Race Report - 2016 Rutland-Melton International CiCLE Classic
It's the morning of the 2016 Rutland-Melton International CiCLE Classic. Team WPG Amsterdam's young DS Arthur Van Dam is delivering a crash course in feed-zone technique to Always Riding's sidekick Tess amidst the pre-race bustle and prepping in the team area. “Hold it out just like this” Arthur demonstrates with one of the small, yellow musettes as it dangles loosely on an outstretched arm “Keep your grip loose on the handle and aim for shoulder height of the approaching rider, hold it a little forward as your arm will naturally move back as he grabs the musette’s cord. Hold it at the knot, here - we’ve knotted them to ensure the length is just right to avoid too much swinging once grabbed. Here's a team jersey so they can spot you. You need to be quick, keep a good supply and be ready!”
It’s ex-racer Tess' first time on the other side of the race numbers as a feed-zone soigneur after answering the squad's call for roadside help at the race. Always Riding – always ready to help.
Arthur then briefs me on the team's background and explains that they have not made the ferry trip from Holland just for fun. "Wielerploeg Groot Amsterdam is a combination of three club teams from the Amsterdam region and was founded last year from the remains of a Continental team that, unfortunately, had to stop due to budget problems. A lot of those guys got together and we decided to form our own team - we found a good sponsor who wanted to put some money into it and the team was born! We're really honoured to be here today; the organisation has been perfect, we rode a recon' yesterday and everything looks fabulous! The UK is one of the cycling nations nowadays, with all of the interest and sponsorship - that's why we said 'Hey - we gotta be there!' Our goal for today is to show ourselves, we want to be present in any early breaks. From the recon' we noticed how much it's like Brittany - we have guys who have won there so we are wanting to show ourselves and, for sure, have at least one guy in at the final… that's the least we can do to honour the race!"
As race roll-out time approaches we load the boot of Tess' little Citroen Saxo with crates of bidons, musettes stuffed with energy gels & drinks, recovery snacks & shakes for the finish line and the riders' post-race warm clothing. The squad have only been able to bring one of their team cars over which, driven by Arthur, will be busy in the race convoy supporting the riders when the action kicks off; Tess has a vital role to play. Car loaded, we head off to the feed-zone to get set up and ready for the race’s arrival.
The feed-zone looks down upon the rolling countryside over which the race will be fought out. From our lofty perch we survey the idyllic scene before us like generals anticipating the coming battle. I’d ridden much of the race's route the previous day and knew that the deceptively gentle looking patchwork of farmland hid a relentless round of sharp, punchy climbs and fast, technical, narrow descents. The rubble strewn secteurs may give the race its unique character but it is the brutal, leg sapping rollercoaster of the 179km route, lying hidden amidst this beautiful rural hinterland of green meadows and vivid yellow rapeseed, that will serve to carve out the day's winner, not the crucial off road secteurs alone.
We wait. Radio and internet reception is patchy at best out here, seemingly blown in and out on the wind. Bursts of information filter through from the race and are passed up and down the line of team cars parked lazily amongst the grazing sheep: A crash - serious enough to merit a halt to the race; a neutralised re-start and reports of an ambulance on its way to hospital. Concerned looks and calls to convoy vehicles. Nobody wants it to be one of their guys. Nobody wants it to be one of anybody’s guys. Truth is, every single one of those guys out there with a number on their back is one of our guys...
At last, a tangible race reality emerges from the snatches of information as a charging ribbon of jostling colour appears through a billowing of dust in the distance. The soigneurs, now alert and focused, jockey for position along a hundred metre stretch of grass at the edge the farm track, craning necks and clutching the small, precious cloth bags. The leading riders are upon us, the air now filled with shouts of encouragement, the squeal of brakes and the curses of the racers as wheels rub and arms dart out to snatch up sustenance. Bidons slip through fingers and skitter across the road and in-between wheels whilst any successfully snared musettes are deftly flung around shoulders as the race barrels onwards. As the dust settles, all that is left behind by the race are the missed bidons nestling under the hedgerow and jettisoned riders for whom the race is run. Shredded clothing, wrecked bikes and blood streamed limbs tell the tale of the race so far as the Broom Wagon pours its broken cargo out of the rear double doors before slipping away to stalk yet more of its prey…
The first feed of the three that are scheduled is done. Tess' baptism of fire has passed off without any mishaps: "I managed to hand up a couple musettes to our guys and didn't cause any crashes - I count that as a success!" I leave her at the feed-zone and make my way across the dale to the cauldron of activity and action that is Owston, the traditional epicentre of the race. This tiny village swells with pride and duty each year to create the beating heart of the race as it crashes through the countryside. Hugh Porter inhabits his customary commentary position in a wagon trailer, carrying the en-fete crowds along with his warming voice in between the race’s six passages through the hamlet.
