Rain & Rainbow Stripes – World Championship Men’s Elite Road Race, Yorkshire 2019

Ever since the hazy summer of 2014 Yorkshire has been the epi-centre of cycling within the UK. Christian Prudhomme, Race Director of Le Tour, called Yorkshire the grandest of Grand Departs – and with good reason.  The region totally embraced the arrival of the tour and Yorkshire showcased a carnival atmosphere and fantastic racing.  It was an overwhelming success for ASO, the Tour’s owners.  From then cycling in the region has gone from strength to strength. The Tour De Yorkshire has grown into a highlight of the UCI calendar with fevered local support and challenging punchy roads. The UCI were certainly not taking any chances when they announced that Yorkshire was set to host the 2019 World Championships, the first in the UK since 1992 in Goodwood. I guess the only gamble was… the weather.

I write this on the eve of the World Championship Men’s Road Race. I’ve travelled up from Leicester into God’s Own County.  Not to Harrogate though – that was booked up months ago. I’ve settled for a bed in a male dorm at YHA Haworth, about 20 miles from Harrogate. I’ve actually stayed here before – in 2018 when I came up to see the Tour de Yorkshire. That year the Tour went up the cobbles of Haworth’s Main Street, just like the Tour de France had done in 2014. I’d watched the breakaway and peloton tackle the cobbles before heading cross country to the KOM at Otley Chevin. I remember the day fondly. The sun shone and there was hardly a breath of wind. It was a perfect Spring day. I’ve been watching the rest of the weeks Worlds racing from my armchair, but perfect weather hadn’t been a recurring theme this week. The standout moments for me had been the clips I’d seen online of the junior time trial event, where riders surfed atop a tsunami of standing water, quickly followed by a wet slide across the Tarmac. The weather was becoming the biggest story of the week, rather than the racing itself. I was beginning to feel a little apprehensive of my grand day out tomorrow.

YHA Haworth is a splendid old building – a Victorian gothic mansion, once the family home of a local mill owner. It stands proudly on the edge of the wild Pennine moors. Haworth itself has a rich literature background – this is Bronte country. The Bronte sisters, Emily and Charlotte, lived and wrote at the village parsonage (now a museum). I’m reliably informed that the local farm was believed to be featured in Emily’s classic novel, Wuthering Heights. I checked in, collected my keys, and headed up to the shared dorm. I heard voices as I approached so knew I wouldn’t be alone. I entered and introduced myself to the three gentlemen chatting in the room. They were all here for the cycling too. They’d all travelled further than I had – Brighton, Southend and Swindon. They had all come at different times throughout the week so were already hardy to the Yorkshire weather. Their waterproof jackets were drip drying at the end of their beds. This surely wasn’t a good sign. We talked weather forecasts and the general consensus was that Sunday was going to be apocalyptic – heavy rain ….. most of the day. Gulp. I picked a spare bunk – only top ones left, then unpacked a few essentials. I was here now – there was no going back.

YHA Haworth, my overnight digs.

My plans were laid out many weeks ago. I had booked to join the Rapha Cycling Club’s ride out. Rapha and Canyon Bikes had joined forces and based themselves at The Starling cafe on Oxford Street in Harrogate. I had booked myself a Canyon Ultimate CF SL Aero, a lovely bit of kit for the day. The plan was to drive from Haworth to the car parking I’d booked in Harrogate, pick up the Canyon bike and join the ride out.  The ride was to be a social pace 50km to test ourselves on some of the grippy Yorkshire roads before basing ourselves at the Rapha mobile clubhouse on the Harrogate finishing circuit for beers, BBQ, and big screen. On paper it sounded a perfect day. 

