Who needs Alpine peaks or fields of sunflowers? An urban backdrop to a cycle race can be equally dramatic, and the setting for the inaugural Rapha/Condor Smithfield Nocturne helped put the event on the cycling calendar in spectacular fashion.
Smithfield Market reeks of history. London’s butchers have been doing business there for 800 years. And as darkness fell on a hectic night of racing on the streets surrounding this cherished institution, it seemed like the Nocturne had been around forever too. Instant classic is the only way to describe it. The cycling was sensational. A crowd of 5,000 – from the merely curious to the dedicated fan – were bowled over. The bars and restaurants that dotted the course did some brisk business, and Robert Elms and Anthony McCrossan kept everyone up to speed with a superb marathon commentary effort. This wasn’t just a warm-up to the Tour de France’s visit to London – it was a fully-fledged event in its own right.
We’ve had Tour of Britain finishes on the Mall, but nothing quite like this had ever been tried in central London before – a major slice of the city given over to a festival of criterium-style racing that brought together the best of the amateur scene with some of the country’s top pros. David Millar – who added lustre to the occasion by putting in a personal appearance – likened it to a Belgian kermesse and promised it would be a lot of fun.
Well, it was certainly that – and a whole lot more. It was epic, thanks in no small part to one of the most amazing thunderstorms people had ever seen. Given the choice, the visionaries from Rapha who were behind the Nocturne would probably have gone for the non-thunderstorm option. But the way the cyclists threw themselves into the fray regardless was truly heroic, and for us spectators it all added to the entertainment. Just so long as you had an umbrella or could squeeze into one of the marquees set up by the finish.
So who were these heroes? My personal No.1 has to be Richard Bailey, winner of the folding bike race, in which the 40 entrants, all adorned in business attire, set off Le Mans-style, running to their folded-up bikes, readying them in double-quick time, and then hurtling round the tight, 900m course. The sight of Richard tearing down the finishing straight in pouring rain in his jacket and tie will long live in the memory. It was like something out of Monty Python.
There were four other races. Craig Stevens of Ciclos Uno pipped George Brent of Addiscombe in the clubmen’s Regional A Race that began proceedings; Ben Wilson of Cycling Weekly held off The Guardian’s Matt Seaton in the All-Stars race for the cycling media; and the quartet from Soho-based Creative Couriers – three guys, one girl – proved themselves London’s best messengers.
That left the top-of-the-bill elite race – an hour plus five laps – in which a 50-strong field featured such stars as the Olympic double-silver medallist Rob Hayles, Rapha/Condor’s own Dean Downing, fresh from winning the Lincoln Grand Prix, and the newly-crowned National Criterium champion James McCallum.
For a long time it looked like London Dynamos’ Warwick Spence might grab the glory as he skated through the puddles to build a 24-second lead in a brilliant solo break. But the chasing group caught him just in time before McCallum won the tactical battle to cross the line in front. A great climax to a great evening.
If you weren’t there, bad luck. But the Smithfield Nocturne will be back in 2008.
Simon O’Hagan is on the staff of ‘The Independent’
Photography: Leigh Simpson