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Well, that went rather better than I feared it might! Stuart Dawkins reports on the Tour of Cambridgeshire

As a rather elderly, rather mediocre road racer I have to pick my races and events with care.  Generally picking handicap races, maybe some age-category ones and other competitive events that are just that, a real ‘event’.  I particularly enjoy closed road events, but there are very few of those.  In previous years I have ridden Ride London three times and enjoyed each.  This year I did not get a place, so decided to make the Tour of Cambridgeshire (ToC) a target for my training and racing.

The ToC takes place on our doorstep, based out of Peterborough, and a number of friends and WVCC members are involved in its organisation, indeed the Race Director is our very own Rowland Summerlin.  It is a huge event, with thousands of entrants over two days.  There are time trials and team time trials, there are age-specific road races, there are Sportives and there are Grand Fondos (yes, I had to look it up, too … basically a road race for people who do not have racing licences) spread over a weekend in June.  Best of all, it is on closed roads and, as a bonus, it is on mostly pan-flat but often wind-swept Cambridgeshire roads – perfect conditions for a rider of my shape!

I duly entered the 67-mile road race for Men aged 60-64, a first for me as I am still 59 until August, but for administrative ease cycling ages are based on the age you turn during the year.  My training was going perfectly – my body was nicely set up with two weeks to go, and then I began with a non-specific virus.  The best I can describe it is feeling a bit unwell, although not too much, all the time … and with a heart rate that shot up faster and further than usual under any effort above a basic tempo.  It was not Covid.  Despite increased rest and naps and other attempts to shift it, shift it would not.

My race was in was the very first to start, with other races beginning behind it separated by three-minute intervals.   Chatting with our Chair, Jon Durnin, the night before I said that were it an ordinary race I would be a Did Not Start as the chance of me being dropped quickly was so high given my body’s curious condition.  But, as it looked to be a nice day I would ride – if I got dropped too quickly I would probably be able to find riders from races behind to ride with and pootle a pleasant 67-miles on a sunny morning.  (Note to younger Club members: this is not the officially recommended approach to dealing with a virus!)

I got up at 5:30am for the hour-ish drive to the Peterborough showground, just beating the rush of thousands of cars.  It was a perfect morning, warm and with a noticeable but not horrendous 15mph south-westerley   wind.  I did a gentle warmup, all basically fine, but as I lined up in the first gate of racers with the other 40 riders in my age group, I genuinely thought I might be getting dropped after five miles.  It was not my most positive pre-race mood!

We started, and quickly fell into a brisk tempo, I sat in the pack.  There were the usual surges after corners, I sat in the pack.  There were a very few very short hills, I sat in the pack (actually I moved forwards on the hills which surprised me).   There were a few surges when the stronger riders attempted to split the group, I sat in the pack.  My heart rate was indeed a bit higher than it should have been, but the lack of long strong efforts meant I was hanging on quite comfortably and the miles ticked by, on quiet roads but with enough villages full of cheering crowds to make it really feel like a major and friendly occasion.

Eventually, and rather inevitably, there was one surge too many – caused in that case by the only ‘incident’ I saw in the entire race.  A driver had got onto the closed road at a fairly narrow point, they were safely corralled by a motorbike out-rider, but the ensuing braking then sharp acceleration by the group proved to be one too many for me, and after 40-miles, the faster twenty riders and I duly parted company.

I rode alone for about four miles in the section most exposed to a headwind.  Eventually I saw a group of three riders behind and eased to let them join me for about five miles of organised four-up riding, through more cheering villages.  Then the front of the Women’s race, which had picked up about a dozen riders dropped from my race even before I was, came past, and we all formed a mini-peloton of maybe thirty.  A split occurred on a hill with around eight miles to go, and I was left in a group of ten and, rather surprisingly, one of the stronger ones in the group.  Had we been vying for anything other than 20-somethingth place I would probably have been more cagey, but as it was I quite enjoyed sharing lead-out duties with two others, to drag my group home in 3h7m12s, and places 25-29 in our race.  This was considerably more successful than I had feared at the start.

At the end, I met up with WVCC members Ellie Humphries and Sarah Mee.  Ellie had been in the group which I had briefly joined towards the end of the race.  She clocked the second-fastest time for her age group based on the timing chip, but was ranked fourth in her race – cursing the rather technical approach to the finishing sprint.  I had not seen Sarah on the road, but she had finished fifth in her age group.  The ToC is set up rather like a festival, with exhibitions and a variety of food and drink outlets, so we had a pizza, a drink and a chat – all genuinely impressed with event – whilst hundreds and hundreds of other cyclists completed whichever event they had ridden.

I really enjoyed the ToC.  Such events are not cheap to enter, but the closed road experience, the sense of being a real occasion, the cheering of the crowds (and, yes, the flat course!) made it memorable.  I would recommend it to anyone who likes that experience, and as something to seriously consider for those who haven’t.

Would I have done better had I been 100% well in addition to having trained well?  Very probably.  Would I have managed an extra few surges to have stayed with the twenty riders who finished at the front of the race?  We will never know – hopefully next year I will get to find out.

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