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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

Cycling Races, A Beginners Guide

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

road cycling in the hills

Wiggle Wiggle Wiggle:

After agreeing with a friend that I would partake in a cycling event with him in November my time had finally arrived. Apparently, we agreed to do the epic route of 75 miles, I did not recall this but signed up for it anyway. The epic route was the hardest one you could opt for, I was a little uncertain of my fitness mainly after my time off, but also due to my bike riding capabilities. 75 miles is a long way on a bike if you are a beginner. Regardless the 75-mile loop beckoned, three times as far as the short route which I would have been more than happy with.

Arrival and worries:

I had yet to ride on the roads with my cleats seeing as I would still fall off whilst trying to unclip. Therefore, I had deemed myself unsafe for taking them out in public. However, today was the day. Today I would ride around the roads of Kent with my feet strapped into my bike. I shall not lie, I was not looking forward to this. Not only worried about my lack of fitness, cleats and being run over but also my aching legs from two days' previous kickboxing session. It turns out two hours of kicking bags makes way for seriously delayed leg DOMS.

Lycra, lycra everywhere:

We pulled up to Lingfield Park Racecourse to be met by a sea of Lycra. Bright Lycra, revealing Lycra, much too tight Lycra, you name it and it was there. Normally, being the perv that I am, I love a man in tight clothes. However, there can sometimes be too much of a good thing!

Lycra meme

Wandering over to registration it was clear I might be out of my depth. Everyone had ALL the gear. Lycra, alien helmets, see-through specs, gloves, gel jackets, high viz, bum bags, snazzy socks, very expensive looking cleat shoes, padded bottoms with go faster stripes and VERY expensive looking bikes. *Side note, why do people insist on walking around for prolonged periods of time in their cleat shoes, clicking away on the tarmac? It is a tad irritating and they look like they are about to fall over.* Standing next to a man with all this gear whilst signing my life away he looked me up and down and questioned "the first time?". Clearly, I stood out like a sore thumb in my cotton leggings, Virus compression top and cheap Decathalon helmet.

Getting ready:

After explaining to the gentleman that I was in fact a well-versed cyclist who had covered over 5000 miles this year and would be completing the epic route I flounced off. All vicious lies of course.

Back at the car my friend, Adam, was sorting out his bike and getting ready. I faffed around and after 20 minutes was hot to trot, noting to myself I will have to be quicker getting ready at Iron Man transitions. It was chilly but not raining so waterproofs were left in the car. I was always warm during winter OCRs in this gear whilst being submerged in freezing lakes so a bit of rain would be no match for my Virus compression top... or so I thought.

Setting off:

Seeing as the race started from Lingfield Park Racecourse I asked to cycle around the parade ring a few times to make sure I was used to clipping in and out of my peddles. A bit wobbly at first I had a few attempts but no falling off. After calming my "being strapped to my bike on the road" nerves, we made our way down the parade shoot to the race course where the start line resided. Everyone started their watches, tom toms and other onboard computers. I merely clocked the speed hump on the start line and just worried about getting over that without taking the entire population of Lycra owners down with me.

Lingfield race course shoot
The shoot to the start of the race

We set off slowly at first and Adam explained that if you plan ahead at lights and junctions then you do not have to unclip you just drift along until it is clear to go. He stayed with me for the first 2 miles or so whilst I got the hang of this and then he disappeared.

Rain, rain and more rain

The first 5 miles were a bit hair-raising as it was raining an awful lot, making the roads slippery. Being the first time out on a bike in the rain I took my time to get used to my small movements equating to the bike sliding around bends with ease. On the first descent, someone had clearly not taken their time and had ended up in a pile on the floor at a bend. This provided a slight reality check that even experienced cyclists sometimes make mistakes. This made me feel a bit better (yes I am aware this makes me a bad person) and I cycled on confident that I had not yet fallen in a heap.

