We start by spinning up nice and easy on the little ring. There are 12 or 15 of us holding a tight formation just outside the red line. Most people have remembered to turn off their rear lights but one or two are still winking distractingly. The pace stays low and steady as we adjust to the darkness and scan the track for hazards. As my turn on the front approaches I can feel the pace lift slightly. But it still feels too easy, this. We’ve only got an hour and I’m barely sweating. The rider in front of me breaks right and I take the lead for half a lap, resisting the urge to push on too hard; knowing that will earn me a rebuke. Just as the first suggestion of a burn makes itself felt in my thighs it’s time to give the lead to the next rider and fall in at the back of the line. I time my drop well, not having to work to tuck in behind the last wheel.
The pace lifts again and I go up a gear, still on the little ring. I’m thankful for my semi-compact as I notice some of the riders on compacts come close to spinning out. We’re 20 minutes in now and I’m breathing harder. The pace has been gradually creeping up and the line stretches and compresses as quicker and slower riders take the lead. Two ahead of me there’s a rider who seems to have a point to prove; when he gets to the front the speed leaps up. I’m one off the smallest cog now, still on the little ring, and I’m having to work on my technique to prevent bobbing. My turn on the front again; not quite as slick getting back on this time and it’s a bit of a struggle to latch onto the last wheel but there’s plenty of time to catch my breath.
Half an hour in and the call goes out: ‘Any gear!’ Most of us switch to the big ring – some choosing to spin, others grinding bigger gears. The pace lifts again and now I can hear laboured breathing all around me. The group has split. The slower line has about half the riders in it and now we must overtake them every few laps, prompted by calls of ‘Out!’ and a waved left hand behind the back. There’s less time to rest between turns now so it’s more important than ever to pace myself. There’s a bit of a traffic jam as we pass the slower group at the same time as the lead changes in both groups but everyone holds their line well so no problems. The guy two ahead of me is now just one ahead and he’s still going off hard when he gets the lead. For the first time I feel the danger of being dropped as I push hard to keep up with him and then take the lead again myself. I’m breathing very hard as I break right, barely able to ease off at all before the last man announces himself and it’s time to drop in. Again I mistime it and this time it’s almost too much for me. I can see the line stretching away as I put everything I’ve got into finding that wheel again. I remember the trick of imagining the cranks ahead being attached to me and winching me in and it seems to help a bit. I get back on seconds before the next man drops in behind me.
The pace rises once more and now I can feel myself going into the red. How many more laps of this can I take? We’re flying round now, beyond my limit. It’s hard to take much in as all of my resources are focused on surviving just one more lap, but glancing at the others as I fall back after another turn on the front it seems as though the racers are still well within themselves, dammit. I’m not though. This might be the one. After what feels like less than a minute of recovery it’s my turn again. Already! I keep the pace high for my half-lap then drop back, determined not to let them get away. But yet again my timing’s out by a fraction and before you know it I’ve got 20 feet to make up. I push as hard as I can for 10 or 15 seconds, my vision blurring and legs screaming as I desperately put everything into closing the gap. But it’s growing, not shrinking and finally I feel my spirit go and the power leaves my legs and all I can do is watch as the line relentlessly moves on.
I latch onto the slower group as it passes and we continue for another five laps until the hour’s up and it’s time to change down for the wind-down. Just five laps! But then again, last time it was six or seven.
Maybe next week will be the one...