The Lincoln GP race radio crackles. Amid the static, the name IG-Sigma Sport is clearly audible. The London team has a rider in difficulty.
General manager, Becky Frewing, wastes little time in accelerating around the convoy of team cars, two wheels on the verge, her progress immediate and instinctive. The horn is used only to warn other cars of the presence of riders: when a car needs to find position, it does so by the driver’s skill and intuition. The gleaming Mercedes does little to harm IG-Sigma Sport’s profile, but there’s a reason cycling teams use powerful cars.
Suddenly visible on the left hand side of Fen Road is Ryan Mullen, hand in the air, front wheel absent from his machine. Team-mate, Pete Hawkins, third at the Tour of the Reservoir, the Premier Calendar’s opening round two weeks earlier, has broken a spoke, and Mullen has dutifully sacrificed his front wheel.
Mechanic, Keith Hicks, leaps from the back of the car, carbon wheel in hand. The change is completed in seconds, and Mullen is back on the road, full gas, elbows bent, back flat, hands gripping the hoods, his face a study in concentration. No-one wants a mechanical, but few are better equipped to deal with the solitary effort of chasing back on than the reigning junior Chrono des Nations time trial champion.
“Don’t panic, Ryan,” Frewing shouts through the open window of the car, and he promptly slots on to the bumper. The speedometer reads 27mph, but the team convoy is not travelling quickly enough for Mullen’s taste, and he sweeps from car to car, alternating between thigh-burning acceleration and snatched recovery. The tow is a grey area, one managed by the teams in the spirit of camaraderie that characterizes much of their dealings, from start line banter to mid-race alliances. Earlier in the race, a rider from a rival team, detached from the bunch, finds an unexpected ally in the red and black team car of IG-Sigma Sport. “Get on the back,” yells Frewing. He appears momentarily startled, but is sufficiently savvy not to look a gift horse in the mouth. As he passes, he raises a hand briefly from the drops, stealing a moment to acknowledge the assistance.
The skill and bravery of the riders dropped from the bunch as they make their way back is breathtaking. There is a bond of trust with the drivers, most of whom are ex-riders (Malcolm Elliott, John Herety, and Roger Hammond are three of today’s pilots) and a sixth sense from all parties. For the riders, the loss of even a second in pursuit of the peloton is a penalty too great to countenance. The chase back on is win or bust. Hesitate, and the bunch will leave you stranded in no man’s land, mired in the relentless turmoil of the wind. We pass Andy Tennant (Madison-Genesis), a world champion on the track, doubled over in pain after a crash. Moments later, he passes us, a hole in his shorts seemingly the only lasting effect of his contact with the tarmac.
As the laps unfold, several of the teams find themselves in positions they had neither planned or care for. The decisive break of the day, one that includes Team Sky’s Peter Kennaugh, guesting for Team Isle of Man, and last year’s runner up, Marcin Bialoblocki (Team UK Youth), is up the road, leaving those from the Continental teams unrepresented decidedly non-plussed. The Lincoln GP’s iconic feature – the 1:6 cobbled climb of Michaelgate, deep in the town centre, and climbed thirteen times – is too narrow for the race convoy, which deviates to a roundabout at Yarborough Road and waits for the riders to pass. Each mid-race pause prompts an exodus from the team cars, chat among the various team personnel, and, on one occasion, a high-speed bike change for Rapha Condor JLT’s Kristian House.
IG-Sigma Sport has suffered more than its fair share of mechanicals but this is of no consolation to Frewing. Joe Perrett, another of the team’s strong men, punctured as early as the second lap, and Pete Williams, green jersey winner in last year’s Tour of Britain, and one of the team’s best finishers, has had to chase back on after help from the neutral service car (Williams flicks his gaze towards us at the precise moment we pass, and the passenger window becomes a portal to another world: one filled with sweat, pain, lung-burning effort, and innate skill – his move around the team cars at the sharp left hander onto Saxilby Road is this correspondent’s highlight of an action-packed day).
With the race in its final stages, and Perrett, Wouter Sybrandy, and the Matts Cronshaw and Jones out of contention, Frewing exhorts her remaining riders to renewed effort. The quartet – Hawkins, Williams, Mullen, and road captain, James Moss – responds, and by the time they reach the final ascent of Michaelgate, its brutal challenge now made more demanding by steady rain, Hawkins has salvaged a top 10 finish, with his comrades in close attendance.
They roll past the finish line to soigneur, Nick Tucker, in varying states of exhaustion: Hawkins, wild-eyed, Moss seemingly broken by the effort, clutching the crowd barrier. Mullen gulps down a Coca-Cola, while Williams somehow finds the energy to smile at well-wishers. Jackets handed out, and an impromptu debrief among the riders begins.
The Premier Calendar peloton, denied the grandeur of its WorldTour counterpart, lacks none of its courage, skill, and determination. Kennaugh, a visitor from cycling’s top tier, may have won, but any who watched him climb Michaelgate for the final time will have little doubt about the effort he made to do so. To watch a race unfold from the passenger seat of a team car is a privilege, more instructive of racing than a lifetime’s television viewing. The other race, one conducted from behind the wheel, is as fascinating as events in the bunch.
Lincoln GP 2013 – result
1) Peter Kennaugh (GBR) – Team Isle of Man – 3.51.14
2) Marcin Bialoblocki (POL) – Team UK Youth +15″
3) Lachlan Norris (AUS) – Team Raleigh + 2.15
4) Richard Lang (AUS) – Rapha Condor JLT + 2.19
5) Tobyn Horton (GBR) – Team UK Youth – ST
6) Liam Holohan (GBR) – Madison Genesis +2.24
7) Eric Berthou (FRA) – Team Raleigh +2.38
8) Yanto Barker (GBR) – Team UK Youth +2.57
9) Richard Handley (GBR) – Rapha Condor JLT +3.02
10) Peter Hawkins (IRE) – Team IG-Sigma Sport +3.04