The Thursday evening time trial at Salt Ayre is becoming a regular activity for our household this year.We went again last week.
It’s a wonderful occasion – people gradually arrive and assemble on the grass close to the starting line. For those who plan to ride, there’s the pleasant anticipation of giving your all, and perhaps even (on a windless night) beating your own personal best (PB). But this is a sociable place too – it gives us a chance to natter with old friends, as well as gently to intermingle, and gradually perhaps to develop ease and familiarity with a whole new set of friendly faces. (We’re always – with varying degrees of comfort – easing ourselves into and out of identities – and how lovely it is to see young people, especially, developing bike-based identities.) It really is a most agreeable scene.
A lot goes on to make these events happen, of course. They depend on a dedicated band of wonderful volunteers from Salt Ayre Cog Set and Lancaster Cycling Club, who must arrive early to set everything up and await the riders’ arrival.
Some people set up and staff the desk where riders sign in, pay for their ride (£2.50 for adults, £1 for children), and collect their number (all riders now have a small number which is pinned onto the top left shoulder of their jersey, so that it can easily be seen by the team of time-keepers who must keep track of the riders’ progress around the 0.8 mile circuit; riders in the 6 mile and 10 mile time trials also have a larger number, which is pinned onto the back of their jersey).
The time-keeping team establish themselves adjacent to the finish line. The area which they inhabit is cordoned off, to discourage interference. (But it’s great that the finish line is so close to the start line as it means that they nonetheless remain part of, rather than separate from, the happy scene.) The time-keepers’ task is a demanding one, requiring uninterrupted concentration. The team, led by the seemingly indefatigable and definitely indispensable Bob Muir, have honed their craft as these Thursday night events have grown increasingly popular, and their task therefore more complicated.
The pattern which has become established is this – the first riders to race are those doing two miles (two and a half laps); they are followed by those doing six miles (seven and a half laps); and then finally, riders completing a ten-mile time trial (twelve and a half laps). On Thursday there were 60 riders in total. They leave at one minute intervals, so there are always many riders on the track at any time. The time-keepers cannot snooze!
There are other helpers too. To one side is a refreshment table for tea, coffee, squash and biscuits. Some people organise this. And there is always a ‘starter’ – someone to hold you upright on your bike, enabling you to clip fully in before beginning your ride, and ensuring you start at the right time. All starters have their own style, and all riders their own ways of interacting with them. Some starters hold only onto your seat tube; others steady the front as well as the rear of your bike. Some start to rock you gently back and forth as your start time approaches; others hold you steady as a rock until it’s time for you to burst free. Your departure is sometimes accompanied by ‘good luck’, or ‘have a good ride’.
I’m not sure I should admit how I love the fleeting intimacy of this relationship – between you as the rider about to explode off the line and the person tasked with holding you there, keeping you safe and facilitating a smooth transition from stillness into flow.
No doubt we all differ in this, but I am happiest when I feel able to place my left hand on the starter’s right shoulder. By this the already intimate relationship between us becomes unambiguously physical. As a rider I feel that I am thus more obviously seeking support. And I like to think that the bond between us, however it may or may not develop into the future, becomes just that little bit stronger. Besides, I’m a wobbly bike rider at the best of times!
Relationships matter, in cycling as in life. For all its apparent individualism, time-trialling is no different. It would not exist without close and abiding relationships of solidarity and loyalty between specific people. So I’ll say it now in case I forget to say it later – I thank and salute all those who work so hard, week in, week out, to make these (and similar) events happen. They have become a central part of my own family’s life, and they are a central part of the cycling culture which many people are working in many ways to establish and broaden in this part of the world.
The first riders to go are the two-milers. Here’s Flo, who set off at 7:04 (number 4), during her race. Flo is 7. Those riding the two-mile time trial tend to be younger children. Riding smaller bikes, with smaller gears, and using little legs, two miles is enough. Most important is that they’re participating, developing a sense of the capabilities of their bodies, and having fun. During her first few time trials, Flo would ride past us with a look of absolute joy on her face. When we asked her about this, she told us that having people cheering her on made her break out in an involuntary smile. I’m not sure whether or not I’m pleased that she’s since learned to control herself, and take the whole thing more seriously! Last week she was a little disappointed with her time. After getting a PB of 8 minutes and 52 seconds in windy conditions the previous week, she was 18 seconds slower.
