Heading to Bedford this year as the defending Champion for the past two editions of the event, it was always going to be a tough ask to defend the race again but with a strong team willing to bury themselves for me for the weekend, I knew we would take the race to the rest of the peloton.
Stage one is always a Team Time Trial and this year sadly shortened by 2km, presumably because a set of pedestrian traffic lights appeared on the course. Having said that though, the competition was as fierce as ever and the top three teams in the UK were separated by a mere 8 seconds. The Node 4 Giordana Pro Cycling team covered the 7km in just a second quicker than us Escentual For VioRed girls and the Juniors of Scott Epic Contessa were just 7 seconds adrift in third.
It set up an exciting afternoon stage, over five laps of a mainly flat 10 mile circuit north of Bedford. With a short rise to the finish line for the mountains points and a fast tailwind section towards the sprint points, the all important seconds gained in winning primes had more meaning than ever and I found myself in an expected battle with the awesome World Junior Road Race champion, Lucy Garner, who was clearly looking to gain some extra seconds on me ahead of the Individual Time Trial on stage 3.
With two sprints for both sprint and mountains points, I found myself winning one of the flat sprints after an awesome lead out from Charlotte Colclough and then second in the other, whilst a second and a third place in the mountains competition, a total of 12 seconds were in the bag. Lucy was in fine sprinting form, gaining 18 seconds, but it looked to be a manageable gap ahead of the expected 6.4km Time Trial the following morning.
With the intermediate sprints all finished with I took a breather at the back of a relatively small peloton, which had sadly been split from another big group after a crash in lap 2 had brought down some key riders like Lowri Bunn from Abergavenny. Having spent much of the race at or on the front, I hadn’t been a spectator to the reported poor riding in the peloton, but sadly I became a victim of this around 1.5km from the finish when a rider decided to try and squeeze up the outside of the bunch on the right, whilst swerving round a tiny hole in the road. Turning left into poor Ellie Gilham of V C St Raphael, the rider brought herself and Ellie down and left me riding directly into her as the alternative was bringing down the riders to my left. If only I had decided to move up a little earlier as I was looking to shut down the small gap to the two late escapees on that stage.
Somersaulting over the front of the bars I landed next to Ellie in the nettles, before quickly jumping up to find Barney was already sticking the chain back on my bike. Jumping on I got a huge shove and was relieved to see the bunch had seemingly slowed a little and I set about chasing them down, not realising I would get the same time as the bunch because we were inside the final 3km of the race when the crash happened. Fortunately the rest of the team were unharmed and had ridden brilliantly to keep us in the hunt for the team standings too.
The crash marred stage left a few riders needing hospital treatment and the talk from the people following in the race convoy was that the standard of riding from a small minority was very poor and it seemed that riders were again focusing more on being fit and strong but at the expense of learning the necessary skills to keep themselves and their fellow riders safe on big wide roads that posed no threat and required only basic handling skills to get round the corners.
Day 2 of the event started with the threat of rain and as ever there was a strong wind blowing through the Speed Bowl of the impressive Milbrook Test Centre where the final two stages were being run. Everyone was expecting the usual 6.4km Individual Time Trial and it was reported a couple of riders off early actually completed the usual two laps of the circuit, as they hadn’t been told of a change that was made on the morning of the race. I don’t think I was the only rider disappointed to hear we were halving the Individual Time Trial stage to just 3.2km but I managed to secure a stage win for Escentual For VioRed and as such moved into the race lead by a mere 5 seconds!
It set us up for a really tough final stage where we expected to be attacked by the bigger teams and heavily marked by everyone in the race. The EFV girls were unrelenting on the front to keep me safe and alongside Charlotte, Elle, Rebecca, Rohan and Gaby we hit the climb hard every lap, whittling the bunch down whilst also allowing me to get in amongst it for the 6 sprints that were for the all important bonus seconds and again I found myself battling it out with Lucy Garner and the Node 4 girls and Scott girls who were hunting me down for the overall win. I tried to push the pace with the gaps that opened up after the sprint, but no one was ever going to work with me and everything we did as a team was understandably marked by every other team in the race.
With just over half distance completed Elinor Barker headed off on a lone breakaway and she chose a perfect time to make her attack and I was annoyed with my positioning and being boxed in inside the peloton. Ciara Horne had been an attacking force in stage 2 and she headed off on her own to chase down Elinor and whilst I tried to attack across the gap on a few occasions, everything I did was hunted down by the Scott and Node 4 girls and I just had the peloton lined out behind me!
All the EFV girls were attacking as well but none of us were allowed to get more than a few metres before they were followed too! The latter half of the race was just a constant replay of attacks and shut down, attacks and shut down, this wasn’t helping us close the gap on the escapees and the gap held around 1 minute 15-30 for the last few laps. Any attempts by the EFV girls to get to the front and start an organised chase was thwarted by other riders too, so lap after lap not a lot changed.
In the end the bunch sprint left us all around a minute down on Ciara and Elinor and soon the news filtered through that Ciara had done just enough to win the overall by a single second! It was a monumental effort from both her and Elinor with both deserving of the top spot. The third place on the podium was also decided by a single second, with Lucy Garner scoring enough extra intermediate bonus seconds to push me out to fourth overall.
It was an impressive final results board with Node 4 taking the team title from Scott in second and Escentual For VioRed in third. Lucy had sprinted her way to both the mountains and points jerseys, whilst I had secured an unexpected second place in the points jersey, a sign my flat speed is coming on nicely. Having won the mountains jersey last year I think everyone thought that was going to be the more likely competition for me to be placed in.
As a team, EFV had performed brilliantly all weekend, everyone was right up there with great team work and had done the sponsors proud. The unrelenting pace was never more evident than in the amount of caffeine gels from CNP Professional we went through and the Schwalbe tyres performed brilliantly in the wet. Riding in our new team kit from Rapha it was superb to feel so smart and well-supported and we couldn’t have been backed by a finer support staff.
Our next racing ventures as team see us split into two units, with four of us heading to ride Tour of the Freestate in South Africa on 21 May, whilst five head to the start of the Tour Series around the same time. Exciting racing ahead and just 100 days to go to the Paralympic Games when we leave for South Africa!