Its 9pm in the evening and I’ve just been presented with a special pennant for my ‘outstanding effort’. The pennant is made of a silky fabric in white, with black text printed on it and it has blue tassels on the bottom edge. Some blue nylon rope is attached to the top of it, so it can be hung up, and in this case, on my recently established ‘achievement wall’. I got it for my position in the race.

The race is a weekday, evening criterium event and is part of the regional summer cycle racing championship. Riders from 3 local clubs can sign up to race. There are 30 riders on the start line. This is my first event like this and I am the youngest by a looooooooong way. There is a guest rider and he’s part of the Pro-Raleigh racing team. He’s dressed in that classic Raleigh black, red and yellow team kit and looks fast just sitting astride his bike on the start line. His smooth, shaven legs glisten due to the special sports embrocation he’s put on them. I used olive oil on my legs and it seemed to do the trick. My legs aren’t shaved because there’s nothing to shave, but still, its low maintenance for me.

The circuit is short and twisty and fast. Its held in one of the big city parks, so the road surface is super-smooth. The road is also quite narrow. I notice that one rider has pinned his paper race numbers onto his jersey, upside down, and he’s probably done it on purpose because he’s a bit of a joker. He’s also chatting up some girls in the start area as well. Most riders, including me, are wearing leather ‘hair net’ helmets, and some of them who don’t like wearing them said that they’ll take them off when the big group of riders spreads out, and it’s less dangerous.

The crowd is made up of riders families, their friends and some dog walkers that have stumbled upon the event by accident, but seem mildly interested. The 3 participating clubs have put some tables together and there’s a Tombola, raffle, some cycling books and some secondhand Campagnolo (Mmmmmmm) parts for sale. There’s also a used race bike for sale and I covet it, because it’s an Eddy Merckx bike and the wheel hubs have big shiny alloy flanges, with holes drilled in for lightness. It has 10 gears and mine has 5.

The race is 25 laps in distance. The race starter, who has obviously just come from work as he’s still wearing his ‘British Rail’ (it says so on the back in big letters), thick, donkey jacket, big boots and flat cap. He’s taking his job very seriously and is frowning at the group of riders. He whistles very loudly to get the riders attention. This whistle sets off one of the nearby dogs barking, which in turn, wakes up a baby in its pram and makes it cry. He continues to frown.

The frowning starter drops the flag and the race is on. I stay with the pack for the first 3 laps, then on lap 4, the speed picks up and there is an immediate gap which opens up between them and me, and one other rider. I feel good that I have a companion at the back. Unfortunately, he’s only at the back because he wasn’t paying attention to the race. As we start the next lap, a woman shouts at him to ‘get moving!’. He looks a bit humiliated and accelerates away from me. Apparently, the shouty woman is his Mum.

15 laps in and I’m getting lapped by the front, fast riders. Mr Raleigh is in there with them. I wonder how they can accelerate so quickly out of the corners. I get into a smooth, but slow in comparison, rhythm. I’m having fun. By lap 22, I think its lap 22 because I’ve lost count, there is an electricity and tension at the front of the race and by now, much advice is being shouted from some members of the crowd. ‘Hair net’ helmets are being discarded and thrown at friends and helpers on the start/finish line. I keep mine on.

I get lapped again by 6 riders, and as they take a corner about half a lap in front of me, there’s the sound of metal and bodies sliding and careering down the smooth and quite abrasive tarmac. I pass 2 of the fast riders who are now picking themselves up and sporting varying degrees of ‘tarmac rash’. I complete the lap and a bell rings to signify 1 lap to go. I get some encouraging shouts from the crowd. I can hear the race finish, but don’t see it. Apparently, a local rider has out-sprinted Mr Raleigh, so he’s tonight’s hero. I finish ‘my race’ and look around the riders for signs of fatigue. They don’t appear to be anymore tired than me. They were just a lot faster.

As the daylight starts to fade, prizes are handed out and the raffle is drawn, the Tombola finishes and I notice a rider pushing away his newly acquired, Eddy Merckx bike. Lucky, lucky boy!

Apparently, I finished 3 laps down on the winners. I cycle home slowly, with my hard earned pennant in my back pocket, and it takes about 20 minutes. On getting home, my Dad can’t believe that I got an award for coming last. Never mind, if winning is all he can do, then that’s fine, but I had a lot of fun tonight and I’m going to do it again!

The day finished with me eating half a thick, white sliced loaf of bread that was toasted, buttered and had loads of blackcurrant jam spread on each slice.

Photo by Jodie Wallace-Hill