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Around the Worlds: Exploring the routes of the Yorkshire 2019 World Championships

In-depth
16 Sep 2019
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Cyclist gets a closer look at the terrain that will decide this year’s UCI Road World Championships. 
This article is in the current issue of Cyclist magazine, on sale now

Words Jack Elton-Waters Photography Alex Wright

The crowds cheering the peloton at the 2014 Tour de France were some of the biggest and most enthusiastic the race had ever seen. But it wasn’t the roads of the Alps or Pyrenees that the fans were massed along. It was the moors and lanes of Yorkshire.

Five years ago, during what Tour chief Christian Prudhomme proclaimed as ‘the grandest Grand Départ’, Yorkshire showed the world of cycling how to host its biggest event.

Since then the Tour de Yorkshire men’s and women’s races have built on that success, establishing themselves at the top of the UK’s racing calendar – to the extent that this year the men’s Tour de Yorkshire was given elite 2.HC status for the first time. There has also been talk of the 2021 Vuelta a Espana starting here too.

More immediately, though, Yorkshire will host this year’s UCI Road World Championships, which run for a week from this Sunday 22nd September. It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing getting here thanks to the controversy around and ongoing investigations into former Welcome to Yorkshire boss Sir Gary Verity.

Yet the county’s reputation as a top cycling destination remains unmatched in the UK, making it the ideal venue for the first Worlds to be held in this country since 1982.

‘Where else would you rather be?’ says my riding companion for today, Andy Hindley – and not for the first time – as stunning view after stunning view unfolds before us as we ride.

Andy is originally from neighbouring Lancashire (although he lives in Hampshire these days), so he knows what he’s talking about. He’s also the head of Yorkshire 2019, the organisation charged with making sure the Worlds run smoothly.

Andy is my guide for a route that will take in the highlights of the Worlds’ courses, and he clearly sees Yorkshire as almost unrivalled for its beauty – and brutality, which I’m discovering as we puff to the top of yet another hill.

No amount of effort can spoil his jovial mood, however, as he is plainly enjoying the rare chance to forget about the logistics of hosting a major sporting  event and just enjoy a day in the saddle.

Shooting the breeze

Despite sunny skies, a strong wind has knocked a few degrees off the ambient temperature and we’re glad of the extra layers we started the day in.

The main A59 Skipton Road takes us clear of Harrogate and the local circuit that will feature at the end of four of the five road races, and turning out of the stiff headwind and away from the weekday morning traffic is very welcome as we head north towards Glasshouses and Pateley Bridge.

Our route combines parts of several of the Worlds courses, and will see us covering around 100km, starting and finishing in Harrogate.

I decide to cover the sensitive subject of the Gary Verity situation early on, but Andy brushes it aside just as quickly. ‘He was on the board, now he’s not,’ he tells me, and there we leave it.

His brevity is explained by the clear division between the annual Tour de Yorkshire and the once-in-a-generation visit of the World Championships.

Although both are promoted and assisted by Welcome to Yorkshire, which necessitates some crossover between them, there’s still a clear division between the organising committees for the respective events. It means that preparation for the Worlds has been largely unaffected by the media spotlight that has fallen on Verity in recent months.

The market town of Pateley Bridge leads to the imposing Greenhow Hill, a climb I’ve ridden before on the Tour de Yorkshire sportive and during a preview ride ahead of the launch of the official World Championships sportive, so I’m relieved when we leave the town by a different road. But my relief is short-lived, because it turns out Greenhow may actually be the ‘easy’ way out of the area.

What awaits instead is Lofthouse, a punishing 4.5km climb with pitches at over 20%. A glance at Strava shows a 6% average gradient for the whole segment, but that is deceptively benign thanks to a short descent that follows the initial slopes.

From there, the climb proper kicks in and gains altitude relentlessly all the way to the summit. The only consolation is that Lofthouse is the biggest climbing test we’ll encounter all day.

We make our way up wishing for an extra sprocket, and the steepest parts of the climb require a bit of zig-zagging just to keep the wheels turning. Fortunately there are no marauding motorists coming the other way.

Hotbed of cycling

Cycling events in Yorkshire have introduced the wider world to a wonderful place to ride a bike, but for many this is something they already knew.

The number of pros who have emerged from this part of the country speaks volumes for its credentials as a proving ground to prepare riders for the rigours of racing on the Continent.

Currently at the top of that list of riders is 20-year-old Tom Pidcock, who has proved to be a sensation both in cyclocross and on the road.

Despite a recent crash, he should go in to his home World Championships as favourite for the U23 time-trial and road race, an opportunity he describes as ‘once in a lifetime’.

‘I’m sure it’s going to be one of the best, if not the best, Worlds of my career, including everything I do in the future,’ Pidcock said when asked about the prospect of riding the Yorkshire Worlds a few months ago.

Pidcock’s main rivals at the Worlds will likely be the Belgians. Flemish riders excel in the Classics thanks to the amount of time they spend fighting the wind and punching up short, steep climbs in conditions very similar to those encountered in Yorkshire. As I am discovering.

The views from Lofthouse’s summit are impressive, showing off the rolling hills of Yorkshire to their best effect, although I doubt the world’s best female riders will be paying much attention to the scenery when they arrive here during the road race.

For them, a cattle grid across the road will be the signal that they’ve reached the top. They’ll then be faced with a short section of exposed moorland followed by a fast, technical descent that could easily see a small group escape the peloton and stay clear until the finish.

Indeed, the sweeping turns on the downhill could prove a boon for Yorkshire’s farmers thanks to the sheer number of straw bales that will likely be needed to catch riders who overcook the corners.

