Cycling · Travel

Week 31: Tour de Yorkshire

Much of the week, my thoughts were on my trip planned for the weekend. Many months ago, I had registered to ride the Tour de Yorkshire ride sportive, and now the time had finally come. Through the week, I had the usual routine of working, eating and sleeping but the thought of “do I have everything I need ready to go” was constantly on my mind.

I left the department after the Friday afternoon seminar, ate dinner in college, then headed for the train station. Unlike travelling around East Anglia or into London, the journey to Yorkshire ought to be pre-booked as the prices increase closer to the day of travel. Thus, I had a series of connections that I had to make. I was travelling with my bike and a bag full of clothes and cycle accessories. I was treating the trip as something of a dry run for my upcoming July trip to the Tour de France in the Alps, so I wanted to see whether it was feasible to travel with an unpackaged bike and only a backpack’s worth of clothing.

Much of the evening was spent on trains. At first, I had to make the short journey up the line to Ely to change onto a train to Peterborough. Both of these were on local trains which stopped at the few stations between these destinations. Peterborough is on the East Coast Main Line, and it was here that I would be travelling on the fast train. However, these fast trains only have a few spaces for bicycles, which need to be pre-reserved and are stored at the rear of the train in a crew-only compartment. That means letting someone of the station staff know that you have a reservation, getting them to open the door, securing your bike and then getting off and the train again to get into the passenger compartments, all while the train is at the platform. The train was fast all the way to Doncaster, where I changed onto another fast service to Sheffield. Unfortunately Sheffield isn’t on the main line which makes the journey even longer.

Upon arrival in Sheffield, it was already late. My hostel wasn’t in the centre of town; instead it was in one of the inner suburbs. This meant a short bike ride through the unfamiliar dark streets of the city. One of the things that immediately caught my attention is just how hilly it all was, something that would be repeated through much of the weekend. In the end, I found my hostel up a steep, dead-end, cobbled street, checked in, took my bike up the narrow staircase and went to bed.

While my sportive ride was on Sunday, on Saturday I wanted to go out to see the professional race. I’m no stranger to bike races, for much of my life I’ve grown up with the Tour Down Under visiting Adelaide every January, and following the thrills of seeing the riders race past me on the same roads I ride and drive. The Tour de Yorkshire is a newer race, only three days in length and doesn’t attract quite the same calibre of riders. It was born as a legacy event after the Tour de France started in Yorkshire in 2014. I planned to go and see stage 2 of the event, which was being held around the North Yorkshire town of Harrogate, in conjunction with a women’s race held on the same course earlier in the morning. Wanting to see as much as I could, I planned to take one of the early morning trains, which required me to change at Leeds. Though there was a faster train leaving a little later, I took an earlier stopping train which would have guaranteed me a cycle space. This did, however, necessitate running in my socks between the two most distant platforms at Leeds railway station to make a tight connection.

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Once in Harrogate, I rode the fast, downhill road to the satellite town of Knaresborough. Both races would come through early on the course and have a sprint in the town, before going on a long loop to finish in Harrogate. I planned to see the race come through both times. I arrived and parked my bike in the town square where a big screen was broadcasting the race to the public. There were hundreds to thousands of people milling around, enjoying the day out. I grabbed some breakfast from a bakery directly opposite the sprint line, and stood out waiting for the riders to come past. Of course, one has to wait for the entourage of police motorcycles coming through to close off all of the roads ahead, plus all of the support and media vehicles. Whilst waiting, I got chatting to a couple of local elderly ladies with thick accents who were happy to see the race come through their home town. The actual race went by quickly; I had been following the lead-up on my phone and they all came through as one bunch.

With the roads clear again, I headed out into the countryside for a 40 km ride. I knew I had about two hours before the women finished in Harrogate, and so I wanted to get a climb in before the sportive the next day, there being precious little elevation in Cambridge. I had a route that took me south-west of Harrogate and over a short but steep climb called Norwood Edge which averaged 9% gradient, but the first half was at 11%. Such steepness was a shock to the system, the steepest climbs in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire barely average more than 5%. Halfway up the climb, I heard the characteristic twang of a spoke snapping and my heart sank. I knew I had to get it repaired before my ride the following day, but for now all I could do was roll solemnly back into Harrogate.

