A year ago I went to ride my first Blackburn Grand Prix race, and as soon as I rode onto the course for a warm-up, immediately knew it was a course for me. Last year’s race was really enjoyable for me and I went off the front of the race from the second lap and stayed there, eventually finishing in fourth place. The race was won by my stronger team mate Lewis Craven, but his attack and domination of the race had left me with some unfinished business. I wasn’t free to chase Lewis in 2009 – I’d earmarked the 2010 race as mine to win.
… but that’s always easy in planning. I hadn’t won a race on the road since 1999 (on the Isle of Man), but that’s history isn’t it – you can only control the present. So to the task in hand… the course, full of twists and turns meant it was well suited to a cyclocross rider – or someone who’s used to that sprint / corner / sprint / corner type of riding. It’s a mind-bender in terms of concentration. The course is full on and with the prospect of heavy rain it was worrisome and even more important to ride the race from the front.
Someone else – i.e. the rest of the field had exactly the same idea, so it was race on from the dropping of the flag. It took me two laps to work my way up to the front of the field by late braking and cheeky cornering, then I wasted no time in attacking straight off the front before two sharp bends.
I’m not sure that I expected what came next… a hard spell is always to be expected after you attack. There’s no point in looking back to see whether it’s been successful for a good minute or so (there’s no opportunity on a course like that anyway) – if you’re committed to it, that’s it. But I also knew that me and my Cannondale were looking at 40 minutes of solo riding against a bunch of people who were also keen to win. It’s not a guaranteed strategy by any means, and in the back of my mind, I was really willing a few better riders to join me for a bit and share the pain. Two laps (about a mile) later, that didn’t look like it was happening – the bunch had splintered up on the twisty course, but about 10 or 12 riders were in pursuit of me about ten to fifteen seconds behind. I had no choice now but to get on with it and make them at least work hard to catch me.
Lap after lap, corner after corner, acceleration after painful acceleration I rode on as best I could. Lots of familiar and semi-familiar people were there giving me encouragement as I got deeper entrenched into a routine – an uncomfortable chore – on my own. Finally I overheard the race commentator say that a duo of riders from the Bill Nickson Cycles team had got themselves off in pursuit of me and were catching me. Partly buoyed by the idea of company, I’d have happily let them join me, but one rider against two from the same team is a nightmare scenario, so I also awaited them making contact with me – which they did do with 15 minutes left – uncomfortably nervous.
With around ten laps left to ride with the pair, things worked out quite well. There was certainly no attempt at attacking me or dropping me, and we rode to what I thought was going to be a tense final couple of laps. What should I do?? In form, I can sprint okay – that’s all – nothing outstanding – just okay. But I wasn’t in form by any stretch of the imagination. I hadn’t ridden my bike for a week, and was there on merit through risky cornering and a bit of 40 year-old’s race experience. It was obvious what to do with two laps to go, but somehow it seemed the hardest thing to take on. Despite being virtually assured of a podium place, I had to ride a bloc on the front for the last lap – to ensure that the technical course was mine and the hard work to get past was theirs.
With the benefit of hindsight, going to the front with a lap to go and riding flat-out sounds easy. It certainly puts the pressure on the people behind you, but in my mind it was still counter-intuitive. Bike races aren’t won by people who lead out from 800 metres. They get overtaken in the sprint. But this is Blackburn – the twistiest crit circuit there is. That’s what won it.
My breakaway companions – James Warren and Paul Molyneux were both fit, capable riders and I wouldn’t have made the same move on another circuit – but by making them try and come round me on such a cumbersome and complex set of turns, I had the race in the bag. So there it was… James had the strength to come within half a bike length of me on the line, but I knew it was mine for the last 100 metres. I’d won a (road) bike race again at long flipping last. It’s a third cat’s race, a ‘support’ race – I know – but a win’s a win, and I don’t know anyone who can come higher than 1st place.