We headed to Tour de Yorkshire country to explore the race’s relentless 12-mile finale with a rather accomplished local guide — One Pro Cycling favourite Tom Stewart
“I’ve never, ever done well in a bike race without absolutely slaughtering myself.”
Tom Stewart, One Pro’s Yorkshire-bred weapon, is talking about the nasty business of winning bike races.
“No matter what the race is, whether it’s the Tour de Yorkshire or a National B, you’ve got one simple job — that is to just set off, ride faster and faster until you’re suffering quite a lot, and then maintain that.
“The person who wins the bike race is the person who suffers the most. No one ever talks about that.”
He has a point. For cycling fans, media, casual observers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of imagining professional cyclists as supermen, impervious to the agonies of the average club rider.
The reality is different. As Greg LeMond famously once said: “It never gets any easier — you just go faster.”
This weekend Stewart and his One Pro team will be joined by the might of the WorldTour peloton for the third edition of the Tour de Yorkshire, where the opportunity to revisit those excruciating outer reaches of physical endeavour will be provided in spades.
The challenges are issued almost from the word go, with the first of three classified climbs, the Côte de Garrowby Hill, coming after just 30 miles of stage one.
Stage two, which is set to culminate in a set-piece bunch sprint into Harrogate, is more straightforward with just one ‘cote’ halfway through its 122km.
But the final third stage is where the Tour de Yorkshire really ramps up the stress, with punishing climbs scattered throughout the route like Lego on a playroom floor.
The riders tackle a total of eight classified ascents on their way to Fox Valley, Sheffield.
A fiendish coup de grâce, though, is saved for the 20km-to-go banner, at which point a tired peloton will find 500m of Yorkshire’s finest vertical ascent — spread over four nasty little climbs — standing between it and a hot shower.
And it is this 12-mile finishing loop — on a particularly bracing Friday morning in March — that myself and Stewart have just been riding.
The ride, which took us nearly an hour (OK, it took me nearly an hour while Stewart gamely waited for me to haul myself up the hills) was windy, wet, a bit sunny, and most of all cold.
Sitting now in the coffee bar at Full Gas Bikes, just adjacent to where the Tour de Yorkshire will finish, we huddle over frothy lattes, coats done up to the chin, trying to get warm.
The surroundings are impressive — from the spotless workshop to the array of vintage racing bikes, and a Raleigh Chopper, mounted on plinths around the mezzanine floor.
“Obviously it is a very difficult finishing circuit,” reflects Stewart, winner of last year’s Lincoln Grand Prix and Velothon Wales, not to mention the highest placed Continental-level rider at the Tour de Yorkshire, finishing just outside a top 10 awash with WorldTour names.
Watch: Tour de Yorkshire 2017 essential guide
Stewart is dubious about the ability of this punishing finale to play a major part in deciding the GC — but says it will be a stage well worth watching:
“The first two stages are going to be so hard, and this stage will be so hard up to this point, that there won’t be many people left in with a shout.
“But you’ll see some exciting racing because you’ll have two different things happening: the majority of guys will be out of the running on GC by now anyway, so for the last 15km people will be trying to win the stage; and you might have the top two, three, four, five guys on GC quite close together, which will make it quite interesting.”
Having experienced the circuit first-hand — not to mention very slowly and at times rather painfully — it’s hard not to feel rather in awe of the sheer ability it takes to race hard over terrain like this, at the end of a 200km day at the end of a three-day race.
It’s littered with double-figures gradients, each coming hard on the heels of the last.
The fun begins, having swept through Fox Valley, on the Côte de Deepcar, a 2.5km slog up through the outskirts of Deepcar that stays in or near double figures all the way, with occasional flourishes of 20 per cent or so.
A heart-stopping drop precedes the second of four ascents, the Côte de Wigtwizzle — a name that promises a lot more fun than the peloton is likely to find on its 1.5km, nine per cent slopes at the end of this arduous stage.
The gradient relents but the pressure stays on for another immediate — and alarming — drop to the Ewden Bank climb, whose party tricks include an early 20 per cent kick, hairpin, and having crossed a 12 per cent mid-section, a late kicker too.
Anyone racing hard across this final 20km is going to be on their knees by this point and unlikely to savour the superb view to the south, but now just the relatively straightforward hurdle of Côte de Midhopestones (not to mention another hair-raising descent into town) lies between the riders and the finish line at Fox Valley.
It’s an involved finale, busy with hard ups and taxing downs, that will find out anyone attempting to hide a bad day or failing legs.
And while it mightn’t shape the GC entirely, any top-five rider not on the pace could go from podium finisher to scraping a top-20 in the space of four nasty hills.
It all adds up to a lot of climbing.
But doing well in this race isn’t about being a climber per se; it’s more a question of being able to put the power down again and again, explains Stewart:
“They’re not Grand Tour-type climbs but they are quite steep,” he says.
“So it’s about who can keep making that harder effort. It’s not a 20-minute effort, it’s a five-minute effort, but you have to do it lots of times and you have to be able to do it very, very hard for a few of those times.
“Obviously they’re going to be smashing it up a few of these…”
As his performance here last year, 11th place while riding for Madison-Genesis, bears witness to, Stewart knows exactly what it takes to do well in this race and he’s under no illusions that a repeat of his 11th on GC will be a tough call.
“I’m not shying away from the fact that the Tour de Yorkshire is a big target of mine this year,” he says.
“But at the same time it’s incredibly difficult to get a result here. It’s so hard — it’s not a long tour but it’s so intense for those three days and particularly this year each stage is so difficult.”
Winning, he contends, takes not only total commitment from the start but for all the controllables and the uncontrollables, to coin a little British Cycling coach-speak, to come together. Essentially, the stars need to align.
“That’s the person who’ll win this bike race,” he says.
“Who’s focused on all the details, done everything right throughout the race, eaten right, done the bare minimum — had the team support to be looked after and to have got to this point fresh as possible.
“It’s that competitive and it’s that hard. I think it’s going to be pretty relentless from the word go, really.”
With its arduous terrain, WorldTour field and competitive nature, it’s not hard to see why Stewart is playing down the chances of repeating his 2016 performance.
But the genial Yorkshireman is nothing if not on an upward trajectory, with last year representing the zenith of his career so far.
Having signed for One Pro at the end of the season, there was disappointment across the team when the squad was forced to drop from Pro Continental back to Continental level due to funding issues caused by the loss of its bike sponsor.
Stewart says he shared in that disappointment but remains pragmatic — and optimistic about the future.
“I absolutely want to go further in the sport and I’ve got every faith that One Pro can still be the team to do that with,” he insists.
“Their ambition hasn’t changed. Whether we’re racing abroad or whether we’re racing National Bs, it’s still bike racing, it’s still very hard and you still get a thrill out of doing well in them.”
At 27 years old, Stewart says he’s aware of the passing years, but for now he’s happy to just continue progressing:
“I am improving every year and to me that’s the point of being a bike rider — it’s just an experiment to see how far I can get, and once I get to that point that’ll be the time to call it a day, I think.”
Before that, though, he has a big appointment to keep — one that starts in Bridlington on Friday 28th April.