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The flying doctor…

| Blog, Cycling Plus, Features | 02/04/2012 14:19pm

Andy Ward, former Team Cycling Plus member and our regular answerer of medical queries, took part in his first road race a couple of weekends ago. Good job he’s a GP…

I’m not a big fan of dentists. Don’t get me wrong, this is not some deep rooted inter-professional rivalry. It’s all to do with that feeling of helplessness, the whine of the drill, the inevitable burst of that horrible pain. Had I known that my first attempt at road racing would result in unscheduled trips to the dreaded dentist’s chair, I would have stuck to cafe runs or time trialling. It’s all very well being wise after the event of course. The first 24 laps of the Cat 4 Victoria Park Criterium in Leamington Spa were a blast, it was the final lap that made the more lasting impression.

I started road biking about 5 years ago. After giving up on mountain biking after another frustrating ride stuck in deep, sticky Rutland mud, I found myself addicted to the speed of skinny tyres on smooth tarmac. A stereotypical Mamil, I followed a familiar pathway – riding with mates before entering sportives of increasing difficulty and distance. A fantastic year as a member of Team Cycling Plus gave me the confidence to push myself a bit more. I joined Leicester Forest CC and started time trialling, I even rode in the National Hill Climb. Things were going well, but as 2012 approached I decided I needed a new challenge.

Road racing had always appealed to me, but I found myself intimidated by the thought of entering. Browsing the British Cycling calendar of events did little to reassure me. I found myself confused by cats (not the four legged furry ones I assumed) and race licenses – full, provisional or day? Rumours of aggressive riding, getting pushed off the track and crashes all conspired to make me think I should give it a miss. Last summer, a couple of lads from the club gave it try on the local motor racing track. They seemed unscathed, they said they enjoyed it. They weren’t changed into rude and arrogant monsters spoiling for a fight and criticising my cornering, they even carried on riding in the time trials. The club then decided to organise a summer criterium on the streets of Leicester city centre. If I wanted to enter that, I would need a bit of experience. I decided to take a deep breath and dive in.

As it turned out, cats were not feline, but short for categories and referred to the levels of experience and ability of the racers. As a newcomer I would be cat 4. It is possible to earn points by finishing in the top ten of races, eventually allowing you to move up the categories. A bit of research identified an early season, relatively local cat 4 race. The Victoria Park Criteriums in Leamington Spa. I contacted Steve Hesketh to check whether it would be suitable for me. He told me that when selecting entries he tended to favour novice riders from the region and that the race was a great way to start my racing career. One of the forumites on the Leicester Forest website was similarly enthusiastic, “Viccy Park Crits, a rite of passage, been there done that, great fun” although there was a warning note, “the sound of crunching carbon still rings loudly in my ears.” Conveniently ignoring that last bit, I got my entry in.  This turned out to be much more straightforward than I thought, the British Cycling website allowing online entry and directing me to the correct membership level and type of race licence. I decided to go for the free “provisional” licence with my Silver Race membership in case I decided that it wasn’t for me.

Confirmation came through and I prepared for race day. I took some advice from local pro-rider Rob Orr. “Just try and stay near the front really and do some efforts to cope with the changes in speed” – he made it sound so easy!  I made my way to Leamington Spa with Robin, a clubmate and seasoned racer with two previous events under his belt. The sun was shining on Victoria Park and after signing in at the pavilion and picking up our race numbers,  we rode a few laps of the circuit to get a feel for it. First impressions were good – pan flat, with no obvious pot holes and no dramatically sharp corners. True the bend next to the dog-poo bin was a bit tricky, but on my warm up laps and with the track to myself, I was able to go round at speed without recourse to my brakes.

My adrenaline started to rise as we gathered on the start line with barely room to wiggle my front wheel. After a brief introduction from the commissaire, a wave of the flag and we were off. It wasn’t the most auspicious start. Perhaps it was down to nerves, but try as I might, I could not engage my cleat into the pedal. My best laid plans of staying at the front were turned to dust as 39 of the total field of 40 riders pulled away. Eventually I felt the familiar clunk and hammered it up to the back of the bunch. The pace was frenetic and I thought I would never be able to work my way forwards.

After a few laps though, I started to settle and began to find gaps, moving further and further up the field, eventually finding myself near the front group. Everyone was riding so close together, there was little margin for error and no chance of checking the Garmin to see how fast we were going (although a later upload revealed an average of 25mph with a maximum of 33!). Shouts of “hold the line” preceded every corner and whilst there were a few wobbles, everyone seemed to be staying upright with no hint of the aggression or wild riding I had been worried about. I was starting to enjoy this. Keeping tucked into the bunch, it was surprising how fresh I felt despite the speed. The laps were counting down remarkably quickly. I even managed to get myself into an (albeit short-lived) breakaway. Why had I waited so long to get into this? This was brilliant!

With 8 laps to go, the pace eased a little and I let myself drop back a bit for a breather, to try and save some energy for the finish. That turned out to be a mistake. As we entered the last 4 laps the pace picked up again and I found myself too far back. Spotting a few gaps I started to gain on the leaders, but rode past the bell and into the final lap further back than I had hoped. Everyone started to ride harder now, but I still managed to keep overtaking – I wasn’t going to be challenging for a win, but I wanted to finish as high as I could. As we approached dog-poo bin corner I found myself in a decent amount of space and started to wind up for a sprint. As we exited the bend, there was a shout, a rider wobbled and to my horror, came down right in front of me.

Andy's stopping endo is impressive...

If you’ve ever crashed your bike you will be familiar with the way that time slows down. I saw the rider sprawled in front of my wheel and tried to steer to avoid his legs, hitting his bike in the process. The fear of broken bones rushed through my head as I sailed through the air, but it was the crunch of breaking teeth that greeted my reacquaintance with the tarmac as I landed face first. Lying dazed and in less pain than I probably ought to be, I could taste blood and felt decidedly sick. As far as I could ascertain I had no broken limbs, but a quick exploration of my mouth revealed at least one broken tooth and three very wobbly ones. The St John’s Ambulance were quick to arrive and I was informed that I was sporting a 2 inch gash on my chin. At that moment, cycling suddenly seemed very unattractive and it felt like a mixed blessing to be told that my bike was unscathed, as the first-aider handed me a fragment of my tooth that had somehow got stuck in my helmet. The lack of feeling in my face was concerning me and I was relieved when a work colleague, Andy Delaney, who had come to watch the race, offered to take me back to Leicester and to hospital. Unbelievably, my club mate Robin had also been caught up in the crash and captured the whole thing on his handlebar mounted camera. You can watch the clip on You Tube– I appear in the video after about 1:45 minutes, overtaking from the right in a black jersey (number 40). Follow my progress to see my impressive faceplant , but be warned, your toes may curl.


Back in Leicester I needed 15 stitches in my chin and have got to wear a brace for a few weeks to hopefully save my front teeth (I fortunately had the presence of mind to straighten them as I lay on the ground immediately after the crash). I look like I might have gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson – not the most reassuring appearance for my day job as a GP. I think the incident has put me off road-racing, but have to confess to a few “what if” thoughts as time goes by – maybe there’s a track without a dog-poo bin corner.  If I can just conquer my fear of dentists…

You can follow Andy on twitter



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