I arrived back in Harrogate and found a bike shop, but they told me that they didn’t have any spokes that would fit my bike. Resigned, I found a place on Parliament Street, 300m from the finishing line, from which to watch the end of the women’s race. The course had a sharp incline around this point, before flattening off to the final 200m, so I figured it would be a good place to cheer on. As it happens, the women’s race was won by a solo breakway by local girl (from where I rode earlier), Lizzie Deignan (née Armistead). It’s always fun to have a local to cheer on, because it really gets the crowd going. It was interesting to note that the crowd was as large as the men’s later the afternoon, and it was really good to see so many people out watching women’s sport.

I went to another bike shop further up the street, who told me that their workshop was closed for the day. They were, however, happy to provide me with the spoke and a spoke spanner should I choose to fit it myself. I went out and found a spot to do so, but soon discovered that I would need to remove my rear cassette (gears), something I didn’t have the tools with me to do (but I do at home). So I went back to the first bike shop whose workshop was open, gave them the spoke, and they kindly fixed it for me on the spot. With a now-fixed bike, I realised I had enough time to ride to Knaresborough to see the men’s sprint there. Despite being slowed down by a level crossing closed for over five minutes, I made it in time and set myself up in a better position beyond the sprint point. In this race, there was a breakaway who sprinted for the points, with the main race following shortly thereafter. Next, it was back to Harrogate again, where I found a park with a large cycling festival. I wandered around, looked at all of the stalls, ordered some chicken, and sat in front of the big screen and watched the race for a while.

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Eventually, I went out to the finish line to get a good spot one hundred metres from the line. The men’s race was always going to finish in a sprint, so it is better to be closer to the line. I was in a position where I could watch the race unfold on one of the nearby screens, and so I could see all of the build-up towards the line. I was supporting Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan, who was in a good position into the final kilometre, but struggled with the sharp incline with 300 m to go. I watched him as he came from far behind and slightly boxed in to pass many other riders and finish second to Frenchman Nacer Bouhani, and take the overall lead in doing so. Again, it’s always more fun when you’ve got a rider to support.

I didn’t stay for the full presentations as I wanted to get to the train station to ensure I could get my bike on board. I only had to wait a few minutes before a train did come, and while it was full there was enough space for me and my bike. A local Yorkshire couple chatted to me for the entire trip back to Leeds, where I changed to go back to Sheffield. That night, I went out for some pasta at a restaurant in town; I knew I needed to get enough fuel to last the following day.

Sunday morning started very early. I was awake by half past four and out of the door by five in the morning. The start of the sportive was in Stocksbridge, a town 14 km out of Sheffield. Whereas most people have cars that they could drive to the event, I had to ride the mostly gradually uphill all the way there. I got there as it was all being set up; the sportive was starting and finishing in an old steelworks that has been converted to a modern retail park. I got some food from a coffee shop to get me going, and then eventually joined the thousands of people waiting for the start. We were sorted into packs of about a hundred riders each, queued in a fenced passageway that looped around the starting area. The start was delayed by about half an hour or so, as the organisers struggled to close one of the roads the race would soon head up. It was here that I was engaged in yet another conversation with a local, who was riding the course on something resembling a town bike. Eventually we wheeled around to the start, where we were given instructions and a safety briefing from the marshals. This then lead to the countdown to the starter’s gun.

I had managed to be at the front of my pack of riders, which meant that I was the first to roll out of the starting gate. This lead to the surreal experience of having a camera motorcycle riding just in front of me filming the first kilometre of my ride. The motorbike peeled off leaving us to tackle the first climb of the day, Pea Royd Lane. It wasn’t an easy introduction; quickly reaching as high as 18% gradients and averaging 12%. This wasn’t going to be an easy ride. At the start, all of the riders were of mixed abilities, so while some powered up, others (like me) had to slowly meander and dare to slightly zig-zag (when safe), others were walking. Fortunately, the road was completely closed otherwise it would have been chaos.

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The ride over the top followed the ridge line for a number of kilometres, culminating in the relatively shallow climb of Flint Lane. This was followed by a fast decent and a series of three climbs around the outskirts of Huddersfield in quick succession. As soon as you finished descending one, you would turn the corner and start the next one straight away. This took us over Netherthong, Honley Road and Emley Moor. None of these climbs had a constant gradient, making it hard to get into a rhythm, instead they would have a series of steep and flat sections in a relatively short distance.

