This was the race that gave me the confidence to go out and hang it all out on the race course.
It all started by mistake, in a testosterone fuelled bit of start like banter: Standing with a couple of the fast guys from my Thursday night work ride, Rich Penning aka "fast Rich" asked what my tactics were. Without hesitating, I answered "set off at the front and see how long I can hold on". So that's what happened!
A mile or so in, it seemed to be paying off. It was hard work at the front, no surprise there, but we'd broken clear of the pack and, with the SDW laid out in front of us, I was holding the wheels of Rob Lee and Charlie Eustace, who had made the event theirs in recent years with a hat full of top 3 finishes between them, along with the rider who won the event the year before. And then I got a puncture!
Fifteen minutes in and I was plumb last. This was not what I planned. I was having a great time though, and I stuck to my hang it all out there plan and set off, determined to have a good ride. I soon caught, and then dropped, Trevor Allen of USE/Exposure, maybe this wasn't going to go so badly after all.
The next phase of the race is a season highlight every year for me. Riding over Firle Ridge, the race heads directly into sunset and you get to see it from the top of the world, the South Downs sprawling into the horizon straight in front of you, the sea to your left and the wooded Weald of Sussex to your right. Magic.
Two hours in and I reached the first checkpoint. I asked where I was. Had I made the top 10 I wanted to know. Imagine my surprise when I was told I was 3rd, about 5 minutes off Rob and Charlie! Bottles full I set off, determined to catch them and see what would happen next. What seemed like forever later I caught Charlie. He'd punctured. Satisfied he was OK to continue as I passed by, I pressed on. I could see Rob's lights.
At the 2nd check point I was told I was only 90seconds down. I pressed on and managed to catch Rob on the steep climb up out of Washington. After a little cageyness, when we were both satisfied neither would attack we settled down and started to chat. Rob was great, really helpful and encouraging and, as someone just starting out, his advice and encouragement were really appreciated, specially as we were actually battling for the lead of a race!
My legs felt good so I thanked Rob, climbed out of the saddle and pushed hard. Not long after I hit the 3rd checkpoint, who were more than a little alarmed to see a stranger roll in first, not Rob or Charlie! However, I realised I knew nothing about pacing, eating etc. so, seeing their BBQ on the go, stopped for a burger and waited for Rob, deciding it best to work with him rather than try and fight him, although I almost missed him when I went back for extra onions!
We rode on together enjoying the night and the company. Then, disaster, with less than an hour to go I got a 2nd puncture. I set Rob off and set about fixing it. No sooner had a thrown a tube in and stamped on the pedals to try and catch Rob and my chain snapped. It turns out I had bent the chainrings and twisted two links, but I couldn't see this in the darkness. Charlie passed me and, desperate to get my bike going again, I bodged it into a 44:32 singlespeed gear and set off, desperate.
That last hour was horrible, I was so angry with my bike and unable to try and catch the two riders in front. However, as soon as I crossed the finish line, any negative feelings were immediately swapped for elation. The 4th placed rider was still some way back (about 40mins as it turned out!) and I had come 3rd, pushing Rob and Charlie hard all the way. This was a massive achievement for me.
Chatting to Rob, Charlie and Mike Cotty who had only hours before broken the South Downs Double record I knew I had just had a great experience. This is where I wanted to be I decided.
I had arrived!
I also achieved my first web based fame, when Rob Lee, who won the race that evening, mentioned me as "the other Rob" in his post race report that made it onto British Cycling and a few other cycle websites:
Click Here To Read Rob's Report on British Cycling
Also published on iride.co.uk