Surrey League May 3 Day 2016
Bittersweet: a broken spoke on the final stage ends the team’s GC chances after an opening stage win and two days in yellow for Rob. As Tom Whatley commented: ‘Certainly not the end all of us wanted, but without doubt the hardest, most rewarding and fulfilling weekend’s racing I’ve done to date. I think the whole team can be rightly proud of our performance, and I was certainly very proud to have been a part of it.’
Along with the Tour of Sussex in July the Surrey League May 3 day stage race is a highlight in South East road racing calendar: three 67 mile road stages back to back on the Dunsfold, Bletchingley and Edenbridge courses – flat, hilly and rolling. Paceline entered a strong team with high hopes for the overall classification but also for individual stage results: Tom Whatley, Pat Wright, Rich Peel, Benoit Ramsey, Dom Clegg and Rob Sharland.
This is a circuit I’ve ridden twice before as a 3rd and then 2nd cat rider, writes Rob Sharland. The first of these was the first road race I ever did where I managed 9th. A year later I was a lot stronger and got into a five man break and managed to get rid of everyone on the run in apart from Paul Sewell who sat on my wheel to perfection and sprinted past to take the win, leaving me with second place. Its pretty flat with one small kick near the finish: a 30 second uphill sprint that had been moved closer to the top of the hill than in years past, which suited me perfectly – I’d have likely won if the finish line was here back in 2013 rather than 150m over the top.
The race began with with plenty of attacking, no doubt because it was by far the easiest of the three days. People were obviously not worried about saving their legs! Lots of moves went and came back and nothing looked to be sticking initially. The first move of any note in my opinion was when our own Pat Wright went solo at around the halfway point. I tried to make sure we were up near the front disrupting to allow Pat a good chance of staying away. At one point his lead was out to 45 secs and it looked promising, however numerous other attacks went and despite the team shutting these down down the gap began to fall. Eventually after almost three solo laps of the circuit Pat was back in the bunch.
With about 25 miles left to race there were lots of moves, I bridged over to one that looked good, only for everyone to sit up! I then noticed veteran Mick Coyle moving up – ‘age is nothing but a number’ – and having ridden many times in the past with him I knew he was strong, so went with him. We quickly caught a lone rider who had gone off the front and with 12 miles of racing left we gathered some VCM riders and a few others and working well together to push our lead out. I was confident of this move and was committed to it, knowing the Paceline guys would do a good job of blocking from behind. However, after almost an entire lap away, it was clear that it wasn’t to be, Coyle said we should rest up and go again in the same place for the final lap. Initially I agreed, but feeling strong I decided that I’d have another go.
Jack Freeman of VC Meudon and a London Dynamo came with me. We were going well, though the Dynamo was sitting on. A bit odd I thought with 7 miles still left to race. However all became clear when we got near to the end of the circuit when Dynamo sprinted off up the finishing hill one lap to soon… I made sure VCM and myself didn’t make that mistake and we powered up the hill to take the bell two-up. It became clear that I was probably the stronger rider in this move. Jack was quite honest and said that he just couldn’t come through, and that when he did it would only be a short turn. Fine with me, all I felt like I needed were micro rests and I would do the lion’s share of the work. With perhaps three miles left we had a 30 second lead, which I thought was enough. I was debating whether to accelerate away before the line, or to ride it in as a two-up and use the hill to my advantage. I was sure I could ride away solo, but the legs were beginning to ache and it was day one of three, so I kept with Jack as we hurtled towards the finish hill. I flicked my elbow and was very surprised to see him happy to lead into the hill. Perhaps he just wanted the gap knowing I would likely win the sprint, either way, no sooner had he done that before I launched my sprint up the hill. He didn’t respond and I was able to cross the line alone with Jack eight seconds back, and the bunch a further ten or so secs back on him. With the finish line bonus I now took a 47 second lead over the main field into day two. Not a bad start but we knew would come under pressure for the remainder of the race, much like at the Tour of Sussex three years ago where I’d also taken yellow on day one only to lose it by a handful of seconds on the final stage…
The guys were all chuffed and said they had done a lot of work to help me stay away. The first instalment of what would prove to be a very strong and unified team effort over the weekend: we now had a jersey to defend, and to the Surrey League’s credit, the jersey even fitted well too!
