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Gentlemen's Race: York-Whitby-York
Photos by Jonathan Hines
Yorkshire, England’s largest county, is famed for all sorts including cricket, flat caps, warm beer, David Hockney, brass bands and Dean Downing. “God’s Own Country”, as its natives affectionately know it, was also the setting for a Rapha Gentlemen’s Race, only the second event of its kind in the UK.
The idea was to ride from York, a city established over two millennia ago, to Whitby on the coast, home to the finest fish and chips and the place where Bram Stoker’s Dracula arrived on his private yacht. And once at Whitby Abbey, it was then a return leg to York.
All that stood in the way of the 14 teams was the Yorkshire Moors, 33% gradients, forest roads, gravel, farmland and typical June weather in northern England, i.e. potentially miserable headwinds and rain. But the often misused adage, ‘It’s grim up north’, could in no way be applied to the riding terrain on offer. Yes, the weather was at times a tad grim, but overall the day provided some of the most exquisite road cycling in the United Kingdom.
As with other Gents races which have taken place worldwide, checkpoints were established and then it was up to the teams to find their own way to each. Return to York with a flush of stamps and an intact team in the quickest time and the pride of Queen and country was yours…
On arrival at the race HQ, the National Railway Museum, with its resident Bullet Train, Streamlined Mallard and plenty more locomotives for the enthusiast to gawk at, it was clear some teams meant business. Nonna’s–La Squadra of Sheffield had a support van with freshly made lasagna and soigneur onboard. Rapha Continental, who I was fortunate enough to be riding for, were still confident despite having a well-known ringer pull out at the very last moment – “a failed MOT”.
We applied embrocation and inflated tyres out the back of a people carrier and, as the top seeded team, waited to set off last. First out the blocks was Nowhere Fast who, in tribute to their team name, set off at a leisurely pace.The sun was peeking out at this point but as Feather Cycles rolled out about 08.15, three minutes ahead of us, grey clouds gathered.
Our Race Capes were shortly zipped up against the drizzle as we gathered momentum helped by a tailwind. After one or two false turns we were rolling through verdant countryside with overgrown hedgerows, sprawling oaks and sheep chewing grass indifferently.
The rain relented and the sun appeared as we took the fast road up to Pickering. Home to a steam railway line, here we bumped into a Wetherby Wheelers team who'd stopped for a cup of tea (a nice spot for such an activity). Past the limestone station house and soon we were climbing a quiet road under the green light of tree canopies.
Avoiding the outlawed A169, we pushed along an old Roman road. Hearing the chuff and whistle of a steam train the scenery became even more delightful with dry stone walls and more rolling tarmac. As the treeline dwindled to the western flank a stiff ramp shot us up onto the Moors, where the view got even more spectacular. Obvious comments like “look a that will thee”, “niiiiiiiiice” and “blimey” ensued.
Buzzing from the stark beauty on show, the five of us soon reached the first checkpoint, a white transit van parked between the bottom of a descent and another rise up across more exposed moorland. We didn’t hang around and, hearing that there were only three more teams up the road, we pressed on up 14% ramps and through purple and green fields, encountered a team who were “looking for our next pint, like”, and pointed out solitary houses on the horizon. "Is that Wuthering Heights? Look, it's Kate Bush!" shouted one of my fellow gentlemen.
And so to Whitby, through a cattle-gate and down a narrow, twisting descent, we crossed a footbridge, battled another horrible gradient in the village of Grosmont and soon enough were greeted by the dramatic sight of Whitby Abbey, its grey ruins sitting above the town with the green north sea swaying behind it. We caught the first team on the road, some gentlemen from Gateshead calling themselves Team GAN (On), as we climbed up to the Abbey. Pork pies and coffee at the H-Van, not an obvious combo but a welcome one, cards stamped, a quick Instagram, and then it was time to get stuck in to the real work of the day.