Initially, the rain was fun, I was enjoying going through puddles and splashing water everywhere. The majority of participants went around any water, looking at me in a strange way as I peddled through the streams at the side of the road giggling as the water splashed into my face. I soon learnt that puddles should be avoided as they conceal potholes, sometimes very large ones.

smiling cycling

As the miles went by the rain became heavier. Seriously regretting the life decision of no waterproofs I cycled harder to try and keep warm. Unfortunately, this was in vain. Warming up nicely from a steep climb would be met by long flat stretches and sharp descent making for a very cold and shivering cyclist.

Gradually becoming used to the slippery roads and gaining confidence in having my feet secured to the bike my speed increased. The few sessions at the cyclo park and on the watt bike had clearly paid off. I was overtaking people in full Lycra kit. People that looked semi-professional. I was no longer the girl at Coast to Coast who was trundling along at the back wanting to die, I was actually quite enjoying it. Largely this was down to the bike being a road bike rather than an MTB. However, everything was coming together. I was on a road bike, clipped in, during the rain and going a decent pace. Finally feeling like I am not 100% useless on a bike I sped past the short course and normal course divide, entering the 20-mile zone. It was here that the hills disappeared. Cruising around the roads with little effort I began to freeze and things started to go a bit pear-shaped.

Cycling Problems

The rain became torrential. I was shaking from being drenched through and my legs began to cramp when going downhills. Cursing myself for thinking that OCR gear would be appropriate for a cycling event I carried on less enthusiastically. On arriving at the food pit stop I saw Adam who also looked like a drowned, cold rat.

I put my bike on the floor (later noticing there were areas to hang your bike, but not really caring due to being in a bad mood) and ran over to stuff my face with Oreos and Jelly Beans. It was at that point I noticed that I had not eaten or drunk anything all morning bar a banana and a packet of fruit pastels. We made a decision at this point to do 50 miles rather than 75miles. Neither of us looked happy and we both were shaking. Truth be told my legs were a bit sore too!

After a brief 5-minute stop, I headed off again leaving Adam at the pit stop. He was fast so he would catch up. The food pit stop was directly on a junction to a small busy village. Where I had been standing still briefly my legs had gone heavy and a bit numb. I clipped in at the food stop exit and set off back to the road.

On approaching the village junction, out of the blue a car sped around the corner. In a panic I braked suddenly, putting one foot down onto the road. At least that is what would have happened if I had not clipped both feet in on my approach to the junction. Instead, I tried to put my foot down whilst it was clipped in and I crashed to the floor in a sideways heap in front of a group of Lycras. I was so cold I could not feel my legs so I just lay there in a heap.

"Are you alright dear?" Asked Lycra number 1

"I am fine thank you, it is in these situations a third leg would be handy" I replied (yes in hindsight this may have had other ways of being read) "Just stay away from me if you do not want to end up in a pile-up"

They looked slightly worried, confused, and amused and cycled off, clipping in with such ease. I had Lycra person envy. Dragging myself from the unladylike position on the floor I shakily hopped back onto my bike and left one-foot un clipped whilst cycling through the remainder of the village (in case of further surprise attacks from unsuspecting vehicles)

Hills, hills and more hills

Around half a mile after the pit stop, there was a hill, not any hill, a very steep and long one. The type of hill that you get to a bend and think you are done, only to see another stretch into the heavens. This hill was pretty steep to the point I had to cycle standing up for most of it. Plus point of the day, feeling much more confident with this! Every bend that revealed another climb I was a bit miffed at. The old legs were beginning to tire and the cramp was getting bad.

uphill cycling in the rain

Unfortunately, I am not the best at clipping in and out on the flat or downhill, let alone uphill. Not being able to build up enough speed to give me time to unclip meant I had to continue up this mammoth hill without stopping. Slightly panicking on bend 5, I felt trapped. I needed to have a break from the shooting pain up my right leg but if I stopped peddling I would inevitably fall over into the many cyclists around me. I wanted to cry a little bit.

