Rhys Radio: A special dispatch

Former Rapha employee turned professional cyclist Rhys Howells is heading towards the end of his first season with Team Wiggins, but there is still time for a little drama to play out. This weekend, he delivered the kind of extraordinary performance that made Rhys beloved in Rapha. 24 hours, two races in two countries, one midnight pizza and one winner.

FRIDAY, 18TH AUGUST

18:00 – The plan was to race the Rapha Nocturne Copenhagen on Saturday and try to get back to the UK in time to race the Rapha Cycling Club Road Race on Sunday. I arrived in the Danish Capital and met Sam Humpheson from Look Mum No Hands!, a friend who’d be riding the masters race. We walked a lap of the circuit, then went for a pizza.

I had arranged to ride the next morning with Marc Hester, who’s a fellow WIGGINS rider and a Copenhagen native. When I got back to the hotel I bumped into the JLT–Condor riders who were staying there too, and we all arranged to meet in the morning to ride together. Ride, rest, race, rest, race. 48 hours to go.

SATURDAY, 19TH AUGUST

10:15 – We went for a big loop up by the airport and stopped at a cafe. Marc had to go to his cousin’s wedding before the Nocturne, so he had a really busy day, unlike me. Even after a two-and-a-half-hour bike ride and a long lunch I still had time to kill. I made myself a plan. I had a few hours to prepare, pin on my race numbers, eat, check kit and the bike, warm up and hit the start line for 10pm.

18:00 – I was getting ready, doing the final checks on my kit, and started watching the live video with commentary on Facebook of the early races, which was great. I really wanted to see the racing and this meant I could do it without being stood up the whole time. It sounds silly but it makes a difference not being on your feet.

21.00 – The riders pen was hectic and the warm up quick and hot. I did a quick pre race interview followed by some final fueling before being sent out onto the cobbles. The Copenhagen course was more technical than London, fast in places and difficult in others.

22.00 – The bunch came apart quickly after the start and I was really happy to make the selection with JLT–Condor and Scandinavian riders, but then I dropped my chain. Once that happens on a course like the Nocturne, where the pace is so ferocious, it’s impossible to get back on. Race over.

23:00 – After the race you still have to grab dinner. While the JLT guys were getting ready to go on the podium I told them to meet me at Mother Pizza, the same place I went with Sam the night before, right in the middle of the Nocturne circuit in København. When I told them more riders were coming, they brought out the Limoncello.

23:30 – Brenton Jones, Graham Briggs, Ed Clancy and Jon Mould arrived, still in their skinsuits. The pizzas kept coming and the time ticked by. Less than 12 hours to the start of the next race, more than 1,000km away.

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SUNDAY, 20TH AUGUST

00:30 – You can’t miss Jolene’s. It has a pink neon sign outside, pumping house music and, on Copenhagen’s Gay Pride weekend, it’s pretty busy. It’s also a dangerously short walk and even shorter ride from Mother Pizza, making it a difficult offer to decline. I hung out for a couple of hours chatting and having beers with everyone from the Nocturne.

02:00 – Back to the hotel. I packed the bike up in record speed, considering the beers, and made sure I had everything ready to leave in a couple of hours for race two.

02:30 – Bed. I struggled to sleep. I was full of caffeine gels and pizza and my mind was still in the racing, thinking about the RCC event still to come. I organised the first two club races in 2015 and 2016 and it felt like coming home. I was visualising driving down the M11 when I dozed off.

04:15 – The taxi picked me up to go to the airport.

06:00 – Ate breakfast in Copenhagen airport.

08:05 – Landed in Stansted. I never thought I’d be able to make the road race, so I hadn’t pre-entered. I called my girlfriend, Sarah, before I was off the plane. She was already there helping to set the race up with Anna Gudaniec, the organiser from Rapha, and I asked her how the reserve list was looking. I was likely to be sixteenth in line, which meant I still probably wouldn’t get a race.

08:55 – Couldn’t find my car in the car park.

09:45 – Arrived at race HQ. When you’re organising a race, everything gets booked a year in advance, so I was still involved when the Eastern Region asked us to use the event to host their championships. I’d laid the foundations, but I handed over responsibilities as full time riding took over.

10:30 – Canyon had a mechanic there so I got my bike checked over, which was a luxury. Out of nowhere, Dave Hales – the commissaire – shouts: “Rhys! You’ve got a ride!” The next hour dissolved in the panic of pinning on numbers, borrowing bits and bobs and getting help putting on frame numbers to save time and get me to the start line.

11:30 – The race gets underway, and the time comes to really focus.

I had to put some big efforts in early to force a group of us to catch the original breakaway. I’d realised the way to get the race going was to get a strong group across. I started to feel myself fatiguing early and tried to save myself a bit. I knew last night would catch up with me if I wasn’t careful, and I needed to rest as much as I could as the race unfolded.

There were two young kids riding junior gears who’d made the split, one in Lee Valley Youth Cycling Club kit. They were getting dropped on the fast, flat sections, spinning out. I pushed them back on and explained that they had to move up the group to give themselves sliding room, like you would on a climb, so they wouldn’t get shelled.

With three laps to go, Tom Fitzpatrick, who was riding for himself and one of the people to watch, went for a flyer. But I knew the break was strong and as long as we could see him, we could bring him back.

We caught Tom when we came over for the bell lap and then the others started attacking. There were maybe only six other riders left. I said to everyone: “This is the winning move, let’s go.”

Then George Wood from my old team Richardsons Trek had a big go, but two riders, both from Catford Cycling Club, pulled him back. A rider from Spirit Tifosi Racing Team went next and I could see everyone was too tired to follow. I rode over to him thinking, let’s do this, but when I pulled alongside I realised he had nothing left either, so I went on my own.

The next section was a long descent and it wouldn’t give me much of a gap, but after that the road starts to wiggle. If I could get ten seconds before the turns, the chasers wouldn’t see me for a long time. If they’ve got nothing to chase, they’ll start looking at one another. They’d already broken up, having just attacked one another, and it takes a real concerted effort to put the band back together.

On my own it was just about going one hundred per cent. Twenty minutes of pain. Let’s get on with it.

15:00 – There were loads of photographers at the finish. I felt like I was back on the Isle of Man, at the National Championships, and then I crossed the line. Arms up. Job done.

15.15 – I gave a couple of interviews and rode back to the HQ, had some great food and gave a speech at the prize-giving. It’s hard to describe what it means to me, winning the RCC Road Race. It’s one of the most meaningful results I’ve ever had.

15.30 – Helped Sarah and the others to pack up.

18:30 – Home. Although we’d had plans of a takeaway, I was stuffed with gels so I just had a couple of beers and a bag of crisps.