There are times when I wish that I had started racing bikes way younger… maybe then I wouldn’t be chasing upgrades in my mid-30’s. Make no mistake, I did have bikes when I was younger but they were seen purely as vehicles to get to and from the local shop and the occasional rip around the block. They were never really raced and rarely if ever looked after.
My earliest memories of bikes also generally include some degree of pain. Like the time when I was pegging it downhill on my BMX and trying to avoid a stray football I veered off-road and straight into an innocent 4 year old. Or the time I hopped on my brothers then enormous Raleigh Mustang. Thinking I was Stephen Roche I rode it full gas into a corner but without turning and straight into a kerb crushing my nuts on the crossbar. Is it any wonder I was mentally scarred by these experiences? (Fortunately, I’ve two kids to prove there was no lasting physical damage!)
When I was younger I always wanted to be one of those kids who could pull wheelies, bunny-hops and skid sideways without taking half the skin off their legs. Unfortunately, hands off the bars was about as far as I graduated.
I still can’t wheelie. Any attempts have been lame and the idea of a 35 year old trying to practice his wheelies is a bit pathetic. I’ve had a few skids but they’ve been purely functional and not for style. I think I can bunny-hop but I have not needed to pull this one out in a race so it’s yet to be tested. The kids I really admired were those who were fearless and would throw themselves downhill and around corners without a care in the world.
I still admire these kids. Wheelies and Bunny-hops won’t really help me win a race but being able to corner at speed would definitely improve my chances. Being able to cruise around corners in the drops without brakes makes the race easier as you don’t have to constantly put the hammer down coming out the other side. I know myself that my cornering and descending can be a bit over cautious at times.
Sometimes I’m fine and have no issues. Other times I feel I’m turning corners like a bus and on descents I’m eyeballing any pebbles on the road like they are landmines ready to take me out at high speed. A friend suggested cyclocross to improve bike-handling but that just resulted in me spending most of my time either falling off the bike, struggling to clip back in or cornering even more slowly through cold mud and dirt.
When I saw there was a Criterium in Armagh I thought “Perfect, an hour and 3 laps ripping around the block” just like the old days. A chance to finally overwrite those horrid childhood bike scars and improve my cornering at the same time. Call it an hour’s therapy session. 20 laps x 4 corners = 80 chances to get it right!
I didn’t know what to expect and a few warm up laps of the course did little for my confidence. The last corner was a hair-raiser, a seriously quick descent into a tight left hander that looked to have been repaired about 900 times by the council. It had pot-holes, man-holes, three varieties of tarmac and a traffic island thrown in for good measure. At the start I tried to convince myself it would be fine, ”take it handy the first few laps and by the time you get to the finish you’ll be well used to it…”. Nobody else got the memo and the first 15 minutes were so flat out that we went through the corners without having time to even think about them.
To keep things lively there was a sprint prime on the 20-minute lap. A lad went bombing down the descent throwing himself into the turn only to end up sliding out and almost taking out a photographer. A stark reminder to take it handy.
At this stage though the race had settled nicely into a bit of a rhythm. First corner – out of the saddle and sprint up-hill, second – glide around at pace, third – watch for lads chopping up the inside and last – take it wide and hope for a decent line. Rinse & Repeat…
In the final laps a few heroes decided to try pull clear but they were all reeled back in. Coming into the last corner I was a few places back and got a perfect view of how to take a corner at speed. A local guy, who clearly knows every crack and crevasse on the road, rides to the front, into the drops and cuts through the corner as if he was on rails. He’s in, out and already sprinting for the finish by the time the rest of us get around the turn. A masterclass in cornering with confidence. I finish 9th, turning much better and safe in the knowledge that there’s at least 4 corners in Armagh City Centre that I’m good at.