Returning into 18mph headwinds (it felt more like 80mph at times) was, again putting it with a light touch, crap. My body type, at six feet and roughly 80 kilos, was in contrast to the rest of my team, who could all easily find work as chimney sweeps. But I wasn’t complaining, even when I was dropped and a spoke on my front wheel snapped (ok, maybe I do need to lose some timber). As we gratefully entered the forested part of the Moors for some much needed tree cover Sam Humpheson, wheel builder for the UK Continental, set me straight before we embarked on 30 km of ‘hard’ roads.
Winding, dipping and (for me) crawling up to the third and final checkpoint certainly was tough but the forest was a pleasure to ride through. Just as the Moors had provided wonderment, this part of the Moors National Park contained switchback descents, bizarre hill formations, scampering Chaffinches, ancient trees and terribly steep climbs. Not a car in sight, we were transported a world away from our city lives with place names like ‘Horse Shoe Wood’ and ‘Troutsdale’ signposted. Favourite.
We reached Dalby Forest Drive at the same time as Monty, the London Cycle Club Manager and checkpoint marshal for the day, screeched into the car park in his van. Duly stamping our cards for the third and final time, we quickly galloped towards the final leg of the journey. Climbing out of the forest and back towards Pickering the heavens opened: hard. Sideways rain lashed against our faces as we drilled it back to York.
The final hour of a 120-mile ride is usually tough, but what with all the headwinds and nearly 3000 meters of climbing done, myself and Jack Saunders, Rapha’s graphic designer, started to flag, in fact we were at half-mast. A tactical loo stop, a push from Sam and something vaguely resembling a conversation about Sicilian cuisine with Chris, our last-minute replacement ringer (Graeme Raeburn also pulled out) helped us along the last 15 miles back the way we came. As he rolled us back to town James Fairbank, our team captain, remarked that, “those were some of the best roads I’ve ever ridden”. Even Jack’s grey face and my bludgeoned legs agreed.
York cathedral came into view and we negotiated through traffic back to the National Railway Museum, where race organiser Jack Briggs was waiting. He didn’t seem surprised when we turned up first and neither did we, but later it was declared that we were ineligible for the victory. That was awarded to Howay Man Dave, from Newcastle (in case you weren’t aware ‘howay, man’ is a colloquial term of the northeast used to motivate or mildly scorn).
Other notable mentions should go to the other Rapha team on the day consisting of Leo Tong, Rob ‘the Vampire’ Saunders, Andrew ‘Pikey’ Pike all the way from Australia and Rudy from 5th Floor. ‘Rapha Composite’ as they were called made time to stop for fish and chips and beer, tea and scones, and plenty of Instagram scenarios. Pikey hadn’t been up north before…
Thanks also to all the other teams including Mr. Ricky Feather’s crew, Here Come the Belgians, Nonna’s and La Squadra, The Body Rehab (who went straight to their hotel afterwards), Velovolupte and Nowhere Fast. Commiserations to GAN (On) who would have been in with a shout of the victory but managed to get completely lost after Whitby, ending up hiking through an RAF base. Hats off to Jack Briggs for organising the whole bloody event and making sure it was a tough day out, and to Konrad and Ham for braving the 200 plus miles up north in the H-Van. Thanks to Monty and Jonny the photographer, the National Railway Museum, Sam Smith's brewery and the good people of Yorkshire.
(In 2014, the Tour de France will depart from York, so between now and then you’ve got no excuse not to visit “God’s Own Country”.)
1. Rapha Continental - 6hr 33m
2. Wetherby Wheelers A - 7hr 44m
3. Howay Man Dave - 7hr 51m
4. Nowhere Fast - 8hr 19m
5. Rapha Composite - 8hr 23m
6. Feather Cycles - 8hr 27m
7. Here Come the Belgians - 8hr 38m
8. Gan (on) - 8hr 46m
9. Saturday@7 - 8hr 53m
10. Wetherby Wheelers B - 9hr 3m
11. La Squadra - 9hr 18m
12. Nonna's - 9hr 25m
13. The Body Rehab - 9hr 31m
14. Velovolupte - 9hr 46m
First team back: Rapha Continental
Fastest team: Howay Man Dave*
Lantern Rouge: Velovolupte
*Rapha Continental were ineligible to claim fastest team as they fielded 5 riders and Wetherby Wheelers A also dropped a rider.
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