A lady behind me clearly could see my attempts to unclip feet quickly and not quite getting there. "If you put the bike at a diagonal across the road and go down the camber your bike won't slow down as quickly so you can get your feet out without crashing" she explained as she went past.

I tried this, and it worked! I clumsily got one foot out and had a brief water and leg break. Adam caught up and went past which was a sign to carry on, I had the car key so couldn't be much further behind him for fear of him dying of cold. I sat waiting for people to go past me to have space to clip back in at a diagonal across the narrow road. A man shouted to me as he sailed past "use the camber to get your feet back in, it will help!". Turns out the camber in the road is the key to cycling life! After a couple of attempts, my feet went in and off I went. At the time I felt like these lovely people had saved my life.

Lay on McDuff

After hill gate number one there were a number of other hills just as steep and long, but now I knew I could stop on a hill if need be, I was a bit happier. My speed maintained a decent pace to the next route divided into the standard and epic routes. There was no way the epic route was happening, I resembled a vibrator that had been put in a freezer overnight and did not relish the thought of being out for much longer.

That being said, my confidence was growing the faster I went to try and keep warm. Corners were no longer an issue and downhills were getting progressively faster without me having the brakes applied all the way down (mainly as I could not feel my fingers). I was overtaking people that were cycling at a decent speed and I had even unclipped a few times without any of my usual sideways dives.

Sticky Situations

Pride before fall, that is the saying. Cockily weaving down the roads, speeding down hills and not caring about traffic anymore. It was at the 40-mile point I decided I had not gone through enough puddles recently. So I plunged into one, one covering a rather deep hole. The bike jolted over it, I had a rude awakening but we seemed to be unscathed. 30 seconds later the bike stopped and the tyre deflated. Fortunately, I had inner tubes and knew how to change them. However, I had forgotten a pump. Sat at the side of the road I contemplated walking the remaining 10 miles or so but decided that would require being cold for longer. So in true damsel in distress mode, I stood up and waved for people to stop.

Not a moment too soon a man stopped to see what was wrong. I explained I was fine but the bike might not make it. He chuckled at my dramatic approach and said it would be fine, he had a pump and helped me sort out the tyre. Changing an inner tube at the side of a road is a little different to the comfort of your own home. It was still raining, everything was sliding and covered in dirt, hands were shaking and numb, bits of equipment were in the mud and puddles and cars flew past spraying us with water.

tired cycling with buff on face to keep warm

It was not an enjoyable moment. My new friend, Drew, could see I was cold and quickly took everything off me and essentially did the repair work for me. A quick pump up and 50 thank yous later, I was off. "No more puddle surfing please" Drew jested as he vanished into the distance.

With my newfound hobby of road water dodging, I belted around the country lanes and villages trying to make up for lost time. So much so that I forgot to pay attention to route signs. A long time went by before I noticed I was very much alone. I started to worry a bit and actively looked for signs. None appeared for around 5 minutes. I assumed I had gone wrong as there had so far been signs every 100m so far. I turned around and retraced my steps. 10 minutes later I found a red route sign taking a sly exit off to the right. "You part of the Epic route?" one man asked as I rejoined the race. "Nope, I took a daydreaming detour" I replied. I made a mental note to pay attention to signs and to stop relying on other people.

When the shoe is on the other foot

Horses. They use the roads too. Something I am very aware of having ridden for 21 years. The worst thing is being on a horse that is safe but unsure of bikes and cyclists, especially when they tear past you turning your horse into a creature possessed. Once back on the race route I found myself in a group of cyclists going through Edenbridge. Up ahead I clocked a horse rider, immediately I thought to see how the horse was acting with cyclists further ahead. It seemed fine but a bit buzzy when a large group was going past. I started to slow down a bit but the group ahead of me ploughed on. The group reached the horse still going at some speed and the animal freaked out clearly not happy with 15 bikes flying past it at once. Frustrated by the total disregard of the cyclists, I dismounted my metal steed and walked past the horse.

