British Cycling’s Premier Calendar Series begins on Sunday (April 1) with the Maldon Dengie Tour.
The bunch race through the windswept Essex countryside features numerous dirt road sections that give the race overtones of a northern European spring Classic and its nickname, The Hell of the East.
This year’s edition boasts arguably its strongest start list, with each of Britain’s six UCI Continental teams fielding an eight-man squad.
The Rapha Condor Sharp team that dominated the event in 2011 will be led this year by Kristian House, the 2009 national road race champion, and a fixture of John Hertey’s teams since 2006.
In a stark example of how the balance of power among Britain’s top teams has shifted, Zak Dempster, who won last year’s race in the signature black and pink of Rapha Condor Sharp, will line-up on Sunday for Endura Racing alongside another former RCS rider and current leader of the UCI Europe Tour, Jon Tiernan-Locke.
“We are going to be up against some good teams,” said House. “In the past three or four years we were pretty much the favourites, but the scene in the UK has changed so much it’s no longer like that.
“There are a lot of teams who have stepped up. If you look at Raleigh, they’ve brought in a couple of foreign guys and they are good riders. Endura are going strong. Sigma Sport have upped their team as well. It’s a great thing to see. The whole of the Premier Calendar has taken a step up. It’s cool.”
House speaks fondly of the Maldon Dengie Tour, a race characterized by crosswinds and numerous dirt road sections, jokingly referred to by the race organisers as ‘gravé’. House recalls how he battled back into contention through the race-defining crosswinds 12 months ago.
“I had a really good time,” he said of the 2011 race. “Zak was going really well. We had four riders in the top 10. Last year was really weird. It split to bits. The bunch had gone away. This year will be an interesting race. Hopefully it won’t be too negative.”
For House, the defining feature of the Dengie race are the crosswinds, and not the numerous sections raced on unmade roads. “It wasn’t the dirt sections that made the race,” he recalls of last year’s event. “Some of the dirt sections split out the race for a bit. It’s after the dirt bits that the moves go properly. As long as the weather is good but windy, it should be a good race.”
He speaks modestly but confidently of his own condition and prospects as he prepares to lead a team in which his own experience, and that of Dean Downing and James McCallum, will be balanced by the potential of Oliver Rossi, Ben Grenda, Felix English, Richard Lang, and Luke Mellor. “I’m looking forward to the Maldon Dengie Tour. I really enjoy that race. It’s something different with the off-road sections. I’m in pretty good shape. I’ve got decent form so I’m hoping to be in the mix.”
Now 32, House is one of the elder statesmen in a squad driven by a new remit to develop under-23 talent. “I’ve always been more of a senior rider but all of a sudden I feel like the old guy on the team!” he jokes. “They’re not just under 23s, a lot of them are under 20! There are guys who are 19 years old, and I’m like, ‘Wow’! I look back to what I was doing at 19 and it seems a long time ago!”
RCUK documented the Spanish training camp experience of two of Rapha Condor Sharp’s new recruits in February, and both Felix English and Oliver Rossi will race alongside House on Sunday. “I didn’t go to any of the training camps because I was in the States,” says House, “but all the guys are gelling together quite well. John [Herety] has a knack for doing that and picking riders that will fit in. It’s one of the reasons I’ve ridden for him for so long.”