Matrix Fitness GP

Words and Photography by Christopher Lanaway

Professional cycling is one of a few sports where you can be almost certain of a result, only for everything to be turned on its head in the final minutes of racing.

As round 5 of the Matrix Fitness GP came to a close in Croydon on 7 June, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Drops CC had the series in the bag. A 56-point lead over their closest rivals Podium Ambition put them in an optimal position to claim the series at the final round, a fast and technical course around Portsmouth’s historic Guildhall Square.

Arriving in Portsmouth, I was blown away by the size of the crowd patiently waiting for racing to commence as the riders warmed up and assessed the course. The atmosphere was already electric as shouts of support echoed through the streets – long before the racing was due to start. The final round offers double points for the riders – a possible spanner in the works for the seriesleaders. Yet as they line up at the start, riders remain calm and composed amid the introductions and elated cheers from track-side supporters.

Riders make final tweaks to helmets and bikes as the countdown to the race begins. With the other photographers, I quickly grab those last few shots at the start before being ushered off the track. The roar of the motorbike starting silences the crowd and focuses the riders. The final battle is about to commence!

At last the riders are underway. Series leaders Drops CC are fast on the attack closely followed by the likes of Podium Ambition and Team Ford Ecoboost. Sprint leader Nikki Juniper swiftly establishes herself as a key player, battling against Grace Garner to secure the necessary points to retain the green jersey. Other riders battle to control the race, spurred on as fatigue sets in by the knowledge that double points could easily shake up the leaderboard.

With an intense battle happening a stone’s throw from the crowds, the cheers grow louder as the number of spectators steadily increases. The track is now entirely surrounded by cycling fans spurring on their favourites. Attacks intensify, breaks form in the peloton and, as the end of the race draws ever closer, Jessica Roberts of Liv Cycling manages to gain some distance from her rivals.

Taking photographs from within the crowd, it’s become almost impossible to hear the motorbike leading riders round the track. I have given up on trying to predict how it will end; it’s become questionable whether the series leaders will cling on. But although they may be down, they’re certainly not out!

The light is fading and the clock winds on; just minutes remain. Jessica Roberts looks relentless as she approaches the finish line with a 20-second advantage on the chasing group. Try as they may, the group can’t break Jessica Roberts and she crosses the line alone as the chasing pack battle out the sprint for second and third. Grace Garner and Elizabeth Jane-Harris of Podium Ambition manage to secure podium spots. I anxiously try and figure out some form of finishing order as the riders cross the line.

It’s become eerily quiet; all I can hear is muttered speculation about what the result may be. The commissaires gather at race HQ to agree a finishing order. Riders are called to the podium area – it’s too close to call. The crowds look towards the podium in suspense. Waiting for any news I reminisce about Croydon just two days earlier. I’m reminded of the static that filled the air between the passing thunderstorms. Hairs begin to stand on end until out of nowhere, screams of joy erupt from behind the podium... It’s Podium Ambition! They lift the series leader’s jersey from Drops CC who until today have dominated the series.

It just goes to show – you should never bank until you have the cash in your pocket! Professional cycling will always throw up surprises that catch out even the most hardened cycling fans. As I walk the course post-race, I can’t help but notice the joy and surprise on fans’ faces; fans of all ages elated or discussing how team tactics swayed the race.

I think back to my first experience watching a professional bike race, the 2012 Olympic road race. Stood on the roadside waiting to see a tight knit peloton come past with Team GB set up well to win gold, I was left shocked as a small breakaway flew past, having built a monumental gap with no peloton in sight. Vinokourov claimed the victory that day – not the result most had predicted. Like most cycling fans, I didn’t walk away disappointed. I was hooked!