“C’est une connerie”. That was how Bernard Hinault famously described Paris-Roubaix, the so-called L’enfer du Nord or “hell of the North”. Roughly translated the expression means “it’s bullsh*t”!
The Rutland-Melton Cicle Classic has been described as the British version of the Queen of the Classics given that it includes several off-road sectors on farm tracks which one would not normally consider tackling on a road bike. It is the highest ranking race in Britain, having a UCI 1.2 status and this year it was set to be even bigger and better with television coverage also being utilised to put together a highlights show in due course.
I had the ‘pleasure’ of taking part in this brilliant race last year so knew what I was getting myself into when DS Rich Anderson announced early on in the season that we had had our team entry accepted. Sh*t, was my first reaction much in the spirit of Hinault. This race is savage, like none other in which I have competed. My overriding memories from last year were the high-speed stress and nerves of the first couple of laps of Rutland Water and then the physical brutality of the fights for the off-road sectors followed by the lung-bursting efforts to complete them. This is a race where cycling becomes more than a test of athletic ability but an infernal combination of skill and confrontational physicality, this is cycling as a contact sport. These factors set it aside as a magical “big time” race, there is none other like it in the country and I knew it was a privilege just to take part in it.
Nevertheless the weeks leading up to the event have been horrible as I tortured myself with memories of last-year’s experience and I filled myself with dread of the day to come. These feelings, of course, only intensified as the big day approached. Just to heighten the stress levels further on my warm-up ride the day before, my gear gable snapped about 12 miles from home leaving me with only the 11 sprocket to get home: so much for keeping the souplesse in the legs! Thankfully though I could rely on the excellent services of manager extraordinaire and all-round “life guru” Mr Andy Ramsdale and he calmly fixed the problem with a minimum of fuss during the afternoon whilst the team and I went to pre-register at a non-descript hotel on the outskirts of Grantham: never has the entrance to hell looked so anonymously suburban!
So the day itself dawned and thankfully it was a sunny one albeit with a chill in the air. Thank goodness for that, if it had been wet the anxiety levels would have been off the scale. We warmed up at Andy’s swanky new van with the gazebos up and the Euro dance tunes on full blast. I swear Team Wiggins were looking at us enviously…
Then the ceremonial sign on in the centre of Oakham. This caught me completely by surprise last year: I was not expecting to have to go up onto a stage and be announced to an actual crowd of spectators by legendary voice of cycling and former world pursuit champion Hugh Porter. This is about as far away from Darley Moor as it gets! However, this time I was determined to make the most of it and lap up the experience. This started with some banter with Hugh on the stage – he described us as “happy bunnies” I bet no other teams got that! – and culminated in some extravagant waving to the crowd. All that was missing was a toga and I could have been Cipollini in his prime…in my head at least!
And then, finally, after what seemed like days and hours of waiting, the race itself started as we sped out behind the cars from Oakham. The first laps of Rutland Water are carnage, the pace is absurdly high as everyone is trying to get in an early break so the pace is relentless broken only by sudden panic braking as turns or road furniture are encountered by the galloping bunch. I can’t really describe this experience adequately, few people get the opportunity to ride in a bunch of 180 riders and there is simply no space, if you leave the tiniest gap someone will jump in front of you, you cannot see what is ahead because of the sheer volume of riders, you can spend 5 hardcore minutes fighting to get to the front only to lose 40 positions in a couple of seconds as the ever-fluid bunch shifts and re-shapes. There was a particularly nasty crash during this first lap which required ambulances to attend in due course. I managed to avoid this just but only through a barely controlled emergency brake and slide.
The above being said, I still somehow managed to achieve one of my proudest moments on the bike. As the bunch completed its first lap of Rutland Water and we approached the roundabout outside Oakham I had managed to fight my way to the front at last and led the bunch into the roundabout. It was an incredible experience with crowds 2 or 3 people deep at the side of the road, cheering furiously, and the camera bikes just in front of me. As we came out of the roundabout there seemed a reluctance for the riders to push come through from behind so I had a moment of madness, I attacked. It seemed like a good idea at the time, I sprinted off the front and was joined by 3 or 4 other riders, we tried to establish a gap but it was closed down pretty quickly, meaning I was soon back in the bunch and before you know way back down the field again! I think I paid for this effort later but still, it was a moment to experience and showed the Leisure Lakes colours proudly on the front.
After that it was a case of survival and as we approached the first single-track sector, the lane to Cold Overton, I was unfortunately too close to the rear of the bunch as we hit this sector. This is a rolling road and we were belting along it in two columns, each rider chewing the bars and focussing only on holding the wheel in front of him. I started passing riders who couldn’t take the pace but then we hit the short climb and boom the legs were exploding. Coming out of the village the pace was ridiculously high: the back of the leading bunch was in touching distance but I simply couldn’t turn the 11 any quicker, my legs were burning and cramping and I simply couldn’t get back on in any meaningful way.
There followed a passage of many miles and several further sectors then when I with a few others were dangling just off the back of the main bunch and just in front of the team cars. Try as we might we couldn’t re-attach although there was a lack of concerted effort in this group, either people weren’t physically capable of making the effort or they had lost the will by then.
I did have the pleasure of smashing it through the farm yard at Owston a couple of times though. Last year this sector really shocked me, not only was the race diverted through an actual working farm-yard but we exited on a single track that began with mud and shaded roots and then finished on a very loose, rough gravel stretch with an off-camber bend. This year I was prepared for it though and just got my mind set for the bike to slip and slide beneath me. Each occasion I gave it my best and went for it flat-stick and tried to ‘enjoy’ the sensations.
Unfortunately, like last year I was unable to complete the race and was stopped at about 67 miles in to the 112 mile course. Because of the rolling road closures and the fact that the race zigzags over many of the same roads, the police can only offer a very small window for a closure of the roads, so once you are a few minutes behind the very front of the race the black flag is dropped and you are pulled out by the commissaries. To illustrate this, it is worth noting that this year only around 70 riders finished out of the 180 odd starters.
So how to reflect on such a day? I had gone into it dreading the worst, knowing what a brutal event it was. I came out of it feeling slightly disappointed that I had been unable to finish again but really pleased with the effort that I gave: I can walk away knowing that I left a mark on the race albeit a very small and insignificant one in the grand scheme of it, however, we were there and we were representing! This is a fantastic race and it has been a privilege to ride it but it really does separate the professionals from the weekend warriors like me. I hope though that we brought our own brand of Leisure Lakes humour and fun to the race and that this experience has set us all in good stead for the rest of the season.