With the first stage behind us and me being in a position that was initially not what we’d planned, it would prove to be an interesting day in Bletchingley. The circuit is renowned in the area for being a bit grippy, or if you’re a slightly more ‘well-built’ rider, it could be described as rather difficult. I’d done numerous races on the circuit with mixed results, but notably my only success came when one of the hills was taken out of the race due to roadworks, which I felt let to a slightly hollow victory.
Today, though, there was no short course, it had all of the lumps and bumps as intended. The plan was to try not to use up our firepower early on by covering every single attack but rather to wait until the race got interesting in the back half before trying to use our strength to dictate the latter stages. So, with one mile down, who else do I see on the front, warming up his legs than Paceline engine Pat Wright – I actually laughed to myself as only Pat would consider this normal behaviour with 130 miles still to race. Anyway, I left him to it.
Soon enough the attacks began. I’d stuck a 28 on the back just to make sure I could tap away in the saddle up the hill rather than grind it up there and destroy my legs. Later Pat would tell me he only used the small ring once in the entire race, I reckon I shifted down about 30 times over that 3 hours! Anyway, the legs were feeling ok, but certainly blunted somewhat from the previous day’s antics. It was on this stage that the team really began to show their mettle: Rich, Tom, Pat and Dom were relentless, closing down anything that looked dangerous. It was especially impressive given that of the former two riders one was in his fourth race ever, churning away on the front like he’d been at it for years, and the other had rated his chances of even getting round the circuit at slim to none, yet was able to ride down attacks of just about anyone and everyone despite being a larger rider, not unlike myself. [Ed. for Tom’s account of the racing check out his blog]
And well, Pat was just Pat, always there, always hurting himself in the name of the jersey: ‘Parceline’ Pat: he always delivers!
It was really with one and half laps to go that things got interesting, gaps were forming over the hills and it was now time for me to make sure I could back up the team’s sterling work with some strong riding of my own. I rode down a large move myself (well bridged over, but it came back together eventually) as we got the bell. It hurt but I knew I had to do it. The final time up the big climb, it all went mad, it was at this point that I saw Benoit – I’d not ridden with him prior to this race, but was glad to see him come through over the steep hill to guide me through the latest fracture in the bunch. He later said he had hidden in the wheels for most of the stage and while his turn was shorter it was every bit as crucial. Once on the high street I hit it hard to get over to this splinter group. The peloton was now fragmented and time gaps were on the cards.
With one final kick up to the finish it was now or never. At this point Pat, not satisfied with being out most of yesterday and doing about 93% of today’s race on the front fancied a go with one other. I was happy to let this gather steam as it would mean some other teams would have to chase, as they know Pat is fairly dangerous on tough circuits. And tomorrow was another tough circuit. Approaching the final climb it wasn’t to be for Pat but a couple of riders had escaped off up the hill. My legs were screaming at this point, the race was in bits I kept it in the saddle bit think in hindsight I should have slung it in a big gear and just gone for a full on sprint up that hill as while I did close down a fair few places (to finish 9th about 10 secs back from the winner from Army CC) I would have liked to have been closer, but it was not a bad result.
It was at this point really that others began to praise us for the work we were doing. I’d heard numerous comments throughout the day, but there were many folks actually approaching me and the others to express their congratulations for not just a decent result to probably retain the lead, but in how drilled the team was. It was a nice feeling, and though none of the other guys got much of a result on the day, I could sense that they felt positive about being integral to a strong team ride. Certainly in the reports from Tom and others it would seem that being part of something with an end goal staged over multiple days is as rewarding as winning a race on your own. A job well done, we would later learn that I would take twelve second lead into the final day thanks to the win bonuses on the line.
