The British men’s elite road race championship is an event eagerly anticipated by riders and fans alike.
Dave and I headed for Stockton on Tees early Sunday morning, with a three and a half hour drive to ponder the possible outcome of the day. Today’s races headline the Stockton Cycling Festival which had featured already both men’s and women’s elite and under 23 time trial championships.
With the Tour de France a week away the possibility of the winner heading to France with a nice new national champions jersey has in recent years enticed many to risk one final race before the start of le Grande Boucle, or the “Big Loop”.
Peter Kennaugh did just that in 2015 seeing off Mark Cavendish in the process and looking the King of Cool on French roads. This year the chances of the champion starting in Mont Saint Michel next Saturday are significantly lower, with Kennaugh out injured, Stannard champion in 2012 deciding to rest up and take no risks, Ben Swift also injured, Steve Cummings and Adam Yates not entered, it looks like Mark Cavendish will have go one better than last year to ensure The Jersey is seen on the roads of France in July.
The results of recent championships have seen a Team Sky roll of honour, this year however it might be a different story.
With only Andy Fenn and Alex Peters up against 166 other riders and some teams (NFTO, Raleigh GAC, JLT Condor) with more than ten riders each on the start sheet, the numerical advantage at least is not with Sky.
That said would you bet against a World Tour rider taking the top step of the podium? Well you would get good odds if you did.
As it turns out the world tour teams deliver, Adam Blythe Tinkoff producing the big result and relegating Mark Cavendish to second step of the podium for the second year in succession. With the Tinkoff team folding at the end of the year this result will make his chances of a quality contract for 2017 all the more likely.
It was a great race with the result in doubt until the last 50 metres.
No team Sky domination this year then, with Andy Fenn and Alex Peters up against it but still playing a big part in the race.
Fenn took bronze after Peters had selflessly driven the break hard for the last five kilometers deterring attacks and clearly having a confidence in Andy’s sprint that not many shared.
All this was the outcome from a day of great attacking racing, benefiting from a reduction in the number of Sky riders? You decide.
It was certainly an ever changing picture for most of the race with splits and riders going forwards and back all day, unlike some previous years where the break is formed and the grinding down process begins.
We arrived in plenty of time to recce the start area and get our bearings having parked up and had a wander to stretch our legs. The place is getting busy with riders and fans arriving and getting organised for the day ahead.
We didn’t expect to see much if anything of the women’s championship road race which had Dave grinding his teeth in frustration – he’s been a fan since we watched the women’s race at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow a couple of years back.
We agree this should be a day for Lizzie Armisted to retain her title. We were wrong of course.
Strolling into town, low and behold appearing down the road are flashing lights, motorbikes, police and a lead car.
Dave is delighted as we catch the closing stages of the women’s race, with a group of thirteen looking like they will contest the finish and indeed they do.
It’s a great day for the Barnes family with Hannah taking the women’s title and younger sister Alice taking the under 23 gold and silver in the elite race.
Lucy Garner takes silver in the U23 and bronze in the elite event. Confused? We were too but yes the races are combined.
After the women’s race, the men start to appear warming up on the circuit and heading for the sign on. Raleigh are on the turbos whilst over at JLT Condor they are taking a more relaxed approach.
We spot Time Trial champion for the fifth time, Alex Dowsett (Movistar), having retained his title on Thursday.
We need to see what he’s driving these days, it was a Jaguar XKR a couple of years back at Kuurne Brussels Kuurne but I’m guessing he’s moved on since then.
Much like his choice of four wheels Alex can reach some crazy speeds on two, and will definitely be a man to watch and not let away late on today.
We head for Main Street and catch the award ceremony for the women’s races.
Stockton and its surrounding villages have a lot to be proud of with the area taking on the look last see at the Tour De Yorkshire with bunting, painted bikes and displays all around the course it looks great.
Adam Blyth is also spotted in that distinctive Tinkoff kit, we wonder if he has the form that won him the Ride London Classic a couple of years back and find later indeed he has.
Before heading out of town Dan McClay (Fortuneo Vital Concept) pedals past looking for the sign on.
Ed’s tip for the day, who would be in the action all day but not quite have the edge needed.
The course today is 12 laps of a larger circuit on rolling roads and 6 of a smaller flatter finishing loop around the town.
The course is well laid out with plenty of marshals police and NEG motorbikes on hand.
The rolling nature of the bigger circuit we think is demanding enough to have your average clubby rider happy to head home for a well-earned rest on the sofa with a cup of tea and biscuits after 4 or 5 laps.
12 for elite riders is going to kill many legs today and 24 finishers from a field of 168 confirms this.
We set up camp only two miles into the circuit and before we can eat our first sandwich the entourage appears with Fraser Martin (Raleigh GAC) first rider on the road stretching the bunch, with Alex Dowsett and Scott Davies (Team Wiggins) paying close attention. A tad early to be ripping it up Fraser?
