Report: Bike Blenheim

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Cycling Festival Comes to Blenheim

Sunday, October 4, 2009; by Larry Hickmott |

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The 700 plus people here are getting a pre-race briefing for the Brompton World Championship race, one of many highlights at the Bike Blenheim festival.

Blenheim Palace (near Oxford), home to the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, was the setting for the Bike Blenheim festival of cycling and what a day out it was for the thousands who came to ride around or explore the 2,100 acres of beautiful parkland landscaped by ‘Capability’ Brown.

The weekend at Blenheim Palace took me back two years to when I explored the park on a cold new year winters day and thought what a lovely place it would be to ride around. I never got the chance on Sunday being chained to a camera all day but everywhere I looked during the day I could see people enjoying the experience and hopefully it will be a festival that will continue to grace the World Heritage site for many years to come.

The day began for me at 7.30am when I arrived to find a steady and long stream of cars entering the park which was already a hive of activity as the riders in the Sportif and Time Trial were parked up and signing in for their events. With the Palace in the background, the festival village was getting warmed up with the various food and drink vendors doing a brisk business on a bright, clam and very cold autumn morning. While the 1,300 plus Sportif riders queued to register for their event, the hundreds entered for the Time Trial did likewise and at 8am, the first wave of Sportif riders set off on their glorious ride around the beautiful Cotswolds area.

Hundreds of riders stream out of the Palace park for the Sportif in the Cotswolds

Nearby, at 8.15, the Time Trial, which saw the riders doing laps of a circuit within the park, kicked off with riders starting at 30 second intervals from either side of the narrow road before they raced towards the gates of the Palace and then down and around the lake and up a long climb on what was a challenging circuit.

Back at the festival village, the riders on the Sportif had all disappeared from the park and were now enjoying their ride in the Cotswolds. The numbers of people in the park though were growing fast and as I wandered around the various tents, I could hear various languages from countries around the world including America, Spain, France and Japan. The very large Brompton tent was filling up with people who were relaxing in the sun before their race at noon and all around the village were TV cameras interviewing the competitors.

Over at the start area for the Brompton event, the numbers for each competitor had been placed on the ground among the autumn leaves which had been blown with some force off the trees the day before. Each rider took their folded Brompton bike and placed it next to their number and by the time of the start there was a sea of folding bikes. After a briefing for the hundreds of Brompton World Championship riders near the start, the riders were then put into groups and like the Sportif before, each group would be started one-by-one and the result decided on the fastest time.


Above: Catch the flavour of Bike Blenheim with the slideshow on British Cycling's Flickr page....

The start was Le Mans style, something we've seen many times this year already at the Nocturne Series events but not on this scale. Each rider ran to their bike, put it together and then rode it onto the circuit and once over the timing matt, their race against the watch would begin. The winner was not the first across the line, Alistair Kay, but the one with the fastest time and that honour went to former Tour of Spain winner Roberto Heras who just edged out Michael Hutchinson and Alistair Kay for the title of World Brompton champion.

Speaking to Alistair who I normally see racing Premier Calendar events, he explained “it was hard this time as I being chased rather than chasing my rivals. I finished first but I think there will be some who have done a quicker time… I’m not sure. I started last in my group and made sure everything was right with the bike and by the time I caught my group, they had all thinned out and I was able to get past them.”

Alistair finishes first across the line and then the long long wait began to see if his time was good enough for him to be crowned a world champion again... sadly for Ali, it was not to be as Roberto Heras was the winner.

“It was a bit harder than last year as there was a breeze out there but it was enjoyable. I don’t really get on with short races but I owe the bike shop, York Cycle Works. They sorted the bike out for me and I made a little modification with a wooden block on it to stop the suspension and the machine was beautiful to ride. I have to thank Graeme Obree too because I stole his superman position out there today and it was a frighteningly quick bike”.

“It was a lovely course which was uphill, down hill and had a bit of flat in between. The track is beautiful and it was an awesome course and it’s been a great day out. We really enjoyed it last year and it has been good fun this year too.” 

For most though the enjoyment came from just being one of the many competitors and the costumes on show gave it a ‘ladies day’ at the races feel with many of the costumes  being so good that choosing the winner of the best dressed competition, certainly for the ladies, must have been an arduous one! One can’t feel that there should been a top three at least such was the competition.

The Brompton Folding Bike race though was just one of many activities going on at midday. There was certainly no lack of things to keep everyone entertained and two of the cycling events getting goods crowds were the Landrover MAD mountain bike display of riders performing stunning stunts and the Bike Polo. After spending some time photographying these, I wandered back to the British Cycling podium truck to see the presentations made to the winners in the Time Trial and Brompton World Championship.

