When is a road race not a road race? There are some who may ask that very question when road racing and circuit racing have their own distinct championships, but while the road race is all about the distance, getting from A to B, taking in an ever-changing landscape, circuit racing (or crit racing) is an altogether punchier affair. The short laps are usually tighter, with sudden corners, and bursts of acceleration between them, there's a chance to assess the weaknesses of your opponents at various points, knowing you'll pass there again in a few minutes and it may be your chance to launch an attack. And you know that your effort is for a set period of time, after which it's simply a race to the line. Arguably it's more entertaining for spectators as well, who don't have one flash-by of the peloton before trudging home, being able to see how the race is unfolding as the laps tick by.
This is the first time these championships have been held in Scotland, and host club Johnstone Jets had laid on an intriguing 1.8km course for the competitors, giving a true mix to proceedings. From the start/finish straight there was an almost immediate 90 degree left, the road dropping down to give the riders some speed, which had to be scrubbed as a slight upward curve ended in a very tight right turn, hemmed in by barriers separating it from the return route. A right kink after some brief flat led to what appeared to be an unassuming rise, but one which went on longer, and more steeply, than at first seemed to be the case. This rise, from the first lap of every race, would spit riders out the back. The left at the top was a false flat, the rise continuing to yet another 90 degree bend which led to the fastest part of the course, a long, wide, sweeping, downhill left curve. Riders had to pay attention, however, as another 90-degree bend, slightly more open, but deserving of no less respect, was waiting at the end. From there the legs would be burning as the curve then continued left on the flat, ending in the start/finish straight which, to rub salt into the wounds, had a not insignificant rise (and for most of the day a headwind).
The day was opened with a few non-Championship races for the younger competitors, racing round a shortened course, the changeable conditions keeping all on their toes, that being the story of much of the rest of the day. Elise Hawkins (Palmer Park Velo) and Struan Shaw (Royal Albert CC) took the plaudits in the under 8s categories for girls and boys respectively; while Awen Roberts (Towy Riders) and James Donaldson (Mossley CRT) managed the same feat for the under 10s.
The first of the Championships saw the Category C (under 12) girls taking to the course. It didn't take long for a break of four riders to get themselves free, and as they dominated, putting a lap into the rest of the competition, Isabella Escalera of VC Londres pulled away for the last crossing of the line, leaving Libby Smith (Fossa Racing) and Maya Teufel Tarlton (Lee Valley Youth Cycling Club) to come in second and third, managing to record the same time as each other.
Next up came the Category B (under 14) boys, and once again we had a select leading group proving the class of the field, five riders striking out (Dylan Westley, Albarosa CC; Samuel Watson, Chevin Cycles; Zachary Bridges, Cardiff JIF; Lewis Askey, Lichfield City CC; and Ben Tullett, Beeline Bicycles), leaving one more, Max Walker of the Isle of Man, yo-yoing between the break and the main group.
Coming into the main straight for the bell it was clear that there was some cat and mouse action beginning, and as they disappeared around the top bend, all still watching each other, Walker powered on through, head down. That he caught the small group as they approached the finish line the next time around tells you how determined he was, and how cagey the leading riders had been, but after such an effort he was never likely to win the bunch sprint. That honour went to Askey, ahead of Watson and Westley in second and third.
The younger Category C boys then took to the track, and almost immediately two riders, Finlay Pickering (Clifton CC) and Max Poole (Bike Box Alan/Envelopemaster) broke the elastic and stayed out in front of the main field until the very end, contesting the sprint between them, with Poole coming out on top. Best of the rest was Billy Gilbey (VC Londres), just edging out Joshua Giddings (Heaor Clarion CC) for the last podium spot.
The Category B girls raised the race pace, eventually. For the first four laps everything stayed neatly together, but then as things started to wind up riders were being dropped off the back. With four laps to go the rain started, and the 14 left in the lead group consolidated, rather than any rider taking the risk of a getaway. This led to a big bunch sprint, with Ella Barnwell (Cranc Cyclesport) keeping her front tyre just ahead of Poppy Wildman (Nottingham Clarion CC), and Josie Griffin (Welwyn Wheelers).
It was perhaps the Category A (under 16) girls race that saw the most cagey and considered racing of the day. Starting in the wet the race was actually neutralised for the first half lap, perhaps mindful of falls at the second tight corner, with a metal cover in the middle of the turn, in previous races. Even when the sun came out halfway through, drying the course considerably, the group remained. The pace was high, but there was twitchy watching of each other, conversations running through the group, until Kaitlin Slack put in a brief effort that strung matters out.
With 50 minutes gone there was still a main group of 27 making its way around the circuit, but then came not only the move of the race, but perhaps the bravest decision of the whole day. Jenny Holl, from the Stirling Bike Club launched a solo bid during the penultimate lap. As she hit the bell her lead was about three quarters of the length of the straight, but the peloton was organising itself for the chase. There followed an anxious three minutes wait for the motorbike leading the riders to reappear at the bottom bend, but when it did Jenny was still out on her own. The lead, however, had dwindled, and the uphill finish was now into the strongest the headwind reached on the day. Watching the struggle towards the line was agonising, Jenny more than once taking a glance back as the rest of the field bore down on her. But the break just had enough, the hands being thrown in the air a yard from the line, which was about the distance she had in reserve. Emotion then hit, and it's hard to imagine there being a dry eye seeing the reaction to becoming British Champion. Chasing down, and actually getting the same time, the best of the group were Jessica Roberts (RST Racing Team) in second, and Pfeiffer Georgi (Giant Cycling Club - Halo Films) nabbing third.
Where the girls race before it had been thoughtful, from the very outset the Category A boys were quite simply full gas. The first two laps were taken at a pace that invited you to believe it simply could not be maintained for the full 75 minutes, plus 3 laps. And yet... The big group was strung out in a line for the first half hour, riders occasionally dropping off the back, and without the shelter of anyone in front they simply didn't stand a chance of latching back on. Then there was a sudden outbreak of tactics as Isle of Man rider Conor Davies leapt off the front, while two teammates positioned themselves at the front of the group to slow any chase. It seemed early for such a move, but initially the gap grew massively. Anthony Andersen (Sigma Sport) managed to bridge the gap, and the two were working together effectively. However slowly but surely the peloton was reeling them in.
The Isle of Man riders were definitely in the mood for aggressive riding, this time William Draper trying his hand, again joined by Andersen, on the hour mark, with Scottish rider Joe Nally (Team Hardie-Bikes.com) dragging the pack along to make contact, creating a leading group of eight. But by the time the last lap came around the attacks had once more been neutralised, and the large group lined itself up for a straightforward bunch sprint.
Fred Wright (VC Londres) held his nerve, and the very centre of the road, to record the win, closely followed by Jake Stewart (Solihull CC) and Thomas Pidcock (Chevin Cycles).
The day ended with the sun shining once more, six new British champions kitted out in their jerseys and matching Big Bobble hats, and rollers being recovered from bus stops, doorways and from under trees, as the circus packed up for another year. Bikes, riders, and parents loading into cars and camper vans to head off home and ponder what could be done differently, better, faster, for next year.
Paisley had put on a show, and the young riders had returned the compliment, bringing shopkeepers out to their doorsteps to watch the colourful peloton zip by for lap after lap with seemingly no let-up. How many of these names might we see as more familiar in the years to come? With such a talented crop already imbued with enthusiasm for the sport, and taking on the knowledge of just how to race, and what is required to be at the very top, you'd have to bet on quite a few making themselves known.
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