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London Nocturne: Bright lights, big city

Joseph Delves
7 Dec 2018

In pictures: The thrill of criterium racing in the heart of London's Square Mile

This feature was first published in Issue 77 of Cyclist magazine

Photography: Matt Ben Stone

For spectators standing at the kerbside, a road race is gone in an instant. A criterium, on the other hand, might circle the same short course 20 times, creating a compact and satisfying spectacle for those watching.

You can stake out a spot on the barriers and watch everything unfold, from rollout to final sprint, in the time it takes to sink a pint.

In London, the criterium format was popularised by the Nocturne, which began in the beer and blood-spattered environs of Smithfield Meat Market in 2007.

It was the brainchild of Grant Young, owner of the famous Condor Racing shop on Gray’s Inn Road.

‘It’s something Rapha’s Simon Mottram and I thought up,’ he says. ‘We wanted to put on a party-spirited race in the centre of London.

‘It took two years to get off the ground because every time we went to the police or the city corporations, it was, “No, we definitely won’t allow it.”

‘They were dead against it and we had to fight and fight. Eventually they let us do it. The first night it poured down but the crowds came out and we’ve been going ever since.’

Over the years the race has attracted riders such as Mark Cavendish, Laura Trott, Matthew Goss, Alex Dowsett, Geraint Thomas and Sarah Storey.

As well as attracting big names, there’s a whole programme of entertainment around the core event, including the comically furious folding bike race, a penny farthing race and TfL rental bike race, alongside amateur and elite competitions.

The event has grown so much that in 2016, after pressure from the police because of increasing spectator numbers, the race had to relocate down the road to Cheapside, in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral.

It’s here that Cyclist has come to view the 2018 edition on a warm night in June.

Get the party started

After the novelty of the early events and open criterium, the racing really heats up with the men’s and women’s fixed gear races.

A long-term fixture at Nocturne, riders hurtle around the tight circuit inches from the barriers, and it’s a highly competitive affair made all the more impressive given the lack of brakes.

Immediately after the opening women’s race, we hot-foot it to the pits where we find privateer racer Niki Kovács spinning on her rollers aboard a slightly battered looking bike.

She’s just finished towards the front of the fixie race, yet she is also slated to ride the Elite Criterium, which starts in less than an hour.

Not only does this make her super-tough, it also marks her out as the perfect person to explain the differences between the disciplines.

‘The fixed event is not quite a track race and not quite a criterium race,’ she tells us.

‘It falls somewhere in between. I used to do courier races and it’s closer to those. The tactics are more aggressive.

‘You have to fight more for your corners and it’s harder to stay up. You don’t have brakes so you have to take the turns differently. If someone changes lines there’s less you can do about it.’

While the lack of callipers adds difficulty for the fixie riders, so the Elite racers have to contend with fading light.

By the time Kovács is heading out for her second race it’s starting to get dark.

Cyclist takes up position at one of the more technical corners to watch the race. Emerging early from the chaos to ride off the front and out of sight in the gloom is Louise Heywood-Mahé of Les Filles.

She goes on to take the win after almost an hour of knockabout action.

‘I just made it up as I went along,’ a still dazed-looking Heywood-Mahé tells us as soon as the race is finished.

‘I saw an opportunity to attack. When it worked I thought, “Oh wow, this is a bit early.” I expected to get caught but I didn’t so I kept ploughing on.

‘I don’t use a computer so I had no idea how long I had left. It wasn’t until I saw the three-to-go lapboard that I thought I might have done it.’

Perhaps looking to emulate her, Robert Scott of Team Wiggins also hares off early in the men’s race.

In no time he is several turns ahead, and Team JLT-Condor take up the chase in an attempt to drag their man, Olympic medallist and track champion Ed Clancy, to the final sprint.

Coming back together with a couple of laps to go it looks as if the show is running to a script written by the London-based team, with only Tom Pidcock’s dash for the line threatening to deny them.

‘In criteriums, there’s never really a plan before the race. It’s a case of get yourself to the front and good luck boys,’ Pidcock explains after crossing the line in second place.

‘Perhaps we didn’t get the tactics quite right tonight.’

In the end it was Clancy who built on his team’s efforts by winning the final sprint. ‘With our four riders chasing and me sat on, it should have been straightforward, but in reality you get crashes and riders bunching up.

‘This is the third year I’ve ridden the new course. The first two years I struggled, but today I came good,’ Clancy says.

‘It’s a unique race,’ he adds. ‘The darkness adds another level of difficulty, making it hard to tell where people are on the course.

‘Once Rob had gone he was out of sight so quickly. I had to look for the taillights on the camera motorbike to see where he was.

‘It can be stressful trying to see where you’re going and you feel as if you’re going about three times as fast as you actually are. It all adds to the atmosphere and feeling of speed.’

Difficult to race, then, but great to watch for the fans.

As we wait for the podium presentation, we spot Heywood-Mahé slipping a gin and tonic into her water bottle before stepping up to be interviewed by the TV cameras.

It seems as good an example as any of the Nocturne’s combination of serious racing and relaxed atmosphere.

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