Stand at the bottom of Lincoln’s High Street and at the top of the hill the city’s gothic cathedral dominates the skyline. Five hundred years ago it was the tallest building in the world, and on the day Cycling Weekly visits its spires are concealed under a swirl of low-lying cloud.
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To the left of the cathedral is the 11th century castle. Complete with turrets and cannons, it was built by William the Conqueror and is now nestled among modern-day shops and cafes. This June the square between Lincoln’s two historic buildings will host the finish to the British Road National Championships, held here to mark the 60th anniversary of the Lincoln Grand Prix.
Lincoln will host the whole National Championships long weekend, from Thursday 25 to Sunday June 28.
First run in 1956, the Lincoln GP is one of the longest continually running races on the British calendar and is the closest the UK has to a French or Belgian Classic. With the route taking riders on a tough circuit over the city’s cobbles — including the notorious climb of Michaelgate — almost every big name in British cycling history has raced, and won, here.
Albert Hitchen, Ron Coe, Bill Nickson, Malcolm Elliott, through to Russell and Dean Downing, Chris Newton and Peter Kennaugh have all been victorious, while Hugh Porter, Paul Sherwen, Dave Lloyd, Roger Hammond and Sir Bradley Wiggins are a handful of those who have appeared.
One man has been with the race nearly the entire time. Ian Emmerson took over the organisation in 1963 and has been its driving force since, only missing two editions during his 52 years at the helm.
“It’s been an idea in my mind for quite a while really, probably five years or more, how we should celebrate the 60th event,” says Emmerson. He put together a 90-page document for Lincoln’s Nationals bid, and at the beginning of last year the city found out it had won. “It’s been full-on since then,” he says. “For someone who is retired, it’s a full-time position.”
With a budget of £250,000, this year is unlike any other in the history of the Lincoln GP. Emmerson has to oversee four days of events: time trial championships, an uphill dash (a fun
hill-climb event up Michaelgate, featuring sprints, time trials and a BMX challenge), a sportive, criterium and both women’s and men’s road races. There’s also the matter of an expected 30,000 fans on the route over the weekend, a massive increase on the 5,000 the GP usually attracts.
“I don’t think you can do any better than doing the National Championships; it’s the most important one-day race the riders will ride in the season,” he says. “Obviously they go away from here with the national champion’s jersey and, depending on who they are, it could be a rider that’s going to go away and ride the Tour de France the weekend after.
“He could be riding the blue and red striped jersey that he’s won in Lincoln the previous weekend.”
Emmerson is so well known in these parts he is often referred to as ‘Mr Lincoln’. In fact, during our photo shoot he is spotted twice by people who know him — and when I enquire about the race in the visitor centre, I’m promptly asked: “Have you spoken to Ian?”
The 71-year-old was the organiser the last time Lincoln hosted the Nationals in 1968, described by Cycling at the time as producing “one of the finest races the pros have yet contested”. And his recall of that year’s race is instant: “It was won by Colin Lewis, in a very tight sprint finish, from John Aslin, and that was a great race.”
Emmerson got into cycling as a 14-year-old club rider. “I was an average bike rider, there was obviously no career in winning races on the horizon but then the organisation and officiating took over,” he says.
Aged just 19 he first took charge of the Lincoln GP, then called the Witham Valley Grand Prix, after the club in which he was a member. “The organiser the previous year died in a car crash and they needed someone to take it over. I said, ‘Well, I’ll have a crack at that,’” he says.
“It was on a different circuit in those days, still in Lincoln but in the south of the city using the hill that led out to Lincoln, called Cross O’Cliff Hill — a nine-mile circuit, we used to go round and round that. It was a good event. In those days it was for independents and first class amateurs. Albert Hitchen won.”
In the early days, before Sunday shopping hours were introduced, the race used to finish on the city’s main High Street. “Where the bridge is over the river. That was quite exciting,” he says.
“Halfords bike shop was on the corner as they swung left into the High Street, and because they swung onto the pavement, it was a bit slippery and the riders all finished up in Halfords’ doorway. In those days we used to have the junior and the senior race running together. I think it was the junior race that really finished up in the doorway.”
But in the decades since, the Lincoln GP has changed considerably. “The level of racing has improved tremendously. The number of riders is nothing like it is now; there were only about 30 or 40 riders. If I organised it today it might be what you call a doddle,” Emmerson laughs.
