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Northern Rock Cyclone - A Road Racer's View

by Holly Blades

Words and Images by Lee Blades: Sometimes there's a stigma among road cycling clubs about Sportives, but it's my opinion that there's a challenge there for everyone, and one I wasn't going to shy away from during the National Road Race Championship Weekend in Newcastle. The Northern Rock Cyclone was going to be my first sportive, and 107 miles seemed as good a place to start as any.

At the Criterium the night before, everyone was assuring me it was going to be good weather for the Northern Rock Cyclone, so I laid out all my clothes for the next day, expecting the promised sunshine. Of course, first thing in the morning I had to scrabble round to find my anorak and leg warmers after opening the curtains of my hotel room at 6am to find grey skies and rain lashing down. 

Fortunately, I'd already received my race and reference numbers through the post and then queued for ten minutes the night before to register at Leazes park, where I got my lanyard timing chip and a number to zip tie on to my handle bars (zip tie provided!), so all I had to do was turn up at the start line on time.

Not as sinister as it looks, honestly...

Anoraked and leg warmered up, I rode out to the start where it was still quite warm even though it was wet. There were a couple of people shivering on the start line who'd turned up and stood  in  short sleeves and shorts for too long. I think the start may have been delayed because I was in the first wave of hundred milers and we were stood around for fifteen minutes or so. Not too long, but long enough to get a few shivers from those without adequate clothing!

Once the powers that be had decided it was time to leave, several marshalls with scanners recorded my leaving time and then we were off into the rainy open roads. It wasn't too busy at this time in the morning so we got a pretty clean getaway past the airport but care was still needed on the corners and roundabouts which were still slightly wet. 

When you start en masse it can take a while to ascertain who's on your level and who will likely be riding the same speed with you. It was my intention to go for gold so I eyed up a few of the handy riders obviously trying to make their way forward past the riders setting themselves a slightly steadier pace.

Sign on was easy and straightforward

I was in luck, as a local club, M Steel Race Team, started together in the same group and set the early pace, which picked up after about 7 miles when the group of 30 I was with suddenly became a group of 15.  I was being warned about how "up and down" the route was, but laughed it off coming from Derbyshire where we think we know what "up and down" is! If only I'd known.

Come the first feed station at 25 miles, we were riding pretty rapidly. All of the four feeds had a lot of the same stuff, consisting of muesli bars, bananas, drums of energy drink to refresh your bottles, and the ever important water. I would have liked to see more gels personally as towards the end of the 107 miles, solid food felt like a bit too much to manage!

All feed stations were well stocked though, and at the first feed I faffed about too long stocking my pockets with things I probably wouldn't need and topping my bottles up only to see the group I was with scan their cards and start riding up the road. I can't say the word that went through my head as I clammered to clip in and set off after them only to get caught behind a lorry that was passing as I watched them ride up off the first hint of a hill, in my haste I forgot to scan my timing chip. 

I decided to sit up and take my anorak off, as the rain had stopped, and settled down for the next 25 miles to the second feed riding solo. In the second section, the countryside really opened up - in fact we began to get an indication of what the remainder of the day would be like. Basically up and down constantly for the next 75 miles!

Somehow I managed to catch a couple of people on this second section after about 13 miles of riding alone and we worked together until the first huge climb which was a bit of a grind! This was probably the first real testing climb of the day so we heaved our way to the top, where a local guy who we caught enjoyed telling me the nature of what was in store with regards to climbing. 

Not put off, we dropped away from the hill into quite a steep descent, thankfully straight - as the roads were still wet. I made it to the second feed in one piece for a quick bottle refresh before me and my new Polish friend Ola set off onto the next section and arguably the hilliest section of the day which was mostly into the headwind that had seemed to pick up as the rain cleared. 

Leazes Park, home of the Cyclone sign on, and the Leazes Park Crit

It was this point that the sun came out and I could take my leg warmers off - pretty nifty whilst remaining on the bike, I must say! 

The Cheviot hills were as exposed to the wind as moorland and turning off the main road we began a gentle climb with a  fierce headwind pushing us down to about 11mph,  a real false flat and no feeling of altitude gain. I could have done with someone to hide behind on this part! Right at the end of the section it was down to wrenching the 39x25 bottom gear once again as the gradient kicked up. 

