It wasn’t until London 2012 that I finally accepted I wouldn’t ever make it to the Olympics. So when the call came through that Southampton University Road Cycling were invited to race a Varsity Team Pursuit at the Olympic Velodrome as part of the Revolution Series it was clear this was my chance - to pretend.
These were My Pretend Olympics.
An Olympic cycle is four years. We had 10 weeks. I’d worked hard though and for the first time in years I had real emotional buy-in to a race. I wanted to race and I wanted to win.
At home on Friday morning as I was doing the washing up before cleaning our Cross bikes and changing my wife’s tyres for Sunday. I got an email from my team mate Tom: “I’m just going to Aldi – does anyone want any snacks for later”. I laughed. I bet Ed Clancy wasn’t doing the washing up on the morning of the Olympics Team Pursuit finals when an email from Gee drops asking if he needed any snacks from Aldi. We clearly weren’t actual Olympians.
Two of my other teammates picked me up and we drove off at 2:15 for our 19:00 race. Then the traffic came. Sat on the M25 for what felt like hours we eventually crawled past the accident with Charlie’s bladder setting a new PB for holding on until we got to South Mimms. Sat in that traffic jam was just like being at the ‘96 Atlanta Games in my head. I spared a thought for those athletes arriving seconds before their race start and spectators that missed their seats. That was real. This is just pretend.
We arrive at the velodrome two hours before the race starts which is ideal. Rider sign on is in the lobby. I savoured the moment knowing that this is the last time I will sign on to a race with Alex Dowsett, Andy Tennant, Marianne Vos and Laura Trott. It was certainly the first.
Come 18:00 the boards were open for riding. I had planned to do my warm up on the rollers and just get focused. That went out of the window when I realised I could ride the boards with Marianne Vos. My bike went up on the rig and was checked for UCI compliance and then I frantically got my number pinned on to get on the track as fast as possible. I joined the group riding the blue line. Depending on who was on the front the pace was actually quite high at times. Every so often I would drop on to my aerobars and sink to the black line to make it easier and let the bunch take a lap. I was “just checking my position” but actually this was because I couldn’t hold the pace without nailing my legs before the race started. These were Olympians. I was just pretending.
The four teams were off for qualification in reverse order from our University Champs results. At 19:00 first came up and UCLAN. I was nervously watching whilst soft-pedaling on the rollers. It looked incredibly slow. Clocking a time of around 4:45, a few seconds faster than we had ridden in training on the same track just two days ago I realised that we were all going to look slow. That’s because we are slow. A best-case scenario is to be ~40 seconds down on world record pace. That’s about 750m over 4km. That’s humbling.
Glasgow up next post a solid time considering they dropped a rider early on. At 4:34 we knew we could ride that pace having gone 4:32 in May. But air pressure and temperature play a big role and 4:34 was a solid time that we weren’t sure we could beat on the night.
Next up it’s us. We’ve been sat in the chairs next to the track during Glasgow’s run. This felt like the Olympics all right. I was loving it. A man comes down and asks for the bike of man 1. That’s me. I set my pedals and he takes it for me. Walking up the ramp I’m calm. Having never used a start gate before I try to get on from the inside of the track. The start gate men laugh “have you done this before?” I walk around to come down on my bike (that’s easier you know…) and they talk me through it.
10,5,4,3,2,1, GO. We’re off and I get a clean start.
Then I hear a gunshot and as I sweep round the track. A friend of mine Chris Keller-Jackson (of Crankphoto) is there with his camera signaling that we’ve false started. We’ve never done that. Arghh.
The organisation let Loughborough ride next whilst man three frantically sorts his rear wheel that slipped under the torque. We’re all calm, if a little embarrassed. On the plus side I’ve practiced using the gate and now we get to ride qualification last. Loughborough ride a 4:36. This is game on. I know we can ride faster than that and knock them out of the A-final. I'm pumped.
Up to the track we go. I get on my bike from the right side this time and sit there on the line resting on my aerobars. I do this mainly because Ed Clancy does – but also because if I don’t sit there in position saying “keep your head down” over and over again my head sticks up and is about as aerodynamic as a large cupboard.
…in to the first corner and the gun fires again. AGAIN!
