Comment Features

From the other side

A rider's perspective on what it's like to spectate at a race, to swap the bike for the cowbell, to stand the either side of the kerb for a rare change

I always wonder what it is like on the other side. Standing on a start line I’ll often look over the barriers, onto the pavements and into the cafes that line the streets and think: “Why are you here today? Are you a fan? Are you family? Or, are you simply someone who came into town and got inconvenienced by a bike race?”, then, “What are you going to do for the next five hours while I’m racing around here?”

At the Rapha Lincoln Grand Prix earlier this month, I had the experience from the other side and thought I’d write a little something about it. This is simply my experience, the experience of someone who’s used to being inside those barriers racing, but was instead roadside. 

The Richardsons Cycles crew await the race action at the 2022 Rapha Lincoln Grand Prix. Photo: Joe Cotterill/The British Continental

It’s rare that I go to watch races. The last bike race I watched live was the final stage of Volta Catalunya in March 2021, and before that, I couldn’t even tell you. 

I couldn’t have participated in that stage of Catalunya even if I wanted to, it was a WorldTour race, and I’m not a WorldTour rider; case closed. While the Rapha Lincoln GP is no way near the standard of Catalunya, it is a race that I competed in a mere six months ago when it hosted the national road championships.

There is an atmosphere like no other and it wouldn’t be out of place on the Belgian calendar. It will always have a place in my heart and is a race that I make no secret about wanting to win

I’m a Lincolnshire boy, the Rapha Lincoln GP is the closest I’ll ever get to a home race and the 2015 edition that doubled up as national champs was the first road race I ever watched in person. It’s a unique race with thirteen laps (for the men, eight for the women) up the cobbled Michaelgate Hill twisting around the heart of the city centre. There is an atmosphere like no other and it wouldn’t be out of place on the Belgian calendar. It will always have a place in my heart and is a race that I make no secret about wanting to win.

Dan Ellmore, the organiser of the race, puts it nicely: “It’s one of the only races in the UK where racers will feel like footballers.” While the crowds aren’t as big as those on the continent, they’re unrivalled compared to the rest of the UK. 

The riders fly past up Michaelgate at the 2022 Rapha Lincoln Grand Prix. Photo: Joe Cotterill/The British Continental

The reason I wasn’t racing is quite simple, I missed the entry deadline. I wasn’t due to be in the UK at all, and was going to be racing in Europe. A last-minute calendar change meant that my race days were swapped and I was going to be at home for Lincoln weekend. I spoke to Dan Ellmore, but it was too late to get on the start line.

Originally I wasn’t sure if I should go. I knew I’d be annoyed and frustrated that I wasn’t racing, and I knew that I’d have serious FOMO (fear of missing out) watching from the sidelines. But, I thought, ‘what the hell’. It was a beautiful sunny day, and it’d be a good excuse to catch up with some friends.

From the moment I arrived in Lincoln, I was completely unprepared. It’s the little things: ‘Where do you park? How do you navigate road closures? Where’s the best place to watch from?’

I’m not used to standing on the side of the road for twenty minutes in between laps, or being able to relax and take in the race purely as entertainment

I spent the day watching from the bottom of Michaelgate, and there are a few points I realised while watching: 

  • You have no idea what’s going on, it’s impossible to read a race based on the 30 seconds you see the riders for
  • Watching a race can be boring sometimes; what the hell are you supposed to do while waiting for the race to complete a lap? (I suppose you grab a beer, relax and enjoy the day out in the sun rather than think about what it’ll be like on the other side of the circuit)
  • How do you know the race dynamic, or what’s going on? I suppose it’s like watching other sports as a neutral. I don’t know much about cricket but I enjoy watching it on a sunny afternoon. Nor am I a fan of tennis but the same point stands. 
  • A bike race is simply entertainment, at the end of the race, everyone disappears. Many people watching see it as a nice day out and don’t care who was in the top ten.

I wear three caps in the cycling world: racer, writer, and fan. I think my biggest problem with watching at the weekend was that I wasn’t able to take my ‘racer’ cap off and fully enjoy the experience through the lens of a fan. I’m not used to standing on the side of the road for twenty minutes in between laps, or being able to relax and take in the race purely as entertainment.

I felt like a bit of a misfit on the roadside, I was merely someone watching on, it was like an inverse case of imposter syndrome

I felt like a bit of a misfit on the roadside, I was merely someone watching on, it was like an inverse case of imposter syndrome. I couldn’t help but think “Where would I be right now?”, “How does it feel in there?”. There was also, rather narcissistically, a part of me missing being one of the guys that are getting cheered on. 

The HUNT crew cheer on Max Walker (Trinity Racing) and Ben Perry (WiV SunGod) as they make their way up Michaelgate. Photo: Joe Cotterill/The British Continental

Although feeling somewhat out of place and longing to be in the race, it was also enjoyable experiencing the other side of the race too – I understand I’m contradicting myself here. Apart from national champs, I haven’t raced or been to a race in the UK since 2019. Walking through the crowds it was good to say hello to all the familiar faces, catch up with old friends and enjoy being at a bike race.

I finally got the opportunity to meet people who I’ve only had contact with via a screen for the past couple of years [Ed: it was great to finally meet you in person Joe!].  And being able to cheer on, or give a little bit of friendly abuse to, friends as they were going up Michaelgate was a good laugh too.

As a bike racer, you get to travel all over the country, all over Europe, but it’s rare that you ever take a moment to appreciate where you are

As a bike racer, you get to travel all over the country, all over Europe, but it’s rare that you ever take a moment to appreciate where you are. You go: race HQ, start line, finish line, race HQ, home. There’s one thing on everyone’s mind post-race: get home as soon as possible. 

A few of us decided to hang around a little longer after the race and get dinner in town, something which rarely happens. A part of me wishes that this was the norm, getting to experience the place that you raced in rather than getting on the road as soon as possible.

The beauty of being a racer is the highs and the lows – we live our lives on an emotional rollercoaster. The buzz of coming off a race on a high is priceless, but the lows can be difficult to handle – you cannot have one without the other. 

It was strange to not be leaving on that comedown from adrenaline with a hundred different stories and a dull ache in my legs

Driving away from Lincoln, I realised that, as a spectator with no huge investment in who won or lost the race, there wasn’t the buzz of a high nor the struggle of a low. There was nothing, no emotion, it was an enjoyable day out but I was missing that extreme. While this will sound normal, it was anything but for me. It was strange to be on the other side, it was strange to not be leaving on that comedown from adrenaline with a hundred different stories and a dull ache in my legs.

The riders toward the bottom of Michaelgate as spectators look on. Photo: Joe Cotterill/The British Continental

There are some days racing where I hate the sport and think about how good it would be as a spectator – to sit back with a coffee and watch the race with no pressure. On my way home, however, I realised that it’s a case of ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’. 

I suppose the day I don’t crave that feeling is the day I hang my racing wheels up

I need that competition. I’m not sure what it is or where it comes from, but if somebody could bottle up and sell all of the adrenaline-rushing feelings that you get in a race, then they’d be onto a winner. I suppose the day I don’t crave that feeling is the day I hang my racing wheels up.

Before I sign off, I just thought I’d put a humble brag out there, and Denny will confirm this. I predicted that Luke Lamperti was going to win with over 60km to go [Ed: he did too, chapeau Joe!].

Featured photo: Joe Cotterill/The British Continental