I was there for Le Grand Depart (the Grandest Depart!). It was a fabulous day with many thousands of people in the centre of Harrogate making for an unforgettable atmosphere – and I even got to meet Barry Hoban and Brian Robinson! It would seem now that after the London 2012 Olympics, the subsequent men’s and ladies’ Tours of Britain, and now this, that bike racing has certainly become fashionable in the UK. 3 million people can’t be wrong.
As memorable as that day in Harrogate was, however, treasured memory number one from my trip to Yorkshire would probably be what I got involved in earlier in the week whilst the hype was building up in Harrogate. Whilst planning my trip, I just happened to come across a certain event that was to take place on the preceding Wednesday to the Grand Depart, a bike race in the small town of Otley, just down the road from Harrogate where I would be staying with friends for the week and weekend. I think I was probably in the process of planning the second half of my racing season actually, the first half having been rather a disappointment due to the severe lack of available places on the local road races. I just couldn’t get a race for love nor money, not for the whole of May, in fact.
This all ties in with the moral of this month’s blog, but I’ll come to that in a bit. For now, I was putting a much more respectable program together for late June, July, August and early September. The race in Otley looked perfect. So I contacted the organiser to check I’d get a ride if I entered. He said ‘I’ll put you in. If you’re up here, you need to race. I’ll put some of the local lads on the reserves, they’ll get a ride’… Now that’s a refreshing attitude. I was in the Chevin Cycles Classic race, a Cat 2/3/4 crit. Result.
A refreshing attitude indeed. I was to discover during my few days in Yorkshire just what a heartland of cycling Yorkshire is. I went to get my haircut at a barbers in Harrogate on one of the days of my stay there, and the lad who cut my hair just happened to be a local bike racer too. He told me stories of how the thriving local racing scene works, secret chain gangs, clandestine racing and other such skulduggery, pros and amateurs sharing the same training rides, everyone in it together. It’s all going on in Yorkshire, bubbling ferociously under the surface. And it’s a hard scene too, not for the faint legged. Puts the rest of us to shame. Turning up in Otley on Wednesday night for the race, I could see with my own eyes what cycling and cycle racing means to people up there (I’m writing this in London of course). There’s a passion and enthusiasm which would be more than a match for anything that you might encounter in France, Belgium or otherwise.
I arrived just as the Elite Ladies race was coming to its conclusion. Lizzy Armitstead and Dame Sarah Storey had ridden away from the main pack and were having a race all to themselves, two Olympic medalists going hammer and tongs round the streets of Otley. I arrived at what I would come to realise as being the fastest part of the course, at the bottom of a rapid descent that leads into a fast sweeping left hander onto the start/finish straight. The speeds were impressive. I was already excited and more than a little nervous. Seeing these athletes flash past at north of 50kph was building my nerves up to fever pitch. I couldn’t wait to get on track, but boy was I expecting to suffer.
Having signed on and warmed up round a small residential estate with young kids cheering me on, I rolled up to the start line. It was like being in a foreign country, albeit one where I could understand the local’s chitterchatter. Lots of harsh cutting vocal tones, Fs and blinds, laughing and joking with a sharp edge of seriousness. This was the business. It was so exciting to be there in the middle of it all. The best bit was the size of the crowd. There were thousands of people lining the start finish straight, and as I was about to see, lining the whole rest of the course. This was even better than the London Nocturne I had done back in early June (half an hour of pure unadulterated suffering, but good fun all the same). Down there, people show great enthusiasm, although you’re never really sure if they genuinely get it. Up in Yorkshire, they most genuinely do get it.
We roll up to the start line, briefed by the commissaire and given the count down. And so it began.
This was serious pace. The second Cat riders respresenting some pretty impressive sounding local teams were tearing it up at the front of the bunch. I was, predictably, riding at full gas just to cling to the back of what I hoped was the main bunch. Some splits occurred but I managed to jump across the gaps and just hang on. At certain times I had time and enough of a view to see what was going on up ahead. Guys were actually attacking off the front. This was nuts! Then, on the third or fourth lap of the scheduled 12, fate farcically intervened.
A fire engine had been allowed onto the course. It was, presumably, responding to an emergency somewhere else in the town and needed to get down the start finish straight to get to where it needed to go. What no-one has bargained for, was the start/finish gantry. Thus unfolded a farcical scene which would have probably caused a riot had it not been precedented by the famous bus-gate episode in the Tour de France 2013. The Fire Engine was caught under the gantry. Meanwhile, 100 bike racers were careering down the hill and into that left hander with no idea was was going on just around the corner. Screeching of brakes, more Fs and some serious blinds, we all ground to a halt.