Alas behind was another group of inconsiderate plebs who flew past as I was alongside the horse's hindquarters. The horse kicked out, missing me by a foot or so. Once they had passed I asked the woman if she was okay and she replied: "yes thank you, sorry for you having to get off but I do appreciate it, he is usually so good in traffic". I explained that I understood and it was people like that that give cyclists a bad name. Angry, I hopped on the bike and cycled up to catch up with the group.

Upon catching up with them I may have lost my temper... in my defence, I was cold and tired and close to being kicked by a horse (which is not fun) "I very nearly got kicked by that horse because you couldn't take the time to simply slow down and go single file. You do not own the roads."

Were they shocked? Were they angry? Did they argue back? I have no idea I cycled off before they responded.

A not-so-triumphant return

After horse gate, I cycled so fast in fear of the horse gate group catching up with me that the final 10 miles flew by (granted I was probably not going that fast in the grand scheme of things!). I noted the bridge from the start and I could see the racecourse up ahead through the bridge arch. HOME! The lights on the bridge went red, I slowed down planning ahead as advised by Adam at the start. My legs were so numb and cold by this point that I did not want to try and unclip. I timed it perfectly and sailed through a green light to the race course entrance. "Gosh, am I glad to see you!" I said to a marshal.

Mentally I was prepared for the finish line. I knew where it was and knew I had plenty of time to get my feet out of the peddles. Now I do not know what happened here. It may have been a combination of numb legs, seeing a very cold Adam at the finish line and preparing for a telling off or the happiness that I had finished. Chances are it was a combination of the three.

I clocked the medal women, I clocked the lady taking numbers and I saw the arch of the finish. I did not however take my feet out of my peddles. A smiling medal lady came up to me to present my medal and I began to fall sideways. I went to put my foot down, there was no ground. CLEATS EMMELIA!!!! I thought to myself. However, it was too late. After a few shakes to try and stay upright, a few leg twists to try and get my foot free in time and a mammoth eye roll, I was laying on the floor still attached to my bike. Thankfully there were lots of people at the finish line waiting for relatives to see me do this. I lay on the floor with the medal lady standing over me looking slightly panicked, people around me chuckling away. After the awkward floor wiggle, resembling an epileptic worm, to get my feet out of the peddles I got up, took my medal and went and found Adam. He had not been waiting long so I can't have been going too slow, especially with puncture gate, horse gate and getting lost.

Working at the car wash

After making myself cleaner and warm it was time to sort the bike out. I was ecstatic to hear that bike washes are a thing! Excitedly I took the bike back to the finish and saw all the soaps and suds for washing my bike down. "They really do think of everything at these events!" I commented. "This is standard" jeered some Lycra man. No longer so excited I watched him clean his bike to make sure I knew the appropriate way to wash it down so I would refrain from making an idiot of myself for the 50th time that day.

bike wash down station

Whilst the not-so-polite queen man washed his pride and joy I got chatting with a man next to me in the queue. General small talk about how the event progressed into the talk on it being my first time. I mentioned to him that I had improved a lot since September but I still do not understand how I can be going full speed, feeling like I am flying and people are still vanishing past me with ease. He explained that the idea is to keep your legs moving continuously in an even rhythm throughout the race and use the gears to keep that pace depending on the inclines.

If you learn to do this then it becomes easier to see how people keep a fast pace going up steep hills. They have worked in high gears on the flat and a high speed. They keep the speed but drop the gears to fit the inclines. So this is something I shall be trying.

cycling meme

I also asked him about temperature acclimatization as I was freezing one minute and fine the next. "Well if you do as I have just explained then you will be warm on the flat, slight declines and on hills. The downhills you just have to get over and done with as quickly as possible if you get cold easily" He explained.

Lycra man stopped cleaning his bike, I thanked the queue oracle and got to work singing "at the car wash" whilst making my bike spic and span.

