It’s The East Midlands Classic and my, it’s exactly that, a classic. It starts sedately enough, two circuits of Rutland Water and then from the wide tarmac roads the race turns a sharp left onto fifty odd miles of very narrow farm lanes and tracks, a maze of them crisscrossing the continuously undulating countryside. I soon lose my bearings and as it’s been a dry spring up comes the dust, on the roughest sections thick billowing brown clouds of it, which obscures all but the vaguely distinguishable brake lights of the car just in front whilst in the mirror two murky discs of headlights indicated there was a car behind. The steering wheel is juddering as the car bounces down these tracks, a few ghost-like riders, faces caked, squeeze by, some, legs slowing dropping back, others desperately trying to fight their way forwards after punctures. That sign ‘Welcome to Hell’ wasn’t far wrong.
Occasional tarmac stretches run for long enough for the dust to disperse then we (mechanic Alex and I) try to see if we can see the main peloton and then it’s another sharp turn and we are back hammering away on the narrow farm roads. I have no idea where the Rapha Condor Sharp riders are, neither have I an idea how far I am behind the front of the race, I guess some distance as the radio communication is intermittent. I started as car 18 in the convoy, which put me a long way back to start with and on these narrow lanes the smallest groups of back riders can block the road as do any attendant team cars. I’ve passed a number but I must still be some distance from the front. I plough on spending my time negotiating my way past these groups but it’s slow progress. I still haven’t seen or heard anything of our riders. If any have suffered a puncture I’m relying on our masseurs, (John H sent three anticipating this scenario) positioned with spare wheels at the end of each of the roughest sections to change them. The riders know that if they puncture there just to plug on till the end for a change.
I’m feeling quietly optimistic, at the riders meeting last night the team was very upbeat. After I had run through the day’s schedule we discussed the race. Everyone was up for this one, Zack D and Briggsy had taken one and two last week at the Dengie Marshes, a race over similar terrain to this, so definitely have the form. Dan was a close second in the sprint finish here last year and knows the finish well so explains just how to negotiate the vital final corner in detail to the listening riders. Dean is always up for a race, Tom is a strong rider and Jimmy is feeling good.The team talks it all through and when they leave I notice I’m feeling upbeat. Tom started the ball rolling by launching the first serious attack on these narrow lanes, once back in the fold other attacks were being nullified by the team and now all the riders are obviously still in the front group.
The race continues, driving is taking all my concentration, the sandwich I was just starting when we hit the lanes sits untouched on the seat beside me. We arrive on some tarmac and I can look around long enough to recognize that we have passed this way a couple of times before then we duck back into the juddering dustbowl. Sometime later, I spy a black Rapha Condor Sharp jersey in the swirling dust, the shape tells me its Tom, we bump up alongside but he just signals us through, his day’s work over. We speed on, next it’s Jimmy Mac, he’s just punctured but fortunately we arrive just as he pulls over so it’s a rapid change and he’s away. It’s our first puncture, thank goodness Alex, the mechanic, put those All Season 25mm tyres on. The riders did look slightly askance at their sausage like appearance but they seem to be working as the only call so far is an early one for Dean’s shoe plate which involved a change of footwear through the open car window.
We watch Jimmy link back up to a small group and then accelerate past. We are hearing the radio again, so we’re getting closer to the front. The final hard sections are splintering the race, the race is all down to attrition, hard wear and tear on both man and his bike.
As we arrive we hear the peloton is in three groups so I manoeuvre past two of them, we are now behind the front thirty four riders and we still have four riders up there with twenty five kms to go. I occasionally get glimpses of the front group; the speed is high, the pressure is really on, I can see black jerseys near the front as other riders being spat out of the back.
One French rider has gone for a long one and is 1.50 min up, this alarms me a bit. I can imagine the top British teams all sitting there waiting for the others to start the chase, nullifying each other as the single rider rides away. At twenty km, relief, the chase has started, his time is coming down, a glance at the front tells me it’s the men in black doing the chasing. I’m trapped behind six riders and it seems the three cars in front are sitting there following their riders. I’ve got to get past, I swing on to the small grass verge and at an odd angle, blast the horn and get past two of the cars but the third car is a commissar who stops me, not allowing me through. Shit, I’ve got four riders in the ever diminishing front group and no wheel cover in front of them, I’ve got to I push on. There’s not enough space to pull alongside to talk to the commissar so I drive right up to their rear and beep the horn. I think they finally see which car it is and after a quick conversation wave me through. I bounce past and charge forward. Ten kms, five kms, the last rough section with 3km to go, coming out I spy Dean, he’s dropping away, he’s punctured but waves me through, he’ll ride in on the puncture. I charge on passing dropped riders but can’t get up to the race, 2km, 1km, I swing into the final straight, there’s a few riders but not the very front group, they have finished. I drive down the finishing straight, wondering how it went, as I’m waved over into the car park I hear a loud speaker:
‘No confirmation of the winner’s name but it was a Rapha rider’
Yes, yes, I see Tom passing on his bike and he nods. Yes, we’ve won, I don’t know who but I take my hands off the wheel, shaking my fists in the air to celebrate. A short while later I hear it’s Zack, who easily won the sprint, Briggsey and Dan coming in somewhere behind having set him up. Brilliant.