PEZ Preview: UK Road Champs ’15
All the European National championships are this Sunday and one of the hardest fought will be in the UK. This year the course is based around the famous cobbled climb of Michaelgate up to the Lincoln Cathedral. Sam Larner took his bike and camera to check-out the ‘parcours’ for the champs.
It was my first time out on the roads for PEZ and if I’m honest, I was a little bit nervous. I decided to make sure that I was fully prepared, so after checking that I had a fully charged camera, and fully charged replacement batteries, plus a dictaphone, route map and bike spares, I hopped on a train for the journey north with my brother.
The town of Lincoln is well worth a visit even if you’re not a cyclist. The old town, where the National Championships will finish, boasts both a castle and cathedral. The cathedral was built in 1311 and apparently it was the tallest building in the world for 238 years. Slightly less historically, it’s also the 60th anniversary of the Lincoln GP, a race that has been a permanent fixture on the British calendar since its inception. Traditionally the race is run on 13 laps of an 8 mile course centred on the very steep, cobbled but short, at only 300m, climb of Michaelgate. The route for the National Champs, and the Lincoln GP last year, is a variation on that course. There are only 8 laps of the Michaelgate circuit but the 123.5mile course distance is made up with two 28 mile laps of an opening circuit which takes the riders out into the countryside to the north of Lincoln.
It was the country circuit that we decided to ride first. If you were just to look at the profile you would be mistaken for thinking that these two circuits would be easy. There’s almost no climbing at all and so I think we both set off with the expectation that we would have a nice easy ride in the Lincolnshire countryside. This would be a pleasant change from our usual rides, which take place on the crowded streets of London. Our expectations of an easy ride were dismissed almost immediately when we set off into a gusting south westerly wind which would only be behind us for the shortest part of the course.
Although Lincoln is just 73m at its highest it is set on the plains of Lincolnshire and so is significantly more prominent than the elevation would suggest although to the north lies a ridge that gently trends down to the plain. The course heads north out of Lincoln hugging the ridge line for the first 5km. There’s a left turn and a long straight descent, which, aside from the rich green splendour, is more reminiscent of a route through the American Mid-West than the British East. Unfortunately for us this section was ridden into a block headwind meaning we were swapping turns every 200m or roughly every minute….
The circuit turns right at Sturton-by-Stow, which is a delightful little village which has only two pubs but both are literally next to each other. We decided it was a bit early in the ride to stop for a pint but noted it as a prime location for a convenient pub crawl. The course after Sturton-by-Stow is the prettiest part of the whole route, it meanders through a number of beautiful small towns, each with an ancient church and a pub packed with equally ancient regulars. We’re also below the exposed ridge line so wind will be less of an issue although it remained ever-present during our ride.
Just after the beautiful red brick village of Springthorpe the riders will take a right at the cross road with A631 main road. We’re now at the furthest point in the course and the only section that we rode with a tailwind. It’s also the first climb on the course although it’s not hard enough to put anyone in difficulty. What it does do though is bring the riders back up onto the exposed ridge and into the teeth of the wind once again. If someone wants to go clear then this is the place to do it. We’re also heading towards RAF Scampton which is the home of the world renowned Red Arrows and was also the base of 617 squadron who launched the famous “Dambuster” raids on the Ruhr valley during the Second World War. This section of the course is more rolling although the hills are not steep enough or long enough to break the peloton up although they could act as a launchpad. Despite my studious preparation for this preview I was realising that I had forgotten one vital piece of kit, food. Riding into a stiff cross headwind is hard enough but it takes on a unique quality when it feels like you’ve sprung a leak and your fuel is gradually, or rather quickly in my case, disappearing onto the road. Luckily, I was able to just about limp back into Lincoln and to a supermarket to top up on a handful of chocolate bars and coca cola, which isn’t a wise move if you’re then going to do hill efforts straight after.
Scott Thwaites (Bora-Argon 18) on racing against sky: “It’s not just that they’ve got 5 massively talented riders it’s that they race so well as a team and it will be difficult to shake all of them off.”
On Sunday the men will complete two laps of the opening loop before heading back into Lincoln for the traditional, Lincoln GP, finishing circuit. We were close to the end of our ride but for the Elite riders they would just have crossed the halfway ride. Bike races in Lincoln will always be centred around the climb of Michaelgate and this National Championship will be no exception. It’s not a long climb, just a shade over 300m, but it is very steep with an average gradient of 12.6% and a max of 23.5%. Just to add to the difficulty, it’s also covered in rough Roubaix style cobbles which makes the smooth gutters the easiest place to ride, although these are so narrow that just getting in them is an exercise in bike handling and balance. Because it is so short it’s a climb all about momentum rather than anything else, however, as fatigue sets in over the course of the race the distance that the initial effort will take you up the climb will reduce and once you do start slowing the climb becomes significantly harder.
Tom Moses (JLT-Condor) on climbing Michaelgate: “Hit the cobbles first, it’s so much easier if you’re the first rider. If you can get in the gutter on the left hand side it’s not that bad. The cobbles are really rough though.”
Last year Yanto Barker kicked away from a four man break to win the Lincoln GP on the climb of Michaelgate and unless someone decides to go for a long range break I would expect that this years winner will come from a similar scenario. Numerous people have already written off Mark Cavendish’s chances because of the finishing climb and, it’s true, he is a long shot however he is clearly a good enough climber to make it round the circuit and compete for the win. I think the favourites have to be the pro guys; Thwaites (who holds the Strava record on the climb), Pete Kennaugh and Ian Stannard but you can’t discount some of the stronger domestic guys like Steve Lampier, Yanto Barker or Tom Moses.
Yanto Barker (ONE Pro Cycling) on the Domestic teams: “There has rarely been a time when there are so many teams who are strong enough and are organised enough with enough good riders to actually influence the race.”
Perhaps more important though is where to watch the action unfold. The obvious plan would be to set up camp on Michaelgate early in the morning and spend your day there. If you do fancy that then put your camping chairs down on the climb just beyond the halfway point where the climb kinks to the left. Don’t bother to pack any sandwiches though because the historic and delicious Browne’s Pie Shop is just up the road. If you are looking for somewhere a little quieter then head out onto the countryside course and stick your picnic blanket down in Scampton village. The climb out of Scampton is one of the hardest ones on the countryside course although it’s not really overly testing. You will get to watch the men twice and the elite women once and when they’ve passed through you can either head back into Lincoln to try and catch them again or, alternatively, pitch up at the Dambsuters Inn and enjoy your afternoon!
There’s two keys to this race; wind and Michaelgate. The long range forecast for next weekend suggests that the wind will be quite strong but not extreme. Anyone expecting two easy opening laps before the race hits the cobbled climbs of Lincoln will be sorely disappointed as they find themselves, and a significant percentage of the peloton, dumped into the gutters of Lincolnshire as the strongest teams force the pace. This should suit the domestic teams as they will be able to field full strength squads and Sky should also benefit but it will be an incredibly hard day for the Continental Pros who are racing with no team mates. One thing is guaranteed though, the British public’s appetite for pro cycling is rampant but the course designs have crafted an incredible course that should satiate that appetite.