DISTANCE 15 miles (25km)
MAIN CLIMB Oulton Heath
TOTAL CLIMB 600m
ACHTUNG! Traffic in Stone town centre
It’s good to see to Steve Douce back in the saddle. Fourteen years have passed since his near-fatal mountain bike crash, but Douce’s compact profile and feisty pedalling style is unmistakeable as the 44-year old plies the lanes near to his home in Barlaston, Staffordshire, just south of Stoke on Trent.
Last year the seven-times national cyclo-cross champion (the last in 1993) dug out an old Peugeot from the shed and went out with the local club. “It’s amazing how quickly you lose it,” he says. “They were half wheeling me the whole time. I couldn’t hack it, so I am not going out with them again until I can half wheel them back.” He’s older now, and there’s a sense that the facial scarring from the crash still cuts deep, but the champion still lurks within, as does the same dry humour.
Despite the many champion-ships and years on the road with top teams that included the powerful Raleigh squad of the late Eighties, Douce was still in his prime, aged 31, when he crashed heavily while racing in 1995.
“I was in a coma for five days,” he recalls. “I recovered very quickly but I came back to racing too soon. My coordination was not the same. You can see I’m struggling for words now — your mind thinks of the word but you can’t always get it out.
“I raced through 1995 and came 12th in the National Cross Championship in early 1996 but then I packed up. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs since then. ‘Why me?’, that kind of thing goes through your head. It was very tough. I didn’t feel like I was on this planet sometimes, it was like I was in a dream. It was depression really. I was on sick benefits and didn’t work for six years.”
Douce went for jobs and tried to get into cycling with the national federation, but doors were closing. In 1998 he came to a fork in the road, and decided he had had enough of daytime telly. He brushed up on his building skills and returned to work as a self-employed builder. Douce’s period Victorian house, with its chequerboard-tiled hallway, is testament to his skills, though now a bit cramped for daughters Kimberly (15) and Bethany (9), as well as his wife Sharon.
It’s been tough for Douce but his outlook is transformed: “When I started work I had a purpose again. People were pleased with my work and now I’ve got jobs coming out of my ears. I feel a lot more positive and it’s so much better than sitting in the house watching Richard and Judy.
“It upsets me when the guy off Coronation Street falls off some scaffolding and the next day he wakes up. It’s just not like that with a head injury.”
It’s only now that Douce feels he is ready to return to cycling as the organiser of a round of the National Criterium Series, in Stone town centre on Wednesday, June 18. But you won’t see him racing again, or trying to dust up old rivals like Chris Young on the veteran cross scene. Douce just enjoys riding his bike these days and has no aspirations to return to competition.
Originally from Surrey, he recalls marking his territory (in the canine sense) at the level crossing in Barlaston when the first edition of the Kellogg’s Tour of Britain came here in 1987, long before he moved up north. His wife Sharon is also from the area and there are many local cycling connections, including Phil Griffiths’s Pinarello and Assos HQ nearby.
We are on the edge of the Potteries and a left turn across the pretty green at Barlaston takes us past Barlaston Hall, built in 1758 in the Palladian style by Sir Robert Mills and acquired by Wedgwood and Sons in 1937. By the 1980s, due to neglect and serious subsidence issues caused by extensive local coal mining, the hall was a wreck. But then English Heritage stepped in and it’s now back to its best, and in private ownership.
There’s a dedicated station halt for the Wedgwood works down in the valley, but little sign of what must once have been an industrial centre with thriving factories and busy canals.
Our ride takes us on lanes between Barlaston and Stone, with one long climb to 190 metres above Oulton Heath, where the views are panoramic with Stone directly below us. Douce coasts into the town centre and rides the circuit, which is a figure of eight right in the centre of town. It includes the pedestrianised town centre, and at 7.30pm on June 18 it should be packed.
We adjourn to a bar in the centre of Stone where Sharon, who as Stone’s town centre coordinator is the other half of the Douce organising team, is keen to thank an unexpected ally: “Newport is 15 miles away and Mick Jeggo, who organises the famous Newport Nocturne race, has helped us a lot. We took the mayor as a VIP guest to his race and he was astounded and promised to return in two years time.
“Mick is such a nice guy. He just loves the sport and will do anything to help promote it. He is going to do race commentary on the night with Hugh Porter.”
There’s more to Stone than first meets the eye. The UK’s wealthiest woman, Kirsty Bertarelli, was born near here, but the former Miss UK and lyricist for the All Saints’ number one Black Coffee, now lives, well, anywhere but Stone, it appears. She and her husband Ernesto, a biotech tycoon, are worth £5,650m.
Stone is also the birthplace of water colourist Peter de Wint and is where Admiral Jervis, later Earl St Vincent after the battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797, is buried. The River Trent and the Trent and Mersey canal run south of the town and the Wrekin and Clent Hills in Shropshire are not far away.
Stone town council is underwriting the June 18 criterium, which will include a midsummer carnival with live music and street entertainment. Other supporters of the event include local specialist car dealer Dave Fox and Phil Griffiths. All the pubs and restaurants will be open and Sharon is hoping the precinct shops will open too.
It promises to be a great night out, and a fitting way for one of the UK’s greatest cyclo-cross champions to make a return to the sport.
Steve Douce has been out of the sport for long enough to have noticed some changes. “When I started you had to make your own cross shoes,” he remembers.
“You would nail a piece of cross tub on to the front, then you had to drill holes in the sole and screw football studs in. Every Sunday after the race you would have to re-cobble your shoes because the studs and bits of tub had fallen off!
“We used to get something we called ‘Rivat nail’. It was a black toenail caused by the Rivat shoe, which used to shrink when it got wet and pinch your feet.”
These days he is happy to have discovered the latest kit and rides a Pinarello F4:13 with Shimano 105 groupset and Pinarello wheels. “It’s a slightly specced up version of what you can buy,” says Douce. “It rides unbelievably well. It’s just not a hindrance at all.”
YOUR GUIDE: STEVE DOUCE
* Age 44, lives in Barlaston, Staffs
* Married with two children
* Seven times UK national cyclo-cross champion between 1983 and 1993
* Two second places in the 1991 Milk Race tour of Britain
From Barlaston head east over level crossing and to village green where you turn left (TL) towards Barlaston Hall. A short detour will take you past the Hall but you then retrace the route and continue to minor road where turn right (TR) heading south to return to minor road heading east from Barlaston.
TL and continue to Rough Close where TR onto the B5066. Continue south to edge of Hilderstone where TR onto minor road heading west via Cotwalton and Oulton to Stone. Leave Stone on minor road towards canal, crossing it in both direction before heading north to Oulton Heath. At top of climb TL then take first left past Hooks Green. TR to T-junction where TL to rejoin route back into Barlaston.
DISTANCE 15 miles (25km)