I checked my emails whilst sat on my top bunk. I had received an email earlier in the morning advising that a decision on the ride out would be made by end of day Saturday. Clearly the organisers were as worried about the weather as I was. Sure enough my inbox had the bad news lined up for me.  The ride out was cancelled. The word ‘biblical’ was used in the email to describe the weather forecast. So my plans were instantly halved – no early morning meet at The Starling now, just a 1pm meet at the mobile clubhouse to watch the riders take on the 7 laps of the finishing circuit. The morning was mine to do with as I pleased. I studied the route map and made a shortlist of potential places to catch the race go by – Otley, Ilkley or Skipton came to mind. No rush to decide. I’ll sleep on it. I would need to be out the hostel for 8:30ish to get in position. So it’s 11pm now and I’m ready for lights out. A few back in the room now. Let’s hope the rest are quiet when they return.

I had a decent nights sleep. Better than I was expecting given the shared dorm experience. The only noise keeping me from my slumber was the sound of the rain drumming on the window. The only thing of note was that at some point during the night I must have turned over clumsily and in doing so jettisoned my mobile phone from the top bunk against the wall and then waking just as it hit the floor. The phone was wedged between the rail of the bottom bunk and the wall. A young lad, probably aged 9 or 10 at a guess, lay sparked out on the bottom bunk, curled up in the foetal position. I couldn’t wake him, it would be too cruel. So I had to wait for the first riser at just before 7am before I could establish whether I’d smashed my screen or not. The suspense! Anyhow, once the young lad stirred and sat upright I told him of my misfortune and he helped to recover the phone. Thankfully no damage done.  I showered, dressed, and packed up. By 7:45am I had dropped my keys in the box on the reception desk and loaded the car. I was soon on my way to Skipton.

It’s a short drive to Skipton, so after refuelling – the car with petrol, and me with a McDonalds bagel and flat white – I arrived at 8:30ish. I was immediately concerned that there wasn’t a whole lot of life in the town of Skipton. I appreciate it was early, but the World’s best were just over an hour away from descending on their sleepy town centre. I took a stroll up Sheep Street, a cute little cobbled street that ran adjacent to the High Street. I wandered onto the High Street expecting more people, but I could count the number of cycling fans on one hand. We were outnumbered by the Yorkshire Tea(m) of helpers and the police. A very clever bit of marketing – the team of volunteers, dressed in red jackets with the Yorkshire Tea logo on the front with an ‘m’ added for good measure. The words ‘proper volunteer’ on the back. Those words just about as Yorkshire as you can get. I was worried that the weather was keeping the crowds at home. It was raining the proverbial cats and dogs. The side of the road had become a stream each side, with fast flowing water whizzing down the shallow gradient. I took refuge in the Gregg’s back on Sheep Street, ordering another coffee to try and defrost my fingers.

Once I had thawed out a little I ventured back out onto the streets to try and find a suitable place to watch from. I tried the grounds of the Holy Trinity Church at the top of the High Street but it felt too far away from the action. So I settled on the edge of the roundabout where the riders would bear left. A Yorkshire Teamer walked passed and advised the roundabout gathering that the course had been changed due to the poor weather. The climb of Buttertubs had been removed due to the risk of standing water, so an additional two laps of the Harrogate circuit had been added to make up the mileage. I also overheard that the Fan Park in Harrogate would be closed. One of my fellow boarders at the hostel had regaled that it was like Glastonbury earlier in the week – I’m sure he meant this in a mud bath kind of way. The days forecast was enough to leave the organisers with little or no option. A costly move for all the cycling brands in there that were expecting to make a tidy sum out of the thousands of spectators due to descend on Harrogate. It was approaching 10am now and the roads were shut much to the disapproval of the odd car that came down the A6131 to be stopped and met with this spectacle. The crowds had been building steadily and whilst it wasn’t rammed, there was enough people to line the whole street at least one or two deep.

The view from Holy Trinity Church, Skipton.

