Smithfield Nocturne 2008

The weather gods were clearly smiling on Saturday 7th June as a 5,000-strong crowd converged on central London for the second Rapha Condor Smithfield Nocturne. In contrast to the thunderstorms of Biblical proportions that saw last year’s inaugural event played out beneath a deluge, it was balmy conditions that greeted riders and spectators for an evening feast of crit racing. Located in the heart of the City, Smithfield has, down the centuries, been the scene of sporting drama both compelling and gruesome, from jousting knights to public executions, and all staged on the ‘smooth field’ that once lay outside London’s city limits.

For the past 800 or so years, it has famously echoed to the raucous cries of London’s butchers but on Saturday it was the turn of humming tubs and whirring hubs to echo to the rafters of the historic meat market. With some of the leading lights of British cycling gathered to do battle, the tight, 1km course was guaranteed to deliver action both fast and furious. A stellar line-up was further illuminated by the guest appearance of one of the world’s leading sprinters, Mark Cavendish. And if ‘Cav’ preferred to follow proceedings from the VIP area, his fellow rider from this year’s Giro d’Italia, Barloworld’s Geraint Thomas, was among the hot tips for the elite race set to close the show with a bang.

Kicking off proceedings at the other end of the competitive spectrum were the game souls taking part in the folding bike race. With the event’s characteristic Le Mans-style start, riders dashed for their still-folded machines in full City attire and such was the event’s popularity that it required two keenly fought heats to whittle riders down to the 30-strong final that was eventually won by Keith Henderson.

Around the course there was plenty of fun and entertainment between races, including exhibitions, a Transport for London Roadshow and a display of vintage cars by the Classic Car Club. To ensure the bonhomie flowed freely, Smithfield’s bars and restaurants played host to race goers throughout the evening, making for a distinctly family affair with well-informed commentary from Robert Elms and Anthony McCrossan keeping the crowd fully briefed.

When the time came for the main event, however, all eyes turned once again to the kilometre of tarmac snaking its way between Smithfield’s celebrated architecture. At an hour plus five laps, the Nocturne’s Elite Criterium race represents round three of the British Cycling Elite Circuit Series and the Rapha Condor Recycling riders – Graham Briggs, Dean Downing, Chris Newton, Kristian House, Rob Partridge and Simon Holt – were determined to win. With criterium specialist Tony Gibb taking the field of 30 out at a blistering pace, the riders soon became strung out around the narrow, twisting course and the increasingly voluble crowd didn’t have too long to wait before the first attacks came.

The early break of RCR’s Dean Downing was rewarded with the first sprint prime of the evening. But as the hour ticked by, the rain began to fall gently. While it failed to dampen the spirits of the ranks of onlookers, it made some of the riders decidedly nervous: on one occasion at the lower end of the course, Graham Briggs ran into the rear wheel of two-time Olympic medallist Rob Hayles, bringing the RCR man crashing down. In the final reckoning, it was sustained and aggressive riding from Geraint Thomas that eventually saw him break clear of a five-strong leading group that included Hayles, Downing and Briggs, and which had put itself 30 seconds clear of the rest. Fresh from his highly creditable 12th place in the closing time trial at last month’s Giro, it was the Welshman who thundered down the home straight for the final time while Briggs, having spent two laps chasing the field following his crash with Hayles, crossed for a much deserved third.

Photography by Ben Ingham

Website: Ben Ingham