As a nation bitten by the cycling bug relatively recently, Britain lacks the historic monuments of the sport which sees millions tune in across Europe during the spring, but perhaps that sentiment is no longer valid. The Lincoln Grand Prix has long been hailed as the sole classic upon which the British can hang their cobbles loving cap upon; the Michaelgate dishing out agony to contort faces like those on the slopes of the Koppenberg. If Lincoln is the nearest thing to a classic like De Ronde or Liége-Bastogne-Liége within Britain, where is the doppelgänger for Paris-Roubaix‘s notorious dash across farm tracks and cobbled sectors?
Nestled in Britain’s smallest county is the Rutland – Melton International CiCLE Classic, a 160km tear around Rutland’s towns and villages. Tasking the riders with draining climbs, sweeping lanes and sectors played out upon gravel roads; the race being distinctly continental in flavour. It is a difficult task to summarise the CiCLE Classic in relation to the domestic scene as it is such a stand alone event, a curious blend of Tro-Bro Léon and Paris – Roubaix perhaps the most succinct. Clouds of dust floated gently skywards as rider and bike fought for purchase over the crunching country tracks, a mad cavalcade of support cars charging from behind in anticipatory support of scuttled tyres. The attrition rate was always going to be high, and thankfully the route was baked by streaming sunshine for the most part, the parcours only ever one downpour away from becoming an authentic day in Flanders.
Exiting from Oakham, it was evident that this race attracts a passionate crowd of locals and enthusiasts, many already assembled early for the junior race’s finale. Youngsters who left the morning’s start fresh faced and eager to display their wares now came home exponentially aged by a route which saps the muscles fibres, rattles the bones and leaves them dusting themselves down. These gruelling races serve as experience to blood the next generation of hopeful professionals emerging from the domestic scene. The operation of the CiCLE Classic is exposure to a top level race, a rarity amongst a British calendar which is seeing its top races cut for the professionals; let alone the youngsters. Its ranking as a UCI 1.2 race attracts continental interest lack no other race currently existing without strong backing from British Cycling; the overnight establishment of other major UCI races such as London-Surrey and Tour de Yorkshire undermining the independent effort put into hosting a race such as this. The Premier Calendar for example has diminished greatly over the years, suffering from a devastating lack of infrastructure and funding. British Cycling’s ability to create a new race with a click of the fingers from ASO is becoming an insult to the long serving grassroots races which have brought through new talent consistently.
The parcours was immediately taking no prisoners during the elite race, Steele Von Hoff had seen his chainring concede defeat early on and called upon the strength of his NFTO teammates to find him a safe passage back to the head of the race. By now the sun had broken through and burnt away the lazy clouds which had long lingered since the departure from Oakham; the prospect of uninterrupted sunshine luring plenty out onto the roadside. From the meticulously planned family BBQs which wafted and taunted rider and spectator alike, to those who erupt from their doors in a panicked dash, the sudden realisation of a race happening as the broom wagon skirts past their driveway. Thundering through the lanes gives you only a glimpse of the faces which form the technicolour mass of cyclists, but it is enough to see the strain being etched deeper with each pass, dust which lightly floated up beneath the wheel now cakes brow and bike like clay. Shredded dossards reveal those unceremoniously introduced to the shifting gravel which left riders sprawled on the dirt tracks, scrambling to remount and begin their chase through the billowing trails signifying the peloton’s presence.
Upon the penultimate pass through Melton’s town centre ahead of the finale, the damage dealt by the terrain had become evident throughout peloton. Though a small breakaway still hung off the head of the bunch, their escape was rapidly being curtailed, the rabble of riders which now formed the nearest thing to a peloton deciding their rivals’ excursion had existed long enough. Melton would see its winner crowned on the next charge down the far stretching high road into town, a finishing straight flanked by spectators now basking beneath an unspoilt sky. Speculative whispers skimmed above the crowd, second guessing any break’s survival, those out on course the only source of unofficial updates for the masses staring intently at the final bend in anticipation.
Like desperadoes charging into Dodge City, the lead riders thundered upon the horizon, now finding only a drag race to the line standing between themselves and possible victory. Heads cocked acutely throughout the crowd, eyeballing down the road as the front runners hurtled down to the line; 400m…300m…200m…100m. No victory salute is run up like a flag above a conquered castle here however, Steele Von Hoff is the first man home in the sprint, but unaware that he has been chasing a non-existent breakaway for the final kilometres. NFTO’s awaiting reception soon enlightens him to the fact he has sprinted to more than just a minor placing at this noteworthy race. For 2015, Australian National Criterium Champion Steele Von Hoff is the latest to write his name into the history of this rather un-British of British races. Surviving exploding drivetrains, shifting tracks and the travelling circus which encompasses the peloton on a day stalked by disaster, Hoff navigated the pitfalls and secured another likely stepping stone back to the UCI WorldTour.
Whether stood in a town centre, upon a village green or seemingly in the middle of nowhere; Rutland-Melton International CiCLE Classic draws people to its roadside with ease. Assembled outside pubs, driveway BBQs or simply sitting on a bank waiting for the next pass of riders; the style of this race proves to be extremely watchable. Locals are evidently aware of how this doorstep event is worth coming out for, but it does not take much to hear accents from further afield mumbling across the crowds. Cycling unites people like so few sports seldom do, there are no losers when watching a bike race, just a shared appreciation for the spectacle set before everyone. Some might have a favourite rider or team, but it is usually the friends and family of the riders who you meet at the roadside exclusively backing one man. Unlike football, there is no club to represent where you come from for example, to support a cycling team in the same vein would be to simply back brand sponsors. Instead, the banner under which everyone can and does unite is that of the race itself, Rutland-Melton CiCLE Classic proving to be a rare beast which operates at the top of the British calendar, but retains a strong regional charm.
Whereas other races in the country have developed in stature and forfeited their personality along the way, Melton-CiCLE Classic is like venturing across the border into a small piece of the continent. The champion of British one-day races, which would be considered alongside that of Tro-Bro Léon if it were located the other side of the channel. Within the country’s smallest county, you will not only find racing which imbues the air with a hint of frites and trappist beer, but also a race certain of its identity. Not festooned with banners for British Cycling, SkyRide et al, it instead succeeds thanks to a core team of personnel who invest the upmost into creating this day, injecting their character along the way to shape this unique event. Even the prizes have avoided being swamped by generic trophies emblazoned with sponsors names, instead replaced by Melton Mowbray pork pies or the rider’s weight in ale. Though the Rutland-Melton CiCLE Classic trades on distinctly continental traits, it is no mongrel to be attended by those considering it a discounted version of those seen in Belgium or France. A British Classic may seem impossible to some, but in Rutland you will find this unusual creature thriving, bubbling away as its reputation grows year upon year. There is no exaggeration to be had when stating household names from the WorldTour now weigh heavy on the horizon for this race; waiting for an invite to leave their mark here soon.