Lap two and the riders are upon us with Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) visible near the front, Scott Thwaites (Bora Argon 18) on his wheel.
The riders safely on their way our rest and refreshments are interrupted when we have to coral some rogue ducks off the course into the safety of the nearest garden.
Just in time as three riders shoot past with the peloton in single file chasing, Adam Blythe, is in close attendance. The bunch is warming up.
We settle again, reassured by the ducks’ disappearance only to watch Sean Noon (Spokes) pedal past forlornly, closer inspection reveals raw flesh on both hips and Sean has obviously had a sore one.
A long way for a short race. Next year Sean.
An hour of racing done and Adam Blythe is putting in a big dig, trying to force a split and looking relaxed in the process!
Cracks are starting to appear and the back door of the bunch is open with riders exiting earlier than they would have hoped.
Next time round and the first break of the day has established itself, nine riders with Blythe seemingly in charge and looking smooth.
Less so are Cav and Johny McEvoy, chasing twenty five seconds down. The bunch is led by James Shaw (Lotto Soudal U23) about half a minute back.
Six of the twelve big laps in and the break appears with now about twenty riders.
It’s clearly “race on” and the chase group with Cav present is in hot pursuit. The bunch is further back and Alex Dowsett is trying to get things moving.
We move to the end of the feed zone and watch as the break appears and I’m sure that’s Dowsett and Cav in the break.
The bunch is at two minutes and Tao Geoghegan Hart pulls up with a mechanical, whatever it is, its sorted quick and he’s pushed back into the fray with girlfriend Hannah Barnes arriving moments too late with spare wheel in hand, luckily not needed.
Next lap and the carnage has well and truly started.
One Pro have former champion Kristian House, in the break but he’s sitting on, that’s because his team have four on the front putting the hurt on those still at the pointy end of the race.
It looks tough cause it is.
When we see the break next time around they look relaxed with Blythe and Alex Peters chatting near the back.
The chase group is less relaxed with riders all over the road as Alex Dowsett ups the Watts again.
Cav is tucked nicely on Steven Roach (Raleigh GAC)’s wheel. The back door is still open and there are a lot of guys taking that route.
The bunch a further two minutes back is not hanging about either with many faces being pulled and it doesn’t look like these guys will be back at the front today.
We move on again and having finished the climbing part of the circuit take up position at a fast left hander (we never noted any flat on the big circuit).
The break is fragmenting and there are groups of two’s and three’s all at full gas.
It’s time to head for the finishing circuit and we arrive to see a group of four away, Blythe Tinkoff, Geoghegan Hart Axeon Hagens Berman, Tom Moses JLT Condor and Alex Peters Team Sky.
A larger group has formed and then splits again with 10 now firmly established as the chasers, this group comprising Mark Cavendish, Andy Fenn, Scott Thwaites, James Shaw (Lotto Soudal U23), Kristian House (One Pro), Mark McNally, Tom Stewart (Madison Genesis), Chris Lawless (JLT Condor), Dexter Gardias (Pedal Heaven) and Dale Appleby (NFTO).
The gap to the front four slowly evaporates and the junction is made, with this group destined to fight out the finish.
The chase group, also ten strong, with Alex Dowsett, Sam Lowe and Chris Latham (Team Wiggins) and Dan McLay to name a few are giving it a good go but their head’s look like they are going down and some with riders up the road aren’t pulling hard, they know their day will finish in a fight for the minor places.
The bunch has been pulled at the start of the finish circuit and former champ Russell Downing is now effectively last man on the road, alone, riding hard and whilst maybe not the man he once was, he’s still pushing but loosing ground and he eventually pulls up.
The finale shown on the big screen looks like it is playing into the hands of Cav with Alex Peters driving and deterring any late attacks. They all look like they are running on fumes anyway.
Except perhaps Blythe who despite a wee nudge from Cav in the sprint, sticks to the task at hand and pulls ahead for the win.
Impressive from Blythe and disappointing for Cav who will not have the coveted national champions jersey on his shoulders next weekend.
The minor placings see Mark McNally (Wanty- Group Gobert) finish fourth, Scott Thwaites (Bora Argon 18) fifth.
Tao Geoghegan Hart delighting the Barnes family and his numerous supporters with a fine sixth place on the day and the under 23 title.
Tom Stewart (Madison Genisis) finished seventh, Dale Appelby (NFTO) a fine eighth and just reward for being at the front of the race all day.
Chris Lawless was JLT Condor’s top finisher in ninth and the top ten was rounded out by James Shaw L(otto Soudal U23).
An excellent championship race and with dare I say a European feel to it.
The spectators were not as numerous as a Belgian race, the scale and infrastructure of the event was comparable.
One final thought though, would the Belgian fans and media have accepted Etixx Quickstep sending only two riders to the national championship? We think not.
Congratulations to all involved in the events organisation and to all the riders for making this such a memorable championship.