By Kris Zentek.
When i got home from last weekends race in Leicestershire, the first thing I did was log in to BC and look for more road races. Nothing. Anywhere. Literally the only two races left that were within 100 miles of me were two ‘Points Grabber’ circuit races at Salt Ayre. I don’t do crits – they are not my cup of tea. But needs must, and I needed 2 points.
I’ve not raced on Salt Ayre before; in fact, I’d only done one previous crit in the CDNW Surf’n’Turf. My perception was that they were full of crashes, and you’re usually lucky if you get round in one piece (the Surf’n’Turf reaffirmed this). So it’s fair to say I didn’t relish the thought of doing another. But this time of year the chance of it being a full race were remote, and it was a 2/3/4 on a circuit that has a pretty good safety record. So I signed up.
I watched the weather all week and it didn’t look good. On Saturday morning I woke up to see that there was heavy rain and strong winds up in Lancaster (well – everywhere, really). My race was due to start at 2:30pm, and I could see that a break in the weather was expected around that time. I was looking for any excuse but the forecast only gave me good news and so I set off at 11:30am.
Traffic was a nightmare, and it took 2 hours to make the 75 mile drive. As I got there, the rain stopped and I could see on the horizon that blue skies were peeping through. The 4th cat race were just warming up as I signed on, and they were riding very tentatively as the course was wet, and covered in leaves. A couple of helpers were trying their best to sweep up the finish straight but it was a losing battle.
I looked at the start sheet and saw I was the only pre-reg, so I was number 1. 7 others had EOL’d making 8. This meant that full points were on offer – 10 for 1st place, down to 1 point for 8th. So I needed 7th or more. I went back to the car, got the turbo set up, and got ready. At 1:50 I got my legs moving for a warmup, as the skies cleared up even more, and the autumn sun started to warm the air.
5 minutes before we started, we were allowed on the track and it was my first chance to see it. The straights were clear now, but both ends (heavily tree-lined) were thick with leaves. I navigated them very tentatively, but I could see that the previous race had carved a bit of a path. This could work well, as it may force everyone to follow wheels round the bends, rather than attack them. By now the field had grown to 18 riders – none of which I knew, so I had no idea which wheels to follow. All I knew was that I needed 8th or higher, and so my plan was to stay as high up the pack as possible. No lower than 4th wheel. My sprinting had not been great all season, but in the last corner we would be strung out. But a lot can happen in 40 minutes +5 laps.
We started on time, and the first lap was very steady. On the approach to the line the first attack went and the pace increased. I jumped on wheels as early as I could, and fought to stay high in the bunch in the straights. Each time I went into the corners in the top 1/3. A few laps in, two riders escaped and I decided to bridge. I waited for the back straight and went for it. Another rider came with me, and 1/2 lap later we had bridged. We worked together for a few laps, but were not building a gap and soon we were swallowed up. A counter went, and I sat in for a bit.
When we had caught this counter again, the pace had settled a bit and the riders at the front sat up. We must have been half way through by now but I didn’t have my timer displayed. I saw an opportunity, and steadily increased my pace. I got 4 or 5 bike lengths in front, and steadily increased my power. I got through the corner out of sight, and hit the power a bit more. With a gap of around 10-15 seconds, I got stuck into a rhythm. I did 5 or 6 laps on my own, and used this time to perfect my technique round the corners and increase my confidence in the tyres.
Once I could see the bunch were closing in, I eased up a bit. The lap board was still not showing ‘5 to go’, so I had no idea how long was left. I got caught and slotted in 4th wheel, as another two riders made their bid. The pace was high, but I felt comfortable, and really confident in the corners. So I just stayed as high up as I could and kept my head out of the wind. I’d selected the rider I wanted to follow into the last corner, and at the ‘5 to go’ marker went up, slotted into position.
Over the next 5 laps we reduced the gap to the leaders to around 5 seconds, and into the last lap some strong pulls had them just a few bike lengths ahead. Into the last corner we went, and I was 4th wheel in the bunch, with two additional riders just up ahead. The sprint started and I stuck to my wheel. We sprinted past the two escapees, and crossed the line. The winner celebrated the win, and I quietly pumped my fist. I’d finished 4th, got the points I needed, and had stayed upright.
Unceremoniously, I was handed back my license and I gave back my number. As quickly as riders had appeared at the start of the race, riders disappeared again. I packed up my stuff into the car ready for the long drive home. Upon reflection, it had been a really good day. We got really lucky with the weather, and the race was awesome. I came here to do what I needed to, and walked away with a much better perception of circuit racing. I might even turn up to the race next weekend…
…or maybe not.