6 April 2010

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This year’s Tour of the North cycle race, held over the Easter weekend, turned out to be one of the closest fought in years, with the outcome only decided at the end of Monday’s final stage in Ballymena. Young Irish rider Philip Lavery, riding for a Cycling Ulster team, held off the challenge of the very strong Rapha Condor Sharp team from Britain to claim a hugely impressive win.

Over the last few years race director, North Down’s Anthony Mitchell, has been successful in attracting an increasing number of teams from abroad to compete against the best of local talent. This year was no exception and in fact almost half of the teams in this year’s line up were from Britain, Belgium and Holland with Ulster clubs only managing to field eight teams out of a total of twenty one. There are several factors that have created this trend. The race is very well organised with good prize money and the outstanding contribution by the PSNI in regulating traffic on the routes creates as safe an environment as is possible, barring complete road closures. Then there is the racing. Visiting riders such as the Australian rider Dean Windsor of Rapha Condor Sharp have commented on the full on nature of cycle racing here compared with racing in Britain where the early pace in races tends to be relatively moderate and controlled.

The improving standard of participating riders and the consequent higher average speeds, even over three hilly stages such as those chosen for this year where the race maintained an average of 25 mph, have left many local club riders struggling to keep in touch with the peloton. At the end of the race no Ulster club team had made it into the top twelve in the team competition although individual riders had a major impact as members of the Cycling Ulster and Eurocycles squads, both of which performed well.


North Down Cycling Club, like several other club-based teams, had drafted in guest riders in an attempt to boost their chances of surviving the rigours of three hard road stages. Before the race there had been some guarded optimism about the team’s chances of getting through intact but after the first day there was an enforced reappraisal following the loss of three riders on Saturday. Matty Blayney had been apprehensive before the race about his fitness level following a bad chest infection and was unprepared for the high speeds generated over rolling terrain in the first half of the stage. It was clear that he had not fully recovered from illness and he wisely withdrew. Next to fall was Paul Ferguson who had been looking forward to the hills after his strong ride last year but he suffered a contusion when his kneecap banged into the end of his handlebars. Just when team manager Noel Boyce was thinking it couldn’t get any worse, it did. Guest rider Aaron Deane suffered from a mechanical failure that meant he could not change gear and he had to abandon at the notorious Dree Hill.


Going into the second stage North Down’s two remaining riders were Ross Blayney and guest rider Liam Curran. Liam himself was struggling to overcome a knee injury sustained at work on Friday and had nursed himself round on Saturday and was pleased to have lost only a few minutes. The Sunday stage from Limavady had been rearranged following heavy snow a week earlier. The original single 75 mile loop was replaced with four laps of a 20 mile circuit but initial relief that the dreaded Moneyneaney climb had been eliminated from the circuit soon evaporated when the race got moving It soon became clear that the lap consisted essentially of two long, hard climbs and two very fast descents. As a fearless descender and sprinter Ross Blayney discovered that only half of the circuit suited his particular strengths and despite descents that at times were close to 60 mph the speed of the racing on the climbs left him with too much to do to keep in touch and he abandoned on the second lap. Liam Curran, whose injury was improving, was beginning to respond to the challenge and he dug deep to keep going despite losing contact with the leading group. He limited his losses to 15 minutes on the day but, considering that Glen Kinning, who had started the day with the King of the Mountains jersey, lost over 40 minutes on this stage, Liam’s ride was a display of guts and determination that he himself described as his worst day ever in a bike race.


Going into the final stage Liam Curran was North Down’s last man standing and after two gruelling stages the prospect of facing Shane’s Hill, Ballyvaddy and Glenariff might have caused most riders to settle for a survival strategy but Liam’s indomitable spirit, an improving knee and copious massage took him to the line determined to give a good account of himself. After the climb at Ballyvaddy with Liam still at the head of the race it was clear that he was back at his best and although he lost a bit of ground going up the six mile drag at Glenariff, he recovered to reattach himself to the main group to finish a Tour of the North described by many as the hardest they could remember.


The Tour of the North is now well established as a challenging race that continues to attract top class riders. This year’s race contained Dean Downing of Rapha Condor Sharp, a British criterium champion and Hamish Haynes, a former professional in Belgium and British national road race champion in 2006. Wider international recognition for the race would come if the Tour were granted grading from the sport’s governing body, the UCI. However, this would require a considerable injection of cash to guarantee more prize money. A downside would be that UCI status would preclude the majority of local riders as they would not meet the required standard. Such a development would result in a more prestigious race but one that would lose touch with its grass roots origins.


After the international flavour of the Tour of the North local riders’ attention will refocus on the domestic programme with the action moving to Ballymena for the Wallace Caldwell Classic. The race is only open to categories A1,2 and 3 and will cover a 78 mile route. The race will start from Railway Street, Ballymena at 11am. A Sunday race for A2 and A3 riders is the Gerald Long memorial over 60 miles. At the same promotion there is a 25 mile race for A4 riders. Race headquarters is in Kildress GA club, Loughdoo Road, Pomeroy and racing begins at 12 noon.


North Down CC’s own annual programme of weekly time trials and races began this week on Wednesday evening with the dreaded “ killermetre” a one kilometre time trial on the A2 at Orlock. Results will be posted next week.

Meanwhile, on the social side, club chairman Ian Blayney is delighted to announce that next week’s quiz night is a sell-out. The venue is Pickie Bowling Club on Thursday night, 15th April.and with tickets at a mere £5, including supper, it should be a good night’s entertainment. Prospective contestants deciding to attend at short notice should contact Ian and every effort will be made to accommodate them.


The cycling fraternity in Ards and North Down were saddened last weekend to hear of the death of John O’Sullivan who was for many years an active member of that small band of dedicated volunteers without whom clubs could not function. He was at the heart of the Ards club and over many years he developed a strong and productive working partnership with other club officials and Ron Martin in particular. North Down Cycling Club offers its condolences to the family circle.

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