Tour of the North - Race Report

Tour of the North - Race Report

Posted on: 25th April 2012

Article by: Scott Couch, Team Manager

Photo provided courtesy of Marian Lamb,

A young development team comprising two first-year seniors, Jack Barrett (Velocity 44/Beste Alde) and Taylor Johnstone (Team De Ver), Michael Nicholson (Dooleys Cycles/Flanders), who had returned from Belgium to join up with the squad, and finally Rab Wardell (Alpine Bikes Racing) to act as road-captain headed across the Irish Sea to take on an international field of riders. The race format included the Friday prologue as tradition dictates in the grounds of Stormont Castle (with the additional recent innovation of a ‘super-sprint’ style 2 rider head-to-head format), followed by three testing road stages across the Easter weekend. Teams participating included the UCI Continental registered Node4-Giordana and Rapha-Condor-Sharp, two teams from Holland and a host of Irish International riders, e.g. Dave McCann (RTS Racing Team) and Peter Hawkins (IG Sigma-Sport). It was also good to see some friendly faces from Scotland on the start line each day, with teams present representing Dooleys Cycles and Velo Ecosse.

Stage 1:
The Friday evening prologue is always tough after a very early start back in Scotland, and then spending much of the day travelling. Michael put in a fantastic performance to be within 3 seconds of the winning time (Frank Niewold, SWABO Cycling Team, Holland), ending the day in 8th place. As is the norm after such a short sharp effort, all four riders were suffering with ‘pursuiters’ cough after their all our attack up the 1.21 km Stormont entrance hill.scottish

Stage 2:
Day 2 offered a 72 mile parcours, with 3 King of the Hills climbs including the 20% finishing grind up to Rathfriland and 5 km long slog to the summit of Spelga Dam mid-stage. The action kicked off as soon as the neutralised flag came in, and with less than 10 miles gone, a lead group of 9 was established. Michael Nicholson was present up the road for Scotland, having been one of the last to get on after good team-work between Rab and Michael after the initial move had been missed. A hard chase was instigated by the Dutch team of the yellow jersey holder, pegging the gap at less than 1 minute for nearly an hour before they finally gave up the chase. Approaching the Spelga Dam climb, the lead group made a steady effort up and over with Frend from Node4 jumping away to take the prime. Behind in the bunch, David McCann launched a monstrous attack from the bottom of the climb, bridging to the lead group. Following the attacks were Rab and Taylor. Rab managed to get in a good counter that would eventually make it across to the front group 15 miles from the finish after a hard chase, Taylor just missing out on this move, the last to drop off this splinter group as the gradient reached its steepest. As Rab’s group was making contact up front to momentarily create a lead group of 18 riders, further attacking split the group in two. Ever attentive, Michael was present yet again. On the final climb to the finish, the gradient proved just too much, and Michael lost a few seconds at the line to the days winner Peter Hawkins (IG Sigma-Sport). Rab grabbed 12th on the stage out of the remainder of the lead group. The bunch trailed in over 6 minutes behind indicating how strongly the front groups were riding, as indicated by the average speed of 26.25 mph for the day including the 3 tough categorised climbs. The lads were also pleased to be lying in a solid 3rd place overall in the team competition after good backing up by Taylor and Jack.

