A revamp of the Premier Calendar, we were told, would herald a new, improved era for domestic road racing in Britain.
With four UCI-classified events plus the ever-popular Tour Series, the Spring Cup and the GP series on the agenda for this year, there was much to look forward to.
But a revamp on paper doesn’t necessarily result in a departure from one man and his dog watching races unfold in remote corners of the country.
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding – and the Virgin Money Cyclone Festival of Cycling offered the perfect chance to take stock.
Held over four days in the north east, the Cyclone includes a leisure ride on the banks of the Tyne, criteriums in Newcastle, three sportives over three tough routes in the rolling Northumberland countryside, the Curlew Cup – part of the Women’s Road Series – and the Beaumont Trophy, run as a UCI 1.1-classified race for the first time this year.
One man and his dog were camped happily on the road side to watch, but big crowds were definitely there, too – with more than 4,000 people attending the weekend in some capacity.
With a strong team behind it – Peter Harrison, the chief organiser, has been hosting the Beaumont Trophy for years and also put on the 2011 British National Championships – the Cyclone is in a privileged position. But, again, it’s another thing entirely to make a continued success of an event which grows from year to year.
Making full use of the superb roads available in the north east, the region welcomed plenty of riders happy to avoid England World Cup match against Uruguay on Thursday evening.
Friday, meanwhile, saw Leazes Park – at the heart of the University’s student campus and in the shadow of Newcastle United’s St James Park – transformed into a technical, fast-paced criterium circuit.
With the students away, the cycling community came out to play – the park being becoming something of a cycling hub as riders signed on for the following day’s sportive ‘challenge rides’ and watched some of Britain’s best crit riders tackle the tricky circuit.
Entertainment on site – easy-ups, demos and a stunt bike display – ensured those there just to sign-on had plenty to enjoy in addition to the crit racing, while a strong field was attracted to the elite men’s race.
Denied a tilt at defending his Beaumont Trophy title, with his NFTO team opting to change their provisional line-up, Dean Downing responded by storming to victory.
On the difficult circuit, which features plenty of long, fast-paced downhill sections and sharp corners, Downing was aggressive from the start as he ensured his final race in the city was one to remember.
Three Madison-Genesis riders – Tom Stewart, Ian Bibby and Liam Holohan – led the sprint out, but it was the ever-green Downing who stormed past them to take a very popular win.
After the frantic pace of the criteriums, the exact opposite was the case the following day as one of the toughest sportive routes in England was tackled.
Thousands tackled the demanding ‘challenge rides’, Including the climb of the Ryals, undulating country roads and tough road surfaces – with the 104-mile route the hardest of the lot.
Feedback from riders was good – a great route and a great setting to test your legs on a route not too dissimilar from the roads set to tackled in the Beaumont Trophy and Curlew Cup. Effectively, the RideLondon of the north.
RideLondon, after a successful debut last year, looks set to become a hugely popular fixture on the British cycling calendar – but the Beaumont Trophy’s UCI classification means the north has its own top-level competition.
Blessed with fine weather, both the men’s and women’s races attracted big crowds – club runs and weekend riders out in their hundreds to tackle the route and watch the pros follow suit.
And the racing was top quality too – Katie Archibald, Charline Joiner, Mark Christian, Tobyn Horton, Tom Moses and Roger Aiken all among the riders getting a hit out before the Commonwealth Games.
Archibald and Joiner, in particular, enjoyed a day to remember as Dame Sarah Storey’s Pearl Izumi Sports Tours International team exerted their dominance in the women’s race – Joiner winning the primes and Archibald taking overall victory.
Just 15 riders made it to the finish in the ever-decreasing peloton in the women’s race – by contrast, in the men’s edition the peloton had no say in what happened at the finish line.
The day’s break had gone never to return long before the first ascent of the 20 per cent gradients of the Ryals were tackled.
The long, straight, steep climbs to the top makes it a daunting sight and also offers the opportunity for attacks. An eight-man group formed from which Kristian House (Rapha Condor-JLT) eventually escaped from with Mark Christian (Raleigh) to take victory.
House finished, arms aloft, to great noise on the finishing straight, with the final 300m completely taken up by spectators.
If British Cycling was to go forward, one rider told us back in the winter, it needed to find a way to get fans to embrace the domestic races.
This corner of the north east, blessed this year by fine weather, a packed programme, challenging sportives and high-quality racing, certainly appears to have got the template right.