TOUR OF THE COTSWOLDS
MARK McKay scored the best win of his career when he stormed to victory in Sunday's 44th Tour of the Cotswolds in Gloucester. McKay, whose debut in the international Milk Race in 1993 saw him win the climbers' competition, left many other top names powerless on the long, tough ascents.
A near race-long breakaway group dominated the 119-mile classic which scaled a total of 7,000 feet during it's giant loop through the hot and hilly Cotswolds in this Severn Valley CRC promotion.
McKay (Team Ambrosia) smartly outwitted former winner Paul Curran (Optimum Performance RT) to beat him by one second in the tricky and unusual grass finish in Gloucester Park in a time of 4-59-08.
The pair had escaped their impressive breakaway group over the last of many, many difficult climbs. Third at 48 seconds was Colin Langley of Team Energy-Duracell. The team's game plan to win came unstuck but not through lack of trying - they had three in the break and were the dominant force. And Langley, third also last year, delivered a not inconsider-able consolation prize, the King of the Mountains, getting a grip of this classification early on to pre-vent McKay's late bid in a race which reaches for the heavens time and again, an appropriate feature considering it is sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group!
Belgian Johnny Van Cadzan (IPSO-Asfra) provided the conti-nental challenge, and finished fourth at 51 seconds. Van Cadzan was the unknown quantity in this high speed race, and his presence prompted McKay's attack on the final climb, Fiddler's Elbow, some 17 miles from the line.
It was a great climax to an early morning move nearly five hours before, which at first had all the makings of a suicide pact. For all its pastoral beauty, the Cotswold hills are unforgiving terrain for bike racers, and this course, though starting with the steepest, longest climb of Birdlip, saves the heaviest roads to last - a recipe few can stomach.
Six men escaped at first, soon after the start. They included Steve Farrell (Tunstall Wheelers), the winner in 1991, and Langley. On this wicked 1-in-6 climb of Birdlip which lifted the field 1,000 feet up in just over two miles, McKay and Curran took off in pursuit, followed by several other hearty souls.
Langley's first task was to be first over the top - he missed out last year. That accomplished, he and his companions were soon joined by the other adventurers and at once they knew they had the race by the scruff of the neck. This was an 11-man band the rest would regret letting loose.
They were McKay and Curran - who had team-mate Mark Lovatt with him; Langley - with two team-mates, national road champion Dave Rand and Danny Axford. There was the Belgian, Van Cadzan, Lee Davis (JPM Racing), Dave Cook (Middridge CRT), Rob Lyne (Western RC) and Farrell.
With three strong teams repre-sented, any counter-attack from the main field would be difficult, as the notable absentees from the break soon found out.
They included the Gill Airways-Peugeot team whose Mark Walsham was second last year. He offered no excuses, although John Tanner was jet lagged after his return from the Olympic Games only days before, Neil Hoban had just recovered from a bout of food poisoning and Rob Holden was out through injury. And one-man band Chris Lillywhite (Karrimor), the winner last year, also missed the break.
Farrell challenged for and won the next prime at Nailsworth after 27 miles, with Curran second, ahead of Langley. At 30 miles the 11 had a lead of 3-05. They were all working, through and off, like a well-drilled squad on a forced march. In this way, they carved into the warm wind that came at their right shoulder in the early miles, the same wind which apparently blunted the main field's enthusiasm to take up arms.
At Bibury, the third climb around 40 miles, Langley crested the summit first ahead of Davis. On the descent, Cook appeared to be offered a 'bottle tow' from the team car and nearly fell off. This is the practice of handing a bottle out of the car to a rider. He clasps it and during the few seconds delay before the helper releases his grip, the car accelerates to give the rider a brief rest as distinct from putting him to rest! Dodgy!
News came of a few flurries from the Gill Airways boys back in the bunch, all to no avail. Meanwhile, Farrell, the former international, was giving it stick to claim his second prime, with a powerful long sprint at Bourton, 60 miles, half-distance.
Langley worried him all the way to the line, with Davis on his heels, Lovatt and Rand also close up. But there were more hills to this route than a mere eight primes, and soon after Brockhill Quarry on the B-road to Stow, the leaders came under pressure on a series of nasty short rises which saw Lyne crack.
