With the first home cycling World Championships since they were at Goodwood in 1982 (which very much predates my interest in cycling), I was always going to be spending late September in Yorkshire.
There were a series of events held over a week, but I headed up after the time trials had taken place, reaching my base just outside Pocklington near York – a cabin booked via Cottages.com (there are other places beyond Airbnb!).
On Thursday I headed out to the Wold Top Brewery in the Yorkshire Wolds where The Cycling Podcast was holding an event. There would be a 74km ride, finishing with a beer and a meal back at the brewery. Then in the evening, Lionel, Daniel, Richard and Francois would record an episode of the podcast.
I was not on producing duties fortunately.
That was just as well, because the ride had taken its toll on me. Who knew that Yorkshire was so hilly?
While the ride had started in good weather, about halfway through, the rain had caught up with us, and I got a good rinsing. One of the later hills nearly finished me, and then because I was now one of the slower riders on the course, I got a second rinsing. By the end, Daniel, who was not cycling but had gone for a run, had overtaken me on the steep hill back to the brewery (it’s not at the “Top” for nothing).
The brewery had made a special brew for us which was welcome – although sugar in the form of full-fat Coke was also on the menu.
I headed into Harrogate on Friday, where I though I might catch the end of the Junior Women’s race. I did just catch it, but only but virtue of arriving in Harrogate just as they were closing the road ahead of me. So, I parked up and caught it at a nondescript roundabout.
The weather was going to continue to be poor for the rest of the week. The U23 time trials had seen some riders crash spectacularly. In between the Junior women and the later U23 men, I explored the Fan Zone, set up in a central Harrogate park.
This was a pop-up cycling event, with brands putting up marquees showing off their kit, and selling souvenirs. But it looked a bit quiet. There was a prevailing view that the Fan Zone had been far too quiet all week. That was probably partly because of the weather and partly because the really big races only arrived at the final weekend.
So there were bars with no queues and food outlets not selling much food. In the main merchandise tent, where you could buy a flat Yorkshire cap with a UCI tag on it, they were already discounting the T-shirts. (Rumour has it that Yorkshire over-stocked on their merchandise for the Grand Depart in 2014, having to take quite a bath on it. I slightly fear that they went overkill this time too.)
Beyond the slightly soggy Fan Park, other brands like Zwift, Rouleur, SRAM and Specialized had taken over various cycling shops and cafés around Harrogate. These seemed much buzzier. Having watched a fair amount of U23 men on TV in the Corner Haus (and got a free musette for my troubles), I dashed outside to watch the end of the race in action as the men embarked on a couple of laps to finish. Prior to that, I’d also made an emergency shoe purchase, my trainers having becoming soaked and covered in mud in the Fan Zone.
There was controversy in the race when the first rider over the line was disqualified. Race commissaires decided that following a mechanical, he’d drafted far too much to get back into the race and therefore should be stripped of his win. This had happened a long way out, and it was controversial because it’s relatively normal for riders to get a “tow” from vehicles in the race convoy when they’re taken out of the race through no fault of their own – e.g. a crash or a mechanical issue like a flat tyre. The rules are the rules, but of course how they’re interpreted can change. As someone would later say, it’s a bit like how the refereeing in a Premier League game is different to that in a World Cup game. Referees are tougher or more forgiving in different events, and players are expected to know that.
That evening, The Cycling Podcast was doing its biggest event yet in a Harrogate theatre. I went along to that, and said hello to Seb Piquet, who sits in the front car at events like the Tour de France and gives teams (and commentators) up dates on what’s happening from his perspective. He’d been doing the same at the World’s and he told me he was exhausted.
I’d have loved to hang around in Harrogate (and was invited to), but the official car park I was in closed very soon and I had to quickly march over to the field near the showground where my rental car was. On reaching it, I was told that the rain had meant more than 50 cars had needed towing out that day! The safest thing was to reverse down the field I was in until I reached a gravel surface. Then a mile or so of that would get me out to the main roads.
