The Lapierre Tour of the Black Country is part of a three event series that organisers, Cycle Classics, have themed around some of professional cycling’s most iconic races: the Tour of Flanders, Paris Roubaix and the Strade Bianchi. I chose the Tour of the Black Country for my first introduction to the series, a 100km sportive with a start and finish from the Aldersley velodrome. That had my attention. A chance to finish a sportive with a sprint on the velodrome. Yes please! Plus it had nineteen sections of cobbles, gravel and dirt track. These were all numbered and counted down towards the finish, just like the real thing!
The parcours was not particularly mountainous; we’re talking the Midlands here and there’s little that goes above 100 metres on the route. However, the organisers had found a couple of short ramps to stretch our legs, including the 600m long, 22% climb of Walton Hill, renamed in honour of its Flemish counterparts as the ‘Waltonberg’! This mighty Midland beast is a huge spike on the elevation chart, slap dab in the middle of the route. It tops out at a dizzying 252 metres. OK so maybe today won’t be one for the Alpine climbers but more on that beast later.
Arriving at the busy Aldersely Stadium, after a four drive – and it’s really busy! Over 700 riders had turned up for today’s event, along with a hockey tournament and various football schools. After ten minutes of slow crawling I managed to find a spot and soon realised that I wouldn’t be needing arm or leg warmers. However I should have brought an extra bottle. One large bottle was not going to be enough today.
Registration was quick and painless, tables had been set out alphabetically and numbers and RFID helmet stickers were handed over. There was also one of those beautiful old corrugated French vans, run by the good folk from Urban Cycles, supplying last minute items and repairs. Despite the number of cars, there didn’t seem to be many riders about and I was wondering where everyone was!
It wasn’t until I walked around the side of the sports centre that I realised quite how big the Lapierre Tour of the Black Country was going to be! A large inflatable arch was holding back a huge crowd of cyclists, stretching all the way back and around the building, today was going to be busy! British Cycling’s sportive rules suggest setting off sportive riders in waves of twenty at two minute intervals. With over 730 riders ready to tackle todays ride, that meant the start marshals were going to have a busy morning and I was in for a bit of a wait.
Riders had been given estimated start times when they registered, to try to cut out some of the waiting. Not sure how well that worked – I wasn’t given a time, I just slotted in at the back and waited – but it seems a good idea. Banter in the queue kept us entertained and revolved around bike/tyre choice, who had ridden on ‘proper’ Belgian cobbles before and the weather! Bike choice was mixed, most riders were on standard road bikes, with 25 or 28mm tyres. There were quite a few cyclo-cross bikes, the odd mtb and a few classic old school steel frames.
Soon enough we reached the start line and after the safety speech were waved on our way. The first miles are through the suburbs around Aldersley and involved the usual dodging of Sunday traffic, but we’re quickly on to country lanes and soon enough on to the off road sectors. These are numbered and count down – in proper Classic’s fashion – from nineteen down to one
The sections vary from broken tarmac, hard pack farm track, cobble, gravel, sand and many combinations of all of them! Rolling out of the first section and I’m already coming across the first of the day’s many puncture victims; thank Schwalbe for my tubeless set up! However, the sky is blue, the temperature is already in the 20s and the wind isn’t too strong. I’m feeling good and am riding with another rider who’s of a similar ability and is keen to do a fast time. We skim around the course, keeping our speed high on the tarmac and driving hard over the rough stuff.
Approaching the entrance to the sectors, you want to be going fast enough to keep your momentum over the rough stuff, but many of them are approached at 90 degrees and have gravel over them, which means you have to slow or risk sliding. It keeps you on the ball and is part of the day’s challenge. The constantly changing road surface means you don’t get bored and have to keep alert at all times.
The worst sections are fine gravel and sand; although these are usually short, they are real energy sappers. I found the best way is to keep the revs and speed high, my bum back to stop the front wheel digging in and not to panic when the rear starts sliding all over the place. Some of the sectors have a slight downhill grade to them and these are great for putting it in the big gear and thrashing away, although some of the bangs and cracks can be quite upsetting for those who love their bikes a little too much!
The mid-point and the climb of the Waltonberg is approaching. We approach through a wooded lane where the bluebells are in full bloom; the combination of blues, greens and dappled sunlight are not completely lost on me and I manage a brief “ain’t this lovely” conversation before we are suddenly on the beast. The beginning isn’t too bad and I tackle it at a good hard pace, only to get halfway up and realise there’s no way I can keep this up all the way! The cobbles are not too bad, although they break up and are mixed with brick the higher I go.