Within 10 or 15 minutes the first of the motorcycle outriders had come through, followed by a 2nd and a 3rd. Each one trying to whip the crowd up more with encouraging hand gestures. A Yorkshire Teamer armed with a whistle and yellow sign (to flash at the riders to warn them of road ‘furniture’ eg, traffic islands etc) was leading a Mexican Wave along the length of the crowd. The atmosphere was jovial despite the constant barrage of heavy rain overhead. The commissaire’s car passed and we knew the riders were nearly upon us. No helicopter however that so often accompanies a road race – the weather so bad that all camera helicopters were grounded at the time being. The TV pictures coming solely from the motorbike cameramen. Then the TV bike passes us, quickly followed by the first riders. A breakaway group of maybe a dozen. The bad weather makes it almost impossible to identify the riders. They all have their rain jackets on, covering up their national jerseys. Their jackets displaying the logos of their trade teams rather than their country in many cases. The breakaway group have an advantage of just over a minute by the time the peloton whirl passed. It’s a huge group. 192 riders started, and they’d only done 25 minutes of racing by this point so I’m sure they were pretty much all still there. Heaven knows how many are likely to climb off before the 280km of racing are through. I do manage to pick out a few of the Brits as they pass – Adam Yates showing his true Northern grit (although Lancastrian, rather than Yorkshire) by being one of the only riders not wearing a rain jacket. The last of the riders bear left passed me and onto Mill Bridge, followed by team cars, neutral service vehicles and lastly the infamous Broom Wagon. First viewing complete, it was time to dash back to the car and head to Harrogate.

I peel off my soaking wet outer layer and jump in the car. I have five layers on my top half and I’m pretty sure I’m damp down to the 3rd layer already. I’m out of Skipton and on the A59 in no time. The traffic is heavy. Clearly I’m not the only one heading towards Harrogate. The road is a cracker – very scenic rolling up hills and down dales. A nice road to ride – if half of Yorkshire wasn’t clogging it with their cars. The rain was an ever- present, with water running across the road as it drained from high fields to low. I pass a few hardy soles that have decided to cycle over to Harrogate. There’s so much standing water and spray from the cars. I can’t help but feel sorry for them, but also have respect for them in equal measure. It takes a brave person to Lycra up knowing the weather forecast is so horrific. I give them a wide berth as I overtake, just my small gesture of respect. Chapeau to them. It takes a good 45 minutes to cover the 20 miles to Harrogate.

I’ve pre-booked my parking at the Yorkshire Showground on the outskirts of the town. This is the official UCI spectator parking. Probably safest as I’d imagine parking restrictions elsewhere would be widespread and eagerly enforced. I turn into the entrance to the Showground and join a queue that stretches for what looks like miles. One single entrance in and all cars filtering through a narrow entrance. We queue bumper to bumper. The road is nothing more than a farm track. Pot holes that could swallow the family pet. The Showground has a significant slope to it, the water draining away across the road. The road so deep in water at some places that I thought I’d see it come through my car door as I edge slowly through the river. The car in front worries me every time it sets off as it has a habit of rolling back two feet before chugging forward. Finally I get to the point where two bedraggled ladies are scanning the pre-paid tickets. I try and make a friendly weather related joke but my attendant is not in the mood. Who can blame her?  I’m passed and directed to a parking position. I tiptoe the car over the sodden grass and park up. It’s taken nearly an hour from entering the car park to actually putting my hand brake on. I leave wondering whether I will ever get the car off this sinking surface. It could be Thursday by the time I dig myself out with my bare hands.

I head over to the Park & Ride buses that are trawling us from the Showground into the town centre. I queue – obviously, this is England isn’t it? I pay the £2 return and head to the back of the top deck. A bad decision as I find out when the bus starts to move. The rainwater seems to be flowing along the bus’ roof and then finding its way through the metal and rivets to create a constant drip just above my head. Fantastic. I don’t think double decker buses usually frequent this route – the bus blasts its way through the overhanging trees, bumping every inch of the way. It creates a cacophony of noise. The children on board think it’s great fun. Blissfully the journey is short and we disembark on the edge of the circuit just a short walk from the finish line on Parliament Street. It’s taken so long to get into Harrogate and park that it’s now 12:45and the riders are due to hit the first lap within the next few minutes.