Stage 3:
Easter Sunday offered up a further 72 miles of racing with only 2 draggy categorised climbs to break up the rhythm. Morale in the camp was high after the opening days stage, with the lads keen to go on the offensive. The wide flat roads early in the stage provided constant aggressive racing in the pack, with moves only lasting long enough for rider numbers to be identified over race radio before being reeled back in again. The Scotland team car was pleased to hear at least one of our riders represented in any moves that made it off the front of the bunch. Eventually, after nearly one hour of racing, the days break was established just after the first categorised climb. Six riders including the yellow jersey (James Moss of Node4-Giordana) and Michael again covering the move for Scotland quickly established a 1 minute gap. The presence of the yellow jersey prompted a furious chase behind that ripped the peloton into multiple groups on the road, with David McCann and Peter Hawkins in particular the biggest potential losers from the success of the break setting an impressive pace. However excellent cooperation between the 6 riders up front was holding the gap steady, with constant updates on the time-gap being relayed to both the break and front of the significantly reduced peloton. With 10 miles to go a sneaky uncategorised berg that we had fortunately been aware of in advance created the platform to reduce the lead group to 4 strong men; Moss in the yellow jersey, Bustard (2nd overall at this stage), our own Michael Nicholson and finally a Dutch raider well down on GC. After this last climb, the Dutch rider was no longer contributing to the break, betting on the other GC contenders keeping up the pace. In a tense run in, the gap to the much reduced chasing bunch of approximately 25 riders was slowly being whittled away, but the lead riders hung on to a 36 second advantage. Into the last corner 250 metres from the line, the yellow jersey led it out, quickly to be overtaken by the Dutch passenger. Michael, closing the gap from 4th wheel just managed to overhaul the other riders before the line to provide an excellent stage victory. With an average speed of almost 27 mph for the stage, the race was certainly not hanging about. The lads were joking that Michael’s prime motivation for such a high tempo was to ensure to be back at the hotel in time to catch the end of Paris-Roubaix coverage online! The stage result moved Michael up to an impressive 3rd on the overall classification, and with Rab and Taylor both in the much reduced chasing group, third place overall in the team classification was solidified.

Stage 4:
The final day dawned with 7 riders separated by less than a minute still in contention for the overall honours. With a stiff breeze, three classified climbs and warning from local contacts of two additional unclassified climbs, this was to provide the hardest stage of the race for the Scottish team. The hard day in the saddle ensured that over half of the riders finished more than 16 minutes down, with many additional abandons along the way. With an unclassified climb to start with, the Node4-Giordana quartet ambushed the bunch driving a fearsome pace which led to the proverbial ‘plane crash’ with only 5 miles covered. A lead group of 11 riders formed with most of the main contenders overall present. Behind, more than half a dozen separate significant groups of riders were fighting to regain contact. Missing out were Herbalife (2nd overall) and Scotland, as Michael was trapped in group 2 on the road. Fortunately, Michael had Taylor and Jack for company, while Rab had infiltrated the front group, as the steep gradients played to his strengths as a climber. With two men in the lead group, the Herbalife team seemed reluctant to take up the chase on behalf of the rider 2nd in GC. Hence it fell to Taylor and Jack to instigate the chase of the front group to try and salvage Michael’s GC position. For the next 50 miles the chase was on, as the lead fluctuated between 1 and 2 minutes. Up front the 4 Node4-Giordana riders including the yellow jersey were driving through with seven passengers happy with the free ride, and hoping to capitalise on any later weakness that the effort might impose on the yellow jersey. Behind, the chase group of 20-25 riders relied upon the impetus provided by the 3 remaining Scotland riders with limited assistance from the other teams (shout out to the remaining individual Dooleys and Velo rider for lending a hand when they could). After fighting tooth and nail over 3 further climbs along the exposed coast roads north of Belfast, the gap had been managed down to just under a minute with the final long big ring climb and run in to go. At this point a reaction from the chase group instigated by the David McCann express train broke the chase into pieces with half a dozen or so others managing to hang on including Michael, but without the rider 2nd overall. Up front, Rab took the opportunity of the long climb to break the rhythm of the lead group by attacking and generally causing a nuisance to the lead riders, winning the cat 1 climb prime in the process. Just over the top of the hill prime, the chase group finally made contact with the front, swelling the group to 21 riders. On the run in on the last 5 miles, multiple attacks were thrown down, with the Dutch teams in the vanguard, and both Michael and Rab regularly in attendance. However, the professionals of Node4-Giordana were able to shut down everything thrown at them until the final sprint finish where Irish rider Felix English (Rapha-Condor-Sharp) was a popular and convincing sprint winner. Confirmation quickly filtered through that finishing in the front group had secured Michael 2nd place in the overall general classification, 18 seconds down on James Moss (Node4-Giordana), who was a a worthy winner of the event. Rab, ably backing Michael up, secured 12th overall and 5th in the King of the Hills competition. Jack, utterly spent by the long chase to keep Michael in contention overall parked up and eventually finished with the main peloton. Taylor still had enough strength left to persevere on to cement his strong showing in the U23 competition and 26th in the overall general classification. The lads additionally secured third overall in the team competition – a fine feat in an event where many teams started with 6 riders each. I would like to commend all four riders for their efforts on the road, camaraderie and professionalism throughout the event.