Dropped, he fought back on the descent to Lower Swell, only to find more heavy, bumpy lanes that wound up and up awaiting him. At 73 miles he was dropped like a stone.
News from the straggling bunch told of two men in pursuit, Ben Wilson of Irish Heritage CC, and Belgian, Michel Notebaert. The closest they got was 2-20, a minute up on the main field which all of a sudden looked as if it might yet affect the outcome.
A group of 14 men next took up the chase including Lillywhite and Tanner, but along for the ride were Langley's Team Energy minders Harry Lodge and Simon Bray, and McKay's Ambrosia minders Tim Hall and Dave Williams. And the chase was over almost before it began, and the bunch fell further behind.
The course reared up for the prime of Corndean, the fifth climb after 90 miles. It was anoth-er 1-in-6 devil of about one mile, with a hairpin steeper still. Axford flexed his muscles, Curran chased, but it was McKay who now showed his intent, bursting across the line first. He was in command now, and demonstrated this by taking the last three remaining primes as the race entered its final phase.
After Corndean, on another strength-sapping unclassified climb, Farrell paid the price for his earlier aggression. Of all of them, he had looked the most stretched. Now he cramped up in such agony that he lost control and fell to the roadside in a cloud of dust. His arm strayed into a nettle patch - there is no dignity even for the fallen.
Attended to by Team Ambrosia personnel from a following car, Farrell was soon back in the saddle and giving chase with a characteristic grin which belied his suffer-ing. Though he never rejoined, he never gave up, either, finishing 19th nearly nine minutes down, to be rewarded with the Most Meritorious Rider Award.
But while he was about sal-vaging that, McKay was showing the rest who was boss over the Brockhampton and Kilkenny primes. The nine survivors of the all-day break headed back towards Gloucester at over 50mph down to the Severn Valley with one prime remaining, Fiddler's Elbow which they started as a watertight unit. Thus far the distance and the unre-lenting pace and long climbs had merely reduced the crew by two members. But two-thirds of the way up Fiddler's Elbow, McKay's charge blasted the rivets clean out of the ship. It was a canny demoli-tion job primarily aimed at knock-ing out the Belgian rider, a power-ful, stocky workhorse who climbed well and might possess a sprint.
But in the ensuing scrap, Curran rejoined McKay after the climb, and Langley got across as did Van Cadzan. But the damage had been done.
McKay then craftily fore-warned Curran he was about to kick again, inviting him to join him as an ally powerful enough to help sustain the move, but hope-fully not strong enough to win the sprint. And so it proved. All McKay had to do was bide his time, and just make sure he got through the park gates first to wrap up a fine victory.
Cook led in the remains of the break for sixth, over two minutes down, with Lovatt, Davis and Axford finishing together at 2-59.
Bray led the main field at 6-12, for 10th place, while a further 12 seconds behind Walsham (Gill Airways - Peugeot) and last year's winner Lillywhite took 11th and 12th places respectively.
Winner Mark Mckay said of his near race-long break through the beautiful Cotswold countryside. 'This is certainly my best win although I've had a third here before.
'Everyone more or less rode through and off for the whole race. And then on the last couple of hills, about 20 miles to go, I knew I had to put something in there because there were three Team Energys, and there was Curran and Lovatt. So over the top of Fiddler's Elbow - there had been a few attacks before that, to try and split the group but it kept coming back together - so halfway up I had a little flick and three guys came with me over the top, including Curran. I think Langley was a bit stuffed and we weren't too sure about the Belgian, whether he had a sprint or not. He was starting to miss a few turns. So I had a word with Paul (Curran) to put in an effort and luckily it worked. (The Belgian was dropped).
'I had to keep watching Paul because he's got a tremendous jump on him. I wasn't too sure of the finish after the park gates and thought it best to get in the park first.'
Paul Curran, the former national champion and Commonwealth Games double gold medallist, took second:
'When Mark went on Fiddler's Elbow I just gradually wound it up along with Langley and the Belgian lad. Mark said, "We'll have to jump these two." I think he just picked me as a good workman and non-sprinter. I said to him, "All right".
'So we went on the last climb. Again I was just crawling up to his wheel. He just let me sit there until I recovered. Then I started working with him all the way.'
