A couple of spots of rain here and there but it wasn't going to rain properly right? A couple of taps of the valve to drop the pressure a touch - that'll be enough right?
By mid race what was once a threat was now a reality and the rain had well and truly arrived. 9 years of racing in Milano had never seen rain before so nobody, no matter how experienced truly knew how this circuit handled in the wet. I would be amongst the first to find out. With my tyres still practically bulging from the Vigorelli track day the day before I was ill equipped for this test. After a couple of nervous slips of the front wheel it finally happened and the rider in front of me, Dante Young, was sent sliding to the deck on the final turn. Perfect place as well - I knew Nicole was watching from that turn. She was already so nervous before the race and it seemed I was to be sent sprawling across the floor right in front of her. Knowing that I couldn't turn any tighter or I would face the same fate my only hope was to stay calm and back off the pace what little I could as my front wheel aimed towards Dante's head. It was one of those moments that seems to just hang there and last an eternity. Whenever people ask me about Red Hook they say 'ooh, but isn't it dangerous?' And I simply say, 'I've never crashed - but I nearly crash everytime'. Well this was that time in Milano. I think that a lot of riders would simply close their eyes and accept their fate, but I never accept a crash until I'm on the floor. Somehow Dante managed to perfectly slide out of my way and I missed him by the narrowest of margins.
Having slowed to avoid the crash I look up to see the reduced group powering away from me down the long home straight. A glance to the side and I see Nicole's shocked but relieved face looking back at me. With my confidence knocked I had two choices. Back off and wait to try my luck in the Another Chance Race. Or swallow my nerves and chase. So chase I did.
In the days leading up to the event I had envisioned a far more stylised image of myself racing the heat, with all my moves being made in the corners and generally finessing the course with elegance and grace. But as the rain continued to fall in Bovisa I was far from elegant, far from graceful, far from stylish. Knowing that I didn't have the grip (or the bottle) in the turns, I had to take the corners like a snail and hit the straights as hard as I could - the exact opposite of how I like to race. There was no finessing about it. This was to be about raw power and speed.
The reduced group was my saving grace. My friend and colleague Tony Hibbert was at the side of the course shouting my position and a quick count up of the few riders behind me told me there was 21 riders fighting for 20 positions. All I had to do was keep 1 rider behind me and I was home dry - at least in the metaphorical sense.
In the end, a typically good gallop down the home straight meant I came home 17th of approximately 90 starters and had advanced myself straight to the final, my crash-free record still intact.
As I passed alongside Parc Ferme whilst exiting the course all the heat 1 riders are quickly jockeying to find their friends in heat 2 and pass on their learnings of the course. 'Drop the pressure, 80 was too high', 'don't hit the drain on the way into 6', 'the final turn is very slippery'. Followed by a chorus of “psshhhh” as riders let some air out of their tyres. Tyre pressure is everything in this game.
Back to our team area, a drink, a spin on the rollers and a quick wardrobe change under my rain jacket and it was off to support my teammates in heat 3. I'd decided to go to the roundabout on the first turn, the same place Tony had been calling my position from. If you stand on the exit you can count all the riders as they take the long turn and then relay a rider's position to them as they come out wide towards you - a really useful tip for helping riders negotiate the heat successfully and ensure they finish in the top 20.
A panino vegano in my hand, the rain still falling about me as I wait. David Trimble's voice echoes down the home straight towards where I'm standing. The final instructions for the ever dampening riders.
Then the countdown. 60 seconds. 45. 30. 15. 10. Go!
Fixed gear crits are always full gas from the start and it was seconds before the bunch came steaming into view, ready to negotiate the long first turn. But then, mere seconds after the start, disaster struck. Something as innocuous as a stone stuck in a cleat had brought half the bunch down in the very first turn, a tidal wave of bodies flung through the air. Memories of Brooklyn 2016 surely flashed across the minds of many. Those who were taken down quickly scrambled to their feet. Those stuck behind jumped off their bikes and tried to pick themselves through the carnage. With no laps out, there isn't time to dust yourself off and wait for the group to come back round. You have to chase and chase fast.
Fortunately for all those caught up in the chaos, the crash was deemed severe enough for a restart and the red flags were duly waved. Those with damaged bikes breathed a sigh of relief as Allen keys were called for and bars and seatposts straightened hastily.
Grid positions refound, race instructions reaffirmed, the race went off again. Cleanly this time. The laps ticked by but the race had to be halted once again. Another crash on the far side of the course. A long pause whilst the medical team dealt with the fallen. It can't have been easy for the riders. The anxiety surely growing with every restart.
