbike behind and I knew it was over. What everyone had joked about, that the Olympian cyclist Dani King would come and lap the whole field, had become a reality and suddenly a lot less hilarious. Our rankings were taken from the last time we went over the finish line, mine was 22nd, frustratingly the furthest back I’d been during the whole race.
Eventually everyone was lapped except for the two runners up, and a lot of the riders were pissed off. I’m not surprised, it’s a big commitment to compete in these kinds of races. It takes a lot of training, time and money to travel across the world to compete, and for some people it’s all they do, so for even the most experienced teams to be knocked out halfway through the race like novices to an Olympian on 53x14 was like a slap in the face.
Nobody had the satisfaction of a final sprint, and nobody will ever know what would have really played out at the finish. All we can do now is look ahead to Barcelona and hope that this isn’t the start of a trend where the average rider who trains their guts out in between holding down a full time job is edged out by too many pro racers skewing the balance.