The 2nd and 3rd of April 2016 was a weekend to remember. It was always going to be a big one, two separate one-day races: a Basque under 23 race in the Lehendakari series on the Saturday followed by a race further south in Segovia on the Sunday. With 330km between the two races, doing both was always going to be hard. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to the weekend because with two long climbs coming late in the race, the Basque race in Amorebieta suited me. I knew Sunday’s race in Cuellar would provide a different challenge because at 15okm it was to be the longest race I had ever done and it was also clear we would be competing against teams who hadn’t raced the day before. To complicate things further, the day before, I learned that Cuellar was actually a two-day race with a short hill climb time trial on the Saturday night. This meant we had to be away from Saturday’s race as soon as possible to make it to Cuellar.
Twice up Montecalvo. That was the story of the race in Amorebieta. Everyone on the start line knew the early break would never stick and that the two ascents of Montecalvo the second of which coming with only 20km to go would decide the race. My parents and sister had come out to see the race and stay in Spain for the Easter holidays and even they knew exactly where to watch the race from. The first time up the climb was brutal, the early attacks leading up to the climb and on the early slopes destroyed the race. When I passed my family on the climb, I was off the back of the front selection of around 3o riders and just managed to get back up to them on the descent. The second time up the climb was from the other side, and despite a small regrouping between climbs there were no real attacks. Once again I was around 3o seconds off the front selection as I passed my parents and sister at the top of the climb. Again I got back to the group on the descent.
Once on the flat with around 15km to go I was able to regroup with my teammates. I hadn’t realized but the bunch had split on the descent meaning a group of 15 were just up the road, my teammates filled me in on the situation. There were 4 of us in the chasing group of 25 riders, so it wasn’t long till the team car came up and told us to get on the front to set up one lad for the sprint. Me and two team mates got on the front with our sprinter just behind us. Despite a massive effort from the 3 of us we didn’t catch the leaders, we got the gap down to 12 seconds by the finish. Too little too late.
With no time even for a debrief we were straight into the team caravan and off to Segovia. After a sandwich on the journey and a makeshift warm up in a car park, it was time for the hill climb. Everyone in the team just rode to finish, we knew we had little chance against people who hadn’t raced earlier that day, the sooner it was over the sooner we could get to the hotel and rest.
The race in Cuellar is known as Classica de la Chuleta and, while not being particularly prestigious, it does have some history. It was the 58th edition of the race and despite the weather, attracted quite a crowd. I got in an early break on the first lap. There were 8 of us in the move, we didn’t have much more than a minute on the bunch but we were working well. At the end of the first lap, on the way back into Cuellar the bunch started chasing hard. It wasn’t till later that I realised why, on the way out of the town there was a steep cobbled climb. On the climb we got swallowed up and spat out by the bunch. My move in the breakaway had been poorly timed: there was a selection on the cobbled climb and a strong group of 15 went clear. This was the proper breakaway: these guys weren’t coming back. Having just been in a break, I was in no shape to go with them. Although I had missed it, we did have one from our team in the break, not ideal but not a disaster. This took the pressure off me and made the next 100km fairly straightforward.
There was no real chase: most of the strong teams had people in the break. It was hard on the hill every lap and there were several moves from guys trying to get across. A few times the break came down inside a minute but it was clear it was not coming back. As the rain came down the bunch pushed on.
In the bunch I got talking to another British lad. Kris Jasper was the first Brit I had raced with all season, talking to him was a nice break from Spanish. With 10km to go the race was strung out, although the break were going to make the finish, it had split and some riders had come back. The bunch was racing for top 10 positions. I felt quite good and I thought putting in a good finish could make up for my earlier mistake.
With the rain coming down hard now and the bunch strung out the pressure was on. In the wind the line of riders were constantly trying to shelter by riding in the gutters. The line would leave it as late as possible to swerve around parked cars or spectators. After 3 hours of racing in the rain, inevitably, someone made a mistake. The rider two in front of me didn’t move out in time to avoid a parked car, he clipped his knee on the bumper and came down hard. The guy in front of me, between me and the rider who had crashed, somehow avoided going down. I on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky. I rode straight into the guy on the ground’s bike and came down hard on my side. I rolled under the crash barrier on the other side of the road and lay there to avoid the bunch who came flying past. Badly winded it took me a minute to work out what had happened. I got up and realized who it was who had crashed. My new friend Kris Jasper was getting into an ambulance. Typical, the only two to crash, the two English lads. With the convoy gone and the ambulance spot now taken I straightened out my bike and began riding towards the finish. It wasn’t till I had been riding for a few minutes did that I started feeling the pain in my side. My ribs were hurting to the point where I couldn’t take a full breath of air. All alone and wincing in pain, I pushed on.
Luckily the broom wagon spotted me. (This is the van that ‘sweeps up’ behind the race picking up any riders who have had mechanicals or who can’t continue, every bike race has one. They often they have brooms on the roof above the doors, just to add to the metaphor.) The driver could see I couldn’t continue; he stopped the broom wagon and put my bike in the back. The front seats were occupied by 2 other riders so I had to sit on a plank of wood in the back of the van. With no windows I had no reference of how far we were from the finish, so I sat shivering in the back of the van for what felt like hours until we reached Cuellar. Not the way I imagined finishing the race.
I found out later I had bruised my ribs and that Kris had broken his knee. Saturday was a textbook “nearly but not quite” and Sunday was spoiled by a crash. I was disappointed at the time but these are the experiences you learn from.
This was a perfect weekend for the age-old cliche:
“That’s bike racing”