Roundhay Park, Leeds, 7.15 am Sunday May 3rd. I’m forcing down two cheese rolls in the shelter of the Mavic tent, unfortunately unheated, watching walls of rain sweep across the queues waiting to start the Tour de Yorkshire sportive. The sponsors’ flags are threatening to break free of their stands, and I’m wondering if I can cycle in this for 6 hours or so. But we’re lucky these days to have accurate weather forecasts and I am concentrating on two positive thoughts – the wind is at our backs for the first 20 miles and will die down later, and the rain will stop before we get back to Leeds.
So it’s off into the wind and rain and cold and to be fair a wait of about 15 minutes to start isn’t bad for an event with about 4,000 riders. The roads are flooded in parts and I instantly abandon my usual Sportive tactic of getting in a group and sharing the effort – which with a stiff wind behind wouldn’t make much difference. Riders have been setting off for over an hour and the first stretch is notable for the number of punctures. Despite wearing leg warmers, a lined top, a waterproof, and gloves, the effort of progressing isn’t enough to warm me up and I really don’t fancy having to change a tube in these conditions. The first climb at the aptly named Pool is a welcome source of heat, then beyond that it’s all unfamiliar country that is frankly now a distant blur (as it already was by the end of the race). We pass through innumerable small stone West Yorkshire mill or mining towns, and the residents are leaning on their door frames shouting encouragement. It’s never flat and there is quite a long climb beyond Bingley. There are encouragingly large numbers of cyclists to overtake, and those that whisk past tend to be built like whippets and members of local cycling clubs. I guess the terrain here selects out the cyclists, – if you haven’t got the right power to weight ratio you join the darts club.
Morale is lifting after a couple of hours – the rain has definitely eased, and the crowds really help. Encouraged by the site of a knot of spectators at the top of a climb, I put on a little sprint (a relative term) and am rewarded with a shout – “look at the guy in the red, he’s really smashing it”. The crowds are clearly more enthusiastic than knowledgeable but it’ll do for me. After more ups and downs and ins and outs, all fabulously signed and marshalled, we get a flat bit! It’s really scenic too, along the side of the Rochdale canal, and it’s definitely not raining anymore. I haven’t a clue how many hills lie in wait, and the effort of getting my route map out with sodden gloves from under several layers just isn’t worth it. And in any case, we soon swing through Hebden Bridge and are now on the pro route, with turquoise and yellow bunting and signs almost as numerous as “Parking suspended” ones. I did wonder beforehand if the non pro-route start of the sportive would be a disappointment, but it has been an excellent 38 miles, maybe a bit built up occasionally but largely quiet narrow bendy hilly country roads, and certainly challenging enough.
Never having been in West Yorks, I had assumed the hills would be a bit like our N York Moors – or Stage 1 of the pro race. My anxiety level had risen a bit on Friday, watching the highlights of stage 1 on the telly. At the end Chris Boardman pointed out that stage 1 had nothing on the “positively brutal” climax to Stage 3. Which we were now entering. First up the “Cote de Hebden Bridge” – 4.1 km at 5.5%, topping out at 396m, the highest point of the day. This is a bit of a pussycat really – just a steady climb up into the mist, no steeper than say Clay Bank.
In the blur of ups and downs that fill the day the next stand-out is the short steep climb up the cobbled quaint main street of Haworth, in Bronte country. Lots of support is out and even although the cobbles are actually fairly flat and regular they still kill momentum and make the climbing harder. The Paris-Roubaix sportive just slipped even further down my list of things I might do.
One more little up and down and then a fierce start to the Cote de Goose Eye. This is listed as 1.3km at 10% but the start must be at least 20% and for the first time in the day not everyone can stay on their bike. Fortunately it soon eases to a normal uphill slog. Over the top I’m spurred on by the thought of the final food station which is sponsored by Maserati and apparently a “must-visit” – the food being supervised by a Michelin-starred chef who is also a serious duathlete. The early morning cheese rolls are a distant memory (and so, fortunately, is the driving rain) when I pull into this stop somewhere before Ilkley. There are dozens of helpers proferring fresh warm mini-Yorkshire puddings with sausage and chutney filling and they are fab, and the fruit and spice flapjack is even better. I bolt them down faster than is ideal, because at this stage it looks like I could get round in under 6 hours – a random round number that gives me something to aim for over the final stretches. 100km down, 40 to go and about 85 minutes left – which my befuddled brain reckons is about 16mph average, surely possible. And as I bowl out of the feed stop in a slightly stately and bloated fashion I’m very much hoping there are no steep climbs imminent.
