'Cross Diva to Road Race Novice; No Going Back Now

words: Morven Brown

photos: Mark McGhee

Morven Brown discovers there’s more to bike racing than mud and knobbly tyres: from Cyclingcross Diva to Road Racing novice, the learning curve has been huge but she’s discovered that she’s more than just suited to it: she loves it!

Morven and road bikes; the road ahead?

I’ll be honest with you – if you cut my arm off, my blood would run as mud, such is my love of mountain biking and knobbly tyres. My road bike is a means of transport, I view it in a similar way that others might view their car, or a train, or a bus. Put simply, it’s a method of getting from A to B, a fun one at that, but nothing more than a transport option. It’s not that I disagree with the concept of road racing, or riding on the roads for ‘fun’, it’s just not something that I’d ever been into.

I got my first road bike in 2005; I was on the Scottish Youth Talent programme and a requirement was training on the road and road bikes at training camps. So we picked up a reasonable road bike second hand from a chap at my dad’s work. I knew very little about road bikes at the time, with their drop bars, skinny tyres and funny geometry, and the resulting bike was too big, uncomfortable and lay neglected in the garage for years. It got me around to commute, but it was never ‘the choice’ of bike for a Sunday morning saunter. Buying the female-specific cyclocross bike in 2011 was something of a revelation. All of a sudden I had a bike which made road riding possible – with ‘cross knobbly tryes on, obviously! My road miles upped as I commuted to work, and occasionally went out with friends on a road ride. The mountain bike was still the first choice steed, and the thought of putting skinny tyres on the ‘cross bike sent me reeling!

Peigi Seriés (ERC) drives the bunch; one lap in the bag, seven to go

This year, however, that has all changed. I’ve been on a self-styled ‘Operation: Give Something Back.’ It’s essentially a cheesy way of saying that this year I am now coaching others instead of training myself, and I am organising events rather than competing in them. By happy conincidence, this year Scottish Cycling and Dales Cycles (my two vested interests) have launched the Scottish Women’s Road Race Series. Having been a racing cyclist for over a decade now and a female…well, all my life!.. I know as well as anyone the challenges faced by female cyclists to find events that you can feel equal in, or that you know you’ll get a reasonable entry field and a good chance of wheel to wheel racing. I’m not necessarily a fan of the ‘use it or lose it’ mantra, however, I do feel some responsibility to ensure that events are well attended. What’s more, when the challenge was put to me at work that I should do a road race, I wouldn’t want to be chicken now, would I?

Like ripping off a plaster, the night of the launch I entered the first round of the series in Glasgow; if I didn’t do it then I knew I never would. The month that followed was a crash-course in things not to do in a road race. I had never really ridden in a group previously, save for one chain-gang. To put it politely, I was absolutely terrified about that! I attended a women’s road race training day and picked up lots of tips, and asked a lot of daft questions! I quickly learnt that in a road race, you don’t really stop to change a puncture, there was this bizarre concept of a neutralised start, there would be cars and what-not on the road too, and, if you’re going to crash, it’s going to hurt!! I worked with friends who taught me how to go around corners on the drops – a totally alien feeling to me. And, in the biggest change of all, I even put the dreaded skinny roadie tyres on the bike.

Peloton cornering; new skills learned

In the weeks leading up to the race, I managed to get a few pre-rides out around the course. It was a five mile loop, of which we would be doing eight laps. In essence it was pretty flat, with a few short slants before and after the two roundabouts around which it circulated. The surface was good, there was one lumpy section I knew I had to avoid, and other than that it would be a case of hanging on and not sliding out on a roundabout.

Eventually race day rolled around and it was a good mixture of excitement and nerves. It had been over five months since my last race of any sort, so getting myself into race mode was quite challenging and I certainly over-packed my race bag to compensate! At the race HQ, almost 40 girls got themselves organised – some of the semi-pro girls on rollers and turbos; some, like me, going for a wee spin on the roads, and others just laughing with friends. Racing in Scotland truly is such a social occasion, there are no prima-donnas or egos. It’s a bunch of girls, meeting up with friends and having fun on their bikes, with a little bit of serious racing thrown in! As I got prepped to head down to the start my friend Sophie (who had dared me to do the race in the first place) gave me three bits of advice: “Don’t stop pedalling, don’t forget to use your drops and have fun!”

Close cornering with Anne Ewing (thebicycleworks.com)

After the six-mile ride down to the start line, we stood and listened to the rider briefing. I was now petrified!! The ride to the start had been lovely and leisurely, and my first experience of bunch riding at that! We all massed together by the start line, and headed off down the road during the neutralised start. Which went on and on and on… Rounding the first roundabout I turned to my friend beside me, “So when does the race start, is it after the first lap do you think?” “Em, Morven, it has started, this is the race!” So I had officially started my first ever road race! With a whoop I had a little wobble, and quickly learnt Road Riding 101: always, always pay attention to where you are going! I was enjoying myself, it wasn’t raining and I found myself about to stick with the bunch.