Anyone with serious designs on a podium place in the elite women’s race will do well to ride this section of the route ahead of time to get an idea of what to expect – wisdom that Andy can confirm at least one pre-race favourite has already heeded.

‘There’s one short ramp on the climb out of Lofthouse that’s over 17%, and it’s going to be telling for the women,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing like an Alpine climb, but what the roads are is brutally hard and relentless.

‘The route is up and down, up and down, and when they get to that 17% ramp it’s just going to split the field apart, so it will be tough. I know that Lizzie Deignan has ridden that climb at least 10 times.’

An additional hazard we’ve had to keep an eye out for today are the sheep that roam the fields either side of the descent. However, Andy assures me a plan is in place to make sure these are kept grazing elsewhere during the Worlds.

Point of no return

After negotiating the Lofthouse descent, the women’s race will head back to Harrogate for three laps of the local circuit, and Andy predicts the entry point to this circuit could mark the end of the road for some on the day.

‘It’s a relatively fast transition from the top of the climb down to the circuit, and with the circuit being 14km long we’re talking 17 to 18 minutes per lap. That sounds like a long time but it won’t take much for some of the field to get that far behind the frontrunners.

If that’s the case they won’t get onto the circuit at all because the rules don’t allow for them to be lapped – they’ll be eliminated.’

For us, however, the next stop is the town of Masham and lunch at the Black Sheep Brewery. Masham’s location in North Yorkshire makes it an ideal base for any number of routes exploring the wider area, with plenty of challenging climbs in close proximity – both famed ascents from pro races and other, lesser-known tests.

With those climbs in mind, I can’t decide whether our hearty lunch at the brewery’s cafe counts as valuable fuel or worthless ballast, but it’s delicious all the same.

Once we’re back on the route it takes a while to reacquaint our bodies with the sensation of turning the pedals. Despite the main climb now being behind us, there’s no easy way of getting back to Harrogate.

Each ramp and incline saps my legs in a way that could prove terminal to the hopes of any rider who has gone too early or is struggling to stay with a lead group – presuming they too haven’t simply lingered too long at the Black Sheep Brewery.

Coming at the end of both the men’s and women’s races, the circuit around Harrogate will represent a fresh test before the finish line. The men will take on its ramps and technical descents seven times, while the women and under-23 men face three circuits.

Luckily for us, we don’t have to do any circuits – our route got the punishment over and done with at the start of the ride. We can simply cruise through the streets and imagine how they will look when the circus arrives at the end of September.

Only time will tell whether Pidcock, Deignan and co will still be in the hunt for gold by this point in their respective events. But whatever happens, it’s sure to be another unique chapter in the continuing tale of Yorkshire’s relationship with the sport of cycling.

Hello Worlds

Ride the roads that will decide this year’s World Championships

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/92worlds. You won’t be able to do all of the World Championships local loop in Harrogate as part of it goes the wrong way through the one-way system, but once clear of that head out of Harrogate west on Otley Road before swinging north and then east back into Harrogate.

That little loop done, take the A59 west but turn right off it for the lanes through Kettlesing Bottom, Darley and Summerbridge. Next you’ll be in Pateley Bridge preparing to take on the main event of the day: the climb of Lofthouse.

If you can still see straight when you get there, make the most of the views from the top before the roll into Masham. From here the route takes you south, past the stunning Fountains Abbey and along Hebden Bank towards the interestingly named Killinghall, from where you’ll soon be back to where you started.

The rider’s ride

Specialized Venge Pro, £6,500, specialized.com

The Venge Pro might be the second tier in Specialized’s renowned aero race bike range but it’s built around the exact same frameset as the top-end S-Works version. The main difference is the spec, and anyone who claims to be able to tell the difference between Shimano’s Ultegra Di2 and Dura-Ace Di2 groupsets is kidding themselves, if you ask me.

This Pro model delivers almost as polished a performance on the road as the flagship bike, and with a good chunk of cash saved. The only real concession in spec is a shallower (50mm not 64mm as per the S-Works) carbon wheelset, but I actually welcomed that for Yorkshire’s crosswinds, which they dealt with superbly.

And despite being Specialized’s aero race bike, the light and stiff Venge proved to be an adept climber. My pedalling inputs were met with a punchy response, helping me up steep inclines and then giving me the confidence to sweep back down the steep, technical descents.

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist travelled by train to Harrogate from London Kings Cross via a change at Leeds, which took three hours. Tickets and bike reservation can be booked in advance – we paid £30 for an advance single ticket.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Yorkshire Hotel in Harrogate (the-yorkshire.co.uk), a high-quality hotel in the heart of this historic town that ensured a good night’s rest ahead of a long bike ride. Two nights’ accommodation and a decent pre-ride breakfast at The Yorkshire Hotel set us up perfectly for a day in the saddle. Expect to pay from £80pn for a double room, although prices are higher and availability is limited during the Worlds.

Thanks

Thanks to Lauren and Nick at Welcome to Yorkshire (yorkshire.com), who made the whole trip come together and worked out the route, as well as arranging our accommodation and lunch stop.

Our appreciation also goes to Andy from Yorkshire 2019 (worlds.yorkshire.com), who took a day out of the office to be my ride guide and didn’t complain about riding the steepest part of Lofthouse more than once for the sake of the photos – likewise his colleague Josh, who drove the support car for our photographer.

Our thanks also go to Black Sheep Brewery for the excellent mid-ride lunch and The Ivy in Harrogate for a top-notch evening meal afterwards.