Just six races into his road racing career, Southend Wheelers’ rising star Chris Smith could well clinch promotion from cycling’s fourth category if he finishes eighth or higher in next weekend’s penultimate round of the East London Velo Winter Series.
The 24-year old from Rochford again teamed up with fellow Southend Wheeler, Jamie Maidment, to brave the arctic conditions at Redbridge Cycling Centre and try to bag more points in his bid to win automatic promotion in his maiden season.
As the pair prepared for the start of the race snow was settling around the course, adding jitters to the riders’ shivers. Indeed, although thirty competitors had entered for the race, only eight had presented themselves at the popular Hog Hill track thirty minutes before the race was due to get underway.
“At that point we were both thinking, ‘are we mad to be here?’” said Smith. “It seemed most people wanted to stay in their lovely warm beds instead and I have to admit it had crossed my mind all the way up to the start and most of the race itself.”
Twenty eventually took the gun, but the conditions ensured that the early pace was far more sedate than usual.
“One brave bloke thought he would be able to break off from the front for the whole race,” observed Smith, adding “He didn’t, but the bunch left him to hang in front for a few tantalising laps before he was reeled in. To add to his woes, he was dropped later on.”
The initial nervousness and lack of pace could be put down to the riders waiting until they were fully warmed up. Smith admitted to battling with the effects of the extreme cold and wondered if he should abandon: “I just couldn’t feel my fingers and they began to swell up. It was agonising and I wondered if I would finish the race without suffering from frostbite. In fact, I began to wonder which ones would need amputating first.”
Grim as they were, Smith refused to be bowed by the conditions and doggedly soldiered in the lead group. However, as the race neared its halfway mark, Smith realised that his teammate wasn’t with him: “I turned round to see that Jamie had been dropped. He later told me that he simply hadn’t been able to find his rhythm.”
Moments later, a lone rider peeled off the front of the leaders and made a break for it. This produced an instant reaction from Smith, who has developed a reputation for being an attacking rider in his own right.
Despite working well together and sharing turns at the front, the peloton galvanised itself into action and chased them down, their lead lasting just over a lap of the full course.
Smith swung back into the bunch after being caught and bided his time, looking for another opportunity to animate the race.
“In the last few laps, I felt good and had kept a decent enough position at the head of affairs. I’d not upset the guys around me by doing my share of stints on the front, but never doing more than was necessary. In the final lap I toyed with the idea of making a break but thought it best to just sit back and wait for the bunch sprint to the finishing.”
The plan worked well until, with the final selection of who would contest the top ten placings, Smith launched an ill-starred early dash for the chequered flag.
“At the bottom of the Hoggenberg hill, I was feeling fresh so committed to an attack. Annoyingly though, I hadn’t dropped anyone and instead towed several riders up the steep climb in my slipstream. Still, I was vying for a good placing but then got boxed in during the bunch kick for the line. I had to swerve around someone and managed to nick seventh on the line.”
He added: “It took me a good 20 minutes to stop shaking afterwards, despite having changed into warm clothes. Still, I was pleased to have stuck at it and bag another few points which have now put me in touching distance of promotion to the Third Category. I just need two more points now, having accrued a total of ten so far. Here’s hoping the next couple of races bring better weather and those vital points.”
Maidment may have returned home to Maylandsea feeling frustrated but showed the grit and resolve that have made him one of the Wheelers’ best time trial riders. The following day (Sunday 11th February), the 27-year old chef was again braving the harsh winter conditions in Cambridgeshire. Taking part in the appropriately-named Ely Hardriders 25-mile time trial event, Maidment opted to ride a standard road bike rather than his specialist TT bike and posted the 21st-fastest time of one hour and eight minutes, a whisker shy of an average speed of 22MPH, in temperatures of just two degrees, while also enduring a stiff easterly wind and sleet.
Not to be outdone by the men, Southend’s Hannah Kane bravely took part in Maldon Cycling Club’s Cyclo Cross event at Battlesbridge, also in tough conditions but completed the distance in 39th position.