The attacks came quick and fast at the front with Rebecca Nixon of Deeside Thistle CC challenging on every slight climb. The pace rose and fell as riders pushed then eased back. I hadn’t been sure what to expect, but I stuck in the middle of the pack, trying to keep myself out of any trouble and doing my best to watch the front for the next surge in pace. I felt good, I could keep up with the big guns, and even had the energy to stick my tongue out at my friends in the timing tent as I passed! As we came around on our second lap, the ‘big’ names made a move from the back of the bunch, where they had been conserving energy, to take charge at the head of the race.

Sticking with the bunch as they make their first pass

Mid-way round the third lap it felt very quiet, too quiet. I snuck a quick peek over my shoulder and almost fell off my bike in fright – we had dropped almost half the pack, and I was now sat at the back of the bunch! A lack of experience led to a wee panic as I didn’t know what to do in that situation – did I push towards the middle of the pack, charge to the front, or just conserve energy and await the inevitable.

The race leaders rounding the turn at the northern end of the circuit

Swinging wide around the top roundabout, the elastic snapped, I missed the break at the front as the attack caught me unawares, and as a result I missed the second group, which contained the girls that before the race I had been hoping to stick with. Damn, damn, damn. I’d been told repeatedly that on the roads, you did not, under any circumstances, want to end up riding on your own. And here I was, on my own out the back of the bunch, with little clue of how to ride a road race. What’s more, just at that point the heavens opened.

Chasing hard before linking up in a useful trio

The rain was like heavy bullets, hammering down, causing spray and soaking riders to our skin. Given the conditions, it would not have been surprising to see riders pulling out or easing up – to their credit, almost all riders finished and even picked up the pace as the rain fell. Why was I considering road racing as something so special, so unique, so different? It was, afterall, racing. And racing is what I do. I put my head down and powered on, even if I couldn’t catch the girls in front of me, I was determined not to let the girls behind pass me. By my ropey calculations I had hoped at that point that I may be top-30, and I would definitely take that. I kept my pace up and whizzed through puddles, with drops falling from my pigtails. Looking up I saw a lone rider, Carole Dick (Stirling BC) dropped from the bunch, and knew if we worked together we would be stronger. Catching up, we started taking turns, picking up the pace some more. As we picked up triathlete Donna McHugh (Fusion Triathlon), we had a strong unit of three, and powered on through the laps, though never quite closing the gap to the second group on the road ahead of us.

Learning to handle different kinds of obstacles in road-racing

Two laps to go and I was physically exhausted. Not having raced for months I had lost that top-end speed and was perhaps paying for sticking with the bunch for so long. I sucked down a gel and took a stiff dose of ‘Man-Up.’ It was time to dig in to the finish. Whirling around the bottom roundabout for the last time, my green-ness to road racing showed again. I had done some sprint training – I knew I could sprint for 200m... that was without 36 miles in my legs though! Leading my wee group of three up the climb from the roundabout, all the speed just fell out my legs. Swinging past me, the other two girls made their push to the finish, leaving me to drag myself across the line. I finished totally spent but thrilled. I could update that status in my head from ‘I have started a road race’ to ‘I have finished a road race.'

Race winner Dani Christmas (Speg-Project 51) leads the sprint for the line

As we laughed and spun our legs back up to the race HQ it was a great chance to catch up with the other girls who had been racing. I was astonished to hear how early some riders had been dropped, ones that I thought were pretty fit too; perhaps I hadn’t done too badly then. It was a great opportunity to congratulate the other girls on their exploits and discuss just how slippery those roundabouts got when it rained!

Another new and exciting concept of road racing for me is the post-race sandwiches and teas, which, people tell me, are essentially mandatory. I was thrilled to discover at this event that it was Pakora and Lorne Sausage baps – feed me and I’m a happy lassie! Settling down and checking out the results, I turned to Sophie in disbelief, “Did we do enough laps? Are you sure? We really did eight laps?” I had figured it would be a two-hour race, at the very least. I was finished in 1 hour 36 minutes, a little over 5 minutes behind the winners, having averaged a speed of 23mph for the race. And, even more astonishingly, I had finished in 20th place!

Elated to have completed my first road race!

In less than a month, I have gone from being a complete and utter novice on the road, having never even considered entering a road event, to performing reasonably well, if I do say so myself, in a National standard event. I was riding on an alloy cyclo-cross bike, using mountain bike shoes and pedals, with a 46 as my biggest front gear ring. I was about as unprepared as they come; however, at the end of the day, it’s racing. As long as you’re going forward, and you’re going as fast as you can, you’ll get to that finish line one way or another.

Now that I’ve entered the third round of the series, perhaps I had better kit myself out…

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