Cars arrive after journeys that, for some, began in darkness. Race kit and bikes are unpacked as the queue for coffee starts to build; the mirrored finish of the espresso machine contrasting the worn edges and dulled paint of its mobile host. Flags are fluttering in the gusting wind and spots of rain prompt glances skywards as hopes for a dry race rest on breaks in the cloud.
In the early morning light – the sun is still low in the sky and not yet warming – figures stand hunched; bulked out by jackets that insulate the racing jerseys beneath. Drinks are cupped in both hands and conversation is quiet. Not yet the shouting of the course.
Movement catches my eye as groups of riders, road gangs up from London, wheel to a halt. Faces fresh – the journey’s end punctuated by smiles and laughter – they dismount and layer bikes in stacks against the wall before quickly dispersing. Some joining the line for coffee, others into race HQ where their cleats clatter on the wooden floor. A table is standing at the far end bearing lists that await the re-ordering of the finish line. One name that, later in the day, will be above all others.
Riders sit in pairs, taking turns to fix race numbers, as wheels are checked and tyres inflated in the service area outside. The start draws near and a stillness falls as they retreat into themselves; thoughts turning to the race ahead. 7 laps of a rolling course the culmination of weeks of preparation. Breaks to be covered and strength conserved before the finishing line is crossed.
The race briefing commences as marshals disperse to designated control points; they stand bright against the fields in signature pink. The finish line is measured, marked and banners unfurled. I can feel the anticipation building in the waiting spectators as the control car approaches signalling the end of the neutralised zone. And then the group is sighted, crossing the line as one but with individual goals. To last the course, to make the breaks, to finish with arms aloft. Hopes and expectations to be juggled with the whims of the road.
And then stillness again as the field disappears around a wooded bend in the road. Conversations, temporarily held, resume as we wait for another point of passing.
As each lap is made, the field fractures as breaks form; some riders coasting to a halt – standing bent over bars with chests heaving – emptied. While others give chase – their efforts frozen in the lenses of the gathered crowd – before the ringing bell signals the final lap and one last opportunity to haul in the leaders.
And then, from around the final corner, we catch sight of a single rider. A quick glance behind to reassure before he slows to enjoy the moment; crossing the line having distanced the chasing groups. All effort temporarily eased as the sweep of the chequered flag wipes away feelings of fatigue. To then rest as others finish; groups forming at the roadside. Hunched figures – their helmets discarded – as stories are shared. Of the road and those that race.