I shuffle amidst the crowds, already 4 or 5 deep around the finish straight. I stare across to the deserted Fan Park, a ghost town in the centre of this swarm of people. It’s a very strange juxta-position. I’m heading to the Rapha mobile clubhouse at the top of Cornwall Road. Rapha have taken over the grounds of a property up there. As I edge my way through the crowds the loud speaker announces the arrival of the breakaway onto the town centre roads. The break consists of 12 riders most notably three Grand Tour winners – Primoz Roglic from Slovenia, winner of La Vuelta A Espana in mid September, and Richard Carapaz from Ecuador, winner of the Giro D’Italia in May, and Colombian Nairo Quintana, winner of both the Giro & Vuelta in an illustrious palmares. A strong group. I manoeuvre myself into a gap along the barriers and bang the boards as the riders pass me. Their first time onto the circuit. The pace is high despite the perilous wet roads. I sit tight on the barriers as the peloton follow perhaps two minutes or more behind. Their numbers markedly less than there was in Skipton. The GB team still with good numbers – Tao Geoghegan Hart, and Yorkshireman Ben Swift at the front of the group. The circuit is only 14km so they’ll be back round in 20 minutes or so. I move on – still heading for the Rapha pop up. I turn onto Cornwall Road and the crowd begins to thin out. The road turns right onto Hereford Court, but my Google Map tells me to keep going up Cornwall Road. I’m now ‘off-course’ but I can see a gathering at the top of the road. To correct myself I can ‘hear’ a gathering at the top of the road. I trudge my soaked body up the incline, squelching in the puddles on every step. I’ve reached full saturation by now. My waterproof outer layer has waved the white flag. I can feel dampness 5 layers down against my skin. As I get closer to the bend in the road the music gets louder and the atmosphere builds.

I reach the top and it’s like I’ve stepped onto ‘Dutch Corner’ at the famous Alpe d’Huez. The party is in full swing. There’s a cluster of gazebos. One housing a huge sound system which blares out Europop. Another stashing the beer that has been lubricating the crowd gathered. The group of DJ’s are elaborately dressed – a few in full wetsuits with swim hats and goggles (quite appropriate for the deluge we’ve had), the others wearing a custom Yorkshire cycling jersey that resembled a tweed jacket, check shirt and tie, the look finished off with a flat cap for added authenticity. To my left are banners supporting the Dutch favourite Matthieu Van Der Poel, his face painted on the road multiple times with the words ‘King Matthieu’ above. It strikes me as both bizarre and wonderful that someone has made a perfect stencil of this so it can be replicated up the length of this climb. To my right there are Norwegian flags tied into the trees, and a cluster of elderly men wearing tall wobbly hats in the colours of the Norway flag, most likely out to support their man Alexander Kristoff. There’s a broad mix of other nationalities too – Colombians, Italians, Spaniards, and a whole lot of Irish, mostly living up to their caricature with green hats and ginger beards, looking every part the Lepricorn. There’s plenty of drinking going on all around. Everyone has a can in their hand. I feel stone cold sober in comparison. I’m no drinker though, and I’ve finally accepted that. I drink so little that only a few go straight to my head. With the long drive back later this evening I’m happy to stay off the booze on this occasion. I spy the Rapha gazebos in the gardens of the house on the corner. I head over hoping to get myself out of the rain, if only for a short while. I receive my entry bracelet and wander down the driveway towards some sanctuary.

