249. The number of British Cycling points that could sit between two imaginary cyclists lining up side by side for the prologue of a 5 day, 6 stage race around the Welsh countryside. One of only a few chances for the lower categories to try multi day racing in the UK, the glory of the Ras is that literally anybody can ride it. All you need is a BC license, a bicycle and a helmet. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean the race is going to be easy. It’s open to 2nd, 3rd and 4th category riders and that’s where things get complicated. Back to our imaginary cyclists and the points/talent gulf.
Rider A: A 4th category rider, struggling with what we shall call ‘Eurovision syndrome’… no wins, no podiums, nul points.
Rider B: A successful 2nd category racer, fiercely moving through the rankings on their way to 1st cat status and a future of actual serious cycling.
The dissimilarities between the two are striking; The sheen of over defined, bald quadriceps compared to the matted furry pins of a rider who hasn’t quite decided if they enjoy racing enough to grab a razor and acquire the legs of a muscular 7 year old. The matching team bikes and kit compared to the ill fitting, faded club jersey that was bought in the winter, before training started in earnest and the waist line shrank. Aside from these outward signs, there are some more subtle differences.
There is the bike handling. The way in which accomplished racers throw their bikes around is often a shock to 4th and 3rd cats, who timidly ride the brakes into every bend praying that their skill level will have increased enough since the last corner to let them come out the other side with both wheels still facing in the right direction.
Then there’s the chatting. A 4th cat race is a quiet affair. Laboured breathing punctuated by the occasional ‘HOLD YOUR LINE!’ A higher category race is an odd combination of the above and a nice picnic. With riders far more used to riding at ‘race speeds’, a bunch can fly along a road sounding like a dinner party as people chew on energy bars and talk to riders around them (In my case that means making bad jokes and moaning about how hard racing is). The chatting only stops when the racing gets really serious, to be replaced by the sound of clicking gears, amplified by hollow carbon wheels.
I am somewhere in between our two hypothetical cyclists. I’ve been racing since December, starting out on Christmas Eve with a 10th place at Hillingdon and a scary introduction to what riding in a competitive yet nervous bunch is like. I’ve had some good results and some bad ones, two big crashes, two trips to hospital, and hundreds to the bike shop. I’m yet to win a race, but I’ve gained enough points to say goodbye to my 4th cat license and hello to a shiny new 3rd cat license. My legs are shiny and my muscles are getting there… yet I am petrified!
I haven’t added a point to my license since March, but I’ll be on the turbo come Wednesday afternoon, warming up for a 4 mile prologue (Which inconveniently will be my first foray into the pointy hat world of Time Trialling) to a race that I’ve been training for all year. The Ras De Cymru, my chance to pretend I’m riding in le Tour.
I’ll be jumping out of the starter’s hands and into five days of chasing riders with far more talent and racing experience in their legs, as well other chancers like myself. I’m not being pessimistic, I’ve raced against 2nd cats before and I know I can hold my own, but stage racing is totally alien to me. What happens to your legs after beating them up day after day? Do they still work? Fortunately I don’t have to find out alone. Just like le Tour, The Ras is a team race. I’ll be sharing my experiences with three other guys from Bristol’s most stylishly attired cycling club, Bristol Road Club (more on them later). Through some sort of admin error (Them racing more and better than me) they are all 2nd cats with good results and very fast legs.
Over the next week I’ll be writing about what it feels like to be a total amateur riding in their first stage race. Trying to stay alive on 50mph descents and fighting to hold 99 wheels on 25mph ascents. Not only will I be racing my first time trial, but also my first team time trial, my first split stage day. There are going to be a lot of firsts! I cannot wait. My goals for the race are simple. Ride until I can’t ride any more, do whatever I can for the team, attack if I can and most importantly, look good whilst doing it.