For a second year The North London Thunder-Cats Black Metal Bicycle Club (or NLTCBMBC) organised THUNDERCR⚡️T II; a fixed gear criterium race. Only this time it took place in the Olympic Velopark. Unfortunately, I missed the first THUNDERCR⚡️T so I was determined to attend this year, in fact I was lucky enough to lend a hand and get involved as a marshal. Although at times I may have let my new found enthusiasm for bicycle racing get the better of me and ended up cheering the riders more than one hundred percent marshalling.
Over the last year, or maybe more, I have been flirting with the idea of racing bikes. If you know me at all you'll know that I enjoy bicycles but if you know me better than most you'd also know of my competitive streak. As I've gotten more 'involved' in road and track bikes I've found myself – or often put myself – in small unofficial race scenarios; this could be racing the last lap of Regent's Park on Saturday mornings, taking a 'bunch riding' exercise too seriously during a track accreditation or even trying to outpace mopeds off the lights during my commute. This has caused me to seriously think about committing to getting involved in racing proper. I obviously enjoy the thrill of competing so why haven't I raced before now, why not compete for real?
I believe my hesitation comes from my competitiveness which raises the fear of not living up to my own expectations of myself or others – of failing. I'm not sure of it's origin; but whenever I start to enjoy something, I will often feel a growing pressure not to fail at it. If this activity involves competition it means beating others, but for me, my competitiveness is more internal. It's not about beating the other participant, time or score, it's about avoiding that failure. The more I enjoy something, the greater my fear of failing at it. So considering my love of bicycles; the idea of failing is pretty terrifying.
I've always [previously] imagined that lining up at the start of a race would be the quickest way to realise that failure. So I have avoided racing bicycles all together. But as I talk to more racers, riders and involved individuals I have opened up to the idea that racing to succeed or fail isn't the way for me to approach racing. I should be approaching racing for fun. That doesn't mean I wouldn't be putting maximum effort into the race, my competitiveness wouldn't allow me not to. But I should remember that the core reason I want to race is to experience that thrill, the fun of racing, rather than letting the fear of failure dictate me.
So with my newly adjusted, increasingly open attitude towards racing – plus having missed last year's race – I volunteered to be a marshal with the underlying objective of checking out how much work I had to do not to be dropped within the first couple of laps. I may have opened up to the idea of racing for fun but there was still the fear of complete failure. Baby steps.
That was the plan: get involved in the scene but mostly judge 'the competition.' The idea that I would be competing at one of these events already gave me nerves and I wasn't even pinning on a number. Chatting to Jon [the man from NLTCBMBC with a megaphone] via email started to put me at ease, he seemed to share my enthusiasm for bicycles (obviously) but also my enthusiasm for a beer or two. As a club/team/collective NLTCBMBC take a different perspective on racing; they're there to compete but they recognise that riding bikes should be fun, and teamed with good times and pizza. Perfect.
After the pre-party at Dark Arts Coffee I was excited for race day. Everyone in attendance was excited, enthusiastic about bikes, riding them and more importantly everyone was welcoming and friendly. I too readily assume a negative stereotype of bike racers – that they are elitist and have no interest in talking to a new face with no racing experience let alone any notable results. But as I opened up about my reservations I was met with a smile and a consistent reply of, 'Just get involved! Racing is really fun!' Many of the responses came from modest individuals who defied their modesty the next day by putting on a display of blistering pace once on the track.
Race day; and after dragging a few barriers around, walking the track and being handed a radio & flag (the marshals tools of choice), it was race on. During the first qualifying heats I was feeling good about my limited training; sure I could do with improving my base fitness but I felt I could mix it up in the bunch and hold my own at least. But when the flag dropped on the finals I was aware of how much work I had to do.
The pace in both the men's and women's finals was seriously impressive. I was stationed at turn three, a wide sweeping turn at slow speeds but at race pace it became a knee down thriller. As a marshal it made me nervous as running wide on the corner could quickly introduce riders to the boundary fence with little small talk. Quickly though I was at ease; the riders were leaning their bikes over, sweeping through the apex and exiting all whilst communicating constantly with each other about where they were and letting each other know if things were getting a little close. All of this whilst riding track bikes with fixed gears and no brakes. I am often frustrated with comments from passers by when I am riding my track bike, 'no brakes, are you mad?!' or 'isn't that really dangerous?' Of course, stepping onto a bicycle that has no brakes that won't allow you to stop pedalling seems a little absurd from the outside, but spend some time on a track bike and you build an understanding between bike, the rider and the road. You're aware of each undulation, each bend, each pedal stroke and you quickly learn to pre-meditate situations and learn to better react to them. I am often find myself riding with a much greater flow on my track bike rather than my road bike, so it's frustrating when riding it is dismissed as lunacy. Despite this, I felt the words 'madness' and 'insane' leave my mouth a few times. The riders skill and ease of laying their bikes over at 40kph whilst the pedals are still spinning, clearing the asphalt by millimetres was awe inspiring.
My awe turned to excitement as the lap count ticked over. I got lost in the racing, bellowing at the riders as they whipped around my corner – I hope they realised that it was coming from a place of support, as my shouting was quite ‘emphatic’ at times. At one point I wondered if they might want to have a few words with me at the after party after insisting they ‘dig deep’ towards the end of the race; I would have been ‘off the back’ long before that point but desperately didn’t want them to lose contact themselves. One thing I love about bike races is there is far less tribal fanaticism than in other sports. Sure you’ll have your favourite riders, or your friends might even be racing, but quickly you will root for the brave attaquer off the front or the rider struggling to stay in contact off the back of the bunch. I was cheering for both, and everyone in between. The finals flew by, quite literally, and soon I was making my way to the start/finish line , actually unaware of who won the main events but with a smile beaming from ear to ear. Over the course of the event I had learned a few things; that I really do love bicycles and the people that they attract, that I have a lust for racing my bicycle and a desire to overcome my fear of failure and finally; that I have a fair amount of training to do before THUNDERCR⚡️T III.
Words & Pictures — Jack Sadler