Northern Rock Cyclone weekend

Northern Rock Cyclone
Crit racing Northern Rock style
Alison Curbishley
Alison Curbishley in TT action
Northern Rock Cyclone
The action hots up
Northern Rock Cyclone
Dean Downing after canine incident
Northern Rock Cyclone
Wilko wins Leazes Crit

All images © Richard Exley 2009

Friday Night is Criterium Night

No major UK cycling events start in the shadow of a Premiership football stadium, and unfortunately for Newcastle the Northern Rock Cyclone is no longer the exception to this rule. St James’ Park still provides the backdrop to the first night Leazes Park Criteriums of the North East’s leading cycling event though, and this year was planned to be bigger and better than ever.

In keeping with the Cyclone’s approach of connecting newcomers to the sport with the elite, there are races for all levels from youth via Go Race and 2/3/4 cat right up to Elite. With the park setting, the technical course and, critically, great weather, we were set for some great sport as things got under way.

The early races passed without incident, despite the usual mutterings in the crowd about ringers in the Go Race event. The 2/3/4 race was next, and this year there was a major surprise on the start list – I’d decided not to ride.

My previous two attempts had showed me that these crits go on the “b in bang”, and suit riders somewhat younger and more explosive than me, to say the least. I was keeping my powder dry for Saturday. It was a really fast good race, with Stuart Reid of Wheelbase just taking it in a tight three-up sprint.

Celebrity Time Trial

Next was a new feature this year – the Celebrity Time Trial. This and the large numbers registering for Saturday’s sportives had now swelled the crowd to several thousand. Although Steve Cram claimed injury prevented his participation, the honour of Track and Field was upheld by a superb ride by former 400m runner and fellow BBC commentator Alison Curbishley , whose standing start lap time would have stood up well to scrutiny in some of the support races.

Alison’s ride further put football into the shade when Geoff Thomas couldn’t match it on the second attempt after his bike handling skills deserted him first time up. Geoff’s presence and the other celebrity riders emphasised a key aspect of the Cyclone – Charity fundraising , so important to many of Saturday’s sportive riders.

Elite Criterium

On to the main event, the Elite Criterium. The new Tour Series events have really sharpened up the UK peloton’s city centre racing skills, and on the Leazes circuit this is at a premium. There’s hardly a yard of flat, as you’re either powering up the draggy climb past the start/finish or swooping down to the technical corners at the end of the lap.

As in all races, position is everything, just more so. A select lead group soon got away, with Bikehut policing the main bunch for their man Ian Wilkinson up the road. Dutch visitor Arno Van der Zwet , with a top 10 in the Lincoln on his UK travels already, featured prominently, and was even able to regain contact after being dropped from the lead group for several laps.

Incident Free – Not

Anybody who’s ridden a crit knows that they are rarely incident free, and sadly Ian Bibby was an early crash victim. On a lighter note, Dean Downing mysteriously disappeared from the move at half distance, showing up in no man’s land tearing a strip off the commissaires after having been impeded by a dog, only to be allowed a lap out and to resume his place at the front. I was moving around the crowd looking for good photo ops, and timed it perfectly to see a major talking point when Tony Gibb launched his bottle at a Dutch rider who allegedly wasn’t top notch at holding his line.

As the last five laps were called , things got tactical and the leaders were in danger of being rejoined by the chasers as they watched each other, but after a few words, order was restored. With a £1000 first prize this was a deadly serious sprint. I came into road riding from mountain biking, so I was pleased when ex-mtb’er Ian Wilkinson’s superb effort took the win from Downing and Chris Newton – always good to see a victory for an off roader over the “Dark Side”.

Eurosport’s Mike Smith took us through the podium presentations, with a great acceptance by Wilko, and thoughts turned to the hard graft that lay ahead on Saturday.

Sportive Saturday – a hard day at the office

Another Newcastle sporting stadium, this time the Falcons rugby ground, is the HQ for the Cyclone’s sportives. Those of us in the club going for fast times had decided to set out early and we were all at the front of the starting funnel as 8 am approached. Already hundreds of riders from the well over 2000 entries were patiently waiting in line.

Many sportives , particularly in the North, get hung up on which is the hardest , and which has got the hardest climbs. I don’t accept the fiction that sportives aren’t races (at least for some) , but this fixation with the severity of the parcours seems to miss the point for me. It never gets easier anyway, it just gets faster.

So while I’ve done the Etape du Dales , and indeed the “real” Etape a couple of times, the Cyclone is special and a different riding experience. Yes, the 100 mile ride is hard, with a lot of climbs on hard roads, but the key things that make the Cyclone different are the other ride options and the mix of riders this brings, particularly the 32 mile ride. This is how to get families and newcomers into the sport. The organisers even managed to get a key section of road on this route resurfaced just to make it safer for young or inexperienced riders.

