Sometimes you just believe you will pop something out.
I hadn’t felt great all day but often I get that feeling from hiding in
the wheels. I was however attentive and when I kicked over the top of the first
climb I should have felt the zip in my legs and known I was on for a good day.
It was just focus. Engrossed in conservation, eeking out every last bit of
power I could spare until that last burst to the line, I spent the whole day in
a bubble: watching and waiting.
Cycling is often as much about what you don't do, as what you do do I
The run in was hectic. No surprise. There was a roundabout with just
over five kilometres to go and I entered in the top ten of the bunch. Sitting
pretty I had learnt the difference between ‘good positioning’ and good
positioning via being caught behind a few untimely crashes in my first year as
a junior. Later that evening my DS had asked me why I had been sat at the back
out of the roundabout. He hadn’t seen the rider flick me to fuck just as we entered,
forcing me the long way round or straight into a traffic island. From the front
to the back in one clean swoop. It's these things you don't see unless you’re racing
- the cutthroat moves people pull all day long, the ruthlessness. Even now,
four months in to the winter, four months away from racing, I am sure I have
probably forgotten quite what it is like.
It drags uphill for a few hundred meters and I make the most of a slight
hesitation to move back up to the front of the depleted group. At three k to go
there is a petrol station on the right of the road, with a small sign ziptied
to a lamppost signifying the distance. I pay little attention to it. Last year
on the first stage they had still been inflating the km to go arch as we raced on
by, caught completely unawares, so it’s better to go from memory. I could shut
my eyes even now, almost a year on, and recount you the exact finish:
Now it runs downhill, fast and wide. We had hit out too early with three
riders last year on this finish. This time, despite there only being two of us,
I know I have an advantage. Experience. We jostle, but I sit patient on my
teammates wheel, shouting to wait, wait, wait a little longer.
Through another roundabout and the bunch lines out before slowing again
upon exit. I am not the only one who knows the finish and nobody wants to take
it on. Yet. Eyes dart around, I position myself ready to pounce on the
inevitable flyer, making my space and readying for the frenzy…
The Belgians come steaming over the top three strong. I barge on to the
last wheel and breathe as we pass under the red kite. The tension is building
and building. The hours of waiting, positioning, avoiding crashes and saving
energy are about to come to a crux. The pace isn’t that fast but nobody is
moving up. There must be some tired legs around, but I don't realise it, I’m
still in my bubble.
Whenever I ride to a race I get similar legs to today, as if that
conservation button has been switched, nothing really in the tank. But then I
hit the start line and it all changes. Today my start line doesn't seem to come
until the last ten metres. But it is damn perfect timing all the same.
I shift into the little ring just before we turn the righthander and hit
the cobbles with fifty hundred metres to go. It must be fifteen percent and
steeper all the way to the line now. I am glued to the last Belgians wheel, his
teammate having peeled away, their job done. He goes, but of course it's too
early and he isn’t really going anywhere anyway. An empty gesture of thanks for
his teammates sacrifice as much as anything else.
Last year I hadn’t had nearly enough urgency left in my body at this
stage of this game but this time it is different. I let my momentum carry me
the first few revs and then, still seated, manoeuvre on to the next wheel that
comes by. It is just like I have been taught on the track all be it at a far
slower, bumpier speed.
Its 200 metres to the big finish banner now and the Frenchman goes on
the left. I jump on to his wheel still waiting. All I can see is his tyre
infront of me, the block capitals FRANCE across his backside. It hurts now. But
there is one man between me and the finish line and I have got more to come
yet. I’ve been thinking of this finish all day, ever since last year infact,
and so I wait a little longer. He is still going strong, but I am sat behind,
the pedals turning, waiting for me to rise out the chair.
I hold the wheel, biding my time a little longer. The line looms but I
am barely aware. I focus and then persuade myself to fire up and let it all
out. And with fifteen meters to go, maybe less, I kick with all my might. The
cobbles persist but the bike is smooth. I hit tarmac and immediately after a
finish line. I get one hand in the air, my right, and probably shout. I can't
remember, my heart was beating way to fast to recall all that much.
It felt damn good, of that I am certain. Amidst the grimace, I was
I ride on in to the small town square, back onto rough stones, staring
at the ground and shaking my head. I had won? I couldn't fucking believe it.
The chaperone chased after me, the announcer blathered away in the local tounge
on the loud speaker and I just kept riding round in circles. Looking down and
catching my breathe, I keep reiterating it over and over in my head. ‘You won?!
You fucking won?!’
And it doesn't leave me. Not during the hour wait sat on a plastic chair
outside doping control, talking shit with the chaperone in what turned out to
be a police station. Not lay on my bed that evening, a yellow jersey on the end
of my bed. Not even the next day when I stand on the top step of the final
podium of the race.
It never leaves you if you don’t let it.