As the riders set off for what would be the final time the nervousness was evident in the bunch. Fede was out of contention but Peter was dangling towards the back of the lead group. '20','17', '22', I shouted the positions as he went past each time. He would seemingly slip in and out of contention with each passing lap. As the bell chimed and the riders swept into view once more I quickly counted up the positions. 'Peter, you're 23!'. He had a fight on his hands if he wanted to qualify. He would have to work his magic on this final lap. He would have to take some risks.
My duty done I set off down the home straight walking briskly, hoping to catch the finish. As the riders flashed through on mass there was no sign of Peter. The group was trickling past in dribs and drabs now - no sign of Fede either. The slick tarmac must have claimed more victims. Then Fede rolls past, his knuckles bloodied. 'Peter's crashed' came the call.
With that the brisk walk turned into a run as I started to navigate the course in the opposite direction. It was probably the last corner, if not then it must have been that drain going into 6. As I reach the final corner Peter is nowhere to be seen. 'Your teammate Peter has crashed on the second turn', announced Andrea Vassallo as he rolled into the pits, 'he's broken his collarbone'. Shit.
With that the day started to lose its hue somewhat and an undeniable twinge of discomfort swept through me. Upon returning to the pits I learned that Peter had collided with the wall so hard that he would require surgery to fix his shattered collarbone. Furthermore my friends hadn't fared much better in their respective heats. Our collective Engine 11 rider area seemed more like a military field hospital with riders being patched up after a stint on the battlefield. It seemed almost everyone I knew had hit the deck. My appetite to race was fading fast.The motivation was drying up far faster than the Bovisa tarmac.
What came after was a gradual spiral down into despondency. Our rider area became increasingly quiet and desolate as those who were still fit and able tried and failed to qualify. Those worse off had hung up their wheels for the day, too battered and bruised to try again. The autumnal cold started to set in and fatigue swept over me as the night drew in.
Did I really want this?
I have other priorities in life now, new goals and focuses. I didn't want to crash. The nerves had crept into me and were slowly infecting me. I wasn't as young and as carefree as I used to be. If not the chance of crashing, I knew what I would need to put my body through. The sheer physical and mental effort is almost unlike anything else I've experienced. All year there have been questions over my health, my form, my motivation. Did I really want to do this anymore?
'How about a nap in the car?', suggested Nicole. She knows me well.
I wake up still cold and not entirely refreshed and head back to the course. The tarmac looks drier I note. I feel a small seed of positivity germinate inside me. I'm still groggy though and feel far from 'racey'. The women's race is in full flight. The largest and arguably most talented women's field every assembled - and the Tifosi are loving it! The atmosphere is immense, Gabe Lloyds voice echoing about the place as the riders fly past. The positivity grows a touch.
I'm still cold though. The thought of having to get changed is less than inspiring. Would it be under the rain jacket again or would I go for the port-a-loo changing room? It had been a long day with nervous stomachs. The rain jacket it would be.
Suited and booted I take to the rollers. 'Have a good warm up, have a good race', I recited to myself under my breath. My legs turning slowly. Hal Hunter, a fellow Engine 11 rider is warming up next to me. Someone else had made it through to the final! I look up at the gazebo across from ours and see riders from Disorderly Habits and Look Criterium doing the same. A look to the left and the Cykeln team are looking motivated. My legs spin a little faster. Motivation and positivity spreading through me.
To Parc Ferme and minutes to the race. Alex Blomley and Len Delicaet are there. My South London Boys have made it! A smile erupts across my face.
We take to the course on mass and complete our neutral lap. High 5s to the Tifosi as the energy builds and swells.
As we find our grid marks I take a look at the riders around me. Novices and veterans. Amateurs and world tour pros. Young and old. Messengers, brakeless kings, olympians, national champions, world champions, skiers, ice skaters, doctors, teachers. Those who think they're pro and those who know they're not. Everyone is welcome on this stage.
The photographers bustle about us as they scramble for the perfect shot. The crowd banging the hoardings with ever increasing intensity and verosity. The cowbells ring down the home straight as fans pack themselves 5 deep, clambering for a view of the riders. Some find their way on top of walls and rooftops for a vantage point to witness the action. Shouts and screams ring out as cameras flash all around. The noise deafening. The excitement palpable. The energy electric - this is why we race. This is the Red Hook Crit.