I can’t believe it. As man one I can’t see what happened but I know what is about to happen. Two false starts means no ride, there’s no leeway at UCI races. I’m absolutely raging mad, but I contain it. When I get off the bike there are people talking to the commies to no avail. Charlie riding man two pulled out of his pedal. This has never happened before. Charlie is a good rider and capable of a 1:08 Kilo. He even had new cleats. My Aldi shopping teammate Tom doesn’t hold it together and his helmet has no choice but to take the abuse that he can’t throw at the officials. We’ve blown it. No ride in the qualifying round means we go straight to the B-final to ride off for third.
As we went back to our pit area I couldn’t help but think about the actual Olympics. We had spent 10 weeks getting ready, that’s nothing. All I could hear in my head was Hugh Porter commentating on Elise Christie’s nightmare in Sochi. The number of examples heartache from false-starts and DQs are endless. Thank goodness this was My Pretend Olympics and not the real thing.
Still smoldering white hot with rage we had two hours to wait to ride off for the B-final. During this time Loughborough, who had made it to the A-final thanks to our omnishambles come over to console us. In the run up to the race I had been so focused on beating them. When we actually got there I realised just how cool it was that University cycling was taking place on this stage and how cool it was that students got to ride in such a high-calibre event. He was perfectly pleasant, but during our conversation I find out that both Loughborough and Glasgow are riding with recently GRADUATED non-students in their teams.
My heart was in my mouth and I have to choke it back down. The bare minimum I expect at a Varsity competition is that everyone taking part is a registered student. I don’t like it that sometimes there are scholarship athletes who are only “students” for sporting reasons – at least they are actual students by the letter of the law. Riding non-students is not acceptable in a Varsity race in my opinion. If we were given the chance to pick alumni there is a few people I would have been on the phone to a few weeks ago.
I quietly eat the inside of my cheek for two hours and eventually we get our chance to ride.
…I don’t hear a gun. We’re riding!
I knew this ride wasn’t going to be clean. There were too many raw nerves exposed in all of us for that to happen. I ride a steady lap one to keep a lid on things. When Tom gets to the front as man 4 the pace winds up. His line is messy, but his pace is hot and I like it. I hold on expecting him to peel off after his lap – he doesn’t and carries on for another cheeky half. I hit the wind face first and think if Tom is riding long turns so can I. I pull 375m dive up and join the back of the line with 6 laps down. The turns continue. Lap 7. Lap 8. Having done his turn man three, Alex, then drops off the line unable to ride the pace.
We’re down to three with just under 2km to go and now completely off plan. The line gets more ragged. I’m confused where we are in the race and how many laps I will have to ride. Tom pulls a lap and I’m back on the front. I’m conservative with the pace thinking I might have two or more to ride, but we can see UCLAN in the straights – we’re well up. I look up to the board and see we have a few seconds on them but it’s a blurry mess. Every time we come past SURC supporters section at the end of the back straight the roar fills my helmet and my head struggles to keep on task: head down - red, black, red, black.
I pull again, but have no idea how many are laps left - the lap counter in the back straight wasn’t showing a number. We hear no bell. The crowd reverberating in my helmet means that the small bell on the other side of the track isn’t audible. We don’t fan up across the line and I think we have one more to go.
We don’t. The clock stops at 4:35.
It was messy and erratic but it was good enough to win the match. I hadn’t come to ride for 3rd though. If we had ridden 4:35 in qualification we would be in the A-final. That’s gutting.
We sit and watch Loughborough and Glasgow have a brilliant fight for first place - the lead swapping just 500m from the line. Loughborough take it again with both teams riding a 4:32. In fact all teams rode faster in their second round. That’s evidence of what little track time we all get. You very rarely get to ride race pace on a 250m track. If we had ridden 4:35 in the heats I maybe we could have gone 4:30 in the final. We had the firepower, we just needed to tune the length and order of the turns to nail the pacing.
My Pretend Olympics was nearly over. We take some more photos with Chris, I warm down on the rollers and then head to the showers. In each shower block at the velodrome there is a disabled shower on the end with a fold down seat and handrail to use. I know realise that these serve a dual purpose. They are also for people to sit on with their head between their knees staring at the floor after it all went wrong whilst having a misery shower.
Next time I watch the Olympics I will have a new understanding of what it is like when it all goes wrong. I’m just glad this was My Pretend Olympics and not the real thing.
It’s not all bad though. I did a race with a paying crowd and Hugh Porter on the mic. That’s cool.
A massive thank you to FACE partnership for the invite to race. Crank Photo for the images (the best track lens out there) and to all the SURC members who came along to support us.