An introduction to the Shropshire and South Staffs Road Race League.
What is it?
Started 30 years ago as a training league by Wrekinsport’s John Churm. It is now a series of handicapped road races open to junior and senior men and women of pretty much all abilities from novices to Elite and, on occasion, professional riders. It is formed of 12 rounds held on Thursday evenings; you ride 11 and marshal the one your club organises which is not as difficult or as scary as it sounds. There is a maximum of 80 riders allowed in the race with priority given to riders of affiliated clubs who have entered the series. If the race is not filled then unaffiliated riders or those who have not entered the series can sign on ‘on the line’. It is held on open road circuits over 36 miles or 50ks or so, often 5 or 6 laps of a circuit, varying from hilly, to undulating to flat – something for everyone.
When is it?
Broadly speaking, it’s during what us Brits refer laughingly to as ‘the summer’. Opening round on Thursday 7th May 2020 at Knighton, Newport final round Thursday 23rd July 2020 at Charlton, Telford.
Where is it?
Basically, around Shropshire and South Staffs. You can find the courses and the HQs on the SSSCCRRL (catchy huh?) website here. Briefly they are Knighton (Newport) Cannock (Huntington), Enville (Stourbridge), Charlton (Telford) one round is at Swinnerton (Stoke) and there might be a circuit race at Stourport. There use to be a couple of rounds on the Bridgnorth course but traffic lights have just been installed on it so the league committee are considering alternatives.
It is handicapped and, as such, riders are divided in to 4 (occasionally 5) groups based on an assessment of your ability by the appointed handicapper. Many riders return regularly to the league and are known quantities. As a new starter you are almost certainly to be placed in Group 1. This is the ‘slow’ group (the term is relative) and will set off first and will usually having something like a 5 min gap over Group 2. Smaller gaps are usually left between Groups 2 and 3. Group 4, containing the faster riders, will be set off last.
If the handicapping is ‘right’, the groups should come together somewhere near the finish. More often than not the scratch group (the fastest riders) will catch the other groups and take the top placings. Sometimes the slower groups do manage to stay away. Whatever happens, somebody gets upset. The handicapper has an impossible job but is rarely shown any mercy.
You will need a British Cycling race licence which is 40 quid. The catch being you will also need to be a gold or silver member of BC which will set you back £40.50 for silver or £69.30 for Gold. In 2020 the series will cost £165 to enter the whole thing or you can pay £20 on the night. At circa £14 per race, it’s as cheap as road racing gets. If your club is affiliated to the league, you are guaranteed entry to the races.
Entry is open on the British Cycling portal (link here) you can pay for the whole series or four 'stage' payments to spread the pain a little.
There are some small cash prizes for the winners and British Cycling points for the top 10 finishers (10 for a win down to 1 point for 9th and 10th). All riders who finish are allocated league points for club competitions and for leaders jerseys (Vets, Women, Juniors etc).
How ‘good’ do I need to be?
In the olden days when I started in the 90s (that’s the 1990s, not the 1890s) Group 1 would ride at about 22mph before it got caught. There were more older male riders but fewer juniors and women back then. That’s changed quite a bit in recent years. Now, physiologically, starting in Group 1 last year I did the following. Knighton (undulating) 24.1 mph for 1hr 27mins. Huntingdon (undulating) 24.9mph for 1hr 20. Enville (Hilly) 23.2mph for 1hr 27 mins and Charlton (flat) 1hr 15mins at 25mph. This represents finishing with (or near) the bunch, not sprinting it out with the fast lads. For reference, I’m a 52 year old 3rd Cat road racer of modest ability.
If you get ‘spat’ from the bunch (and many do), it’s sensible to look for other riders in the same predicament and finish off the race together – slowing up and letting other riders catch you rather than pressing on on your own if usually the most satisfying way to get over the line. I’ve made a lot of mates this way!
Technically you should be confident in riding safely in a bunch at speed. Just starting out, you at least need to be able to hold the wheel in front of you safely so you can draft. Many riders start out not understanding ‘through and off’ – the principle technique that allows a group to move much quicker than an individual – but get it with experience. Some riders frankly never get it. The best way to learn the technique is to be coached on a circuit before you race. However, if you don’t seek this out, in order that you don’t endanger yourself and others you must, as a minimum I would suggest, be able to hold your line at race speed, particularly when cornering whilst not overlapping wheels. Riders need to look after each other and safety is paramount.
British Cycling have done a useful introduction to road racing you can see here.
There are risks, crashing being the most obvious. I can’t recall any last year but it does happen occasionally. If you’re going to get involved in bunch racing you must understand and accept this as a calculated risk whilst doing everything in your power to keep yourself and your fellow riders safe. It’s not the World Championships and most people have got work to get to on Friday morning. Recently, the racing has, in my estimation, got faster but safer.
The league is supported by NEG motorcycle outriders for each group, a lead car for each group, experienced British Cycling commissaires, and advanced first aid. Frankly, it’s as good as it gets from an organisational perspective.
Hydration and nutrition
You’re going to need to drink safely at speed – one bottle will probably be enough as long as you are well hydrated to start with. You’ll need to eat something pretty quickly after you’ve finished so bring a banana (other fruits are available) and some extra fluids so you don’t either cramp or go to sleep in the car home. Some people use gels during the race – all good, just be careful how your dispose of the wrapping. Oh, and try not to pee in sight of other road users, neighbours etc. If you must and you can’t get back to the HQ, be discrete.
Dropped handlebar race bike in good condition. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just working and safe but maybe treat yourself to some really nice new tyres. Some people ride with compact chainsets (50/34) on the front. I can’t, I ride a 53/39 with a 28/11 on the back which means I can hit 40mph at Huntington (not bravado, I need this to stay with the bunch) and still grovel my way up Six Ashes at Enville (just – and slowly).
Wear gloves (short fingered track mitts), make sure your lid is up to date, stick a base layer under your race jersey (which will need to be your club’s jersey – the colours of which will be registered with British Cycling). Personally, I wear glasses for protection but that’s your choice of course. On some night’s you’ll need arm warmers and possibly leg warmers and a gilet. Come well equipped.
Bring some spare safety pins for your number. And some dry clothes for afterwards. And a towel!
On the night
Racing starts with the first group off at 7 o’clock. Get there as early as you reasonably can. Changing rooms of some shape and form may be available but learning how to get kitted in the front seat of your car is a handy skill to acquire. Sign on, hand your race licence over and you’ll be given a timing chip and a cable tie in return. Put the timing chip low down on your front forks and trim off the tail. On the first night your race you’ll be given your allocated number if you’ve entered the series. You will keep (physically keep) the number for the duration of the series. There will be a rider briefing by a BC commissaire a few minutes before the race.
When the race is over, get the chip off your bike (bring some clippers) and go get your licence back ready for next week. Or, chuck the lot over the hedge and vow never to do it again, but do hand the chip back in first.
Why should I consider doing it?
It’s very tough but great fun. You’ll make friends. If you’re currently a fairly fit guy or girl with a bike you’ll likely end the season being an amateur racing cyclist – there is great satisfaction and some justifiable pride in that. You’ll be faster, fitter and you’ll have learned some stuff that will serve you well as the rider in the future. You will discover how you can push yourself harder on the bike than you imagined – the frustration of losing the last wheel in the bunch is worse than the suffering of digging in one last time. Trust me!
We’re fortunate to have the league in our patch. A huge amount of effort goes in to running it and, if it’s not well supported by riders and local clubs, we’ll lose it. It’s a valuable resource we should cherish in my view.
Any questions, drop me a line.
The ramblings of a cycling coach...