On Saturday I completed my first race of the season at the Hillingdon Winter Series. I crossed the line satisfied that I had already made progress over last year’s season debut: I had actually finished the race. The improvement wasn’t to do with better fitness or race craft, but simply I had completed the race by avoiding the crashes.

It’s tempting to describe crashing as a rights of passage in the course of a cyclist’s life, but that would probably imply that some sort of lesson is learnt or valuable experience is gained. But crashing isn’t much to do with anything other than bad luck and a long course of painkillers.

That first serious crash – a crash beyond a scrapped knee or grazed elbow – is like stepping across an invisible barrier. On one side is racing with a dim knowledge that crashes do happen, that you  can get hurt, but with a sense that it’s a distant danger. But a violent collision with the road helps the mind conjure a more vivid understanding of the consequences of a slick patch of tarmac, or a touch of wheels. Racing a bike is never the same again.

My first serious crash was nearly a year ago in an early season race at the Chertsey MOD test track. One of the first thoughts to cross my mind after the painful rendezvous with the tarmac was the disappointment at seeing all those hard winter miles going to waste. Of course that wasn’t the first thought to go through my mind – there were obviously plenty of swear words first.

The crash was caused by a rider trying to come around me from behind, attempting to latch on to a change of pace at the front of the pack. Misjudging it in his haste, he knocked into me as he went past. Caught off-guard I went down – it wasn’t gradual, I didn’t have time to even try to regain my balance. I just hit the ground. And I saw my bike fly off into the bushes at the side of the road, and saw the ground come towards me several times. What I remember most of those slow few seconds is just how hard the ground felt – when my shoulder hit the road, the road didn’t budge. It didn’t flinch.

Sitting on that cold February road in my ripped up lycra, I had to repeat to myself that what had just happened, had indeed happened. I knew I wasn’t about to leap to my feet and retrieve my bike from the bushes it had landed in. All I could do was be patient and wait for help.

Whilst waiting for the called ambulance I had to watch the race continue on around me, the bunch swishing past every few minutes. In a peculiar way I felt slightly aggrieved that the race was continuing – although I didn’t really expect it to be stopped either. So it wasn’t so much that the race was continuing regardless – it was more it was continuing without me. Unfortunately that feeling lingered for the several weeks it took me to recover and get back on my bike. Every time I saw a cyclist – even a commuter creaking along under the weight of panniers – I felt a pang of jealousy.

Luckily – I suppose – the five weeks I spent off the bike was at the beginning of the season, there being still just enough time to salvage some of the hard work over winter and start again in time to be fit enough for a summer’s long racing season. So for anyone reading this now out of action through crash or injury – especially those guys who hit the deck hard on Saturday at Hillingdon – don’t get too disheartened. Rest up and you’ll be back fighting fit in time to ride when Spring comes around and the sun finally comes out. In the meantime, enjoy the painkillers.

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