Saturday, 9 June 2012

London Nocturne - Rapha Women's Criterium

Intro - Parcours - Hazards - Favourites - Weather - Spectating - TV

Smithfield Market (in the foreground, East Poultry Lane) -
the riders will race for 30' + three laps around it
Today is the 9th of June - and that means tonight is the night of the unique, spectacular and enormously popular IG Markets London Nocturne in which the best riders Britain has to offer go head-to-head with the best of the rest of the world (Elite Women start list here).

The women's race almost didn't happen this year after British Cycling approached organisers and asked for it to be dropped. Their reasoning was that the riders might favour the Nocturne over another race taking place the next day (one organised by British Cycling, funnily enough). Team Mule Bar Girl were first on the case, drumming up support for the race with their Facebook page:
"So British Cycling have asked Smithfield Nocturne NOT to hold a women's race because it makes the girls tired for a big BC race the next day. The last I checked we weren't living in North Korea and we are allowed to choose how we spend our time. The Nocturne Women's race is one of the most talked about on the calendar, it's the one we get bubbly with excitment for. It took a big effort and some beautiful support for it to happen in the first place, just to have it taken away, it totally sucks!!!"
Stefan Wyman , as owner and manager of one of Britain's best-known women's teams Matrix-Prendas and perhaps the foremost advocate of women's cycling in the country, also felt that the riders should have the choice to enter whichever race they preferred. He also revealed that British Cycling had made their request without first asking the riders for their opinions, and highlighted the fact that as the Nocturne is televised and attracts a huge crowd it's a more important event as far as women's cycling is concerned:
"The Smithfield nocturne was a stand out event in 2011.  Professional promotion, closed circuit, exciting commentary and a huge crowd, made for a thrilling evening race.  This was all topped off with television coverage making this event exactly what I feel women’s cycling in the UK needs." (Wyman was kind enough to pen a statement on the matter, which can be read here)
Then the fans got involved, emailing and writing to the Nocturne organisers in huge numbers asking them to go ahead with the race as well as letting British Cycling know what they thought of their request. It didn't take long for the Nocturne to announce that, provided sufficient riders signed up to take part, they'd reinstate the race - and it happened, living proof that team officials, race organisers, riders and fans can all help promote women's cycling and do something towards getting it the recognition, coverage and respect it and the riders deserve. Congratulations are due also to Rapha for giving the race financial backing.

The Parcours
The parcours (click the image to enlarge)
The races takes the simple, familiar criterium format that is so ideally suited to TV on a 1.05km circuit around Smithfield Market with the women racing for 30 minutes plus three laps from 20:45 (race programme here). They begin on Long Lane (51°31'7.61"N 0°6'5.29"W) at the Rotunda Garden, now a tranquil place among the insane London traffic but for centuries the site of public executions, then head south-west and follow the curve of the road as it leads for 237m to a tight right corner after onto Snowhill before an even tighter right 80m and mere moments later back onto Long Lane. After passing the Poultry Market on the left, they turn 90 degrees left into East Poultry Lane and under an 81m covered section (signs at both ends say "DEAD SLOW," but the riders won't be paying much attention to those) and then right again onto Charterhouse Street for a straight and almost flat 210m blast along the northern side of the Meat Market. Another 90 degree right turn takes them onto Lindsey Street, then 90m later they arrive at the last right turn back onto Long Lane to pass by the VIP area and pass the finish line to begin a new lap. To add to the fun, the race features the IG Speed of Execution Challenge a an alternative to intermediate sprints - timing chips fitted to each bike will measure the speed at which they cross the line after each lap, the fastest riders winning £500. For many of the riders, especially in the women's race, that's a lot of money: expect it to be hotly contested (it's also an excellent idea aimed at making the race more thrilling to those spectators who are watching the race simply because they happen to be in the area but don't follow the sport - exactly what cycling needs to gain new fans).

Profile - click to enlarge
Hannah Barnes
This being one of the world's busiest cities, there is street furniture aplenty all along the parcours - it'll all be covered in thick padding, of course, but it still hurts if a rider hits it. One obviously hazardous point, especially on the first and last laps when a large number of riders are altogether and traveling at speed, is the intersection between Snowhill and Long Lane where riders are squeezed into a narrow section bending to the right: a place where it will be very easy to collide with the crowd barriers. An added danger, and one far harder to predict than street furniture, is diesel spills left by the hundreds of trucks that make deliveries to and pick up from the Meat Market - this is especially likely to be the case along Lindsey Street where riders will pass through the loading bays right after the corner (Edit 10.06.12 - there was in fact a crash at precisely this point during the men's race!). If the roads are wet, diesel can be lethal. There are more loading bays all along Long Lane, making the Lindsey Street/Long Lane corner (by the brasserie) another potential dangerpoint. There's also a tricky bottleneck section just before arrival back at the Rotunda Garden where the footpath juts right out into the road, reducing the width of the road from 10m to 4m - if all the riders try to get through at the same time, there'll be problems.

Helen Wyman - Les Déesses choice for
Likely winners? Hard to say in a race like this, when there are so many variables and such a strong field. Helen Wyman (Kona Factory Racing) and Sarah Storey (Escentual for VioRed) both compete at the top levels of cycling and are obvious choices. Stef Wyman's Matrix-Prendas riders are all on first-rate form at present, as we've seen with their stunning performances in the Johnson HealthTech GP series. Then there's Ibis Cycles' Hannah Barnes (current British Criterium Champion) and Eileen Roe (who won the criterium in Colchester on Thursday), also lighting up similar races on the Johnson GP in recent weeks, and Node4-Giordana's Sarah King, Corinne Hall and Harriet Owen, and all the riders from the lesser-known clubs for whom victory in this race could lead to a step up to the next level. If I had to pick one, it would be Helen - her extensive experience of the short, intense cyclo cross courses in Belgium and the Netherlands combined with her famously fast starts and powerful sprints are likely to be very useful on this parcours, which in many ways resembles an asphalted 'cross course.

The only thing that's certain, however, is this is going to be one of the most hotly-contested races Britain has seen for some time.

Well, how about that? After nearly a week of rain and with another week of rain expected to start tomorrow, it looks as though Saturday is going to be dry and even quite warm at 20C - which will come as good news to the participants of the London Naked Bike Ride also taking place today. It'll be a little cooler this evening when the race kicks off, but since large cities remain a few degrees warmer than surrounding countryside and the buildings provide shelter from the wind around 16C can be expected during the women's race.

All points along the parcours are easily accessible and the event is free to watch. Obvious vantage points are the start line (especially due to the Speed of Execution Challenge), though large crowds will gather here (51°31'7.61"N 0° 6'5.11"W); the Snowhill/Long Lane corner (51°31'3.87"N 0° 6'16.84"W); the exit of East Poultry Lane (especially if the cafe over the road is open, 51°31'9.59"N 0° 6'10.61"W) and the Charterhouse Road/Lindsey Street corner (51°31'12.48"N 0° 6'0.86"W).

Channel 4 will be showing highlights of all the races - including the penny-farthing race and the longest fixie skid contest - in a 55-minute programme to be broadcast at 07:10 on Sunday the 17th, the first time they've covered cycling since they gave up the right to broadcast Tour de France coverage eleven years ago. Channel 4 is available via online streams around the world and the programme will be made available on their 4OD catch-up service.

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