Friends and family of other riders offer words of encouragement as they sit in the warm spring sun, enjoying the views and our suffering. The top comes after what seems a lot longer than 600 metres. Maybe they measure things differently up here? However, it does come and I can turn and take in the view over the Staffordshire countryside, definitely worth the effort.
I’m now properly hot and my bidon is perilously low, thankfully the feed is situated just after the climb and I turn into the garden of the French Hen pub keen to be in and out as quick as possible. Unfortunately, so had everyone else! With the high temperatures – it’s spring in England, we’re not used to hot weather! – everyone was running low on fluids. Taking a look at the queue I knew this was not going to be a quick in and out job. No worries I could pick up something from a local shop. So it was back off again; it was about ten minutes later that I remembered that I had left my money in the car, doh! So with less than a quarter of a bottle and two gels, it was going to be a bit unpleasant, still I only had myself to blame.
With the ride’s “high-point” out of the way and only a rolling 50km to the finish, it was time to get my head down. The sectors came thick and fast now, gravel and cobbles flashing past at a rapid pace. Puncture victims were a regular sight, with the odd broken mech for variety. I managed to get into a group that constantly pushed each other over the course and kept our average high.
With 20km to go the headwind was beginning to get wearing and I had a passenger that wouldn’t come through; how rude! So I thrashed away, plotting his come uppance when we hit the track! The run in to the velodrome is through streets that become more and more residential, with the final sector a gravel back lane into the velodrome and onto the track. I ride high onto the banking and force my limpet to the front. Rolling around the banking I’m reliving Matt Hayman’s victory at Roubaix this year and sprint past my surprised wheel sucker and under the finish arch. Ah, victory is sweet…
But the continental theme doesn’t end there, oh no. In the track centre as I slowly pull myself off the bike, I take in the scene. A crepe stall is doing a brisk trade, while marshals hand out glasses of champagne to weary finishers – don’t mind if I do, merci! Event sponsors Lapierre have a marquee set up with some very attractive looking Gallic carbon, and food and drink is available. Spectators in the stands are applauding their returning heroes and riders stand around, all looking pleased with themselves.
And why not? Today has been a tough ride, not the longest or the hilliest by any means. But a good ride doesn’t have to be counted in metres climbed or kilometres covered, with an excess of either being the mark of a true tough event. Todays’ Lapierre Tour of the Black Country was only 100k and the climbs, with a couple of exceptions hardly worth the mention. No, today was all about the surface: what kind was it, could you keep your direction and speed while riding it, would you suffer punctures, mechanicals or crashes? All were possible and to get through un-scathed felt great.
I’d fussed over tyres, tubeless, wheels and techniques, all to make sure I got as much out of my day as I could, so what did I go with? Well I had briefly considered riding my Handsling CXC; many riders chose a ‘cross bike and with clearance for fatter tyres not an issue, it would have made a great choice. However, today was all about a bit of theatre, a suspension of belief while we paid homage to the cycling greats and the Classics that made them. So it only seemed right that I should ride my Handsling RR1 road bike. Fast, light and stiff, but would it be able to handle the cobbles of the Lapierre Tour of the Black Country?
I had ridden the Echappe, which is a similar kind of ride down south on a similarly unseasonably fine spring day, and had gotten away with using Clement’s LGG tyres. Today however I had a trick up my sleeve in the form of a pair of Schwalbe S-One tubeless tyres. These are part of the One range and are designed with just this kind of ride in mind. These were mated to a pair of Sixth Element Cross wheels that I am reviewing at the moment and with a bit of bodging to get the front tyre to fit (don’t ask), handled the whole route without a hiccup.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Lapierre Tour of the Black Country. It was a great change from your usual road sportive and the fantastic weather added to the day. My only complaints are minor; there were a couple of sections at the beginning and end that were a bit busy, but that’s always going to be a problem with British sportives, unless you pay for closed roads. And I wish I hadn’t taken only one bottle, but I can hardly blame the organisers for that!
Next up in the Cycle Classic Lapierre series is the Lapierre Cheshire Cobbled Classic. This looks to be an even tougher ride with twelve sectors, five of which are 20% climbs. Of those five climbs one is a the frightening 45% climb called the Corkscrew, which is claimed to be the steepest in the country! The Cobbled Classic will have more of a Belgian theme and riders can look forward to waffles and Leffe at the finish. The Cobbled Classic take place of the 29th May and is followed by the Lapierre White Roads Classic on the 3rd July.
The Lapierre White Roads Classic is a 135 kilometre sportive which has 35 kilometres of white chalk and gravel roads and is modelled on the Strade Bianchi that takes place around the hills of Tuscany. I’ll be riding this one as a warm up to the CX Century the following weekend and am looking forward to trying the Prosecco at journey’s end, ciao!
All photos, with exception of the last, were taken by Henry Iddon.
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