Thanks as always to Anthony Mitchell and all the organisation team of the P&O Tour of the North, the fantastic support of the PSNI providing the best rolling road closure in the UK, and the many event sponsors, not least P&O for getting us to the North and back so efficiently.

Finally, many thanks from the lads and myself to Neil MacLeod (EKPhysio) who worked virtually round the clock throughout the 4 days rubbing legs, acting as in-race mechanic, driving the team van, and passing on the benefits of his experience to the young lads at every possible opportunity.

Full race results can be accessed at

Tour of the North - Race Report

Posted on: 13th April 2012

Article by: Michael Nicolson

Last weekend was my first outing in a Scotland jersey. We had 4 riders (Robert Wardell, Jack Barrett, Taylor Johnstone, and myself) along with 2 support staff (Neil Mcleod and Scott Couch). We were taking part in the Tour of the North stage race in Northern Ireland. The stage race consisted of a short prologue (1.1km) followed by 3 road stages around the 70mile mark.

We travelled over on the Friday for the prologue. We took the P&O (race sponsor) ferry across from Troon. The prologue was to be a 1.1k TT up the hill in front of Stormont Castle. After a quick warm up on the roller we each set off in a randomly drawn head to head. I wasn't a fan of this idea in case the opponent went out too hard and you gave chase only to tire in the final metres. Luckily my opponent slipped his chain on the start line so I got to ride in glorious solitude. With the proloue being so short the time gaps were very small and everyone was still in contention.

The Saturday stage was set to tackle the 1st cat climb of Spelga Damn (That's how it is spelt on the race manual so I'm going with it). In the early stages I managed to nip into the break after an attack by Rab was closed down. Over the next hour or so the breaks advantage slowly creaped up. Approaching Spelga Damn everyone was working well and luckily for me we took it steady up the climb. Behind in the bunch there was chaos. David McCann had attacked and taken some dangerous riders with him. Everyone scrambled for wheels and a serious selection was made. All the Scotland boys were well placed. Down the descent and along the coast to the next climb the pace was steady. That was until McCann arrived. On the next climb the attacks started and over the top a selection of 7 was made. I made the cut. Just behind Rab (who had got into a good chase group) made contact with the break at almost the instant we went off the front. In hindsight I should have been looking back and with the addition of a team mate thing might have gone different. Lesson learnt. On the run in to the final steep climb many attacks were launched by all parties but it was together at the bottom of the 1k ramp. I got distanced as I'm a tad heavier than the skinny minnies. Rab was in the next group just over a minute back. Taylor and Jack came in to the bottom of the climb with a big group. After talking to people afterwards they were impressed with how Taylor held his position against bigger guys. From what I heard from Scottish cycling stalward Paul Rennie there was a lot of pushing and shoving but Taylor was unfazed and gave as good as he got. Holding his position he finished right at the front of the group. Jack finished in the same group as Taylor. The stage was won by Peter Hawkings of IM Sigma Sport.

