Tour Series Wembley
With Nuun-Sigma Sports-London
On a dreary, late May afternoon in North London, the sound of a thunderstorm rolls off into the distance, leaving the concourse around Wembley Stadium sopping wet. The Ovo Energy Tour Series has come to town for round seven in what promises to be a fast and furious criterium race, and the weather is playing its part.
In response to the conditions, race organisers have shortened the course to skip a large section of standing water. Following the heroics displayed during the women’s race, with several riders hitting the deck and chasing back on, the men must be relieved to see the course beginning to dry out a little.
We join local guest team Nuun-Sigma Sports-London in the pits as they get ready to raise their game and compete with the best domestic professional riders at this unique event.
The Warm Up
Just hours ago, rider Richard Mardle was sat in work writing emails. In fact, all the members of team Nuun-Sigma Sports-London have day jobs, and ride their bikes purely for the love of racing. Make no mistake, these are top amateurs, but they’re about to line up against the very best domestic professionals in the country.
Richard is now sat on his turbo trainer, warming up with a smile on his face - he really doesn’t seem phased by the prospect. “I always like the top end of anything. This is an area you can excel in or survive in, and I like a punishment so we’ll see how it goes.”
“There’s a lot of grip here, some people are quite apprehensive in the wet, but so long as you have your tyre pressure right, know where the limits are, then you risk a little bit, you should be alright. I think it’s just having the confidence to take speed into the corner, that’s the biggest thing.”
A surprisingly relaxed figure, Richard even joked that the only precaution he’s taking in the wet conditions is the wearing of black socks.
Team manager Cameron Fraser buzzes around the pits, lining up five spare Cannondale Supersix Evos, one for each rider, as it’s quicker to change bikes than swap wheels. He hands out nutrition and bottles to the team, who are all whirring away on rollers by now.
“Dehydration causes muscle fatigue, so things like Nuun tabs help keep you hydrated. These help get your body ready for this all-out effort. It’s beyond being in the red, it’s in the purple, the black, there is nothing more painful than this sort of racing, but there is nothing more exciting.”
“There’s always a few nerves. There’s no getting away from the fact that we’re going to get a kicking from some of the best riders in the UK if not in Europe; multi-gold Olympic champion Ed Clancy for example, so it’s just about doing the best you can do. It’s a showpiece event. A chance for us to turn up and show everyone that we can compete, to show off our sponsors too.”
Start Line Nerves
As a regional guest team, Nuun-Sigma Sports-London were gridded from the back, with the professional teams starting on the front. The race will be one hour long plus five laps, taking place on an extremely technical circuit of a kilometre in length, with lots of tight corners and a surface laden with standing water, grease and sand.
At the start line, rider Lee Smith was relishing the opportunity to line up with the pros: “Ah yeah, it’s cracking. So good to get invited to get to ride these events with such good riders, so I’m looking forward to it. I’m a little bit nervous, but it’s the same for everybody else so, just give it a good shot really. Just gotta go as hard as you can at the start, try and get in with a group and do your best to stay there. All you can do is sit in and survive, really.”
Having reduced the tyre pressure of his tubeless Mavic UST set up to 75psi on the front and 80psi on the back, Lee was confident of staying upright. “The circuit is twisty-and-turny but now that the rain has eased, you can go pretty full-gas around the corners. There’s just that one bottom corner which is really tight.”
And They're Off...
As the clock struck 7pm, the flag dropped and a sea of riders flooded the narrow streets of Wembley Park. The race was instantly fragmented due to the nature of the course, with tight corners stretching the field out. From the pits, Cameron Fraser shouted encouragement to his team, who whizzed past every 90 seconds or so.
“Just a few laps in, we’ve got James, Rich and Anthony in the front group, and then Dylan just off the back of that chasing on. I think the course favours us because of the tight nature, there’s a lot of accelerating and braking. Whereas on the more open circuits, the class of the pro riders comes in, where it’s a bit more open a bit more draggy, and that’s where their power can make a difference.”
Around twenty laps in, Lee Smith flies into the pit. He’s off his bike and back on his spare mount in an instant, chasing back on. The speed bumps on the course had caused his seatpost to slip; an insight into the rigours of crit racing on city streets.
Cameron is looking pleased with his team’s performance so far. “We’re now nearly halfway in and it’s all split to bits, as expected. It’s now very much about the guys trying to hold their own in the groups they’re in. Best places at the moment are Rich (Mardle) and James (Moss) who are in group two, about 30 seconds down.”
To make the race finish an easy watch for the spectators, lapped riders are asked to leave the circuit with three laps to go. With two minutes of regulation time left, Richard and James were finally lapped by the leaders; an incredible achievement considering the pedigree of the riders involved.
“Now it’s about riding the quickest couple of finishing laps trying to get some final seconds back, it could come down to hundredths of a second (for ranked positions) so they need to race all the way to the line.”
With the final-lap bell ringing out, the Nuun-Sigma Sports-London riders pulled into the pits and began warming down. The race was won by Tom Pidcock of Team Wiggins, the under-23 national champion pipping Connor Swift of Madison Genesis to the line.
Lee Smith found the race tough but enjoyable: “When you lose a wheel, that’s it, game over. Literally full gas, rest, full gas. I enjoyed it.” He was in good form having more than held his own over the hour of racing, joking that he would lose weight when asked if he were to do anything differently. “Maybe do it as a fulltime job? I was at work all day, from 7 o'clock this morning, after racing in Stevenage last night. Finished work at 2.30pm then came here.”
Richard and James managed to stay with their group for the whole race, finishing around the middle of the field of 55 riders. Richard:
“You know when you really hate something, you love it? My captive, I hate it, but I love it at the same time. It was good, crowds cheer you on, gives you a bit of encouragement just when you're thinking this is hurting a little too much. Back to work tomorrow and then after that, Salisbury, so eh, that’ll be fun.”
The team’s youngest rider on the night was Dylan Thomas, fresh from his Tour Series debut at Stevenage the previous night. “It was all going alright and then I binned it on one of the hairpins. Not really sure what happened; I wasn’t on the brakes. But that was sort of my race over, lost the groups, they were gone.”
Clearly enjoying the opportunity, Dylan booked the week off work to make the most of his participation in the Tour Series. “I have got the day off tomorrow, do an easy spin to get the legs recovered. Maybe a cafe stop... or two.”
Interestingly, the gulf between the professional and amateur teams was more evident when the racing had ended. While Cameron and his staff packed up their team van, the pros made a swift escape from the pits, headed to their team bus for a rub down.
“They’ll have hotels booked locally so it’s straight to dinner and tomorrow will be a lazy morning, maybe get up, go for a spin. For us, we’re frantically packing up, then it’s home, shower, dinner, bed; then up in the morning around 6.30 to go to work all day, then a little bit of life admin, see the family, put the washing on. Then we’re racing again on Thursday at Salisbury. Looking forward to it again, but it’s going to be difficult to recover being at work, but we’re well used to it. That’s what we train for and what we’ve peaked for and hopefully rest for.”
Having spent stage seven of the Tour Series with the team, it was clear Nuun-Sigma Sports-London took their racing seriously, evidenced by their fantastic performance on the night. The gulf between top amateurs and the country’s best domestic pro racers is perhaps not as big as you might expect, which could be inspirational to some of you reading this now.