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Continental Lift: Rutland – Melton International CiCLE Classic

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monuments of the sport which sees millions tune in across Europe during the spring, but perhaps that sentiment is no longer valid.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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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David Millar’s Hill Climb Farewell

An array of baked goods to make the Womens’ Institute weep, that was the point at which I noted just how eccentric British cycling still is in the era of ‘Wiggins Cool’. The cake stall perched precariously on White Lane’s foreboding gradient offered its ‘anti-bonk’ remedies at prices fitting of the inaugural open Bec CC Hill Climb in 1956. The sight which would have met any stranger peeping through the surrounding woodland would have been a surreal one for the uninitiated; a variety of men and women in garish lycra. Most attempting their best to sashay down the soggy leaf strewn hill upon rigid cleats, icy expressions disguising the peril at the prospect of slipping; sending hot tea and Victoria sponge skywards before the gathered crowd of self-proclaimed cycling buffs.

There is one man however who appears separate from the ongoing raft of peacocking enthusiasts; dapper and happily chatting with friends – the man is David Millar. A drizzly country lane in the middle of nowhere, hidden by a stretching canopy of indecisive autumnal leaves. Those which have fallen, now form a path of burnt amber cobbles which pave this vicious tongue of slicked tarmac. It is not just summer which ends here today.

David Millar is arguably Britain’s finest export to a cycling mad continent, yet there are no droves of people swarming around the charismatic Scot here, just the casual nod or smile of familiarity over butter icing and steam. He is the only British born rider to have worn all three Grand Tour leader’s jerseys, a career which could justify a bold and brash statement – statues, monuments, velodromes could all bear the name ‘David Millar’. But no, an understated cycling fête is instead the last hurrah; but why should he deem such a modest action so fitting?

Though a great, his name remains burdened by decisions of a past-life within the sport, a contributing factor to this modest departure perhaps. Doping stories cut through cycling’s history and its riders like the estuaries and tributaries of the Dutch coast. The professional redemption of David Millar has been well documented, primarily due to the positive impact he has had upon the sport and other riders who have found themselves boxed into similarly compromising positions. However, not everyone is so easily forgiving when looking upon Millar’s past; his critics accuse the British mainstream cycling press of being overly eager to serve the veteran his redemption so swiftly.

The UK’s recent spike of interest for the sport has resulted in a greater amount of public opinion of David Millar’s doping, but not necessarily one which is informed by experience of the era in which these crimes occurred. A growing notion of ‘one strike and you are out’ is understandable for people who have come to the sport before the backdrop of Armstrong’s downfall and the disintegration of a hierarchy which knowingly protected him. Though such crimes committed in a post-Armstrong era may well be treated more black and white, to convict or redeem any individual similar to Millar is an intensely complex debate.

It is a struggle to decide whether I truly remember David Millar pre-suspension; vicariously acquired memories from Eurosport’s highlights as a child being more likely. His career since however has a designated area of my mind to itself, earned by stylish time trials and breakaways garnished with panache. Though I enjoyed the sight of racing as a child, people such as Lance Armstrong or Jan Ulrich held little fascination for me, thus I desperately needed somebody to back.

The concept of supporting an entire team is new to the world of cycling, born predominantly from the brand dominance of Rapha and Team Sky. Drawing in the middle aged man who applies the same notion as backing your local Football or Rugby team. Unlike supporting a club which represents where in the world you come from, as well as a raft of common stereotypes, cycling has always been focused upon backing riders which exhibit the attributes you find iconic in a competitor. For me, David Millar expressed what I thought a true athlete should when in the midst of competition; he was equally determined when sacrificing all for a team leader, as he was when attacking with his nose to the grindstone.

But most of all, he remained a gentlemen of the peloton at all times, never inclined to benefit from another’s misfortune; nor shy away when things had gone wrong. Eloquent enough to inform and educate cycling fans; I was never interested in how the bland Armstrong had won another stage, tactical analysis and honesty of the day’s struggles was (still is) more engrossing.

Two hours had passed while standing on White Lane beneath the lazy drizzle. Between each rider’s moment of heroics, memories of Millar bubbled with greater effervescence. Yellow jerseys won against the clock, a disastrous mechanical in the miserable Italian rain, victory written in the name of Tom Simpson. Perhaps holding command of the British squad in Copenhagen will be looked most fondly upon, turning years of qualification points into a rainbow jersey made alchemy look child’s play. A lifelong blur of medals, jerseys, podiums and mountains of all kinds would appear to warrant a similarly extraordinary farewell gesture. That is exactly what it got.

Though a bamboozling announcement at first, ending his career in the middle of nowhere amongst a crowd of enthusiasts who consider waiting in a lay-by on a Sunday morning fun, it became obvious how typically ‘Millar-ish’ this move was. The great Scot had ignited his career when cycling  (especially Time Trialling) was a rather eccentric British past time for the few who did pursue it. Since then, Britain’s profile has grown to gargantuan proportions on both the road and track; bearing the household names of Wiggins, Trott, Froome and Pendleton. Yet one facet of the sport has remained uniquely British, untouched by the globalisation of the nation’s riders as a product; the Hill Climb.

A lung busting event perpetuated by the amateur, bereft of the effortless scything of air heard at road races, the soundtrack to a Hill Climb is the gasping of bodies attempting to draw in any extra ounce of energy from the gathered crowd. These riders’ engine rooms were screaming for more when nothing was left to give, while some seemed to be in a state of suspended animation, faces yet to be etched deep with the effort until the top had been crested. Other members of the Millar clan, clad in the effortlessly cool VC Rocacorba livery, had already done their best to soften the gradient for David’s run. The conveyor belt of those brave (or stupid) enough to challenge White Lane had been rapid, now providing everyone with the sudden dawning of who was next to duel this tarmac tongued beast.

Steadily at first, at the base of the hill, where out of sight a soft gale was blowing. This was no meteorological event, it was historic, Millar was on course. With the passing of thirty seconds this gale had built to a howling Mistral as a rangy figure broke through the foliage some distance below. Whether wall or Willow, brother or sister, everything was a perch in an attempt to see the main attraction. Never will I again hear such a cacophony emanate from a country lane in the middle of nowhere, like a unifying battle cry willing David Millar to the summit, they wanted this man to win.

 

Within the space of three seconds he was in front of me, parallel and then gone. Leaving the crowd to crane their ears towards the tannoy in anticipation of Millar’s time once he had burst past the cake stand and across the finish line. It was modest, he had not turned up to claim the win or trophy, rather to leave us with something instead. A glorious spark in time which put one of Britain’s finest riders before the backdrop of one of the nation’s most bizarre pursuits. He had ensured himself a farewell alongside fans who appreciated why he had chosen this gesture to draw a curtain across his career.

David Millar was once a keen enthusiast waiting in a lay-by for the start of his time trial. He has since accumulated a treasure trove of merits from the top tier of cycling, in both his darkest times and brightest too. But by riding the Bec CC Hill Climb he achieved possibly the most impressive feat of all; stepping back in time and becoming an amateur once more.