Diary of a fourth category racer: July – handicap racing, what fresh hell is this?

Tom tries his hand at handicap racing and soon finds out it's a special kind of torture

This month could be described as the month I discovered handicap racing. It could also be described as the month of ‘Oh god, why do I do this to myself?’. It could also just be described with a long and continuous roar of pain, made up entirely of vowels.

Criteriums (‘crits’) at purpose-built tracks are the mainstay of the London racing scene. I get the sense that around the country this is less the case, with many criterium-style races taking place on old airfields instead. What is really rare though, is an actual road race on actual roads that you can enter as a cat four rider. Reading between the lines, road racing is reserved, mainly, for those who actually know what they’re doing.

My first experience of road racing was in Devon, where a course described by organisers as “basically flat” turned into what felt like doing hill reps on the Mortirolo. You can read about that experience here.

Tom tries his luck at handicap racing (Pic: Alastair Cunningham)

Handicaps are a sort of happy medium between crits and true road races. The roads you ride on are marshaled by cars and roadside volunteers, with junctions closed to traffic as riders come past. The format of the racing however, is more likely to produce a bunch finish with most of the starters than a traditional road race, where more and more riders get shelled as the event goes on.

So how does it work?

Perhaps you caught the second stage of La Course earlier this month, in which the fastest rider from stage one was set off first, then chased down by all the other riders who were set off at intervals according to their own times on the first stage?

In the case of La Course, the best rider went first and was chased by the slower riders. Handicaps flip that round. The lowly cat fours and any cat threes with especially creaky knees are put into a first group. They start riding the course. Then, after a given amount of time (depending on the parcours, the ability/number of riders in the leading pack and the whim of the commissaire), the next group is set off. Finally, the best riders are set off at a similarly random delay.

As you can imagine, it’s not too long before all the riders are together. Either the second group catches the first, before being joined by the third, or group two sits up from the start and waits for group three, so they can combine efforts to hunt down group one like a pack of carbon-riding hyenas. The other scenario is that the first group is not caught at all and stays away till the finish for a truly glorious victory. I am fairly confident this has never happened and that it’s simply a lie made up to encourage those poor, doomed firsties.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire

I decided I’d give this intriguing format a try this month, found such an event on the British Cycling website and duly turned up to the designated race start point. This, of course, was simply a dropped pin on a map on the internet. It looked like the place to meet was a lay-by on an A-road just after a bridge over a motorway. If this was my first time trying to find a bike race I might have been sceptical, but this is pretty much par for the course.

There was no facility to enter online, so I didn’t even know if I’d get a ride. I just got on a train – two trains actually – and headed into the Surrey countryside under the vague assurances that there would be some people with clipboards and smiles there.

The pre-race lay-by briefing (Pic: Tom Owen)

And there was! This wouldn’t be much of a column if there wasn’t, would it? I handed over my entry fee, pinned a number to my jersey and went off to recce the course. There didn’t seem to be many riders at the start when I left. Perhaps I’d get some of those most cherished of things in amateur racing, automatic points. This is where you get points simply for finishing because less than ten people start or complete the course. I got lost during my recce, which is one thing that never happens in crit racing – at least not yet – so I had a fairly frantic ride to get back in time for the start.

When I did get back to the start, there were a lot more dudes. And they all looked fast. I made a quick visual survey and discovered I was the only one there without shaved pins. This made me nervous. If there’s one surefire indicator of being a keeno, it’s a pair of hairless pins. At cat four crit races there’s usually at least one guy with a paunch and a handful that do not follow the Way of the Bic.

Unsurprisingly, yours truly was in the front group. With a complete lack of ceremony that I now realise is all part of the fun, the commissaire said, ‘Right, numbers 6, 4 and 10, are you here? Good, off you go.” And so we went.

UK bike racing, it’s all glamour (Pic: Tom Owen)

The trio of ‘shit ones’ as we self-identified, discussed tactics. How would we play it? Nobody felt like trying to push on and stay away, so we agreed to take it easy and conserve energy for when the other groups caught us. At least, that’s what I thought we agreed.

How it actually went down was us hammering the first lap of the ten-kilometre course at an average of 36kmh. It was brutal. My heart rate shot through the roof. I could just about hold the wheel though, until the final climb of the first lap. It looks like this on Strava, but I can assure you, it is in fact the Col du Galibier in disguise.

At this point, the intrepid ‘shit ones’ trio began to break apart, with one rider choosing to take his chances on his own rather than try and tow the pair of us any further. Then, the other rider with me began to lose contact behind. Soon I was on my own. In no-mans land.

And this is the great cruelty of handicap racing. You have to ride the entire thing like you’re in the break off the front of a peloton. There’s always a dim hope you might fend them off, and so you empty the tank to try and take an unlikely victory. You get given a head start precisely because the riders behind are better than you, so getting caught means an almost guaranteed loss in the sprint. It’s not like escaping from a group of similar ability riders, where even if you do get caught you’re on a roughly even footing. It’s do or die.

Yeah, that was hard (Pic: Tom Owen)

Two of us did regroup as we got to about halfway round the second lap, working together a bit better than we had on the first go round. However, we were reeled in by the main group in short order.

At the moment of the catch, it’s all about putting in anything you have left to try and stick with the fast guys, in the hope you can recover at the tail-end of the bunch of 15-or-so.

I managed to stay with the group until that same hors categorie ascent that had blown apart our initial ‘breakaway’. After that, it was a lonely old slog to the end, playing leapfrog with other riders dropped from the pack as they caught me on the flats and I gained ground going uphill. In the end, I took a 15th place, nil points and the lesson that handicaps are a truly special kind of torture.

Big thank yous to Oxted CC, for organising a truly excellent and safe race. Also to Russell Hicks, for supplying some photos of my not-so-glorious performance. Check out my post-race reaction in the video below.


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