We’re in Yorkshire for the UCI world championships* and it looks like it’s going to be a wet one. We catch the train into Harrogate for the men’s Time Trial, finding a good spot by a corner where they have to slow down. The time trial provides a good chance of seeing individual riders – when they are bunched into the peloton in a normal race it’s impossible to spot who’s who.
The crowds are there but not massive, this being a weekday. It’s difficult to appreciate Harrogate’s charms, much of the town hidden by bunting, and huge concrete barriers enclose the centre and the circuit. A large part of the Stray has been fenced off for the fan-zone – there’s no charge to enter but there is a restriction on bag size (good job Neil doesn’t have his big backpack) and all bags are being searched. Security guards and police are everywhere. It’s something we are not used to and a sobering reminder that we are back in the land of terrorist threats.
Tight security notwithstanding, there’s a party atmosphere around and the rain mainly holds off until the race is over. Not so a couple of days later when the men’s U23 race goes past Great Ouseburn, where we are staying. Along with others, we slosh our way along the road and stand in the pour, peering through the dimness down a shiny black line between sodden green banks. Suddenly the line flashes blue and white (woo hoo, it’s a Sheffield Wednesday supporting road…) and the first police motorbikes appear, the wet road reflecting lights like a disco. They zoom past, many officers waving and tooting horns, one even giving us a blast of his siren. I wish I’d had warning of that, almost weeing myself as he does it practically next to me. The cyclists eventually follow, all looking decidedly grim-faced. I’m surprised by the noise, the hiss of so many tyres loud on the tarmac, almost as loud as our cheers and yells. A few seconds and they are gone. As we walk back a single Spanish rider slogs past. We pause, clap and yell encouragement. He looks like he would rather be anywhere else than here.
Catching the train back from Harrogate after the Time Trial had been hectic, the platform crowded, the train stuffed full. This on a day when the crowds were sparse. Come Sunday (and the train still runs only every hour) it will be impossible, so we drive in for the men’s road race, joining a snake of cars heading for the official parking. In a field. It’s been raining all night and there’s no sign of it letting up. But this is the Harrogate showground, home of the Yorkshire Show, so we have to presume they know what they’re doing and will be on hand to tow cars from thick mud if necessary. I’m relieved to note that attendants are ensuring front wheels are parked on gravel lines laid in the grass and in single file so cars can drive in and out without resorting to reverse and too much wheel turning.
The Stray is under water, looking more like a reedy lake than a grass area. The fan zone is closed, ankle deep in mud, the fire service trying in vain to pump water away. Cafés, windows steamed and stuffed with damp fans, are packed, people huddling outside with hands wrapped round takeaway cups. I clutch my empty one until all the heat is gone, wish I had another to take its place. We stand near where we were before, lucky to find an awning to shelter under, a raised step giving us a clear view over the crowds. And the crowds are here. Despite the rain, incessant and heavy, there are thousands of people lining the route.
Part of the course has had to be abandoned, the roads too flooded for safe cycling (if you get a chance, have a look at the video clips in this https://www.cyclingweekly.com/news/racing/watch-chaos-reigns-supreme-yorkshire-worlds-u23-time-trial-438427 and you’ll see what I mean). It must be disappointing for those who’d hoped to see the race pass their village, spending hours on decorating buildings and creating field art. Even where the race will pass no one will see any of these amazing artworks that accompany every cycle race around the world – the skies are too leaden for the helicopter to fly so TV coverage is limited to pictures from the motorbikes. But there’s a bubbling of excitement that ripples through the spectators when you see the faces that you’ve seen so often on TV, recognise the team colours (although most are hidden under black rain jackets), cheer and jump as they pass you. Even if you can’t identify them you know they are there, the world’s top cyclists in Yorkshire for the crowning event of the season.
260km of unrelenting Yorkshire roads (they are known for being hard cycling) leaves a trail of beaten men along its path. Nearly two hundred started, only 46 finish. I doubt that anyone will forget the 2019 world championships in a hurry. I won’t. I was there. I was wet and cold, and I stamped my feet and clapped my hands as much to warm them as I did in excitement when the peloton appeared. But I was there.
*Testament to how delayed this post is – these were at the end of September!