Shutt Velo Rapide race team had a strong team of 4 at the Rockingham Forest Wheelers stage race this weekend and over the 3 races they managed to experience all the high and lows road racing has to offer. Phil O’Connor’s race report below…..
Phil, Luke, Jered and Billy
Saturday started with a short 3 mile TT prologue bathed in chilly April sunshine. As our only non-TT rider I wasn’t too disappointed with a mid-pack time of 6:05. But Billy and Luke put in a fine effort to both sit 16th on 5:55. Jered made good use of his excellent early season form to post a 5:48 and 7th place. With not much more than 30 seconds separating most of the race, the real fun was about to start.
Stage 2 was 6 laps of 10 miles with the scarily named 'Devil’s Staircase' climb featuring. Much scarier than that though was the pre-race briefing that described all manner of roadworks, major potholes and tight village lanes to survive. As the pack waited for a delayed start, the April sunshine gave way to a cold shower that steadily graduated through a freezing wet hail and onto a downpour before we’d even turned a pedal. Time to break out the ‘Spring Classics’ attitude and just get on with it. Unfortunately, most of the first lap was neutralised to allow us to ‘recce’ the roadworks. A smart move from a safety point of view, but with the weather worsening and no one able to warm-up, there were some grim faces and shivering bodies by the time we got the signal to race.
With everyone eager to get their blood flowing there was plenty of attacking as soon as the flag dropped. SVR were ever present at the front of the race and doing most of the work to keep it together. After the first few early breaks got pulled back and the sun came back out, Jered and Luke found themselves away in the second lap, but it didn’t stick. There were a few more small breaks, but no-one quite got out of sight with the lively pack always pulling them back eventually. With a lap and a half to go and after some hectic racing, all 4 SVR riders were still showing near the front. The pack was gradually closing down a 2 man break that had been about 400m up the road for some time when, in a bold move, Luke attacked off the front. As I saw him go I quickly moved to the front to join Jered and we set about carefully slowing the pack, watching with interest to see what would happen when Luke caught the break. Once it was clear the 3 of them were going to work together, we made sure to be on the front of the peloton through the tricky roadworks section. We took full advantage of the tight route and as the pack cleared the village the gap was already out to a minute. Things were looking good. At the next time check, with about 7 miles to go, the gap was 1:12 and it was clear the break would stay away. In the finale Luke first dropped one of the break and then powered away from the other to take a fantastic win by 11 seconds
Jered did well in a large bunch sprint to sneak 9th place. It was a real thrill to be able to contribute as a team and help Luke get the result his massive effort deserved. The icing on the cake was that we now had a GC leader to protect on Day 2. Things were about to get interesting....
Stage 3 was a similar circuit to Stage 2, 10 miles with one decent climb, tackled 6 times. But having a clear goal of protecting a GC lead was a new and exciting prospect for all of us. We were expecting a hard ride but confident we had what it took to keep the yellow jersey. With Jered in 10th GC and Billy in 16th we even had some back-up options if things didn’t go to plan.
Lining up for Stage 3 in the Yellow Jersey!
Conditions were perfect, dry roads, blue skies and light winds. SVR gathered near the front, interested to see who would attack and how hard. It didn’t take long to find out.
The first lap was frantic for us, but Billy, Jered and myself were enjoying our new role and chasing hard and early on every attack to discourage anyone else from having a go. Tactically speaking, I’m usually quite a cautious racer but to be able to let myself off the leash, ride hard and impose myself on the bunch felt great. I could see Billy was enjoying it too and both of us grew in confidence as we pinned all the early breaks back. After a lap and a half I had slipped back in the pack to recover and left Jered on duty up front for a while. Suddenly his arm went up - puncture! Damn. That was a big blow and, having no idea if Jered would get back into the race, it was time to step up. Luke now had to do a bit more by himself up front than planned, but Billy and I naturally fell into taking turns up there with him, chasing hard on what seemed like continuous attacking then slipping back to recover. A couple of huge efforts from Billy to chase down strong riders, then a lull and another would sneak off the front. Off I go, into the red, but not caring. This was hard racing but fantastic fun. With a couple of laps to go, the attacks from rival teams seemed to have settled a bit. Luke was up front looking comfortable and Billy and I both had plenty of racing left in our legs, things were looking good. And then it all exploded.
A fast straight section of the course, Luke about 4th wheel or so, Billy had just moved back up on the right and I was recovering in the middle of the pack. Second wheel inexplicably touches first wheel at 50kmh and hits the deck. Luke and the rest of the line behind him try to avoid and the pack behind them can’t react in time. I hear the shouts go up and in front of me I see the rows of heads and shoulders disappearing and merging into a solid mass. It’s as if they were getting sucked down into plug-holes. Somehow I manage to get between two tangled heaps of bodies and bikes with riders behind still creaming into the fallen. As I pass through I can see Luke under a couple of bikes and looking in a bad way. My first instinct is to stop - he might need help to get back into the race. I run back and lift a bike off him. He’s not able to help. “Luke, do you want to get back on mate?” “Can you ride?” “Do you want to get up?” Not a chance. He needs a medic not a domestique. “Collar bone. Feels broken.” he tells me. Absolutely gutted.
After getting him to the side of the road and seeing that medical assistance had arrived, I asked for a tow from the commissaires car as it chased back onto the race. But there was a long way to catch up and he wasn’t hanging around. I managed a couple of miles on the limit, trying to stay with him but as we hit a long climb and no sign of the pack ahead I waved him on - my race was over too. Another couple of lesser crashes in quick succession reduced the field massively for the last lap. Our sole survivor Billy had managed to stay upright and, considering his huge efforts earlier, did really well to finish in the bunch. (Update: results just in and Billy finished 11th in GC!)
What a weekend. It was some of the best racing any of us had experienced and we know now how great it feels to ride properly as a team. That’s a rare thing in the lower ranks of road racing.
Luke will heal up and be back stronger than ever and the rest of us are already planning our next multi-stage event.