Thursday 30 January 2014

Stafford GP 2014

14.08.2013 Official Site
Stafford, England
45 minutes + 3 laps criterium
Women's National Series
52°48'21.89"N  2° 7'0.83"W
Entries open at the end of February

Ancient High House, just metres from the start line on
Greengate Street. Note the large incidence of street furniture.
(image: Mick Malpass CC BY-SA 2.0)
Like all criteriums, the Stafford GP takes place on a short, urban parcours, but it squeezes a lot into its 1.1km to become a tough and technical race with numerous very tight corners, hidden kerbstones, slippery drain covers, plenty of street furniture and an assortment of narrow sections. In addition to that, most of the rest of the parcours encourages high average speed high speeds - it gains just 9.5m on each lap - and the likelihood that since this is the final race in the series the leaders will be fighting hard for any points they can take. However, it's not all flat; the Greengate Street section running north right after South Walls features a climb that, while short, hits a gradient of 5.6% over the latter half. That would be nothing in a stage race, when it would be climbed once by riders used to much steeper ascents, but in a criterium it'll be climbed many times and the cumulative effect becomes considerable. All those factors combine to make this race a real challenge and an impressive showcase for the riders' skills.

The race follows the usual criterium pattern with the riders racing for 45 minutes rather than over a set distance. Bonus primes will be awarded to the fastest rider on various pre-selected laps throughout the race. At the end of the 45 minutes, they will complete three additional laps before coming to the finish.

This is the third edition of the modern race, which was first held in 2010, but the history of criterium racing in Stafford dates back to the 1980s when, for a while, cycling seemed to be on the brink of becoming very popular in Britain - editions were held in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1987 and drew enormous crowds. Then, for some reason, cycling's popularity began to wane once again and, just as the Tour of Britain would a decade later, the Stafford race vanished, apparently forever. Yet, years later, cycling began to find new British fans once more, and not least of all because of the enormous success of British female cyclists on the track and on the road - the Tour was revived in 2004 and has gone from strength to strength, and inspired by its success LeadoutCycling was formed to bring back the Stafford Town Centre races in 2010. For the first time in 2012, a women's race was added - further indication that the health of women's cycling is also improving.

The Parcours

View Stafford GP in a larger map

Guide to map symbols
The race begins on a pedestrianised section of Greengate Street outside the Swan Hotel, then heads south for 83m - this section is just downhill enough to permit very fast starts, making the already tricky first corner as the riders turn right into Mill Street even more technical than it would otherwise have been. Also an issue here is the large amount of street furniture including lamp posts, signs and bollards; immediately after the turn, the route runs through a narrow 20m section between buildings. Rough and tumble is a definite during the first lap and whenever the riders approach this corner en masse, and even a rider who breaks away and rounds it on her own will need to put all her bike-handling skills to good use to avoid trouble. There is a second pinch point by a clock atop a post 70m from the corner, then the circuit follows a left-hand bend to travel south on Water Street - with plenty of room along both sides of the road, this is a good point from which to watch the race.

Water Street is 70m in length, is narrow and ends with a left turn at a mini roundabout, which requires care in wet conditions since the combination of smooth white paint and residue of tyre rubber left by cars results in a very slippery surface; however, there is plenty of space and most riders will be able to avoid it without issue. Immediately round the corner on Mill Bank is a great deal more white paint road markings, which can also be slippery, followed by a traffic-calming hump. 150m after the turn is a second hump, followed by another mini roundabout - riders continue straight on at this one, making it less of a hazard, joining South Walls. 52m beyond the roundabout, a traffic island creates another pinch point and the riders turn a sharp left; the turn is on brick rather than asphalt and can be slippery in wet weather. The next road, 75m long, is Greengate Street; it's only 50m from the Greengate Street that hosts the start line but is not connected to it. It's also the location of that 5.5% climb which, though the total elevation gain is only 3m, will add up over the course of 45 minutes plus three laps and have proven decisive in previous editions of the race. On the left at the end is a small and roughly-surfaced area that looks to be a good place to get punctures, and a drain cover just to the right of the centre immediately before the right turn onto Tipping Street at the end of the road may become slippery. There are more drain covers just beyond the apex of the turn.

The road appears to widen shortly after the turn onto Tipping Street, but this is due to a small parking area - there's another pinch point 40m from the turn. Upon entering the left-hand bend towards the end of Tipping Street, riders on the right should be cautious of a thin line of cobbles along the entrance to the car park behind the police station. 25m later, riders turn left onto the wider Eastgate Street at the Shrewsbury Arms pub; the turn itself is not technical, but leads straight to another traffic-calming hump. The following section is 51m in length at gains 2m in height, thus creating an average gradient of 4% - like Greengate Street, it'll have an effect on the final outcome after being climbed so many times.

The next left takes the race onto Martin Street; care needs to be taken going into the turn due to a drain cover in the middle of the road and coming out of it due to a change in road surface (to brick, marking the beginning of a pedestrianised section, which can be more slippery than asphalt) and due to the restricted space. 108m ahead is a tight right turn; 30m later a slightly wider left, then 42m after that another left just past the trees on the market square. This final turn leads back onto Greengate Street and begins to descend; 102m later, having passed by Ancient High House on the right (which, despite having been built more than four centuries ago in 1594, remains the largest timber-framed house anywhere in Britain), the riders arrive back at the start line to begin a new lap.

Getting There
Stafford lies near to the centre of England, making it entirely possible for cyclists from several areas - including London (250km), Birmingham (51km), Manchester (134km), Liverpool(113km), Nottingham (84km) - within a day or two by bike. This is, of course, by far the best way to arrive, because doing so will immediately mark you out as a cyclist; since the GP is part of the Stafford Festival of Cycling, you'll be sure of a warm welcome.

The M6 passes just to west and makes it very easy to get to the Festival from the north or south; there are also good A-road links from the west (A449, A5013) and the east (A513, A518). Stafford's railway station lies less than third of a kilometre from the parcours and has direct links to all the Midlands cities and to London. The nearest airports are Birmingham and East Midlands.

Staying There
There are several hotels in Stafford itself, but rooms may be booked up in advance due to the popularity of the Festival. The obvious choice, since the race starts right outside and because its owned by race sponsors the Lewis Partnership, is the Swan - this 18th Century former coaching inn has 31 bedrooms. For those who want to push the boat out, Weston Hall is an Elizabethan mansion dating back to 1550. At the more affordable end of the market, the Travelodge at Spitfire Close is 3.1km from the parcours. More details on local hotels here. Dunston Heath Farm is the nearest campsite.

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