I first came to Europe when I was 18, and came to race bikes. It was where cycling was born and where it evolved into the spectacle (albeit confusing one) that it is today. It’s where the best cyclists rode their bikes and where you came if you wanted to be the best.

21 years later, and I have still never raced a bicycle outside New Zealand. Why? Well that’s another story, but today I finally broke the spell and broke on to the international scene. Not quite in the big way I had imagined as a young man trying to make his way in the world, but I was definitely noticed.

A good friend of ours – Karin, who had recently moved back to Sweden from New Zealand, suggested I might want to come along to one of the local road racing club hill climb events after work. As I am still family-less and Karin is the only person I know in a radius stretching many thousands of kilometres, I accepted. I didn’t have a bike, well I did – Karin’s 15+ year shopping bike complete with basket, malfunctioning gears, dodgy brakes and delaminated tyres, but I thought a bit of spectating with beer in hand on a hot summers evening sounded like a pretty good idea.

Karin met me at work and I followed her on her slick racing machine through a labyrinth of cycle paths and back roads to the meeting point outside the Babajan bar in the heart of Södermalm, the large Island in the heart of Stockholm. We were the first to arrive and before I knew it Karin was entering me on the start sheet. What? I was dressed in my work clothes, had a bike that was… well, I won’t call it a heap of junk as I’ll have to give it back, but I didn’t even know if I could pedal it up the so called hill climb let along try and race on it! But before I could complain too much it was done, and the friendly organiser, salivating at the idea of making a complete fool of this foreigner was loving every moment of it. He even went home to fetch me a helmet.
Other cyclists started to trickle in. They were of the sleek looking whippet variety with shaved legs, head to toe matching lyrca sporting sponsors colours and riding ridiculously expensive bikes. I was feeling more of a fool by the minute. So we snuck off for a quick (quick probably the wrong word to use) reccie of the course. The racing was to be run in heats of four. The riders were neutralised until a sharp left hander and risk of oncoming traffic had been accessed before been let loose on another tight right hander and then gradually climbing up an increasingly steep gradient (to a maximum incline of 15%) on a narrow winding road to the summit of a small hill; atop which stood the Sophia Church. The first two riders advanced to the next round, the losers to a repechage called “lucky losers” in which you had one more chance to advance or it was beer o’clock for you.

Beer o’clock sounded good as we milled around waiting for the heats to start and for me to be put out of my misery. Karin was off in the first heat and as she and her fellow competitors took off into the pain zone, I pulled my trusty steed over to the start line behind bikes sporting Sram Red and Shimano Dura-Ace components. If you don’t know what that means, it’s like travelling first class on a bicycle. Me, in my work clothes on a 15 year old shopping bike, was in the luggage hold.IF

My only chance (the only real hope was a huge oil slick around the corner) was a quick start. Despite the first 100 or so metres been neutralised, when we were sent off, I managed to sneak past everyone at a furious pace (yes we were still neutralised) and hold the lead for about two seconds (this was also the flat bit) before I was swamped and left behind (yes, the race was still neutralised). By the time I actually got to the climb, the other three were gone, and I enjoyed the support of a small crowd as I snaked my way up the climb before crawling over the line and letting out a heavy wheeze of effort. Of course, as a ‘lucky’ loser I got to do it all over again… lucky me. I’d take you through that race step by step too, but it went very similar to the first one, except I didn’t manage to take the lead for two seconds in the flat neutralised section.

While the fit whippets on the sleek bikes battled it out in quarter finals, semi finals and of course the finals, Karin and I watched from the outside seating, wrapped in the provided rugs trying to keep warm in the Swedish summer evening. It wasn’t how I imagined my first international race would pan out, dead last by a very large margin. However I never imagined that such a poor showing would be so much fun as well.IF

(First published http://swedishroaming.blogspot.se – 2013)