On Saturday, I made a trip up to Abingdon to race in a criterium – a bike race on a relatively short circuit which you ride around multiple times over the course of 40-50 minutes, with the aim of being first across the line at the very end. I’d chosen to do this race somewhat last minute as I’m on the hunt to qualify for a race in the US later this season. In order to do this, I need points, which you collect over the course of a season by placing in the top 10 riders. My goal was pretty simple: I needed to collect as many points as I could, so I wanted the win.

That said, I was also out to have some fun. Bike racing is a completely different beast to triathlon. While being strong is important, there’s also a lot of strategy, tactics and game-playing – since you’re riding in a big group, you have to be aware of what’s going on around you and what others are going to do, and how you’ll react. Plus, you get to use your bike handling skills – if you go into a corner jamming the brakes, you’ll be dropped by the women ahead of you who can pedal through the corner at full speed, or you’ll have to chase them down, burning a match you need later. So I showed up to the race which was at an RAF airfield, hoping for a win and guaranteed to have some fun.

It was a cold morning and felt somewhat grey, but luckily not too windy despite the impending storm. Bike races are generally low key affairs, and was very much the case. Sign-on is a quick process in a village hall or similar, you collect your race number, pin it on, and suddenly you’re ready to race. There are always some people warming up on rollers and making you feel inadequate for your lack of skill to be able to use those machines, so you try not to look and get yourself over to a bit of pavement to warm up the old fashioned way.  At this race, this meant speeding up and down the runway, and I had to try hard not to make airplane noises as I put in a couple of sprints.

After a few minutes of trying to make myself feel less cold, it was time to go to the start line. The women’s race was to set off one minute after the men’s, so we all lined up about 20 feet behind them. At this point I got to have a look at who was there: it was a full field of about 30 women, and worryingly I saw quite a few different teams there,  making me feel very much on my own. Although it made me nervous, I tried not to panic much, reminded myself of my own game plan, and waited to be called toward the line.

My tactics were pretty simple: do as little work as possible while still ensuring I was in the front part of the pack. This meant trying not to be the one on the front, taking all the wind, but still being up in the mix so that I’d have the ability to react should someone attack. This would hopefully result in two possible finish line scenarios: in one, it would come down to a bunch sprint where I had some confidence that I’d be able to get a top place; in the other preferred scenario, I’d get into a break and use my time-trial skills in a 2- or 3-up TT, knowing that my endurance would likely be good enough to hold it for a reasonable chunk of the race, and I’d probably be able to outsprint anyone I was with, or at least put up a good fight.

On the start line, after a few quick words to us about the race timing, the commissaire raised his hand to count down: 3, 2, 1 – and we were off.

I got off quickly, rushing to be toward the front of the pack as we entered corner number one. In my excitement, I ended up on the front to start, pedalling too hard and forgetting my race plan. Fortunately some riders came up beside me and I pulled myself back, regrouping mentally. The first couple of laps went fast. A few women dropped off the back pretty quickly as various riders tried to shoot off the front and test out mini-breaks. While my nerves and excitement urged me to chase these breaks down initially, I quickly realised I didn’t need to chase every time, as each mini break got caught within a minute. Once we’d settled in, I found I could sit second wheel pretty comfortably. Any time I ended up on front, I reminded myself to soft-pedal – no need to burn the energy, and no-one seemed to notice or mind. I tried hard to look around and notice what was going on. I saw two girls in matching kit have a quick chat, then drop back toward the outside of the pack before one surged forward, trying to take the girls on the front by surprise. Another racer kept going for solo surges with limited success, managing to stay away for a short time before we’d catch her again. As all this was going on, I kept checking, counting down the time, waiting to see if there’d be a chance to get away.

Luckily for me, this happened with ten minutes to go. Coming down the runway into a little headwind, I was toward the front and saw one girl on my left start to speed forward and make a gap on the group. I was on the right-hand side of the road and realised I had enough space between me and those around me to make a move without anyone being able to grab my wheel and reel me back in. So I stood up and sprinted after the other girl. As we approached the corner, I was still a couple of bike lengths away from her, but I had gapped the group behind me. I knew I could take the corner fast, faster than most of the others in the group, and leant in whilst pedalling hard, putting a bit more distance between me and the group.  Although I could feel the effort in my legs, I dug deep and pushed harder to get to the other girl. As we approached the start line, the commissaire shouted out three laps to go. All we’d need to do was time-trial in our pair through for three laps and we’d be 1-2. I finally reached her as we approached the corner out of the start line, and, with a quick look back, saw we still had a gap and it was growing,  I pulled up alongside her and we quickly agreed to work together. Off we went, sharing the burden with short turns on the front. “Three laps”, I said to myself, “I can do three laps”.

The weird part of being in a break is that you need to work with the people around you, but you also need to beat them in the end. So while we were taking turns putting down power to ensure we wouldn’t be caught, I also knew I needed to leave something for the last sprint. As we crossed the start line the final time, the bell ringing for our last lap, I looked back and realised the gap to the group had shrunk. We needed to push, and so we took a couple of hard turns each on the front. But as we approached the runway for the last time, it was clear we were safe.

Now was time to make sure I was well positioned for the sprint finish. We each took two turns on the front into the headwind, but I’d been lucky to be able to force her to take the final turn into the last corner. I knew this was my chance – I’d be able to drop off her wheel slightly, giving myself a little gap and space to take all my speed through the corner and slingshot off her into the finish sprint. Admittedly I was a bit tentative, and in another race this might have been my downfall. I suddenly let emotion get in the way, feeling bad that I’d played her somehow. Fortunately, I got over it, pulled wide of her and sprinted off to the finish line. I was pretty sure I had it – I could tell she’d been more tired than I had on the last lap but I didn’t dare look until I was safely across the line. I grimaced, caught my breath, and then finally smiled: I’d won my first race.

The end of a race is as low key as the beginning. The other girl from the break pulled up next to next to me and we had a quick chat, thanking each other for the work in the break. I then pedalled slowly back to Race HQ, handed my number back, bundled up and spun off, job done.

For anyone who thinks they might want to try a bike race, I’d highly recommend it. Although it might sound intimidating to ride in a fast group, bike races are usually hugely friendly affairs with various ability levels all out on the course. If it’s your first time, a good goal is just to hang onto the group as long as possible and try to make it across the line on the end, and there are almost always people racing who are new to the sport.

British Cycling has a list of all races on their site. A good series of crits in London, especially for women, are put on by Team LDN out at the Redbridge Cycling Centre, and usually include some race training with an excellent coach for an hour or so before the actual race. You can also join London Women’s Racing, which puts on a series of road races and time trials through the spring and summer where you’ll be guaranteed to meet like-minded women from novices to experienced racers who make racing approachable. Finally, Herne Hill has a women’s track league through the summer and runs women’s training through the year. It’s a different type of cycling, but the skills you learn on the track are invaluable, including pedal efficiency and smoothness which is directly applicable to triathlon! Most importantly, though, it’s all a lot of fun.