The Ambitious and the Unfortunate

As the racing season evolves so the cast starts to change. Those good and ambitious have moved up, the frantic have burnt themselves out and the unfortunate are dealing with injury. The edges have been taken off individual ambition too: you are rarely the lies you’ve told yourself at the beginning of the year.

The routine, however, remains the same: up at five, force down breakfast and drive to somewhere you’ve never been to before, but which feels oddly familiar. Warm up if you have the time and start multiple conversations that you’ll never finish, before realising that you have to get your head straight amongst the melee formed of other people’s ambition.

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I watch a move go up the road and try to keep the spaniel down. The race is rightly black-flagged for riders crossing into the other lane but it’s easy to forget that we’re on open roads. Before the sting has been taken out of people’s legs, everyone’s twitching, trying to find an advantage but keeping their cards close. After a sobering reprimand, the bunch is now more mindful of the unlucky and respectfully rolls on again. A lull, a corner taken quickly and a gap. Break on.

There are four of us, two are strong but we’re carrying a passenger. The man’s willing but his visage betrays him: face white, nose streaming. After a lap he’s gone and the calculations begin. My two remaining allies are bigger than me, a St. Ives and a Glendene, both strong clubs with hard riders in the bunch. They’re struggling up the hills but working hard on the rolling, grippy lanes and quickly we gain two minutes. Morale rises. Emboldened I push too hard on the front and impose my good legs on the break, pointlessly making a point. I’ll pay dearly for this arrogance.

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Another lap passes, the Glendene goes pop. No ceremony, complaint or notice and I’m flying and don’t care. Jake hands me a bidon and for the first time I hear the exhortations from my friends and colleagues at the finish line. St. Ives begins to struggle. He’s only had one bottle and hasn’t taken anything from the roadside so I give him a gel and a few words of encouragement. He gets my remaining half a bottle 2km later but it fails to revive him and I ride away up a small rise. Just me now, 20km to go.

I know the bunch is coming, I can sense their ambition and their caustic hope. I’m thirsty and need another drink. A kind soul hands up a bottle and I drain half of it without realising that it’s electrolyte, something I don’t get on with. Insta-stitch stabs home and I realise it has to come up. I vomit. Once, twice, three times before I hit the caffeine-rich sludge that’s lining my stomach. I know I’m living on borrowed time. Tom tells me from the Comms Car that the bunch is coming, 40 seconds behind; I’ve lost a minute and twenty in half a lap. I start to flail for motivation and stray thoughts creep in: Pip and the child, Ultan and the Transcontinental, Tao at Utah, Duncan in the twenty four, Rob in the hospital. I feel scared when I’m away solo, scared of getting caught and scared of failure. My fears are realized as I’m swallowed up two km from the finish. I give up.

Crossing the line in 33rd place I roll on past the finish and sit down in a patch of stinging nettles. Arms and legs bloom with sweat and the world outside the race starts to rush back in. I lie back and stare at the canopy. Empty.

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You can view Matt Randall’s full set of photos from the RCC London Road Race on his website.