Julian Alaphilippe

There’s two big shelters, one containing the pop up coffee shop complete with uber cool barrista (aren’t they always?); the other with trestle tables full of food and cool boxes full of beer and soft drinks. There’s a van parked on the drive too with the awning stretching out to meet the coffee shop gazebo. There’s plenty of standing room to get fifty or so guests out of the rain. A real Godsend in these conditions. The van cleverly has a wide screen TV on the side showing the race live on Eurosport. So there’ll be no missing the action now. The perfect strategy for the monsoon we are suffering – dash out roadside when the riders approach, and charge back under cover to catch the action on the big screen. It’s mid afternoon now and I am due some nourishment. I fill up on a sandwich and a fistful of crisps. Whilst heartily munching away I hear the motorbike outriders on the roadside. The dry sanctuary was soon emptying faster than a school at end of term. We all muscle in on the awaiting ensemble. The crowd are right across the road with barely a gap to be seen. And we don’t have long to wait. The group are upon us and the crowd splits just in time to allow the riders through. The pack appear to all be back together. The Dutch team are on the front driving the pace, much to the satisfaction of our DJ’s and their woozy followers. The riders get a rapturous support as they pass. We step back again as the team cars follow. I swear their wing mirrors miss me by inches. The whole thing is exhilarating but terrifying at the same time. Once all are passed the music starts up again. I’m loving the atmosphere. This feels like the best place to be watching this unfold. Enough room to move about (unlike the hoardes on Parliament Street), some shelter, a TV, an eclectic mix of cheesy singalong music, an entertaining brood of dancing Lepricorns, and a nice challenging incline for the riders to take on – 9 times.

And so the pattern begins. Keeping dry briefly underneath the assembled shelters, then dashing back roadside each time the race approaches. Whilst watching the TV we see that one of the pre-race favourites Philippe Gilbert (fresh from two stage wins at La Vuelta) has withdrawn. He crashed on the first Harrogate circuit. His room-mate and super talented teenager Remco Evenepoel had waited for him to try and pace him back, effectively putting them both out the race. The Belgians will be all in now for Classics specialist Grey Van Avermaet. The next trip roadside sees the first major move since the race entered the circuit. American Lawson Craddock and Swiss rider Stefan Kung have got a gap. The crowd shout U S A, U S A as Craddock goes over the top – if you close your eyes you could have been at the golf at Augusta. Craddock launches an empty bidon from his bike. It bounces and slides across the Tarmac. I stick my size 8 out and halt its progress. My first memento of the day. The peloton are chasing hard, with the favourites all jostling for position at the front. I’ve lost count of how many laps have gone now, but the riders have been shedding their rain capes, more national jerseys now showing so we must be getting to the pointy end. The DJ’s take over again. I don’t recognise the song but I do the dance that follows. There was much hype about The Beefeaters that enlivened the Tour De France’s Alpine stages this Summer. A group dressed head to toe in aforementioned outfits that choreographed some high jinx on the Alpine mountain stages. It went viral on social media. Maybe these Beefeaters have switched outfits to wetsuits and tweed jerseys. The same action ensues, but this time acted out on a suburban road in a spa town in Yorkshire. The crowd huggle with arms around their neighbours shoulders, then to the beat of the music and on cue from the DJ sidestep left left left , then back to the right right right. The sight is wonderful to behold, all nationalities linked together in a shared passion for cycling, alcohol, and dodgy Europop music. The wobbly tall hats perched precariously on their drunken owners’ temples add to the entertainment.

On the next passing there’s more action. Craddock has dropped away, Kung remains at the front but some key riders have bridged over – two Italians, Gianni Moscon and Matteo Trentin; a Dane, Mads Pederson; and the Dutch superstar Matthieu Van Der Poel. The Italians are making their numerical advantage count as Gianni Moscon is on the front trying to soften up the group, keeping Trentin fresher for any sprint. I’m roadside opposite a camper van that has green, white and red balloons tied to the awning – Italian fans that must be enjoying how this is playing out. The leaders are passed us again and I count back to the peloton. The gap is up to around 40 seconds. This could be the race winning move. Only a couple of laps still to go. The peloton are stretched out, a sign of the pace being made at the front. There’s some key riders that have missed the split. They are all visible at the front as the peloton comes through – Van Avermaet, 3 time World Champion Peter Sagan and Aussie favourite Michael Matthews. They have lost a lot of team mates so have no choice now but to commit to the chase.

Greg Van Avermaet & Peter Sagan.