The barriers were packed to see the trials riders perform some stunning stunts on two wheels.

In front of a sea of people (photo above), the  Duke and Duchess of Marlborough presented the prizes and welcomed us all to the Park. As each rider was introduced on stage, the Duke would chat to them and hand them their prize before another winner was brought on stage.

Once the presentations were over, I went to photograph two more events, Go-Ride and a round of the Central Cyclo-Cross league. I'd see the Go-Ride a little earlier and with the sun well and truly warming up the park, the number of young riders taking part had grown while the ages of them had shrunk!

Queues of young riders were forming and they all waited patiently for their turn to take part on the skills course helped by the Go-Ride coaches. Over the road from the Go-Ride, was the Cyclo-Cross and because of a delay in the presentations due to the closeness of the times in the Brompton event, I'd missed the early kids events which apparently saw large numbers racing before the main hour long race at 3pm, the last event of the afternoon.

Kelvin Hoy and his team had laid out 6 kilometres of tape on a flat course set on a piece of parkland 200 metres by 300 metres. With the course winding its way backwards and forwards through the trees, the crowd lining the one solid fence in the sea of tape were able to witness the whole race unfold before them without any need for binoculars!

After almost an hour of racing, the victory in the senior event came down to a sprint for the line and Jamie Newall's celebration of the win (below) was certainly fitting after a wonderful day's cycling at Blenheim Palace.

It was the second year of the Festival and as one of the many thousands in the park, it appeared on many levels to be a huge success which is no doubt down to the hard work by the organiser Paul Murphy and his team. As I drove home to Manchester, thoughts turned to not what had been there but what had been missing.

Whilst the cycling on offer was certainly a great offering of grass roots action from the public getting the chance to ride around the circuit to the full gas time trial and Brompton races, how great it would have been to have also had an elite circuit race where perhaps our Olympic heros could have participated and then been introduced to the royalty that call the Palace their own.

There are probably no limits to how big and popular this event could be but for now, the packed park showed that the Festival is already a resounding success and after having visited the Palace the day before and converted the two tickets to the palace (£17.50 each) for 12 month passes, the festival of cycling that followed, made the weekend a great getaway and one I hope I get to taste again in the future...

My thanks to organiser Paul Murphy, British Cycling's Andy Cook and  the PR team at Blenheim, Hannah and Victoria who helped me during the day. We'll bring you results of the events as we get them(some follow the pictures):

Mini Photo Gallery: See more in this British Cycling Photo Album on Flickr

The Palace where there were no cyclists inside but still well worth a visit for a trip through history

Cars stream into Blenheim Palace park as the sun rises

The queues for signing on meet the competitors as the approach the village from the car park.

Riders wave goodbye as they leave the park on their long ride around the Cotswolds

A very early speed machine on display at Blenheim

The winners of the Women's Time Trial with the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough.

The podium for the Men's Brompton World Championships, Alistair Kay, Roberto Heras and Michael Hutchinson

The best dressed awards for the Brompton World Championship. Men's award went to Gary Foulger  who on Flickr comments "I'm still not sure exactly what drove me to wear that, but it was a top day out. I am now wondering what to wear next year, but not entirely sure I can top that! "

Just two more of the candidates for the Best Dressed award.

Jamie Newall over the carved hurdles on the cyclo-cross course

The riders in the Time Trial race down the hill and over the bridge in front of the Palace

Bike Polo was also a cycling activity on display

The run to the bikes at the start of the Brompton world championship

Young riders get in on the act of enjoying a day out on their bike thanks to Go-Ride

The Duke and Dutchess enjoying the Bike Blenheim festival

More elaborate costumes on display in the Brompton race

This year, Roberto Heras was all smiles!

Bikes from a bygone era were on display and then part of the public ride on the course around the Palace.


Time Trial
1.  Michael Hutchinson  In-Gear-Quickvit RT  26:21     
2.  Matthew Bottrill  I-Ride RT/MG Décor 27:20    
3.  Mark Holton  Shorter Rochford RT 27:53
First Woman
Julia Shaw  Utag Yamaha  29:57

First Junior Male
Tom Yeatman  Glenedene CC/Biketrax 28:12

Brompton World Championship
1. Roberto Heras
2. Michael Hutchinson
3. Alistair Kay

First Woman
Julie Shaw

1. Jamie Newall