Draggy Section

An NEG motor cycle guided us to the first junction as we set off briskly. The first 20 or so miles are on rolling roads that we seem to cover on 80% of our club runs and feature in a lot of the local races, so it was disconcerting when on the first draggy section up to Whalton I realised that my legs might not be at their best. This wasn’t worthy of the designation “climb”, and there was a lot harder riding ahead.

I’d got the gold standard in ’08 , and with this year’s harder course , I needed to be at my best , not on a “jour sans”. We kept up a brisk pace, though, and as the first group on the road we reached the feed and timing point at the top of the first real climb to Forestburn Gate whilst they were finishing setting up. Over the course of the really choppy section before the helter skelter descent into Rothbury myself and fellow Gosforth riders Richard and Mark got shelled out of the first group, and started working together as we went into the heart of the Cheviots towards Alwinton.

Decent Rhythm

We soon caught some fellow victims of the earlier pace, and got a decent rhythm going in the larger group. This is a great section of the route , and in an area where Northumberland’s low population density makes the Yorkshire Dales look crowded. After a twisty hairpinned passage alongside the River Coquet , a few more miles lead to the run in towards Bilsmoor. This is one of my least favourite climbs , not because it’s long , or particularly steep , but because you can’t find any sort of rhythm on the constant changes in gradient.

Fortunately one of the features of the Cyclone is the way the feeds and timing stops are positioned at the tops of the climbs, allowing groups which fracture on the ascents to reform and keep the workload shared. So we were still gruppo compatto on the fast descent into Esldon and the following blast along the A696 through Otterburn , where I did a half decent turn on the front.

A short stretch on the A68 leads to a sharp right where the main roads are deserted again for the climb over the moors to the ride’s high point on Troughend Common. This is really big sky country between Redesdale and the North Tyne, and the dead snake in the middle of the road that we passed halfway up this 2 mile climb only emphasised the wilderness experience.

The reward from the crest is a great descent into the North Tyne valley, but for the only time on the day (for us at least, I know later riders were not so fortunate) dark clouds gave us a short burst of hail, which was over before it really got started. On the run in to Bellingham we were passed by a fast moving group from Breeze Bikes, who were obviously going for the “podium”, but we kept our own pace going.

Vomit Pass

There are a number of routes out of Bellingham, none of them flat. There had been a route change this year, taking the climb from Redesmouth. This is known to we NE riders as Vomit Pass, because overindulgence at the excellent cafes in Bellingham may have unfortunate consequences on this climb.

In truth it’s not too bad, as long as you make sure you’re in a low enough gear on the 25% section at the start, but it was still a key factor in making this third edition of the Cyclone tougher than its predecessors. After the feed at the top, the route went onto the 2 miles of narrow, gated road to rejoin the previous parcours near Birtley.

This section avoids the busy A68, but Paris-Roubaix is a doddle compared to the surfaces on this bit of road, and I’m sure anyone who didn’t know what to expect will have found it a major shock to the system. In truth the surfaces immediately after the gated section aren’t the best either – the Cyclone’s a route for robust hoops and tyres.

Metric Century

After a short dalliance with the A68, the 100 mile ride joins the 62 miler (“the metric century”) near Colwell for the ascent of the Ryals. This is where the sheer numbers riding the event and the spectrum of participants start to hit home. From being in by my count still the third small group on the road in the long ride, we were now surrounded by hundreds of riders of all shapes and sizes on all kinds of bikes, with a lot doing the 62 miles on MTBs or commuters (some with panniers!), but all enjoying the experience and the challenge. I had the utmost respect for the couple I passed on a Cannondale tandem just at the foot of the climb’s lower tier.

The Ryals are a NE legend. They’re not long, but they are steep. Although on a good day with fresh legs you can try and attack them, in the world of reality it’s never quite like that. Either you’re doing them n times in a race hating every moment, or you reach the bottom tier (30% briefly) with umpteen miles your legs and waiting for the pain to set in.

Out the Back

I knew I was going out of the back of our group here and just concentrated on spinning up as smoothly as I could. Last year I’d got agonising cramps and had to temporarily dismount, but this time it went as well as it ever does for me, and I settled into time trial mode en route for Stamfordham and the last time check. This is where the 32 mile ride rejoins the longer rides, and again there’s a step change in the atmosphere.

Stamfordham has become very welcoming of cyclists for events and races over the last few years, and the feed stop was a throng of hungry and thirsty riders, many of them family groups completing the shortest route for their chosen charity. I just got my time taken and went back into TT mode. Shouts of encouragement to struggling charity riders are very much the order of the day here , even if you’re suffering yourself.

I managed to find some energy from somewhere to pick up the pace back to the Falcons, but I knew I was slower than last year, and so it proved – 11 minutes off gold. Disappointed – not really, it’s too good a ride for that , and there’s always next year. The beer at the rugby ground still didn’t touch the sides. I had to be careful about my intake though, as Sunday would involve a bit of driving on the Beaumont Trophy.

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