Crowds cheer on the rid­ers at the Lon­don Noc­turne – an an­ti­dote to the ac­cu­sa­tions and ac­ri­mony of the Tour de France

The Noc­turne de­liv­ers cri­terium rac­ing in the heart of the Square Mile

Cyclist - - Ed's Letter - Words JOSEPH DELVES 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 threeto-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 JLTCon­dor take up the chase in an at­tempt to drag their man, Olympic medal­list

‘I used to do courier races and it’s closer to those. You have to fight more for your cor­ners and it’s harder to stay up’

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 Hey­woodMahé 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.

‘In the dark 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’

St Paul’s Cathe­dral pro­vides the back­drop for the open cri­terium event

The lead rid­ers go hell for leather in the women’s fixed gear cri­terium (above), but not ev­ery event is quite so se­ri­ous

Cen­tre left: Tom Pid­cock and Ed Clancy – sec­ond and first in the elite men’s event – dis­cuss the race while wait­ing for the podium pre­sen­ta­tion Left: Alec Briggs (left) is con­grat­u­lated by a team­mate fol­low­ing his third con­sec­u­tive win in the men’s...

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