“No road closures to worry about, no police corporations to worry about, a few marshals and it was on open roads so you didn’t stop any traffic. Nowadays it’s 160 riders at the start, closed roads everywhere, diversions, stewarding, it’s lots and lots of signage and barriers.”
Steeped in history
Undoubtedly Emmerson’s biggest achievement is introducing the Michaelgate climb to the route in 1984, taking riders through the city centre and up the cobbles. “I think that was the starting point everything has developed from,” he says.
And just like the cobbles in Roubaix or Flanders, Lincoln’s pavé has its own rich history. Dating back to the Viking and Norman eras, the stones were used to link the port of Lincoln to the castle 200ft above. Michaelgate led to the church of St Michael, with records indicating the building at the top was there as early as 1072.
“I wanted a cobbled hill in [the race] and it was the obvious one to use. It’s been improved a bit; it was a bit ropey when we first used it.”
Today the climb is legendary. At 300 metres long, with an average gradient of 12 per cent, many a race has been won or lost on the repeated ascents of its cobbles, champions made and riders (as well as chainsets) broken. “Michaelgate of course is infamous, if not famous, and every bike rider wants to win the Lincoln Grand Prix,” he says. “They all say, ‘Well, if I’ve got Lincoln Grand Prix on my palmarès, I’ve done something.’”
But it’s not just Michaelgate that’s a challenge: the whole race is tough, which keeps riders coming back. In recent years the average speed across the circuit has been 27mph. “By no means [is it an easy race to win], it’s probably one of the most challenging circuits in the country. It’s not just the climb of Michaelgate,” Emmerson says.
So of all the winners the GP has had over the years, does Emmerson have a favourite? “You’ve got to go back to the Downings, who are favourites over here because they don’t live that far away.” Dean Downing won in 2007, and finished last year’s race with a pint glass in his hand, as he was retiring. Russell meanwhile, will be aiming for an all-time record fifth win this year.
“The other one who has won four times is Paul Curran and some of his wins were fantastic back in the Manchester Wheelers days, when they were so dominant,” says Emmerson. “Malcolm Elliott has always been a big favourite here as well.”
Countless other British races have come and gone during the 60 years of Lincoln, so what’s the secret to its enduring success?
“It’s continuity really; the good names that have won it, I’d like to say the organisation, they can always be assured the event is well organised. The riders come to Lincoln knowing that it’s going to be a great race to ride, whatever the outcome and whether they finish or not.”
After a lifetime organising the Lincoln GP, Emmerson has announced that this year will be his last. And the National Championships couldn’t provide a better swansong. How would he like his tenure on the race to be remembered? “It’s got to be having brought the race to where it is, what it is now. That’s a great tribute to leave it with,” he says.
Ian Emmerson: 50 years in cycling
As well as organising the Lincoln Grand Prix for more than half a century, Ian Emmerson’s career has taken him to almost every corner of cycling. It’s no surprise he jokes that he “never had any spare time”.
1961: First officiated at the Milk Race
“I was 17 then. I worked on the broomwagon, which in those days was a big 10-ton truck. Our job was to dismantle all the finish apparatus at the start, set off and catch the race up, then follow it around. That was quite exciting,” he says. Emmerson progressed to chief commissaire, a position he held until the mid-1980s.
1970 and 1982: Road Race World Championships technical director
Held in Leicester and Goodwood.
1974 and 1980: Commissaire at the Peace Race
The only two years Emmerson missed Lincoln was when he was at the Peace Race. “The Peace Race was an unbelievable event, the race convoy and the media convoy side by side through these
cobbled roads of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland — it was unbelievable.”
1982-1998: Founded and ran a clothing company, ImpSport
One of the leading suppliers of kit for British cycling clubs and teams.
1984: British Cycling president
Head of the national organisation for 10 years; the Manchester Velodrome was built during his tenure.
1991: Sheriff of Lincoln
“The highest position you can get in the city without being a politician,” he says.
1994: UCI Masters Track Championships, organiser
An event he still organises 21-years later.
1994-1997: Vice president, UCI executive board
1999-2011: Commonwealth Games Federation
Chairman of Commonwealth Games England for eight years, and a member of the CG federation board for eight years.
This article first appeared in the May 21 issue of Cycling Weekly