This weekend sees the 10th edition of the CiCLE Classic, the race billed a Britain’s Belgian Classic. And it is indeed a UCI recognised race and the nearest thing we have to a Spring Classic. It’s long, the field of British and European pros is big, and the route is demanding and spectator friendly. The undulations of Britain’s smallest county help make it so, but the imaginative route does as well, especially the famous off-road sections.
But what’s it like to ride? In early April I met up with the Haribo-Beacon team in Melton Mowbray when they were looking at crucial parts of the race, including the infamous off-road Somerberg. It’s cold, but as befits a junior Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne winner, James Shaw is the only one not wearing gloves. The first box to be ticked is for his benefit, because the group are heading east to check out the junior CiCLE circuit.
“We’ve got teams in the senior and junior events,” team boss Ashley Brown explains. “And although we’re very much junior and a development team, we’ve got riders who can figure in both races.” He’s right too, Shaw will start as the favourite among the juniors, and Olympic team pursuit champion Steven Burke has the power, and Pete Williams the strength and experience, to do something in the main event.
The CiCLE Classic has been called Britain’s Paris-Roubaix, but it’s not. It’s more Britain’s Tour of Flanders with its complicated, doubling back route, and a series of steep hills and off-road challenges. If you squint it looks like Flanders round here too.
The Barrowberg is the big thing in the junior race. A narrow back-road climb from Teigh to Barrow, increasing in gradient as it goes until it tips up coming into the village then drags on after it.
“You get a good run at it, so it will be fast in the race. There’s a grippy corner where the surface is rough, but then it gets better as it gets steeper near the top. And the drag after is about 300 metres. It’s bound to play a part,” James Shaw reckons after riding it.
Hell of the Midlands
The team do the junior lap then head for the senior route. “We want to do some laps of the Somerberg circuit and ride the Somerberg both ways, like they do in the race. Then we’ll follow the route back to Melton to look at the new climb, Cuckoo Hill, which is quite close to the finish,” Brown tells me.
The Somerberg is notorious. It’s a bridleway, so going up the south side you climb a bumpy, potholed lane, but the north side is just a tractor track across an open field. There have been wet races when this is a mass of mud, but this year there’s been very little rain and the clay is as hard as any cobble.
Going south is a slog, but when they turn around and come north the field bit is a total cyclo-cross descent, and old-fashioned rough cyclo-cross at that. But it’s easy to get carried away with how hard this bit it, when in fact it’s only part of a hard race. Team member Jake Womersley has won cyclo-cross titles, and he puts it into context; “Yeah, cyclo-cross skills are useful, but most riders have skills. It’s important to be at the front on the Somerberg, but it’s not as if you are going to come out a minute up just because you are a ‘cross rider.”
With the Somerberg and the race roads around it, where much of the action historically happens, well and truly recced, the riders head back towards Melton. Stygate Lane (sector 2, they count down from 11, which is Pickwell, to one – Sawgate Lane, just before the finish) is about four miles from Cuckoo Hill.
It’s long and straight, not too steep, but it will feel hard at this late stage of the race. It’s quite open to one side too, which should mean any westerly wind will be a factor. James King punctures soon after the summit, but there are only a few miles left so he gets in the team car with me.
He’s in his first year as a senior, so this is the first time he’s seen the route. Has it made him nervous? “It’s one of those things you haven’t got to think about, particularly the Somerberg, you just have to take it as it comes. If you think about crashing you tend to crash. I do think it’s a race that needs experience to do well in, though.
Pete Williams has that experience, and some of the team have been saying he’s well up for it. He’s had that race-ready ‘look’ all through the recce, quietly taking it in. But he’s non-committal about his chances afterwards, and is more interested in where he can get a Melton-Mowbray pork pie from than making predictions. Unfortunately a bad crash in the Tour of the Reservoir shortly after this won’t help his chances. Steven Burke looks good too, splitting the group when he pushed on a bit. “I hope to do a good ride. It’s all power climbs, which suits me. I’m looking forward to it any way,” he says.
Where to watch
The full route is on the race website, www.cicleclassic.co.uk but my advice is head for Barrow, near Cottesmore if you want to watch the juniors do battle on the Barrowberg, or to the Owston, Somerby or Pickwell for repeated action on the senior race.
The start is at 11am on Sunday April 27 in the Market Square, Oakham and the finish is around 3.30 pm in Sherrard Street, Melton. There’s a full schedule of timings through each point on the race on the CiCLE Classic website. Give the Haribo-Beacon boys a special cheer.
There’s a huge amount of local community involvement in the race, encouraged by the organisers, with all sorts of other attractions on the day. The atmosphere is as close to a European race as any gets in Britain, with the exception of things like the Tour de France, coming here. But one day all big races in the UK races will be like this, mark my words.