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Preview: Virgin Money Cyclone

Preview: Virgin Money Cyclone

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Event: 28 June to 1 July 2012
Location: Newcastle Upon Tyne
Interview: Eddie Allen


A cycling festival that appeals to everyone from young families to hard core road riders, with opportunities to watch top class racing and take part – few sportive weekends can offer what the Virgin Money Cyclone offers. We spoke to Peter Harrison, the man behind an event which has seen participant numbers grow from one-thousand in 2006 to four-thousand in 2011.

“I often don’t like to use the word sportive – it’s a bit of an elitist term – it does put a lot of people off because they think it’s something for really serious cyclists,” said Peter, hinting at his goal of offering an event for all comers. “I prefer the term ‘challenge rides’ to try and bring in the general public. It’s like calling the Great North Run a half marathon – it can be quite intimidating.”

Back in 2006 Peter, a lifelong member of the Gosforth Road Club and long time organiser of the Beaumont Trophy, was approached by Newcastle City Council with the idea of bringing fast and frenetic criterium racing to Tyneside. The idea quickly took root and a plan soon emerged to stage a long weekend of racing, with crit racing in Leazes Park on Friday, challenge rides on Saturday and the Beaumont Trophy road race on Sunday.

“I’d always wanted to find a way to involve the public in the way that things like the Great North Run do,” said Peter who then sought the necessary financial backing to make it happen. “I put a proposal to the deputy director of Northern Rock who were doing some sports stuff at the time and they liked the idea and said yes.”

The (Northern Rock) Cyclone was born and attracted 1000 riders on the Saturday across the three ride distances of approximately 30, 60 and 100 miles, all routes exploiting the pitch-perfect cycling territory of Tyne and Wear and Northumberland. The three-route template is something that Harrison pioneered with the Cyclone, a formula which has now been widely adopted in the sportive scene.

Peter’s years of experience of racing and training in the locale paid off when it came to route design; “I know the roads of Northumberland so I came up with the routes so you could step up from the 33 to the 66 to the magic 100 mile mark for those who wanted a really tough ride.”

In particular the 104 mile option offers serious road riders a real challenge. Whilst it falls short of the elevation figures of the Fred Whitton, the nature of the environment brings challenges of its own. The route, in common with the 66 miler, features the three famous ramps of the Ryals but further challenges lie to the north: “On the 104 mile route, Ryals is something, believe it or not, that you don’t even think about because there’s a lot harder and more significant stuff up at the top around Kielder Forest on the North Pennines,” said Peter. “The route actually goes over the Pennine Way and it’s very exposed - it’s the exposure and the fact that there’s often a North Westerly wind that can make it a tough day out.”

At the other end of the ‘challenge’ spectrum and for the first time in 2012, the Cyclone, now the Virgin Money Cyclone since Northern Rock’s acquisition by Virgin Money earlier in 2012, will feature family oriented rides exploiting the traffic free paths along the Tyne. “We’re catering for riders of all abilities on the Thursday and on the Saturday,” explained Peter. “The idea that people doing the event on the Saturday may well want to do the Thursday event with their families. So on the Thursday, there’s two routes of 14 ½ miles and 9 ½ miles along the banks of the Tyne. It’s for people with young families or for people who think 30 miles is too far – 14 miles might be a challenge for them.”

It’s not just the participation element that has grown for 2012 – the racing has expanded to include the women’s Curlew Cup on the Sunday, sponsored by Northumberland National Park, whose avian emblem has been adopted as the race’s motif.

The ability to cater for everyone from young families and first timers through to harden roadies, with the thrill of watching top class road racing is one of the reasons why the event entry has increased fourfold in just six years, with over 4000 anticipated for the 2012 edition. With such large numbers involved, top class organisation, rider support and above all safety, are paramount.

“The bar has been raised in terms of organisation,” said Peter. “There’s the four feedstations, medical backup with paramedics travelling around and four ambulance stations – one at each of the four feedstations. I’ve got 14 NEG (National Escort Group) riders, seven service vehicles (four from Shimano) and electronic timing.”

Electronic timing transponders are about much more registering a riders time, as Peter explains, and in so doing highlighting his team’s rigorous approach to rider support; “The timing chip is not just to see how fast you’ve gone – it’s so that we know that everyone who leaves is logged out and also that they’re logged back in. I don’t leave on the Saturday night until I know where every person is. It’s something that my event safety officer is very insistent on.

“It’s little things like that that show people that they’re being looked after.”

The Virgin Money Cyclone takes place from Thursday 28 June to Sunday 1 July, with the 33, 66 and 104 mile challenge rides taking place on Saturday 30 July. For more information and to enter, go to www.virginmoneycyclone.co.uk