What a year it has been. It’s been tough going from the get go, whether it’s been locally, nationally or internationally almost every race has been full gas. However, as physically challenging as it has been, it has also been a blessing. The crazy jump from the top level of junior racing to the top level of senior racing competing against the best professional riders in the UK and the world was, admittedly, far bigger than I expected. After having a knee injury at the beginning of the year the premier calendar filled first half of the season set off with a slow and frustrating road to form. After having to take so much time off at a key moment between the first race of the year and the Manx International GP my form became compromised for a considerable amount of time, failing to come home with any decent races until the mid-season. After slowly building back up, I made a trip over to one of my favourite parts of Europe – Luxembourg and the Ardennes. I had previously made a two-week long trip to the Ardennes earlier in the year and had a top 10 in the EZC Wallonia Provincial Championship, so I was excited to make a return to what I consider my favourite part of the world to race.
It began with a prestigious race through the Lac De Cherapont in Gouvy, taking in 6 laps of a 20km loop, with a 4km climb of the Cote de Cetturu each lap. I was in some good shape after taking an easier week and I was ready for the grippy day to come. After the field let an early break literally ride off from the gun, the first ascent split the field to pieces. I was at a back foot after being so far back but I made up places bit by bit through the windy climb and over the top. A break of 6 had been established after the amateur Belgian national champion has set a ripping pace up the climb and I as sat in the second group on the road as we began the main descent – a group of 12, with the rest of the field completely of site. It became a race of attrition, constantly pulling turns to get closer to the 6 in front but never getting closer than 30 seconds away. The small French climbers began piling the pressure on with 3 climbs to go and the race suddenly became tougher and tougher, with the legs feeling especially sore and soon everything became irrelevant and the only thing to focus on was pain. With the final climb approaching I realised it was no longer about chasing the front men, but staying with the second group on the road. During the first half of the final Cetturu ascent I entered a place on the bike that I don’t think I had ever been before. The aerobic, cardiovascular and muscular stress was combined to create a blank and empty mind focused on holding the Mavic wheel in front of me and nothing else. Sweat covered my Oakley sunglasses to the point of no visibility, and I somehow managed to place them at the back of my helmet through the pain. Then suddenly the pace dropped, massively. The French rider who was previously going full had sat up for his team mate who then attacked – but to my surprise nobody followed. With no logic, I thought to myself “I’m already in the red, I’ll just carry on”. So I did, and to my surprise I suddenly only had half of the riders of the group on my wheel, and as the gradient reduced I began to have some better sensations, found a nice rhythm and before I knew it – rather eagerly and stupidly, I had brought back and went over the top of the attacking rider. My attempts of riding solo into the top 10 were futile however, as I was eventually caught in the run in to the line with a slight cross-head wind drag proving too much for my 10 second gap. I continued to go full gas as they caught and surpassed me and finished at the back of the second group of 6 to 13th, a result that I was very pleased with. I consumed an extremely tasty waffle at the finish and the addictive post-race exhaustion felt extra good that day.
After a fantastic training week in Luxembourg producing new optimum power data and weight, it was race day at the GP Skoda around the surrounding towns of the Luxemburg City. A long, windy course with a number of short and sharp climbs on a 35 degree day was going to be hard, but epic. The nerves kicked in as team vans and busses arrived, with the countries best riders all there. Numerous UCI teams and some of the top U23’s in Europe lined up for the mixed competition of Espoir (U23) and Elite Seniors. The race turned out to be absolutely savage, with a new breakaway going each lap. But with so many organised teams, it was nearly impossible to reach a move that would last for more than 10km. However, with 30km to go I noticed a well-known Italian rider chip off the front so immediately followed 4 others who pressed on up the climb to join him. At first I thought it wouldn’t stick but the main teams of the day were in fact all present, bar the Leopard devo team. This nevertheless had no effect on its success in being the winning move. But today my luck wasn’t by my side. The pressure was heavily on, with all the riders in this lead move being extraordinarily strong I could only just about pull turns. However, I soon found out I wasn’t the only one – as I joined the back of the four after pulling off the front, the rider in front violently swung out to refuse to go through. Before I could look up to see the new direction my bike was heading, I had already made contact with a traffic island and my leg had a fine slice, courtesy of a road sign. Adrenaline set in and I was going all out to regain contact with the others before I’d even looked down at my now empty bottle cages. After a few minutes of chasing my previous companions at the head of the race I realised I was getting closer to the chasing group a few seconds behind than I was to them. Frustrated, I was caught by the following 10 man move headed by two Leopard riders, with around 1 minute on the peloton. With the final 10km in sight I gratefully picked up a bottle from a team car behind and prepared for the final. A podium in the U23 category was still up for grabs and I had the legs today. Over the top of the final climb before hitting the finishing berg, moves started to go. I sat on each rider who jumped, waiting for more riders to go and for their elastic to eventually break. I kept my powder as dry as possible before attacking with around 95% of my capacity, establishing a nice gap with just over a kilometre to go into a strong headwind. The head was down, and I began pushing my Giant TCR through all of its capacity. I rounded the final hairpin on the short and sharp finishing climb with riders reaching my back wheel. I gave it everything I possibly had to hold on but was passed in the final meters, just holding on to 6th place in the U23 Classement with a photo finish. At the finish, I came to realisation of the cut on my leg. The adrenaline, exercise induced stress and satisfaction of the race covered up its pain nicely. I had it seen to and bandaged, collected the generous prize money as it always is in Europe and began the journey back to the UK. It had been an amazing trip with vital learning and experience.
Back home, the final races of the year were sweet and sour. My local race just 5km from my house was certainly a good one to begin ending the season on. Having stupidly missed the 15 man move that went in the first 20km, I had to bridge across the two-minute gap over to the head of the race, taking the road race lap record and some nice new record numbers along with the way. The chase was a very brutal 30-minute effort, and I was 90% empty by the time I had reached the breakaway. Thus, when 4 riders made a move with 4km remaining, I could not follow. I sat at the back of the breakaway for a breather and took the sprint for 5th, a nice result but it’s never nice when you know you have the legs for the win. The final two races of the year following that were less satisfying – 120km at 45kph (75 miles at 28mph) at the John Walker Cup, with good racing but no good result in the end there. The final of the year was another local classic road race, the Maldon CC RR round the windy open marsh lanes of Steeple, Southminster and Mayland. It started very well, with good sensations and the race was panning out perfectly. However, less than an hour in the wet and muddy corners through the fields got the better of me, and my front wheel slipped harshly causing a pretty raw crash. Luckily no broken bones or lasting injuries – just some heavy bruising on the upper leg and standard cases of road rash. Not the worst crash, but a tough way to end a tough year for sure.
I’m now looking forward to a nice few weeks off the bike with circuit training, running and yoga before beginning a big winter of 2017 preparations on the roads of Norfolk, with the season re-starting in March with Neon Velo whilst also studying Environmental Geography and Climate Change at UEA in Norwich.
Thanks Neon-Velo and all of the sponsors for making 2016 such a positive and flowing year, I look forward to an even better 2017!