Distance: 37 miles (60km)
Climbing: 200 metres
Raleigh is the most iconic brand in British cycling. From humble beginnings in a Nottingham garage it grew to worldwide fame, first as bikes for transport then as bikes for racing.
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They sponsored many great racers, from legendary sprinter Reg Harris, to a full pro team that won the Tour de France. The Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk did it for them in 1980, riding a classic red, yellow and black Raleigh.
At its height, Raleigh’s output was huge. Its factory, so big that it was used to produce arms during the Second World War, was one of the biggest employers in Nottingham. But eventually Raleigh was forced to accept it could no longer produce bikes at the same cost as the Far East.
The business went through some tough times, but now it is fighting back again. For 2009 it decided to renew its contact with the sport by producing the Avanti range of quality road bikes and reviving the M-Trax mountain bike brand, plus it is sponsoring a racing team.
Geoff Giddings is the marketing manager and force behind the new squad. He’ll clock up 30 years as a bike racer in 2009 and has won three National Trophy cyclo-cross series in his age group.
“I seem to have had a new lease of life since I turned 40, as I think a lot of riders do,” the 43 year old from Ilkeston explains. “There is a lot of enthusiasm among older riders and therefore, if you have your business hat on which I have to for Raleigh, there is a lot of potential for sales. That’s one reason why we have masters racers in the team. We want to tap into that market with the Raleigh brand and with Corratec, a Swiss top-end bike brand that Raleigh is the agent for in the UK.
Giddings reckons that Raleigh’s sponsorship of older riders is a two-way street. “With Phil Wilkins, who’s 47, we’ve got an experienced former pro road racer, and with Ian Wright, who is the over-50s national cyclo-cross and mtb champion, we’ve got someone who can help develop our mountain bikes. They’re both experienced enough to give us good feedback.”
Wright is a builder from Yoxall who is hoping to step away, at least part-time, from the trade and use his passion for off-road to build a cycling business. “I must have ridden every inch of Cannock Chase, so I’m starting up Cannock Chase Tours, aiming at beginner to intermediate riders who want to explore and enjoy the Chase,” he says. “We are getting involved in that with Ian, because it’s another chance to meet customers,” Giddings interjects.
This ride is an old favourite of Wilkins. “It goes south over the Trent to Belvoir Castle. It’s flat going out, then a climb up to the castle, where it’s a bit bumpy, then flat coming back. I’ve been doing it for years,” says Wilkins, a carpet supplier and fitter who returned to racing in 2008 and won the LVRC crit championships.
The team are comfortable working with masters. As Giddings says, “It’s a big portion of racing, a growing one too, but one that can get neglected.”
But they aren’t only focusing on older riders. Michael Cumming is an 18 year old with a great future ahead of him.
He’s also got a famous name: his father is the former pro Dave Cumming. Michael is a regular training partner of road race legend Mark Lovatt. He won a team time trial with Lovatt a couple of days before this ride. His ambitions this year are straightforward: “I want to make a name for myself, and I want to keep hurting Lovatt.”
Youth is also represented by two riders who couldn’t make it today. They are 27-year-old Andrew Stewart and Paul Foston, who at 16 is part of BC’s Talent Team. Lee Guymer, a 20 year old from Beverley, is sponsored by Cycle Life Hull, part of the country-wide Cycle Life chain of dealers that carry the Raleigh and Corratec lines of road and mountain bikes. Guymer is a road racer who is hoping to “finish well up in a few Premier Calendar events, and in the National Criterium Championships, which are in Beverley.”
There are a few main roads to cross on this ride, but between them the route is a traffic-free delight. The group make their way steadily south after leaving the traffic behind at Car Colston. It’s so quiet that they can play out some echelon riding for photographs during a long flat crosswind section before the climb up to Belvoir Castle.
When we reach the top, Wilkins is complaining that the ice cream shop is shut. Then he leads the group south-west along the bumpy top of the ridge, before plunging back down into the Vale of Belvoir at Harby.
It’s the beginning of a new age in the Raleigh story. The Raleigh team is a name that’s still spoken with respect by fans in Europe. They remember the iron-hard Euro team and Raleigh riders like Gerrie Knetemann and Jan Raas. In those days racing was war, and the Raleigh boys won nearly every big race there is.
This Raleigh team is different, but their philosophy is as uncompromising as the win-all approach of Raas and co. “It’s a way of getting involved, of taking the product to the races with riders who are good athletes but who can also talk about their bikes and be friendly. We take part in everything we can. Road, off-road, it’s all cycling. We’re even putting relay teams in the mtb events like Sleepless in the Saddle,” Giddings says before we part.
Raleigh Racing Team
Age: Raleigh is 120
Status: selling lots of bikes (again)
Best result: winning the 1980 Tour de France
Hobbies: sponsoring young and masters racers
Philosophy 2009: it’s all about taking part
From Lowdham head south to Gunthorpe Bridge, turning left just past the Trent. There’s a hill out of the Trent valley, but after crossing the busy A46 and A52 the route is a delight.
The Vale of Belvoir is rich arable land, and it was the location for some of the Auf Wiedersehen Pet TV series. We aren’t sure if the gentry of the famous Belvoir Hunt ever met Oz though. The only stiff climb is to Belvoir Castle, but the compensation is a panoramic view north from Nottingham to Lincoln.
The return to Lowdham passes Langar airfield where the Nottingham Police riot squad used to train by throwing wooden blocks and Molotov cocktails at each other. Happy days.