Saturday looked to be slightly better weather, and my plan was to try to catch the Women’s Elite race out on the course, before heading back into Harrogate to watch them do the circuits. There was a home favourite in Lizzie Deignan who’d be going through her home town on Otley early in the route. But in truth, you couldn’t really see beyond the Dutch team who had enormous strength in depth.
I drove out to a point where there were more cyclists on the road than cars, parked up, and cycled the last few kilometres to watch the race come through. Remarkably, the first hill in the whole race absolutely blew the peleton apart, and when they came through, the lead group was already a select one.
Then it was back to the car and the drive into Harrogate where today they’d moved the car parking to firmer ground. I was glad I’d brought my bike because the “20 minute” walk was much closer to 30 minutes from this location.
My first spot was near the pit area, where I also had the benefit of a big screen. Annemeik van Vleuten had broken away with something like 100km to go on her own, and the group behind just weren’t working. It looked to be hers for the win even now!
When the big group came through the pits, it was surprisingly chaotic. A Russian rider went down right in front of me, although a bloodied elbow wasn’t enough to stop her.
The following laps saw the race continue to break apart, with Deignan trying moves to get away towards van Vleuten, but they didn’t work and she ended up burning calories that meant she slipped away in the field.
Van Vleuten won memorably.
My initial plan for Sunday and the big men’s Elite road race was the same as Saturday, but overnight things got worse. First of all, the organisers and the UCI decided that the course needed changing and shortening. A big loop that included a couple of major climbs was now impassable because of the rain and enormous lakes of puddles that had formed. This was a massive disappointment as you just know that hundreds of people including many cycling clubs would have planned to ride out to these climbs to watch the race.
Instead, the race would be slightly shorter, but instead of 7 laps of the 14km finishing circuit in Harrogate, there would be 9. A shorter race might be good, but the weather still seemed to be utterly awful.
I decided I just didn’t have the wet weather clothing with me that I’d need, so instead of watching it my a wet roadside, I decided to make an early getaway, get down the A1(M) back to London, and watch much of the race there.
I made it home before the riders had reached Harrogate, although the miserable weather meant that helicopters couldn’t fly. This didn’t just reduce the quality of the TV pictures, but had the knock on effect of meaning that only a plane that is able to fly over the clouds was able to beam back motorbike pictures. And in a six hour race, that plane has to refuel.
So just after I turned on my TV, we lost pictures for the thick end of an hour, while the plane flew to Doncaster to take on more fuel. A handful of fixed cameras around the circuit provided some pictures, but it was clear that even a foreshortened race was taking its toll.
British hopes relied on Ben Swift, although in the end Tao Geoghegan Hart would finish just ahead of him in a very tough race.
They weren’t at the head of the race though. Stefan Kung of Switzerland had broken away with Matteo Trentin and Gianni Moscon of Italy, Mads Pederson of Denmark and Dutch wunderkid, Mathieu van der Poel. Van der Poel seemed the likeliest winner despite his youth, having had some exceptional results this season. But at the start of the final circuit he just fell away. At first it looked like he might have had a mechanical, but he’d just finally been worn down and run out of fuel. That left the two Italians, the Swiss and the Dane. Gianni Moscon looked cooked too, but he gave everything he could to Matteo Trentin, and most fancied him in the sprint. So when Moscon dropped off, and the three entered the final kilometre or so, it was just a question of when former European champion Trentin would pull away and win. He opened up his sprint at about 200m to go, but he just didn’t have enough on the slow drag to the finish. The 23 year-old Pedersen came around him and was able to cross the line with his arms aloft. Nearly a complete outsider he’d won. (I should mention that the excellent Inrng had given him a small chance of winning).
It was a shame not to see the final in person, but I was fairly cooked from my week in Harrogate, a few days prior to that with friends, and a week with work in India. Roll on Glasgow 2024.