Malliot Blanc Column by Toby Miles – Britain’s undiscovered cycling scene

PUBLISHED: 16:18 16 April 2018 | UPDATED: 16:18 16 April 2018

Malliot Blanc cycling columnist Toby Miles in competitive action on the continent. Credit: Martine Verfaillie.

Malliot Blanc cycling columnist Toby Miles in competitive action on the continent. Credit: Martine Verfaillie.

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Read Toby Miles’ Malliot Blanc Column as the 18-year-old aspiring professional cyclist gives his insight into the secret world of road racing in Britain.

Toby in action racing in Israel. Credit: rent-a-bike-israel.com Toby in action racing in Israel. Credit: rent-a-bike-israel.com

Amatuer road racing in Britain remains an obscure and somewhat undiscovered business among the non-cycling public.

While circuit and track racing feels glamorised since the 2012 Bradley Wiggins inspired cycling boom - evidenced by the multiple hipster types participating - these Sunday morning meetings on the bumpy countryside roads sustain an ancient tradition in the cycling community. It’s a section of the cycling scene that’s still as eccentric to the general public as the entire sport was a decade ago.

Around 60 riders or more wake as early as 4am to travel on empty lanes towards a village hall somewhere in the countryside.

Amid the still chilly morning air, in a packed car-park, teammates congregate, familiar faces are caught up with and preparations are made amid an eerie atmosphere, created by the focused minds and air of anticipation.

A steady stream of riders collect their race numbers - to be safety pinned to the lower back - before walking back to their vehicle, past the course marshalls briefing, to warm-up.

Then the commissaire - race referee - blows his whistle, ten minutes before the start. The 60 riders gather in the hall and receive their briefing - a typical speech on respecting each other by not making decisions that put other riders in danger, some rule reminders and course warnings.

The riders then click and clack in their cleated shoes out of the hall to collect their meticulously prepared bikes and gather at the exit to the car park, behind the lead car. It’s almost time to go, and while those that are experienced empty their minds and allow natural instincts to take over, the less experienced stress and worry about the result.

At 9am, the riders roll out in the ‘neutral zone.’ This is the period before the start, where the commissaire’s car controls the pace and guides riders from the car-park to the course, before the flag, which the commissaire holds out of the car window, is dropped.

The circuit’s are usually around eight-miles long, and the races upwards of 60-miles. Unlike professional or european races, British road races are held only on the left side of the road, with traffic allowed to drive the other way.

That adds an element of danger and unpredictability and it’s the reason for the early starts and Sunday dates.

Naturally, the race spills over onto the right most of the time. Race marshalls on motorbikes, riding ahead of the groups, try to slow the traffic, and racers closer to the front shout a warning when a car is oncoming. This signals a last minute scramble at the back to get inside the white lines.

Thankfully, traffic is stopped before corners by the fantastic volunteer marshalls, to widen the corner, making crashes less likely. These races usually go without incident thanks to them, and the experience of the riders.

Towards the end of the race, voices in the bunch become muffled after over two hours of total focus, with the whooshing and whirring of aerodynamic wheels and clicking of gears a constant except for the high pitched whine of breaks at corners.

The bunch typically thins down as riders get dropped and are passed by the following convoy of the commosaire’s car - from which they off warn of issues and give time gaps through a speaker - some mechanics cars with spare wheels incase of punctures, and the ambulance at the back.

The finish line, just a line painted on the road somewhere otherwise totally innocuous, is typically crossed first by a breakaway that separates itself from the main field, with the bunch sprinting behind for minor places. It’s a natural feeling of relief when you cross the line, mixed with either deflation or elation depending on the performance. The adrenaline spike during the final sprint takes time to subside, it’s like re-adjusting to reality.

Sprinting for minor places was how my race ended on Sunday, with a large group ahead. Having not fully recovered from the brutal training camp in Mallorca last week, I was satisfied to beat some good sprinters to the line. I’m excited for the coming weeks, with results around the corner.

In the meantime, after rolling back exhausted to the village hall and handing back my number, it was time to recover. There’s the wild contradiction of cake waiting in the hall afterwards, which is almost as hard to resist as the race itself.

For more, follow Toby on twitter: @toby_cometsport

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