In conclusion

A day of mixed emotions. A very well-run event, that for the most part, I enjoyed and any moment I did not enjoy it was due to my own fault, not the events. Having completed 50 miles in 4 hours that is a huge amount of time saved from Coast to Coast. Having a road bike and cleats clearly do make up a lot of time, however, I do like to think some cycling fitness and confidence improvements helped! I learnt a lot, and gained a lot of confidence and ultimately it was the shove I needed to get out on the roads cycling with my feet strapped to the peddles, nothing like a baptism of fire after all!

Lessons Learnt:
  1. Do not bite off more than you can chew. 75 miles is not a short cycle, especially after 8 weeks off. Many people dropped from the 75 miles to the 50 on the day, so it was clearly not going to be an easy ride.

  2. If it looks like it may rain it probably will! Be prepared and take waterproofs with you or you may suffer later on.

  3. Everyone makes mistakes, even the most experienced cyclist might go around a bend too quickly and come off.

  4. Take your time. If you are unsure of a bend, or the conditions then it is better to go slow and build up or you may end up like the lady who fell off.

  5. Puddle surfing is a bad idea. Puddles hide potholes.

  6. Road bikes and cleats really do make a huge difference to cycling on the roads over a mountain bike and normal trainers. I was a sceptic at first but no more after 2 hours of time-saving over 50 miles.

  7. Always have one foot unclipped at a junction until you have navigated all hazards. It will reduce the risk of falling over.

  8. Try to peddle resting one unclipped foot on top of the peddle in busy areas with potential hazards, you will be able to put your foot down quickly in an emergency.

  9. Music makes a difference! After being told I can not have music in Iron Man I decided that I need to start training without it. It was tough not having something to take my mind off the cold, pain and keep me from becoming bored.

  10. If you slow down an approach to traffic lights etc you might time it well enough to not have to unclip! HORAH!

  11. Drivers do not care if they kill you, be vigilant.

  12. More Lycra does not necessarily mean better cyclist, all the gear no idea...

  13. OCR/running gear is NOT a good idea for cycling, running you get much warmer quicker, and you are always moving to stay warm whether uphill or downhill. Cycling you are sat down and did not do a lot of activity on the downhills, so prep clothes-wise for this.

  14. Food and drink! Do not forget to fuel through a race!!!!! I need to learn to cycle one-handed really as this was an issue at this event.

  15. Cycling people can be inconsiderate, judgmental idiots at times, yes, but they are also friendly and enjoy offering helpful advice when they see you struggling.

  16. If you need to desperately unclip on a hill find a bit of it that is not as steep and go at a diagonal. The same applies to clipping back in, it is much easier on the diagonal or going down the camber.

  17. Standing upcycling makes hills a lot easier, it was well worth putting in the practice at the cyclo park for this

  18. If you get stuck and are female, flutter your eyelashes a bit, someone is bound to stop and help. Sorry womens rights activists!

  19. Pay attention to event route signs when there are no other cyclists around you have probably gone the wrong way

  20. Not all horses are bomb-proof, some hate bicycles and will try to kill you, slow down, and be courteous. Don't be a dickhead.

  21. Try not to rely on people for help, information or the route direction. Yes, I am learning but one day everything will have to be done on my own and can't afford to rely on others.

  22. Not everyone is as thoughtful as you on the roads, try to plan ahead as if the worst-case scenario will occur.

  23. Don't just be mentally prepared for the finish, be physically prepared or you will fall over.

  24. Try not to enjoy singing at the car wash when cleaning your bike down, many people will tell you to hurry up

  25. Leg movement through a race. Your leg speed should stay the same through a race you should use the gears to ensure your legs do not slow down.

  26. After wearing 5 layers of the scarf, hat and Dryrobe after the race and everyone else wandering around in wet Lycra I have decided that the cycling community has no feeling in their bodies - they are all lizards. That or Lycra is the warmest material known to man.

Organisation 8/10

Fun 6/10

Difficulty 5/10


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