I was almost at the halfway point when I reached the feed station. There were tables full of fruitcake, bananas, energy bars, sausages and sausage rolls, nuts and chocolate. I ate handsomely; one of the issues I have in training is to not eat enough and come home hunger flat. Knowing what was ahead I didn’t want to have that this time. I stored some bananas and bars in my pockets and set off for the second half.

The third quarter of the ride was probably the easiest, as it only had two climbs: High Hoyland and a gentle rise through Silkstone. Instead, it was a gentle undulation where I was able to sit on a series of other rider’s wheels and try and recuperate, though my legs were already sore at this point. Around the 75 km mark, we came back through the edge of the start town of Stocksbridge, but instead of head for the finish, the course made a 25 km loop through four of the most brutal climbs of the day.

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The first one was a narrow, private road that rose from next to a reservoir. I turned the corner to find myself facing a wall, such was the gradient. The road rose and turned, I was pushing down on the pedals as hard as I could but I couldn’t seem to go any faster. My speed dropped below 5 km/h for a good half a minute of pain. There were some amused locals on the side of the road cheering us all on, which gave me a bit of determination to keep going. The hardest bit was over when I reached a flattish hairpin bend for a bit of respite, but I had to keep pushing up the rest of the hill. Eventually I crossed the top, completely exhausted, but now with some belief I could make it to the end.

The ninth and tenth hill came without a metre of flat road between them, it was straight down and up. Both started very steep and flattened slightly towards the top, but I spent most of the time looking at my bike computer and counting down the metres to the top, just wanting it to be over. To top it all off, the final climb was less than 5 kilometers from the finish. This one got steeper as it went on. A local family were at the side of the road offering water bottles to riders as they passed, I took one, opened it and poured the water on my head to cool myself down. The road peaked up to 15% for the last time, which is a tortuous experience after so many kilometres and so much climbing, but with the encouragement again from the cheering locals, I pushed myself as far as I could and reached the top.

Finally, all that was left as a fast decent down to the finishing line. I was alone; no riders were ahead or behind me, so when I came onto the finishing straight, all of the spectators were cheering me on and clapping on the advertising boards (as they did for every rider). Exhilarated, I sprinted for the line, rounded the corner and was presented with a water bottle, some food and a finisher’s medal. I found a place to sit and let my legs relax; barring the feed zone and any traffic lights, I had not stopped the entire way, even at the top of any of the hills.

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I wandered around for the next few hours, as the rest of the competitors slowly made their way through the finish. I began to feel cold, so I purchased a souvenir t-shirt to wear to keep me warm. I spent most of the time watching the race on the big screen or watching the latter finishers. Eventually, I staked out my spot on the finishing straight, 50 m from the line itself.

The pros took a different route to the amateurs, but they too came through Stocksbridge and went out on a short but steep series of hills nearby. This meant that the tour caravan came through an hour before the race itself, so I filled up my pockets with as many freebies as I could grab (including a bag, which was rather helpful). Ironically, as some of the pros withdrew from the race before the final loop, we got to see them cross the line before the actual stage winners.

Watching the race on the big screen, we saw Belgian rider Serge Pauwels break away on one of the climbs and nobody could follow him. On the descent into town, they did close the gap a little, but it was eventually a team-mate who came across and they finished the race together. Slowly, the remainder of the riders filtered through and the rush started to head home again.

I had to ride my bike back into town, but fortunately this was largely downhill. I stopped by the hostel to collect the rest of my things and have a much needed shower, before heading back into Sheffield proper. I had an hour and a half to spare, so I grabbed some dinner at a burger restaurant, and got on the stopping train to Doncaster. Unfortunately I was joined by a rowdy bunch of drunk footballing fans whose team had just won and were singing and chanting loudly through half of the journey. Eventually, they left, and I changed at Doncaster for the fast train to Stevenage. At this point, I had been awake nearly the whole day and was fairly tired, but I couldn’t sleep. There was one final train from Stevenage back to Cambridge and then even more cycling to get home. It was going to be a bank holiday the following day, and so I felt fully justified in letting myself sleep for as long as need be.

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