Races are won and lost on the hairpin bend at Crystal Palace. Photo by Andy Waterman
It’s difficult to understand how some people’s favourite season is not summer. In terms of racing there’s more on offer than at any other time of the year; living in London it’s easily possible to race three times a week if you so wanted, and that’s not to mention time trialling and sportives (if you’re that way inclined). Racing after work is possible because of the longer evenings, and Tuesday night alone there’s the choice of either Hillingdon or Crystal Palace. But for me the only choice is Palace.
I remember in my first year of racing I didn’t stray far from Hillingdon; as a fourth cat your racing options are fairly limited anyway, but I’d heard stories about Palace. About the crazy narrow course. That’s in a public park with dog walkers straying onto the road. The chaos as the various concurrent races mingle and tangle, and all the confusion that ensues. But bored of circling a flat featureless track out by an industrial park at the end of the bordering-on-hostile Uxbridge Road, I gathered my courage and headed one evening instead to south east London… I’d never enjoyed myself so much during a race than during that first taste of Palace – sprinting out of every corner, tentatively getting to grips with the tricky bends. I regretted listening to the nay-sayers and the doom mongers, and for not racing there sooner.
Personally I’m pretty hopeless at Palace, usually happy just to get to the finish with the bunch. But there must be something about it that keeps me coming back for more…
Be alert from the get-go
You can nod your head as wiser racers instruct you to start at the front of the race, but not until you experience it do you realise just how important that advice is. My first time off the starting line I did what I was accustomed to; hang off the back, surveying the scene, checking the lie of the land. But that doesn’t work at Palace, it’s too tight to move up easily, the front of the race so far ahead after just that first hairpin corner, that one moments hesitation at the start can cost you serious wasted energy. It literally took me half the race just to work my way to the front, sprinting past riders dropping off the back of the bunch like stones, and making up as many places as possible on the hill each time. It was a fantastic workout, but not the tactics of a race-winning rider. This mostly applies to the 3/4 race where the field tends to be larger, but hanging off the back of the E/1/2 race is definitely not the place to be if you’re looking to catch your breath or have an easy ride.
After a summer diet of racing at Palace you will notice many benefits to your riding, one of the most obvious will be improved bike handling skills. I’m not a brave racer; I’m small and light, and I don’t crash well. But on such a tight fast circuit you quickly have to get to grips with your limits; how fast you can take a corner and how soon to pedal out of it, how to protect your position in the bunch and to not allow any inviting gaps to open up to the wheel in front, how to turn a 180 degree bend shoulder-to-shoulder and not lose your nerve. Back on the open road these new-found confidences will set you at advantage to those that have shied away places such as Palace and remained within the comforts of non-technical circuits. The places you can make up by taking a faster line through the bends, the improved concentration that will help you stay high up in the bunch with minimal effort. Road racing seems like a breeze once you’ve cut your teeth at Palace.
No easy rides
Of course there should never be any easy races, but pushing your limits is not always easy when there’s the temptation to conserve your energies cruising around in the pack. At Hillingdon the bunch may string out into single file at times, it may become an effort to hold onto the wheel in front, but a competent rider could finish the race without approaching their limits if they so choose. At Palace there’s no such hiding, there are no free rides. There’s little drafting advantage to be found in sprinting out of a corner, nor in the repeated and relentless grind up the incline on the back of the course – strong riders will be found pushing the pace on the front, weaker riders found clinging to their coat tails. It’s a fantastic interval workout – all-out efforts followed by woefully inadequate moments of recovery, repeated over and over and over…
All cycling life is here
But beyond all the racing and all the action on the course, the main reason I have such an affection for Palace is the atmosphere. It’s in a park, surrounded by greenery and trees, away from traffic but still very much in London. Signing on is on a patch of grass under a tree in the middle of the course – no fancy lottery funded facilities, or even the most basic of facilities (the bushes in one direction serve as the gents toilets, the bushes in the other the womens). And in attendance is a cross section of London’s racing scene; from the kids races that run while the seniors pin on their numbers and chat on the grass, to the growing women’s racing scene, to the elites and young-up-and-comers on talent schemes and Olympic academy squads. Everyone mingles, there’s no snobbery or division lines according to experience or ability. It’s grass roots level racing at its best, and a tradition that I hope will be well supported, attended and enjoyed for many summers to come.
Racing at Crystal Palace takes place throughout the summer, with youth racing starting at 6.45pm and the seniors at 7.15pm. Keep an eye on the forecast however as racing is cancelled if it’s raining or the course is wet. Check out the British Cycling website for more details.