Before long we hear an unfamiliar noise. A helicopter! The rain hadn’t stopped, but it certainly had eased. Finally the camera crews had been released airborne. The noise was met with cheers from the masses. The noise also indicated the leaders were close by again. I find my familiar position and watch as the motorbikes zoom through followed by the front group again. This time Moscon has dropped off, feeling the effects from his time driving the group on. That left just four with Moscon in no mans land between the leaders and the pack. Three would surely be walking away with a medal. Who was going to be the unlucky one? The peloton were next through but the gap didn’t feel like it had come down by much. There was 19km to go when they passed us this penultimate time. I dashed back to the TV screen again. There are more withdrawals – the reigning World Champion, Alejandro Valverde, has climbed off. No rainbow stripes for him next season. The kilometres are ticking down. 11km to go. Then a big surprise Matthieu Van Der Poel sits up. He can’t hold the wheel any more. The camera focuses on him and he shakes his head. The Dutch fans under the gazebo look visibly shocked. They were pretty confident he could bring this home. He drops like a stone, Moscon soon passes him, and he sinks into and through the back of the peloton. That leaves three out front, a guaranteed medal for each of them. Trentin, Pederson and Kung. Italy, Denmark and Switzerland. On paper this is Trentin’s to lose.

Gianni Moscon.

The helicopter is back and so are the crowds. One final time the motorbikes pass. The leaders are on us again. Trentin is on the front taking his turn. No cat and mouse yet, they’re working together to keep them away from the chasers. The rain is finally easing off. Too late for us all now, I couldn’t possibly get any wetter. Just 5km for the leaders now. I stay roadside and cheer through the peloton. Sagan is on the front. He hadn’t given this up yet. The crowd are dispersing – some to the TV, some back down Cornwall Road to get closer to the finish line. I decide to stay where I am. I wanted to see Van Der Poel. His bright orange jersey comes into view up the hill. His shoulders and head are down, he’s rolling in his saddle. Every pedal stroke looks like a painful challenge. He gets a push from a Dutch fan as he passes. He barely looks up from his stem. I give him my biggest cheer of the day. I love his attitude to racing. It’s a Go Big or Go Home kind of ride. Today it didn’t work, but one day it will. Once he disappears out of sight, I jog back to the TV. The front three are 1km out. Kung looks spent. Trentin starts the sprint early, maybe too early. Pederson stays in the drag then pulls out and edges alongside and in front of Trentin. The Italian has no reply. Pederson lifts his weary arms aloft and crosses the line. He can’t believe what he has achieved. The first Danish elite men’s World Champion. Chapeau young man, what an epic ride. I can not imagine a more hard earned world title. Nearly 300km of hard racing on grippy roads in biblical conditions.

Matthieu Van Der Poel.

The rain has ironically now stopped. Typical. I say my farewells to the Rapha crew and begin making my way back towards the town centre. As I proceed the final few riders and the Broom Wagon head passed me in the opposite direction. Much respect to these final riders for taking this to the finish line. Only 46 of the 192 riders made it up Parliament Street for the 9th and final time. The biggest rate of attrition since 1996. Just proves what a challenging day out this had been. I meander amongst the crowds back passed the finish line. The presentation is occurring – I witness the team award as I pass. This was won by the Dutch. A strange presentation in that the stage was positioned facing the Fan Park – but remember this is closed, so there is no adoring public directly opposite the winners, just a collection of photographers and journalists. I’m relieved to have missed Pederson’s presentation. I would have been embarrassed for him.

I join the snaking queue for the Park & Ride bus, and before long we are buffeting our way through the overhanging branches once again back to the sodden car park. I disembark and trudge nervously back to the car. I turn the corner and breathe a sigh of relief as the cars still there. It hadn’t sunk without trace or slid down the wet grassy bank. I stripped off my soaked outer layers, popped on a warm hoodie and started up the engine. My adventure was coming to an end. I joined the traffic departing the Showground and started my long journey home. It had been a grand day out. What a spectacle. It had been 37 long years since the UCI last brought the World Champs to England. I have a feeling they’ll be heading for sunnier locations in the years ahead. We’d sure had a lot of rain but it hadn’t dampened the spirit of the rainbow jersey. Bloomin’ well done Yorkshire.

Steve Carter

1st October 2019

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