Thankfully Sundays stage was a bit flatter with only 2 ascents of the 2nd cat Lough Fee climb along with a few unclassified climbs. The pace was high for the first hour. The Scotland team was working well with someone covering every move. Jack in particular was covering a lot of moves and looked to be going strong. On the first ascent of Lough Fee Hawkins and McCann attacked and the bunch split. Over the top of the climb it regrouped and sensing a lull I attacked to bridge up to a few off the front. The descent was very fast and after catching everyone in front we worked hard to gain a decent advantage. The group was 6 strong with the yellow jersey (James Moss, Node4), Felix English (Rapha) and Bustard (Herbalife). I knew that if this group stayed away I would end the day 3rd overall so committed to pushing our lead out. The second ascent was tough but over the top we were all still together and we had a minutes advantage over the bunch. In the bunch David McCann and Peter Hawkins were driving things along as they were losing time in the gc battle. At the end of the second lap there was an unclassified climb where we managed to drop 2 of our group. At the top with 10k to go it was looking good. One of the 2 that was dropped was Felix English. I had had him down as the one to win the sprint so it was all open now. If he had not been dropped then I planned to attack over the top to shake things up and maybe get back some of the 17 secsonds I trailed Moss by. Since I was now confident for the sprint I stayed put. Coming into the finish I got into a good postion and timed it well to win by a length. 36 seconds back was a fast closing group which had been whittled down by McCann putting everyone in the gutter. Taylor sprinted from this group to finish 15th on the stage.

The final stage was set to be a belter. It was to take in the 2 2nd cat climbs Shanes Hill and Glen Arm as well as the 1st cat Glen Ariff. The stage also started up an unclassified climb which was not to be underestimated. On this initial climb there were loads of attacks. A break got away with the yellow jersey along with his 3 team mates. Rab powered across to this move. The break also contained Peter Hawkings and 2 Herbalife riders. I missed the move as I was feeling a bit rubbish. Over the top of the first climb and down towards Shanes Hill there was a concerted chase on. On Shanes Hill Taylor came up and asked if I wanted him and Jack to chase. I wasn't sure what to do as I wasn't feeling that good and didn't want them wasting there energy only for me to get dropped. I conveyed this to Taylor and he decided to chase anyway. Over Shanes Hill and along the coast Taylor and Jack drove the chase group and held the break at 50seconds. Richard MacDonald of Dooleys Cycles and Eddie Addis of Velo Eccosse also helped with the chase which was awesome as they didnt need to help and could have just looked out for themselves. Big thanks to them. The 2nd cat climb of Glen Arm wasn't as bad as I expected as by this point I started to feel good. Over the top David McCann (who had also missed the move) came up to me and advised we moved to the front as the was going to be some crosswinds. I heard afterwards that he helped jack up the climb with a wee shove. To gain the respect of a man who has won the Tour of Taiwan ( and other international UCI stage races) as well as countless Irish national titles shows how well the Scotland team were riding. Up front the break was being driven by James Moss' Node4 team mates. Rab was sitting in the wheels and causing havoc on the climbs. Coming into the Final climb Jack and Taylor had kept the gap around the minute mark with little help from other teams. The final climb was a long shallow drag going on for 10k. The pace was high up here and the chase group was whittled down to 8 riders with Jack and Taylor paying for their 2hrs spent driving. Over the top we got sight of the break and everyone worked well to pull them back with 10k to go. Rab had been attacking on the climb trying to get away but Node4 were pulling everything back. In the last 10k there were many attacks but with 4k to go it was together and with all the climbs finished I thought I might as well try and go for the overall win. I shot off the front and pulled out a small advantage. The gap was increasing but the road took a small turn to the left and I got a wee breeze on my nose. After 3days and a long chase this was enough for my legs to fill up and I was pulled back. Rab then tried to set things up for a sprint but I was totally goosed and couldnt really contest. Felix English won the sprint comfortably. The rider who was sitting in 2nd overall got dropped on the final climb so I finished in 2nd overall. Rab also finished high up in 12th overall. More importantly we finished 3rd in the Team classification.

Without the help of Scott and Neil none of this would have been possible. They allowed us to get good recovery and e only needed to worry about riding our bikes. I speak for everyone on the team when I say I was proud to wear the Scottish jersey and hope more trips like this are possible.

For full race results click here.