The crowds lap up the atmosphere & BBQ’d food. Many a Lion of Flanders flag is fluttering in the breeze. The riders fly across the ever shifting-beneath-the-wheels surface of the village's secteurs on the very edge of control. Careering team cars follow in their wake, fish-tailing around the corners as tyres lose grip and send rocks and shale into my shins. I shout encouragement to the WPG Amsterdam racers I manage to spot within the chaos; they have two guys still in the hunt with the main pack, pursuing a purposeful looking Tom Stewart led escape. JLT Condor are letting nothing out of their hawk-like gaze and are driving the chase hard. I think back to the words of one JLT Condor team staffer who'd earlier told me that nothing was going to thwart them in their quest for victory “Today means a lot to us - and I mean, A Lot”.
The race appears from all directions to hurtle through the Owston party, chasing its tail and snapping at its own heels, claiming the bad luck stories and those outside of the time-cut as its victims each time it leaves on yet another loop around the lanes. The contrast between the cheering excitement of the crowd and the shell shocked riders who lay scattered about on the grass verges, faces and legs caked in the dust and rubble of the race after the time-keeping commissaire’s wagging finger has delivered mercy upon their pain wracked bodies by ending their race, is stark. I exchange a few words with a friend whose thousand-yard stare is palpable even through his darkly tinted shades as he relays the intense speeds and Mario Cart-like lottery of crashes that have made up his day. His manner is vague - disorientated - far from his normal, chirpy young self.
I check my watch: Time for me to leave Owston and head over to Melton Mowbray for the race’s finale. The plan is to ride in the commandeered Saxo with Tess now that the third and final feed is done with, thus keeping ahead of the race in our own, important dash for the line; we have the riders' post-race warm clothes and food & drink in the car. We are determined not to mess up and leave them shivering and famished after a tough day out! That plan goes out of the window, however, when it turns out that the passenger seat is occupied by team rider Sebastiaan Pot who has lost his battle with an illness that had afflicted him on the eve of the race. The poorly racer has been sat shivering in the car for the last hour or so after climbing off as he reached the feed-zone; his bike is squashed into the back of the car, on top of the recovery shakes and rice pudding treats, meaning there is no room for me.
A quick call to Always Riding photographer Andy and he is darting across the countryside from his last vantage point to scoop me up. He guns the car to the finish-line to capture the all-important shot of the winner's arrival. We arrive in good time and catch the race's penultimate passage through the line: Tom Stewart is still away with three other riders - but 16 seconds with 10km to go is surely not going to be enough? The chasing pack flies through in pursuit and I pick out a WPG Amsterdam jersey tucked within it: A bunch sprint is now on the cards and the squad still have representation at the race's business end. Could there be a fairy tale first appearance at the race for Arthur and his squad? Ever the dreamer I clench my fist and urge the Dutchman on…
Flashing lights - the lead car slips under the finish line gantry, the finale is only a couple of minutes away. I’m stood next to the JLT Condor backroom staff in the press zone as word reaches them via messenger that one of their riders, Conor Dunne, has played his last card in what has been a very active race for him, attacking alone from the now back-together bunch. The flying, lone figure of Dunne comes into view at the far end the finish straight – it is very clear that he is not to be caught! The JLT Condor camp erupts and begins to celebrate as the victor salutes the crowds lining the finishing straight before he is engulfed in a scrum of black and yellow clad team personnel amid much jubilation. It is a classy, hard fought win.
Jelmer, the WPG Amsterdam rider rolls in with the bunch, opting not to sprint for minor placings, mindful of the risks and upcoming appointments out on the road back in Holland. Overall, Arthur is happy: His squad have been on the attack a couple of times with Matthias Koedijk and had Jelmer Asjes up there at the finale; that was, after all, their brief all those hours ago at the roll out. And aside from the actual team performance? "It's a really exciting race; a fantastic atmosphere, especially at Owston! A great experience!"
The squad swarm around our car plucking out jackets and nourishment, fatigue and grime etched into their faces. I ask Oscar Van Wijk about his day:
"It's been a tough one. We tried to get in a breakaway at the beginning of the race but nothing was sticking. After that it was just full gas, all the time. The peloton broke on Somerberg - I managed to just get back to them... then in the last secteur I had a puncture but our car went on to be with Jelmer...so I had to walk - but after about five minutes walking another team’s car gave me a wheel so I could ride in. It's a special race, the off road sections make it so... but even without them it would still be a very hard race- it's really tough!"