The race was held up for well over twenty minutes. The story even ended up in the local news (see pic below), and 100 angry bike racers were helpless as all their race anger dissolved away into the cool Yorkshire evening. Whatever fire the engine had been called out to that evening, it certainly wasn’t the only fire it put out. It was a shame. During this stationary lull however, something very interesting happened.
At one moment or another, I looked up and saw a rider just ahead of me that I’d not noticed before. I recognised the skin suit the rider was wearing. I also recognised the long platted pig tail that emerged from underneath the rider’s helmet and ran half the length of her back. I turned to the rider next to me, who seemed to be administering slightly less Fs and blinds that many of the others and said, ‘is that who I think it is?’. He replied in the affirmative. I was sat behind Lizzy Armitstead. She had obviously not had enough of a workout during the Elite ladies race with Dame Sarah et al, and fancied getting involved with us club guys for a bit of rough and tumble in a snarling bunch. We finally set off again for round two and the remaining 6 laps as the commissaire delared the course clear. There I was, riding a town centre crit in North Yorkshire, sat on Lizzy Armitstead’s wheel. To be honest, that didn’t last for long.
The race was too quick for me, with speeds topping out at around 70kph, but I held on to the back of the main bunch till the end. The results show I finished 45th out of the 100 starters which I felt was quite respectable. There was talk that Lizzy had contested the bunch sprint in the finale, but the results didn’t show anything to that effect, just a blank space next to the 23rd position. So there it was in black and white, and now it is official people: With a lengthy journey to the very depths of my pain cave being the sole requirement, I am only slightly slower than Britain’s best female road cyclist. Fact.
It was fantastic to go racing in Yorkshire. I’d like to do more travelling to bike races next year. In fact, I might have to. Despite all the positive press and amazing public events that have captured the imagination of the country’s sports fans, it would seem that there is still a stubborn minority of people who do not want to see any bike racing at all on their precious public roads that they believe have been put there specifically for them to drive their motor vehicles along. If there is a hint of snide and bitterness in my tone, I don’t direct it at motorists in general of course. The majority of people are happy to stop to allow a bike race to pass, albeit with slightly perplexed looks on their faces. But there are always some who will choose to trim their hedges on race day getting branches and debris all over the course, or those who refuse to stop at marshall’s reg flags and cause dangerous situations, or those who just call the Police and get them to come and stop the race. All these examples are genuine things I have come across, and I’m sure there are many many more similar anecdotes among the amateur racing community in this country. Indeed, in Dave Brimson’s account of the history of Woolwich Cycling club, it would seem people have been complaining about bike racing on public roads for well over a century.
“A change took place during the middle of [the 1890s] that was to shape the sport in this country for many years and the effects are still being felt to this day. This was the banning of racing on the road by the NCU under police pressure because of the number of complaints and accidents involving the general public”. (Dave Brimson, Club Historian)
The upshot is, that amateur road racing in the UK is (once again) genuinely under threat from those opposed to it happening on the roads outside their country mansions. It seems unimaginable after all the great things that have been happening over the last few years that we are at risk of losing road racing. We were finally starting to catch up with the continent, but now the busy-bodies have other ideas.
British cycling has attempted to address this problem, and at a Surrey League race in early August this year (in which I placed 4th), we were introduced to ‘Race Smart’ for the first time in what was the longest pre-race briefing from a commissaire I think any of us had ever known. It’ll go down in legend I’m sure. It was explained to us that we were obligated to read the information on a laminated card that explained a sort of code of conduct that we must all follow to keep us within the law and the rules of the road. Tow the line, or we’ll get shut down was the basic message, and shut down not just today, but in many future days too. If we want to have cycle racing on public roads, we’d need to start behaving ourselves, no riding on the wrong side of the road, no swearing, no littering etc. All reasonable things to ask really, but the implications of even the slightest slip up seem beyond comprehension. We were asked, in the light of this, ‘does anyone not wish to race today’. The room remained silent.
So that’s what’s going on in the UK amateur road racing scene at the moment. Scary stuff, that’s for sure and no doubt when the season starts to calm down and we all take stock, many debates will arise around the subject. In the meantime, it would seem we’re walking (well, riding) on eggshells. Cycling and cycle racing in the UK may have become fashionable, but then so did the Sex Pistols.
Next year I hope to actually get into some bike races earlier in the season and start collecting points in a timely manner. I just hope there are some bike races. There’s not enough to go round as it is.
Next month (which, as I write, is tomorrow), I have some exciting news.