Told that McKay was wary of Curran's 'powerful kick', Curran gave a self-deprecating laugh. 'Hmm. I suppose... The only way I could have beaten him today was if he cocked up his sprint, overgeared or something, which you can easily do on grass.' Curran laughed. 'I'd run out of options. When one of the best sprint-ers has given you a hard time on the hills, what can you do?'
Colin Langley took third and the King of the Mountains prize. Although reported (Cycling Weekly last week) to have left Team Energy, Langley, who entered the race as a private member, was back in their colours on Sunday.
Langley explained that it was team strategy to win this race. Had his move come back, he said that Simon Bray and Harry Lodge were ready to have a go from the main field.
Langley, winner of the Tour of Herts earlier this year, said he has been riding strongly but perhaps not using his head, not thinking his moves through.
And in making such a strong early bid for the mountains' prize, he acknowledged that his efforts under-mined his overall objective. 'I am a lit-tle disappointed. I came here to win this race. I got the Birdlip prime - last year I didn't - and being in front puts you in a strong position. Everyone else is catching up. I was surprised really that we stayed away, I knew that if we got to about 70 miles people usually start to get tired behind - although we were also getting tired. But it worked well. I think I did too much in the King of the Mountains early on. But I'm pleased to have won that. Dave Rand was leading me out for a few primes.
'Mark and Paul went on the last climb and I was just a bit wasted then. It's the roller-coaster climbs I don't like, the short steep ones, too. But I was going well today, none of it was that hard - relatively speaking,' he added with a grin.
Johnny Van Cadzan, the 24-year-old Belgian pro was fourth. 'I was alone. There were too many other riders with three or two team-mates. So it was too hard for me. If I had other team-mates with me then it was possible I might have won. I can climb well.'
This was Cadzan's first race in England for a Belgian outfit IPSO--Asfra. He has had one win this year, in Luxembourg, and the team has had a total of six wins.
Chris Lillywhite (Karrimor), 12th, and Mark Walsham (Gill Airways-Peugeot), 11th, looked forlorn after the race. Lillywhite, the winner last year, and stage winner in the Tour of North East Switzerland recently, said. 'I knew there were strong riders away, Curran and McKay. But I did think it would all split up around 80 miles and leave six of them out there. They would then lost time to stronger riders coming from behind. But, having said that, we didn't really get anything going. I was trying to get away, but no one wanted to work. But I can only blame myself really. I should have been in the action from the off, not from behind.'
Walsham, the winner in 1993, said: 'It all started on the flat at the bottom of the climb. That's where we made our mistake. We should have had a rider in that. We were a little bit relaxed, maybe.
'Usually things come back togeth-er after Birdlip. But the wind was in a slightly different direction today. It's usually a howling tailwind so every-body gets a bit fruity and the speed just brings it together. But this year it was a slight cross-head wind on the way out. So it held the bunch in check a little. That's about it. Nobody really had the legs to get a chase going. Our boys weren't strong enough today.'
1. Mark McKay (Team Ambrosia) in 4-59-08
2. P. Curran (Optimum Performance RT) at 1sec
3. C. Langley (Team Energy) at 48sec
4. J. Van Cadzan (IPSO-Asfra) at 51sec
5. D. Rand (Team Energy) at 1-35
6. D. Cook (Middridge CRT) at 2-11
7. M. Lovatt (Optimum Perf' RT) at 2-59
8. Davis (JPM Racing) st
9. D. Axford (Team Energy) at 3-0
10. S. Bray (Team Energy) at 6-12
11. M. Walsham (Gill-Airways-Peugeot) at 6-24
12. C. Lillywhite (Karrimor) st
13. C. King (CC Giro-Unijet) at 6-26
14. M. Notebaert (IPSO-Asfra) at 6-31
15. W. Wright (VC La Motta) at 8-25
16. H. Lodge (Team Energy) at 8-30
17. D. Moralee (Featherstone RC) at 8-50
18. D. Bridal (Harlow CC) at 6-53
19. S. Farrell (Tunstall Wheelers) at 8-59
20. S. Gamble (Ashfield RC) st.
King of the Mountains: Colin Langley (Team Energy-Duracell)
Report by Keith Bingham. Pictures by Rob Lampard