“I haven’t felt like this after a race before – I’m absolutely buckled.”
– Pete Kennaugh, British road race national champion
With gloves-off racing, the intrigue of team tactics versus personal aims and heroic last ditch efforts, the British national championships road race was as good as it has ever been on Sunday 28th June. Team Sky’s Pete Kennaugh successfully defended his title and Rapha was on hand to witness the Manxman’s class in extremis, as well as the myriad of sub-plots that ‘the nationals’ always entails.
The national championships brings each country's best cyclists back together, from wherever they are in the world. It is a siren call luring them home with the promise of national pride and homespun glory. The strong legs of the World Tour [WT] professionals compete against the numerical advantage of the British domestic team riders, who tend to want to prove a point against their better known compatriots.
Lincoln was the setting for the 2015 UK domestic dust-up, with the fearsome cobbled Michaelgate climb the perfect battleground. “Even when you do the Lincoln GP [a UK Premier Calendar race] it’s a bit of a head kicking. It'll be worse today.” said Rhys Howells, an elite-level amateur who rides for Richardson-Trek [bottom, left, second on the left], before the race. As for the climb, “Michaelgate has two slithers of tiles on either side of rough cobbles. The first bit is super steep, then it eases off before going super steep again as you go left, left, left, then there's a proper left and you pass a pub and flick right onto smooth bricks and home. Do that ten times and I'll be happy to just finish the race!” he said.
With mixed loyalties of team orders and personal pride, tactics at the nationals are impossible to predict and a joy to see played out on the road. The elite club of WT pros tend to all ride together fast early on to drop the domestic riders, and then fight for the victory among themselves. Yet on Sunday morning, the talk of the peloton was that thanks to the withdrawals of MTN-Qhubeka’s Steve Cummings and Movistar’s Alex Dowsett, and with less men to share the initial work, the pace during the first two long loops in the Lincolnshire countryside would be calmer, and would only increase as the group hit Michaelgate for the start of the eight short circuits. How wrong that turned out to be.
For further race intrigue, the Men’s Under 23 race always takes place within the Men’s Elite race, meaning that the youngsters compete with their elders, and the U23 British Champion is simply the first of the U23s to finish, wherever he places in the race. Tao Geoghegan Hart [above, top left], 20, rides for Axeon Cycling, a Continental level team based in America and was a contender for the race within the race. He came home especially for the nationals, yet explained beforehand how difficult the race would be for him without any team mates to count on : “A lot of the domestic teams will work for their Under 23s because they know that realistically, it’s going to be hard for the older guys to get a great result. Last year's winner, Ed Laverack had Kristian House [2010 British Men’s Elite champion] looking after him, for example. That's decent help!”
At the nationals, though, the lapped criterium nature of the course means that, ultimately, it’s every man for himself. If you haven't got it in the legs, no amount of support will help. "I'll be surprised if more than 30 guys make it to the finish line," said Rhys, somewhat presciently.
Behind the intricacies of alliances and tactics, there are the levels of rider support to consider too. The difference is vast. Team Sky brought its enormous team bus as well as a mechanic, carer and Directeur Sportif for its four competing cyclists Pete Kennaugh, Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe and Andy Fenn. The domestic teams provided the same support that they do year round, which isn’t always that much – Rhys was chuffed that his team would be providing a mechanic for the duration of the nationals, a rare luxury – while British Cycling offered a support service to all the British professional riders who compete for foreign teams, as Carer Hanley Foche [below, bottom left] explained: “They’re going to get the support that they’re used to, rather than having the extra stress of arranging for family members to go to the feedzone, etc. It’s just too much of a faff if you haven’t got the support. I don’t know what they would do without it, as professional cyclists never usually have to think about these things.”
Young Geoghegan Hart, who isn’t yet a professional so doesn’t qualify for the British Cycling support, was one such rider having to do it all himself: “It’s funny. It’s like going back to how it was as a junior: making all your bottles in the morning, driving to the start in your car," he said, while changing clothes sat in the passenger seat. "It is what it is though, you’ve just got to embrace it and get stuck in.” Helping him on the day were Dad and younger brother, who had driven up from London to man the feed zone, handing out bottles and musettes.
The talented Hackney boy has made a few friends in high places on his rise to the top however, and none other than Brian Holm, Directeur Sportif at Mark Cavendish’s Omega-Pharma team provided him with neutral service mechanical support during the race. “Cav’s a pretty good friend of mine. He offered Brian’s help and I very gratefully said ‘yes please!’”
Support structure in place, tactics tentatively planned, it was time for the race itself. Those hoping for a calm start were cruelly disappointed, as after only 4km, with riders still warming the legs up, a turn left took them straight into a headwind and the whole peloton of almost 200 was immediately strung out in one line, desperately trying to hold on to the Team Sky-led driving force. The group splintered and most people’s race was over before it had even begun. That elite club had shown their strength.
Pete Kennaugh and Ian Stannard led for most of the day, before Mark Cavendish and Luke Rowe doggedly rode back up to them with a lap and a half of the 13km long circuit to go. Cavendish was strong, but not enough so to break the Team Sky hegemony, and Pete Kennaugh – as predicted – proved to be the best on the day, winning by five seconds from his fellow Manxman. Team WIGGINS’ Owain Doull [above, right] put in an extraordinary ride alone for most of the day, finishing between the all-WT top six and the best of the domestic pros in seventh, 6:29 down, to take the U23 title [below, bottom left].
Tao Geoghegan Hart came 29th, out of a decimated final field of 30 finishers, while Rhys Howells and his group were pulled out of the race before they were lapped with three loops to go. An unfair end, perhaps, but that’s bike racing. He'll make it round next year. As for Kennaugh, who became the first British male to win back-to-back titles for 11 years, his champagne moment was well deserved.
Words and pictures by Harry Dowdney.