Driving up the M9, a rainbow appears from the murky Scottish Day as I listen to hyper pumping tunes on Radio 1 on the way to Balfron. Balfron is the HQ for the Lake Feminine APR, a women’s only handicapped road race. While I have lost count of how many sportives, triathlons, half marathons and 10ks I have completed, this is the first cycling road race I have ever entered. Why, as I near the age of 40, am I putting myself through this? Well a few reasons. Firstly, I want support the drive to develop women’s cycling in Scotland. Secondly, I am hoping to lead by example to encourage other novices to enter. Lastly, plain curiosity, to find out how I compare and what it is like.
It’s about 7 degs C with a constant fine drizzle keeping everything damp. At registration I try to ignore that fact the most of the competitors look 10 years younger than me. There’s the normal last minute phaff over what to wear before I meet up with Debbie for the 4 mile ride to the start. It's a nice warm up but you sense the pre-race nerves as groups of riders go flying past in silence. I didn’t want to rush to get to the start only to get cold again. So Debbie & I just stick to our own steady pace and time our arrival to perfection. Debbie is my club mate and fellow committee member from the West Lothian Clarion. This is Debbie’s first event ever – not even a sportive or 10k to her name. This is a fantastically brave move, especially with the race being in March, straight out of another fairly harsh winter.
At start, a layby on the roadside, we are arranged into our groups. There are four groups, arranged by ability. Group 1 has a 4 minute head start on Group 2, who has a two minute start on Group 3, who in turn leave 2 minutes before the last group. 39 women are entered in total.
As novices, Debbie & I are in group 1. We have a discussion in our group how we will arrange ourselves. We decide on the classic chain gang in an anticlockwise direction. This means we ride two abreast, with the outside riders moving up faster and pulling over to the left in front of the first rider. The next rider following behind and does the same, while at the back the last rider pulls out in behind the last rider on the right so we all move in a circular motion. This will give us a faster speed as each rider only has a short amount of hard slog and then will recover in the group once back on the inside.
However, this plan doesn’t eventuate as the group falls to bits right from the off. Some riders just take off too fast (or are we too slow?) and others are a long way behind. Debbie and I work hard to try to catch the front riders to form a group as the others are not catching us from behind. Stuck in no-mans land, we experiment with taking turns at the lead and soon begin to ride really well as a two woman team. Group 2 goes past. We try to catch their back wheels but inadvertently caught the tail-enders who had fallen off the back so miss catching the main group. Once we hit the first roundabout and we realise we can’t catch them we just keep working out our pace as a team. A few minutes latre and riders from Group 3 come through. Then, just before the first climb, along comes the train that is Group 4. We stick with Group 4 for a bit on the first climb but as we crest the hill we lose them.
The middle section is just the two of us for quite a while. My demons start to come out and I have to confess to feeling a bit down at being passed by so many girls. But I concentrate on my riding, banishing those pesky demons, until we catch up with another rider and form a team of three. We yell to a girl who is abandoning to come with us but she doesn’t look best pleased. We get a really good chain gang working and get a good speed up. A few miles on we see another rider in the distance but can’t catch her on the flat. Finally we catch her and then three becomes four. We work together on the next section which has a few ups and downs and a long drag uphill. At times the group falls to bits, as we each have our strengths and weakness. And we all show signs of tiredness at different sections. But we try to bring it back together. I really start to enjoy the race now as it is this team working that I love.
Debbie is flying now and has managed to pull ahead. You GO GIRL! is what I am thinking. Normally I’d be a bit jealous but somehow you are quite please when it is your team mate getting ahead. But after a couple of miles Debbie takes the wrong turn and, due to the time lost, is back with us. At this stage I am feeling knackered and realise I need some fuel. I eat what is left of my energy bar and a few minutes later start to get some strength back. After what seems an endless piece of A road we hit a roundabout and are directed to Balfron. I can sense the charge for the finish line now. We hit the bottom of a climb so I take my gel and the last of my drink, and start to push harder. I look down on my frame and see my Livestrong sticker “I ride for Ellen Orr (Mum)”. Thinking of my Mum’s battle with cancer I dig deeper for Mum. Last turn I sense the end is near. I take advantage of the turn to drop my group but am soon bought back into the fold. Down to three and then it’s just me & Debbie again. We ride together until the last climb when I give it all I’ve got to the finish line.
Back at HQ it’s time for tea and cake. There is great chat amongst the girls, even with our comical mud splattered faces. A quick clean up and then it’s time for prizegiving. A £250 prize pool is allocated out to the first 6 places. There is a great buzz at the turnout and talk of the next event.
Debbie & I completed the 31 mile ride in a time of 1:48. Out of the 39 entered 32 finished. We placed 26th & 27th but I am pleased because I have a ridden the fastest I have ever ridden, have worked well as a team and we finished! I’d recommend the Lake Feminine APR to anyone who wants to experience racing. There was a wide range of abilities. If you want to avoid riding on your own get along to your local club now and start finding a race buddy or two.