Racing The Winter

With due respect to my Australian colleagues, the cycling season doesn’t start, in my mind, until that race named after the newspaper that I cannot pronounce [Omloop Het Nieuwsblad]. In Northern Europe, the start of the pro calendar is marked by crap weather and a juddering internet stream on my laptop featuring Flemish commentary. Not the seemingly fantastical Australian summer and the laid back training jolly that is the Tour Down Under.

During my first incarnation as a racing cyclist, this late-February Classic was held at the same time of year when the capital’s racing fraternity would dust the cobwebs from their legs. The San Fairy Ann criteriums at the old Eastway circuit (where the Olympic Velopark now resides) were a slap in the chops for aspiring amateur racers, a sharp jolt back in to the racing season.

So why do I find myself at a windswept Hog Hill circuit in early January, with what is an unexpectedly large field of 60 racing cyclists? If you believe the press, the cycling year is split up into three segments: base; build; and race. This approach makes it easy to produce simple scalable training plans for the masses but fails to acknowledge that fitness is something you build over years – not months.

Ueli Steck, the Swiss mountaineer who scrambled up the north face of the Eiger in less than three hours, claims it took him five long years to build an aerobic base deep enough; only then could he even begin to contemplate climbing at such ridiculous velocity. And given that I spent 2011 trundling around the British Isles conditioning myself to ride long distances slowly, racing in January makes sense to me. Sod what the magazines suggest.

It made even more sense after meeting Dr. Jon Baker, a respiratory and exercise scientist based in Wales, and taking a more scientific approach to my riding. I wanted to see the impact a year of endurance cycling had made in cold, hard figures. Exactly how fit was I? A ramp test in November suggested that I had some work to do to bring myself up to speed.

There’s no point in sugaring the pill, racing’s difficult. You can be a reasonable rider, capable of getting through an Etape and still you’ll get spat out the back in your first crit. The speeds are higher, the crashes more numerous, the peloton more intimidating. It’s also the steepest learning curve you can imagine; swept along by everyone else, you rapidly learn how to go round corners more quickly, push yourself harder to cover moves and learn how to plot your own advance.

Even if you are fit enough, unless you’re especially gifted you can’t win a race without using your brain (I’m not especially gifted). The field in a Category 3s and 4s race this time of year will consist of a few demoted Category 2s who are keen to get back to the Elite meets. Add in some complete beginners wondering what they’ve let themselves in for and the rest of the field will be riders with cynical experience. It’s a twitchy, nervous and occasionally vociferous combination.

Riding repays consistency and I aimed to train at least four times a week. I grudgingly made space for a turbo trainer at the back of the Perren St. stockroom and also quickly taught myself how to ride rollers (that pocket in the back of Rapha’s Classic Bib Shorts is perfect for an iPod by the way). Of course, training indoors will soon send anyone crawling up the walls, so my intention to get out into the cold was bolstered by a few choice items of new kit. It’s too easy to hear the wind whipping round the eaves, or cars swishing through the rain and turn off the alarm on dark winter mornings. Good clothing helps stifle the excuses and now I seldom leave home without my Pro Team Jacket and Pro Team Thermal Shorts.

I’m lucky enough to have two workhorse bikes with mudguards on and although I sometimes feel like I’m dragging an anchor behind me, it’s a blessing not to be destroying good hardware in the salt and damp of a British winter. I’ve also made time to enjoy the quieter roads, the views offered through trees stripped of leaves, of bare fields and Cotswold stone glowing in the winter sun.

Continuing to take the long view, these races will provide a foundation for my planned return to the infamous National 24-hour time trial in July. The diverse nature of cycling and the ability to mix things up is a wonderful way to keep motivated. It’s also indisputable that racing makes you a better cyclist: fitter, more confident and more efficient. It also gives you an insight into just how difficult the life of a professional must be. I’m there to try and win but it’s the sheer, indulgent pleasure of turning the pedals that has got me to the start line.

On Saturday James took his first win of the season at the Six Days of Winter Series at Redbridge Cycle Circuit aka Hog Hill. For information visit: eastlondonvelo.cc