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Northern Rock Cyclone REVIEW

by Howard Johnson

This year was supposed to be a year where I attended events I haven't done before, and all the planning that was done in deep dark cold February, was before my house move and heart scare. So many times I had heard good things about the size and quality of this event; I had to see for myself.

And as I always say, sportive events allow you to ride on roads you would not often choose yourself. After often driving past Newcastle and Northumberland, now it was time to get out of the car and use the bike.

Preparation once again has not been ideal with a very busy work diary; however there was a whole day, on the Friday that was free. Leaving me time to get myself sorted out and a gentle drive to Newcastle. Then a phone call to say be in London for meetings on Friday, and oh they won't finish until 5pm!

Thursday night all bike kit was packed into car, and London meetings completed it was now a 300 mile drive north, if I could get out of the M25 gridlock. Battling up the A1 I eventually got to Seaton Burn, and the hotel. Couldn't have been given a noisier room, and I was hungry. All I could find was a Chinese take away. Not the carb loading I am used to.

After a restless nights sleep, I pulled back the curtains to rain. Decision made to wear tights. So fully kitted out, the short drive to the Newcastle Falcons Rugby ground was a doddle, and being there early I managed to park on the hard standing. Registration was a breeze and very efficient in the West Stand, where there were breakfast rolls and hot drinks available.

The more I walked around, the more I knew I had made the wrong decision to choose tights, so it was a quick strip and into shorts with the rain cape, as it was still trying to drizzle for the 8am start. The event is advertised as a festival of cycling, and I was sorry to miss the Leazes Criterium on Friday night, and I also had to miss the Ladies and Men's National Road Race Championships on the Sunday, using some of the sportive course. 

There were three sportive routes to choose from, a 33 mile route designed for families and riders just who want to enjoy the countryside without any large hills. A 67 mile route for a rider with a little more stamina, with a few challenges, and finally a 104 mile serious challenge for the more experienced rider. The route is very hilly with 2374m (7789ft) of climbing and with 8 significant climbs and the highest point is Troughend Common (340m), west of Otterburn in the Cheviot Hills.  

Not being at full strength I opted for the 67 mile challenge and was scanning my chip at 8:30 to start my ride. Usually I am very strict in downloading or tracing a course into my own Garmin for a route to follow in case of any idiots that still feel its fun to remove or change route signs. This time I was totally unprepared and hoped the signs were all in place. They were and with a constant stream of riders both in front and behind you, I never once doubted I was on the correct route.

The first 25 miles were undulating, the rises getting a little steeper and longer, and the descents just a little faster each time. The road choices were excellent as the surfaces were for the majority of the ride in very good condition. The route meandered through the country lanes, with so many picturesque quiet sleepy villages.

The first feed stop was on the top of a climb at 25 miles, where once again the local Cadets were press ganged to scan you in. The provisions at the stops were plentiful with bottled water, Powerade, and energy bars. Not one for standing around too long at the feed stations, it was time to take off the rain cape and shiver on the descent. 

By 11am the sun was making an appearance, the roads were beginning to dry and the undulations were getting steeper and longer. The middle 20 miles were the toughest with some inclines hitting 15% to 18%, and had me changing into my secret weapon (24t inner ring on a triple) on many occasions. 

The real stinker of a hill that had me walking - and not just me - topped out at 50 miles. The Ryal climb is a beast in that it is straight ahead, and the road rises upwards. Nothing hidden, no secrets you know exactly where you are going. To add insult to the pain in the legs, the last quarter of the climb there is a small flat, just to get your breath back before it kicks up again with 16% gradient.

At this point I both cursed and smiled. There were 5 young lads, one wearing a Newcastle Phoenix jersey and another barely tall enough to ride his bike in a blue Italia top. These little rascals, aged about 10 to 12 I guess, just danced up the hill as though it was a mere rise in the road. Racing away into the distance I cursed them for not giving me a push, but also very pleased to see we have some young lads still loving the open air and riding their bikes for fun. Hats off guys you were all brilliant.

Once at the top of the Ryal climb the views were gorgeous, with the blue skies breaking through, a tail wind blowing the white clouds away, and a fast descent to the second feed. Once again a quick scan of the chip and it was off to the finish. This is where the three courses finally merged and you could appreciate the vast array of cycling abilities. I saw one chap on the 67 mile route on a Brompton.

On the last few miles there were riders of all shapes, sizes and abilities on a similar range of bikes. And this is where I had my very close shave.
Approaching the airport a young boy, no more than 8 years old, with a group of other children strung out along the road decided to have a look over his left shoulder. I was giving it big licks, as he drifted to the middle of the road, and my shouts of WHOOOAAAA just made him drift further to the middle, squeezing me towards a pedestrian refuge island and him.

I just, and I mean just, managed to get my speed down to a point of stopping before we collided. Luckily, in the last instant he pulled back to the left, leaving me breathless. I checked he was ok, and no I didn't shout at him. I think I may have scarred him for life seeing a 19 stone chubby chappy try and stop in 20 metres. I was just happy to be wearing black shorts and not last seasons white ones.

After a quick ride through the many traffic islands it was back to the finish line that was packed with families and friends supporting the riders. A great atmosphere and well organised finish area meant a final scan of the chip, bike parked and into the West Stand for my time and goody bag.

I rode a 5:57 which wasn't bad considering my lack of miles this year, and the goody bag even had a T Shirt to fit me, a bottle of water and a Snickers bar. Oh and another water bottle to add to my growing collection.

How can I sum up the Northern Rock Cyclone? In a word - BRILLIANT. If you are new to cycling, young, old, out of shape or a racing whippet there is a distance and a challenge for everyone. I can see know why they have 4000 entrants. The organisation was good, facilities at the stadium excellent, signage was good.

Feed stations had enough of what you needed and the choice of roads and climbs were sufficient for them to be a challenge without being ridiculous. I have to curse myself for not riding this event for so long, now I have, I will be returning next year.

What we liked - Hard to find fault with anything.
What we didn't like - Drizzle for the first few hours. Organisers, sort this out for next year please.

You can follow Howie on Twitter @thehowiejohnson

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