If the cycling season were a classical performance, this first movement could stand on its own. For a calendar so often defined by the spring classics, few other races in the UK command as much respect as the Rutland - Melton International CiCLE Classic.
The two big British teams, Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes and Madison-Genesis, are eyeing up a coveted victory, but there are a host of teams waiting in line to throw a spanner in the works.
This will be the 15th edition of the CiCLE Classic, a race that has captured the imaginations of the racing community and seen many a worthy winner crowned in Melton Mowbray.
Sunday’s race promises fireworks.
Rutland is the country’s smallest county, but there are no shortage of roads for a varied and challenging 198.5km course. Along with races like Tro Bro Leon in Brittany and Strade Bianche in Tuscany, the race sees competitors return to the dirt tracks of old, invoking nostalgia for a time long before we were born.
This year’s route sees a change from previous iterations; gone is the loop around the Rutland Water reservoir. Instead, the race will pass through the village of Wymondham - Race Director Colin Clew’s home village - five times in the first 50km of the race, which should see the fight to form an early break become that bit more challenging.
Beer and bike racing seem to go hand in hand, so it makes sense that, among others, there is a sprint to win the rider’s weight in beer.
The gravel sectors are rated up to five stars, and Newbold Manor is the only sector that sees a rating lower than four. With eleven passages off road, and nine ascents of the aptly named bergs, the course is more than challenging enough to break up the peloton. The Somerberg is well known and often decisive - forcing splits and encouraging attacks - and the Cuckooberg comes 30km before the finish, providing the perfect platform for a race winning move.
The CiCLE Classic has seen everything from lone winners and small breakaways to large bunch sprints - so much will be decided by the conditions on the day. The windier and wetter the race becomes, the higher the likelihood of a small group or solo rider reaching Melton Mowbray first.
In 2012, heavy rain and strong winds saw Alexander Blain finish almost two minutes ahead of his nearest competitor and a fragmented field, whereas 2015 had a group of almost 30 riders contesting the sprint.
The final kilometers of the race are relatively straightforward. There are slight rises at 2.5km and 500m to go, with a false flat coming around 1500m to the line - the latter is where Conor Dunne made his race winning move in 2016.
A left hand turn onto the finishing straight is the final hurdle before a flat run to the line, but beware a headwind blowing down the finishing straight.
Gabriel Cullaigh (Team Wiggins Le Col) is back as the defending champion, and he will be looking to convert his good form; he has already won a stage of the Volta ao Alentejo in Portugal this year and managed fourth at the East Cleveland Klondike.
Alongside Cullaigh will be current under-23 cyclo-cross world champion, Tom Pidcock - a rider who will feel as at home on the off road sectors as he will on the asphalt.
Connor Swift of Madison Genesis is the reigning national road race champion and he has form in the CiCLE Classic, having taken fourth in last year’s edition despite an untimely puncture. Swift rode to 3rd in Guisborough at the East Cleveland Klondike and was active at Tro Bro Leon last week.
Rory Townsend has been the man of 2019 so far, and led the bunch home at the Klondike earlier in April, but he brings with him an incredibly strong team as well. Alexandar Richardson is in terrific form having taken two big wins already this year at the Omloop Het Waasland and the Arno Wallaard Memorial Race.
Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother UK bring Olympic champion Ed Clancy and new signing Scott Thwaites, while Swift Carbon are notably represented by Junior CiCLE Classic winner, James Shaw. There’s also a healthy contingent of 10 international teams in 2019.
All that said, Rally-UHC may be the team to watch - they consistently race at a higher level than most domestic based teams, and are coming off of a strong early season campaign including many of the world’s best events. Part of the UCI-America Tour, Rally-UHC are racing the CiCLE Classic before this year’s Tour de Yorkshire.
Robin Carpenter took second at the recent La Roue Tourangelle Région Centre Val de Loire - Trophée Harmonie Mutuelle (yes, that is a mouthful) and had a strong showing at La Fleche Wallone, so will be worth a watch. His degree in economics and environmental studies will come in handy should he end up discussing investments with team prize sponsors, the Melton Building Society.
Nevertheless, Rory Townsend nudged Rally-UHC’s Adam de Vos off the podium in the Classic Loire Atlantique and took the KOM competition from Pier-Andre Cote in Cholet – Pays de la Loire; the British teams could still cause problems on Sunday and Rally’s distinctive orange jerseys will be well marked.
The race starts at 11:00 and is expected to finish almost five hours later at 15:40, so there’s plenty of time for the weather to change. For the most part, we can expect reasonably good weather - 13 degrees with light cloud.
However, rain over the early part of the weekend and into the night may make the off road sectors treacherous and add extra tension to an already fraught race.
Northwesterly winds of up to 30km/h may mean crosswinds in the final 30km, over the Cuckooberg and the finishing circuit, but the potential for a headwind in the final 5km could bring things back together for the finish.