Not a circuit I’d ridden before, at 15 miles long Edenbridge is one of the longest courses in the South East and makes the Dunsfold loop look more like a town centre crit! Sadly the weather wasn’t playing ball, rather than clear blue skies and low wind we were faced with grey drudgery more akin to February than May. The guys as you would imagine were less than positive about their legs on this 3rd stage. Apart from Pat, his legs were fine. I did my best to convince them that sometimes despite what your muscles feel, you can produce things you thought impossible. While we were not looking for any great feats of human endurance today, we did need a few riders with reserves to try and stem the inevitable flow of attacks that would come from what I saw as four other main competitors and their respective teams. Kennet of PMR had ridden to a strong second place at Bletchingley and was in spitting distance, and the winner of that stage from Army CC was now very close. And of course Jack Freeman from the two-up on day one was also in the mix.
Like yesterday we decided not not use up our ammunition early doors. Instead the plan was for Pat to take a shot at the KOM jersey. He would take off solo a lap or so in and see how that went and then we’d assess things based on the outcome of that. After about 30 yards of racing it began to rain. Great. It was clear that while this circuit wasn’t ‘hard’ as such, it was going to feel hard on the third day of race. Next thing we know Pat is up the road, however, it was slightly concerning that two other riders were with him, including an Army rider who was in the points jersey.
At about halfway we established that if he won and they retained a decent gap he’d likely win the overall. It was at this point that the guys were asking me what we should do – it was a difficult decision but I didn’t want us to lose this bike race. Pat and co now had 90 seconds on the bunch with half the race remaining. Surely the points jersey would be able to outsprint Pat, who can ride all day but if there is a break of three, unless he can drop them, you’d probably bet on him getting jumped (sorry Pat :P). I’d overheard someone behind mutter “Paceline, undoing all their hard work yesterday, throwing it away”. I replied that we’d only done 25 miles, and there was still a lot of ground to cover.
After shutting down an attack by Stan Kennet with Dom, I called for the guys to begin through and off: we each did our turn, and I was as much a cog in the machine as they were. I thought later about how that must have looked: at the head of 60 riders, everyone just sitting back watching five guys ride a team time trial to bring the race back into their favour. It worked. We were flying. The gap came down to about 20 seconds in no time. Pat dropped out of the group and we set about business as before.
It must have been about three miles later with just over 15 to race – a ticking noise, I look down to see where it’s coming from, and then hear a sound nobody wants to hear at any point, let alone while riding the final stages of a race. My rear wheel pings a spoke. Bollocks. I quickly gesture to the guys that my spoke has gone, everyone pulls over, Tom offers me a wheel but the neutral car is almost on us, so I decide to wait. At this point something fairly controversial happened. We all hear shouts of attack, and the pace upped noticeably. I didn’t think much of it at the time as I thought if the change was quick we could get back on. Unfortunately the change was not quite as quick as we would have liked, and it looks to have cost us around 80 seconds in total.
We get back on the road and set about chain-ganging back on to the bunch. My legs are really beginning to feel it, but Rich, Tom and Pat were still so strong at this point. We pull and pull, but after a while it became clear that we would not see the bunch again. Hugely disappointing. We stick together and roll over the line probably around 90 seconds or so down in the end, spirits low. It turns out Stan Kennet had won that stage and the overall, with a second then a first place testament to how well he rode: consistently strong on every day. It was a bit of a bitter pill though, as the top few were actually the same as the day before – with the notable absence of myself.
We got back to the hall and others riders told us what went down and who dun it, as it were. To be honest it’s of little interest to me to name and shame, but what I will say is that there were ten hours of racing in which to attack – to do it at that point and still end up with no riders in the top ten is a little bit bizarre. But that’s the way it goes, some people are generally pretty decent about things, some are not.
Congratulations to those who raced hard and sportingly and earned their positions and jerseys. We won’t appear on the results but there was one winner in team spirit over the weekend: it feels like a victory in all but BC points. As I was writing this one of the Army riders got in touch to say how impressive we were as a unit and how gutted he was about the outcome, which speaks volumes. So I’ll thank the team once more for their efforts, before we start planning for the Tour of Sussex later in the year.