How on earth does this old chap – me – find himself racing at a national championship? I’m asthmatic and I have a knee deformity. I’ll grant you Ian Botham is asthmatic and (like me) Paul Scholes is both asthmatic and has Osgood-Schlatter disease. But I don’t have their talent, I just don’t have “good DNA.” I train very hard to be by club standards reasonable. And yet here I am at a national championship.
How - in the name of Mike - is this even possible?
Well, by choosing to race a niche (time trials), within a niche (veterans), within a niche (on a tandem). A niche, within a niche, within a niche. Turns out if your category is obscure enough, you don’t have to qualify, you just pay £12 and show up. This why I find myself at the Veterans Time Trials Association (VTTA) National 25-mile Championship with my tandem partner, Richard May alias +RichardM.
Our brilliant plan to arrive 90 mins before the off feels like misguided enthusiasm when the race organiser announces that owing to heavy mists on the course, the start is delayed by 30 minutes. It’s a really heavy mist and we’re informed he can delay the start by an additional 30 minutes maximum, after which we either race or it’s all cancelled. We bide our time and check out the competition. Although there were five pairs entered in the tandem category, one pair did so in error and have requested to race solo. We had plenty of time for a good nosy at the other machines.
So, a gang of four competing for the national title. There are Kirton and Stockley, 81 and 82 respectively and racing on their James Fothergill steel machine. It features a home-rigged water pipe for the captain and it seems the stocker is expecting bad weather with a rain coat lashed to the frame, too.
Then there is Swanley and Churchill (75 and 63), who are riding their Matrix Tank. This is an aluminium and carbon composite frame. The stoker has an interesting hand position on their set up. The top tube is even between the two riders, so the stocker has to have their arms either side of the pilot’s rear end to get in an aero position. We estimate their chain ring at 60T, ie mahoosive!
Lastly there are the Hutchisons (59 and 57) who are also riding a Matrix Tank. It’s unusual to see two tandems of the same mark in one place. Their configuration also has what I’m calling the “cuddle position” and a carbon belt on one side of the drive chain. The cockpit looks flash and they tell us this is a brand new bike for them. Gosh. Earlier in the season we beat them on the F11/10 by just one second. If they’ve made improvements, that second could vanish fast.
Let’s not forget us, Shannon and May. We are the “youngsters” at 58 and 51. We just so happen to have made one or two improvements to the Calfee Dragonfly we race on. The front wheel has been swapped for one with an 85mm depth rim, the tyres are brand new GP5000 TTs, the cockpit has been moved forward 7mm (so the pilot’s head is lower), the bottle with tools in it has been replaced by a small saddle bag, we’ve both got trip socks and aero overshoes on and I am wearing a proper TT helmet. Plus I've lost a whole stone in weight since we last raced. All this must add up, surely.
The clouds seem to have lifted and the organiser announces that we’ll start with the 30 min delay factored in to start times. Right then, onto the turbo to warm up, grab a couple of gels, pop the overshoes on and off to the start. I’d been careful to make a route from the HQ to the start point. It’s 3.5 miles. I don’t want to get lost. However, when we swing out of the car park, Richard’s path is totally at odds with the route on my head unit. He’s following other racers, so no problem. Except time is ticking down towards our start time and my route says we are miles (yes, miles) from the start. I have a total mini melt down and order Mr May to halt. It seems I've loaded the wrong route on my computer and it's guiding us to the E9/25 in Chelmsford. Today we are racing the F2A/25 which is near Cambridge. Oops. Not even the same county. Knowing what has happened I am able to stop freaking out, especially as the start is visible and just 200m down the road.
We haven’t ridden the F2A/25. It’s meant to be PDQ (pretty darn quick). And it’s not a complicated route. Go west to a roundabout, come back to the start, repeat, done. Even with our recent track record of accidentally ending up on a motorway, we’re confident of at least finishing this one. Boom, we’re off and quickly up to an average speed of 27mph. 27.8 at the roundabout. Cripes, this is PB territory. It’s really flat. That’s great, but it means there’s no rest going downhill, just a moment to catch our breath at the turn points. We have to give way at the first roundabout, which sucks our pace a bit, but there no repeat when we do it the second time.
We overtook the senior pair, Kirton and Stockley, at about 6 miles, but don’t see hide nor hair of the other two pairs. It’s not exactly warm, but I’m sweating buckets trying to keep my power up and so relieved when we reach the finish. I guess I was in the “if you’re not sure if you can carry on” zone that Chris Boardman says is about right for time trialling. The other two Boardman zones are “I can’t go on like this” and “I think I could go harder.” I gave it everything and I’ve rarely been happier to snap the stop button and the finish and check the time.
Our official time was 54 minutes and 53 seconds. A PB and a huge improvement on our previous best of 56:13. It's also a club record. Richard was thinking that sub-55 would be a good 2023 target. Think again, buddy. Back at HQ we check the other teams’ times helpfully projected on a big screen. We are the fastest machine by some way. The gap to our nearest rivals, the Hutchisons, is 1:18. A bit more than the single second earlier in the season. But wait. Have we won? Like VAR, we have to wait and check.
The VTTA Championships are handicap events, using VTTA Standards. Standard times that a man or woman is rated against for their age. This means mixed tandem pairs can compete against single sex pairs and all ages get a fair crack at it. It doesn’t feel fair as the adjustment (based on the time difference to your standard time) means that we’ve gone from being the fastest machine to the slowest. And the senior pair, although the slowest, are now the fastest. I’m not one for scripture, but the first shall be last and the last shall be first spins around my head for a while.
Many congratulations to Kirton and Stockley. They actually put in a time of 1:02:53, which is pretty astonishing for octogenarians. I’d be pretty astonished just to be racing in my eighties. Something for us all to aspire to.
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