After this climb, the course became pretty technical even on the now dry roads with errant sheep requiring extra vigilance. We'd caught two of the M Steele riders by this point, and this was when it occurred to me how quiet the lanes were with hardly a car in sight. Upon mentioning this to my new riding partners, it was immediately answered with "Aye, ah nah - but the next stretch is a t**t of a climb, leyk." And so it was. Another bottom gear grind. It was an open hillside where you could see the road zigzagging up and getting steeper with the unwelcoming sight of labouring riders in the distance. 

After leaving my Geordie companions on the hill, I took my caffeine energy gel and resigned myself to riding alone for a while, until 10 minutes later when I was caught by a group of eight riders who seemed in a bit of a hurry. That was when I recognised the local jersey of Beeston - a quick exchange of "Beeston!" and "Haway, Derby Lad!" took place and I gritted my teeth and jumped on the back of that group where I sat on for the descent to the next feed station where the local boy scouts swiped our timing chips. 

After refilling my bottles again, it was over a rickety bridge before out onto twisty turny gravel strewn lanes. We came onto a turn with a sign missing, and a couple of cyclists waiting for someone who knew where to go. Fortunately somebody in the group I was in was a local and knew whether it was left or right (it was right). These new riders who'd been waiting were pretty quick and really spanked it along the main road. I had to grit my teeth to hang on to them. 

A left hander off the main road saw us joining the shorter route sportives and having to do a bit of hopping around to try and keep in contact with each other. The sun was baking at this point, and that was when we saw it.... 
Someone mentioned there were "a couple of lumps to go" but a quick glance ahead saw a sheer ramp heading towards the heavens. The Ryals. Some were off their bikes, others chewing their handlebars. It was carnage. The first of the two ascents was the steeper and I felt my legs starting to cramp as I laboured that familiar "too high gear" sensation and had to let the group go. If I'd had tried to press harder I would have fully cramped up and had to stop. 

The second ramp, however, was not quite as severe but I still erred on the side of caution. I noticed by the second ramp there was a cooling tail wind, which was geatfully received, and after the top you could really start to gather some speed as it was slightly downhill all the way to the finish with a decent tail wind picking up. 

After the descent, I made a mental calculation that it was still possible to get back before the gold cut off time so although I was on my own, I decided to time trial to the finish as best I could. I was about 100 m behind the group I had been with but just could not catch them. It was a strange feeling of fatigue and tiredness, being hot and bothered, but my legs just not stopping. Somehow I kept pedalling until the final feed where I didn't bother to collect anything, just to get my chip swiped and press on. 

The Sportive Village at Leazes Park

Again, I so nearly latched on to the group but just couldn't quite get on so I kept up my pace somewhere between 22 and 25mph until I hit a bit of a rise - not too steep at all but enough to knock the stuffing out of my legs and use my last bit of energy as I found myself hitting the wall with three miles left to ride. These were possibly the most painful three miles I have ever had to endure - my body slumped over the bars, my face a grimace, but again the legs kept turning. 

People were passing me, who I thought I'd left for dead over the Ryals, then thankfully the last few turns past the airport and back into the stadium were in sight and I came to a dead stop in front of a marshall, had my card swiped and then had to lie down on a patch of grass for ten minutes until my head stopped spinning and the urge to cry had passed. 

I heard "I knew you Derby Lads were soft" over my shoulder as the Beeston rider approached so I pulled myself together with a cold beer and a portion of chips and went to hand my timing chip in to be scanned. I was given a receipt with my position and time listed on it. Unfortunately, as I'd missed the first check point, my receipt said I completed the 33 mile ride in 5:51 minutes and was dead last!! 

Still exhausted the next day at The Nationals!

This was quickly rectified, but I'd still missed the gold standard by 11 minutes which was a bit unfair as the gold standard was supposed to be for 104 miles, but due to road closures and roadworks, we actually covered 108 miles. I'm not a top standard rider but I'm a third cat club rider who has managed a 100 mile TT in 4:12 minutes, so it seems to me that a little more thought should have been given to the standards following the route changes. 

However, this is the only thing that detracted from a well organised event with good marshalling and, aside from one missing sign, easy to navigated. I can't speak for the shorter routes, but if you're thinking of riding the 100 miler next year, make sure your gears work! I don't think I've ever made so many gear changes in one event.

We liked: The personal challenge and the varied terrain. Beautiful countryside and very little traffic. Plus, those Geordies are a quite friendly bunch!
We disliked: The wet start, the lack of gels at the feed stop and the timing standard oversight. It would also have been nice to receive a little more information about the course with regards to which climbs were which and so on.