Racing The Nationals

This article first appeared on VeloUK.

Old Enough to Know Better? Andy Edwards of Sigma Sport recalls taking on the challenge of riding the British Road Race Championships

Andy writes … One thing I love about cycling is its democratic and meritocratic feel. Anyone can participate and if you are any good, you will get to the top of the sport if you are talented enough, work hard and have a bit of luck. Perhaps it is why, more than any other Olympic sport, participation is going through the roof.

Only in cycling can a Tour de France favourite (Wiggins) turn up to the Bickerstaffe chain gang with the local lads, as he did in March 2012, or Alex Dowsett ride his local club 10. UK based UCI teams will frequently participate at National B level, which are mostly amateur events, and some amateurs can give the pros a good run. The link between top level and grass roots remains strong and it something that is very unique to cycling.


Andy Edwards (left) in the Wally Gimber. Photo: Dave Hayward.

There are plenty of routes into the sport, whether you start as a Youth or Junior or as a 4th cat. The Youth and Junior ranks are without doubt the toughest place to start as you are competing with the stars of tomorrow. The fastest road race I ever did was the 1987 Dawtric GP Peter Buckley, at 27.3 mph for 72 miles, not bad for a bunch of kids on steel frames with toe clips & straps and shifters on the down tube!

Wherever you start, I personally try to encourage those coming up through the sport to mix things up and try racing at a higher level. A 3rd cat doing a 2/3 race for the first time will notice the difference, as will a 2nd cat riding their first Nat B. It goes beyond merely chasing points: it’s about understanding and adapting to a higher level of racing. Once you have managed to get the hang of Nat B racing, try a Premier Calendar. It is not just the speed, it’s about the rhythm of the race, the tactics, the style, the technical skills required to participate.

Once you get the hang of one level, try the next one up – that’s my mantra. Keep pushing and don’t be a complacent big fish in a small pond.

Everyone has to start somewhere and the younger guys coming through the sport need to keep challenging themselves. It was great to see riders like Lawrence Carpenter, Elliott Porter and Dante Carpenter (3rd U23) getting up there in the race; all of them I have raced with at local level over the past few years.

Even though I am long past the age of dreaming about a pro career, there is still an excitement about racing with top-level guys. Since returning to racing in 2010 after a 22 year absence, I’ve mixed up all levels of racing and never feel intimidated by the names on the start sheet, even if I do get a battering.

National RR Champs
Entering the Elite Men’s National Road Race Championships in Abergavenny was probably about as far as I am able to push things. With the Tour starting in Yorkshire this year, coupled with early rumours of Froome, Cavendish and Wiggins being on the start line, it was an opportunity too good to resist for a 43 year old full-time music business executive intent on indulging his mid-life crisis!

As we now know, Froome didn’t enter and Cavendish and Wiggins were both DNS, but a host of World Tour stars and top-level British based pros would be there so there was still a lot to look forward to. As I joked to a friend, it was cheaper than entering the sportive!

My expectations were pretty low. After a decent early season, my form was incredibly patchy owing to a hectic work schedule. All I really wanted to do was stay with the head of the race as far as Celtic Manor, 18 miles in, and then just get round the remainder of the 71 mile opening loop.


Peloton lined out coming into Celtic Manor

As you would expect, the speed was pretty intense from the moment the flag dropped. A rolling road closure may seem a safer option to just riding to the while line, but it has its own unique challenges. Even at 35-40 mph, a 160 rider field will take up the whole road – gutter to gutter. You have to give the motorbikes room to come past, squeeze in to navigate parked cars, narrow bridges and road furniture through town centres along the way. It is not uncommon to see lads using pavements and lay-bys to move up, although that’s frowned upon.

For any amateur contemplating this sort of race for the first time, I’d say take it step by step and know your place. Alex Dowsett needed to push past me on the left, as did Kristian House. I wasn’t going to get in the way of either of those guys, so gave them plenty of room. Adam Yates was yo-yoing around to my right. We all had the same issue of navigating our way around the bunch and spotting moments to move up. The pace was very fast, but I was in no danger of getting dropped, but I did need to be alert and much more so than in a Nat B level race.

I could just about enjoy the roar of the crowds as we passed through a town centre, a novelty for an amateur; but otherwise I was fully focused on the race around me.

It helps if you know the route and read your handbook, however. Not sure how many guys did (!) as the turn into Celtic Manor was chaotic and I made up at least 10 positions by having the right line and gear selection to navigate the 180-degree turn on to the single track road.


Full gas up the climb with champion to be Peter Kennaugh leading the way and the peloton spread out down the hill.

That was when the race really began. The run in to the base of the climb was a very narrow twisty road, we were all lined out in one line and going full-gas through one ninety-degree corner after another. One guy told me afterwards he did 400+Watts for 3 mins before the climb even started.

And unlike in amateur races, when you get over the top of the climb they keep the gas on so if you are dropped there is usually no going back.

Poor Geriant Thomas unshipped his chain at the bottom of the climb and spent the rest of the race chasing, so I didn’t feel too bad about my own clunky change from big ring to small. I was a bit miffed that my chain wouldn’t sit on the 25 and had to make do with the 23, but I would have got dropped anyway and before too long I was in the company of Nick Noble (National Masters Champion and ex-GB rider) and Ashley Martin a 19 year old from Exeter. So the two oldest guys in the race and one of the youngest made up a three man TTT to get to the finishing circuit at a brisk, gentleman’s pace. We picked up a few other stragglers along the way and arrived at the finishing circuit with plenty of time to enjoy watching the climax of the race.

So a few thrills and a fabulous day out in the Monmouthshire countryside, I was a participant and a spectator amongst a world-class field made from home grown talent, which was such a buzz. A unique experience, thanks to Bill Owen and his team for organizing and to the NFTO guys who bailed me out of a few mechanical issues before the start!

Not sure if I will ride the Nationals again, but I would encourage others, once they have gained the right level of experience, to give it a go. It’s the chance of a lifetime.