Whether by design or accident, we have a few flat miles to digest “lunch” , through the centre of Ilkley and then onto the bottom slopes of the Cote de Cow and Calf. I’m a little anxious about this one as I’m sure I saw a tweet by Lizzie Armitstead about how pleased she was to see this included, and as she looks a mischievous sort I suspect this wasn’t because you get a nice view from the top. Except that maybe that was the reason, or maybe she just likes having a couple of pints in the pub at the top (seems unlikely somehow). Anyway the official description of 1.8km at 8% doesn’t conceal too many surprises, it gets a bit steeper at the finish but the crowds are larger and more vociferous, especially outside the pub, and the Yorkshire puddings are still safely in place going past the King of the Mountains sign. Not for the first time today the KoM sign isn’t actually quite at the top of the climb but we’re getting used to these little shocks. It’s an easy run over the top and down the other side, although there are no long clear descents to really make up time. Some riders do go hammering past and I explain them away as either mad, or familiar with these roads, or possibly both.
By the bottom of the Cote de Chevin (1.4 km at 10.3%) 6 hours remains possible. This climb is by no means even, and people are dismounting (or in one case simply grinding to a halt then toppling into the dyke) all over the steeper bits. Care is needed to avoid weary cyclists zig-zagging unpredictably, and it is a relief to reach the last summit of the day. Surely now it must be largely downhill to the finish – I should know because we are retracing the early miles out of Leeds in the morning, but all I can remember is rain, puddles and punctures. A nice downhill into a now not so aptly named Pool leaves about 10 miles to go in a little over 30 minutes – everything to ride for. And when I pass a sign for the final sprint in 1km, I’m encouraged to think that this at least will be flat. Except it’s a bit uphill initially, and just when I’m thinking it must be due to flatten out it rears up steeper and now most riders are walking (we have been joined on this part of the course by those opting for shorter versions of the sportive, presumably under the delusion that this would be easier). As I find out on the telly later, this is a little joke on behalf of the organisers, labelling the Cote de Arthington Bank (1.5km at 8%) as a sprint rather than a climb. Presumably this attribution came from a member of the Yorkshire branch of UKIP, designed to teach these think-they-know-all-about-cycling continentals a lesson ( a continental in Yorkshire terms being anyone not born and bred in God’s own county).
All hopes of beating 6 hours have disappeared by the time I puff my way past the green end of sprint sign, even although it is largely flat or downhill in the last few miles. I manage to nick a free ride on the back of a small group for a couple of miles (we’re going into a slight headwind), and start preparing for a sprint finish in Roundhay Park – a nice wide traffic free section so no need to worry about cars. There are traffic lights at the entrance to the Park so that gathers up about 30 riders, all then let loose simultaneously for the last uphill 800 metres to the finish. To my slight disappointment, no-one else in the group is up for a race to the line. But a finish is a finish so I put on my best effort. The sun comes out for the first time and the hundreds of spectators who have already taken their places along either side of the road to the line amuse themselves by battering the advertising hoardings and cheering on the Sportive-ists. I might think I look like Cav but the photos show, still swathed in waterproofs, I looked more like Compo out of Last of the Summer Wine. But I don’t care – it’s been a great day out, I’ve got my been there done that medal and fortunately the 2 mile cycle back to the car park is mostly downhill.
Last years Grand Depart and now the Tour de Yorkshire have been widely and rightly praised for the huge crowds that came out to watch. But maybe an even more impressive stat is the number of cyclists that completed a pretty challenging sportive. About 1600 finished the 140km route, despite the atrocious weather for the first couple of hours, and remember they couldn’t take all day as they had to clear the roads for the race behind. Nobody could do that route without a fair bit of training (at least I bloody well hope not) so there’s obviously a lot of cycling going on out there.
By my reckoning, the Sportive, in terms of distance, height gain, and steepness of climbs, was about the same as doing a Great Ayton – Kildale – Westerdale – Ralph’s Cross – Castleton – Kildale – Great Ayton circuit – three times in a row. Maybe one lap would be good as part of TdY 2016?
Right, time to think about this weeks 8.9 mile Thursday evening TT. It might not be fast but it’ll certainly seem short and flat……..