One of the many fantastic things about these events is how they’ve become really inclusive. Time trialling might have traditionally been seen as rather an isolated endeavour – one person (most commonly a man) alone on the road, riding against the watch. There’s nothing wrong in this, but Thursday nights feel quite different – many families participate, some with three generations.
Because the event takes place on a purpose-built cycle track, young children who are not allowed to race on the roads can participate. And – thanks in large part to the superb efforts of Salt Ayre Cog Set in introducing children across our district to the thrills of cycling – many are doing so, along with their friends, siblings, parents, grand-parents and other relatives.
Bobby, who’s 9, has this year graduated to the six-mile time trial. In the photo above he’s alongside Ffion, who is in his class at school, before their rides. Salt Ayre Thursday time trials also seem to be becoming a family affair in Ffion’s house. Ffion has been riding six miles whilst her Dad, Andrew, rides the ten. This week Ffion’s brother Rhys, who’s 6, had his first go – and looked like he was having a wild time as he rode 2 miles in an excellent 9 minutes and 21 seconds. Meanwhile Mum, Sandra, had a go at a time trial for the very first time, completing ten miles in a highly respectable 32 minutes and 21 seconds.
Here’s another way in which these events are reaching out and embracing people who might otherwise never have found the pleasures of competitive cycling. They are creating a family friendly atmosphere and a safe, welcoming environment, in which ‘entering into the spirit’ and ‘having a go’ is really all that matters. And because of this, new people are coming to cycling, and breathing fresh life into cycling, including people who perhaps wouldn’t be seen dead in a skin-suit and who might hate the idea of banging up and down a distant dual-carriageway early on a Sunday morning.
Bobby set off at 7:21, and had a great ride, recording 21 minutes and 2 seconds for the six miles, beating his previous personal best by 21 seconds. I’ve been very impressed by how naturally he’s stepped up to the longer distance, so that already he seems to treat racing over six miles rather than two as entirely normal. Here he is having finished, looking suitably pleased with himself.
Sue was our next household member to go, setting off for ten miles at 7:44. I don’t want to hark on about the achievements of our particular family; as I’ve said already, for many of those taking part this event has become a distinctly family affair, and everyone, younger and older, slower and faster, achieves something real and important, and has lots of interesting stories to tell.
But that said, the stories I know best are those closest to me, so what I will say about Sue is how she didn’t ride a time trial until she was past forty, how she barely trains (we go out for occasional rides together, and also as a family, but she doesn’t put in the long hours in the saddle which I am wont to do), how as a child and indeed for most of her life she’d never have considered herself as ‘sporty’ or ‘athletic’. And yet, having easy access to events such as this helps to make her so, both ‘athletic’ and ‘sporty’. In providing an inclusive and safe space a short ride from our home, where anyone can give cycle sport a go, the Salt Ayre Thursday evening time trials are democratising activity, health, fitness, and cycling.
I’m not saying there are no ‘barriers to entry’. To say so would be for anyone naive, but for a sociologist inexcusable. Clearly, all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons will feel uncomfortable in hopping onto a bike and trying to ride it as fast as they’re able around a track, as part of an organised event. But there is very clear evidence from the people who are participating that the Thursday evening time trials are succeeding in significantly lowering those barriers which once existed, and thus enabling a greater range of people to jump over them, onto a bike.
I hope I don’t sound patronising. My point is that occasions such as these should not only be celebrated, but actively supported and encouraged. What value should we – whether as individuals, as families, as communities, or as a society – put on a regular time and place in which different members of a family can come together and take part in the ‘same’ event? An event in which everyone can have a go? The reasons people ride, how they ride, their experiences of riding, and what they’re getting out of riding will probably all be different. But these differences don’t eclipse the undoubted fact that such riding is similarly good for us. In a healthy society such events would be at the centre of every community.
Sue managed a very creditable 31 minutes and 16 seconds, 58 seconds slower than her personal best. (I’m not sure she agrees with me, but I think she should aim to crack ‘evens’, which is to ride 10 miles in under 30 minutes, at an average speed of above 20 mph, this year. On the next calm night I’ve no doubt she’ll either do so, or come very close.)
Over an hour after Flo, I was last of our family to set off. I finished in a time of 25 minutes and 56 seconds. Fastest 10 miler of the night was John Ingham, in 22 minutes and 31 seconds.
I’ll write in more detail about my own experiences of riding time trials at Salt Ayre some other time. The key point for now is that Thursday night cycling at Salt Ayre, and thus potentially everywhere, has become an important and healthy local occasion, and exactly the kind of thing which should be more widely promoted.