The organisers of the 2019 World Championships have identified a dangerous corner on the outskirts of the road race circuit in Harrogate.
It’s a steep right negative camber into a left-flat 90 degree turn over a bridge, a pleasant bucolic scene with a stream trickling below. But the sport’s top racers will be haring into it at 35 miles per hour and there’s a 15-foot drop to the water and rocks below for anyone who misjudges it.
A solution is already in their minds: they’re going to have a net to catch errant racers, and not just any old net. “You don’t want one with big holes because their natural reaction is to put their hands out and they could end up with a serious injury,” Yorkshire 2019 CEO Andy Hindley says.
“So, what we need is a larger net on the back of it for physical support, with a mesh that sort of scoops you rather than grabbing you, that slows you down and guides you. It’s a branding opportunity too.”
This cyclist-specific device typifies both their meticulous thinking and the scale of the task facing them. This is a fifty-metre stretch on their main lap, itself a tiny part of the 700-kilometre network of courses for eleven World Championship races that crisscross the northern English county of Yorkshire. Every single road needs similar attention to detail. The World Championships is parts health and safety, business, people flow operation, spectacle and, of course, sport.
The majority of us see a bike race as purely that: the racing in full flow when we tune in, framed hermetically by television cameras, save for occasional swoops to scenery, landmarks or goofy fans. On the ground, the best bike races are modest, subtle, seamless: they give you all the answers rather than making you question the why or where. Of course, creating that mechanism annually in a changing location is an immense amount of work. The nine-day World Championships is a colossal, rainbow-hued Russian doll of dilemmas: the further you go, the more little ones pop out.
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Before dealing with that, the first challenge is winning the bid. Usually, there are around six years from conception to execution of a World Championships; Yorkshire 2019 will have less than three. They are used to turning things around quickly and successfully: there were less than 18 months between being awarded the 2014 Tour de France Grand Départ 2014 and hosting it.
Nobody could have predicted its impact: this memorable weekend, where an estimated 2.5 million people lined the roadside, helped to kickstart the Tour de Yorkshire, ensuring an annual bumper crop of WorldTour riders and adoring attendees.
Bringing the World Championships to cycling-mad Yorkshire was a no brainer. In their 104-page bid document for the event, entitled “Hosting the Legend”, Welcome to Yorkshire CEO Sir Gary Verity signed off his foreword with the sentence: “We’ve turned the county yellow once before, and now we want to see it swathed with those iconic rainbow bands.”
There is a weight of history too: long before Britain was a cycling conqueror, Yorkshire’s thriving club scene and unyielding roads helped to shape the careers of champions like Brian Robinson, Tom Simpson, Barry Hoban, Beryl Burton and Lizzie Deignan. The sprawling county somehow retains the feel of a tight-knit community. A case in point being, while driving the Harrogate circuit on a weekday lunchtime, we bumped into an amateur cyclist doing hill reps who is in the same club as under-23 star Tom Pidcock.
Despite all this, their bid would have foundered without UK government support. Their agreement to financially underwrite the event was the final cornerstone of the bid, to accompany Yorkshire’s incomparable momentum, support and experience. In October 2016, the management committee had awarded the event to them.
Yorkshire 2019 was subsequently created to deliver the championships.Andy Hindley arrived as CEO from helping to run America’s Cup sailing team BA Landrover. For the first half of 2018, he oversaw a core crew of five helping to lay the groundwork.
Head of operations Kate Steven had behind-the-scenes experience with sailor Ellen MacArthur at London 2012 and the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, while director of operations Mark Honeybunn was also part of the planning team in Scotland and joined them from the Islamic Solidarity Games. Head of communications Charlie Dewhirst hails from the Rugby Football Union: having personally witnessed Army versus Navy matches, cycling fans will pose no problem.
Meanwhile, director of finance Damian Hall joined from cider brand Rekorderlig. One of his focuses is ensuring they do not exceed their £12 million budget. Yorkshire 2019 is a non-profit organisation: the money comes variously from government entity UK Sport, Welcome to Yorkshire, British Cycling and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. With taxpayers’ money involved, everything from takeaway coffees to the hefty UCI rights fee must be planned and accounted for.
It is a big concern, and challenge, for the organisers. Like most prestigious sporting events, cycling’s annual road racing extravaganza regularly ends up with an overspend. While immensely popular with its Norwegian public, Bergen 2017 left its national cycling federation with a deficit of NOK 35.4 million (£3 million). Meanwhile, the Spanish city of Ponferrada, the host in 2014, reported losses of almost €3 million.
No bike race takes place in a vacuum and, despite what the Tour de Yorkshire might have you think, there is not county-wide support for the 2019 World Championships.
Organisers will seek to ensure minimal disruption to businesses and locals: they have considered how church-goers will reach their Sunday services and provisions of meals on wheels for Harrogate’s more experienced residents. It’s about delivering to sceptics and cycling fanatics alike, locals and non-locals, media and stakeholders. The riders might have a safety net, but there’s not one for those behind the event.
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This is an ambitious Worlds that seeks to break the mould. While the modern World Championships’ customary races are scheduled, they will also have a separate Para-cycling event and host the new team time trial mixed relay, a national team event for three men and three women. In total, there are seven remote starts, more than any in recent World Championships history, ranging from Northallerton to the southern city of Doncaster.
The men’s and women’s elite road races will show off the best of the Yorkshire Dales, taking in a larger loop before laps of the Harrogate finishing circuit. The men’s is almost a carbon copy of the 2014 Tour de France opener, taking in the same three climbs: Kidstones Pass, Buttertubs and Grinton Moor. Expect drystone walls, dramatic patchwork field panoramas and fans as far as the eye can see.
Why Harrogate as the hub? This elegant Victorian spa town is large enough, but not sprawling: by and large, you can’t have a Worlds in a big city, as politicians wouldn’t abide the disruption caused by closing down swathes of central London, Birmingham or Leeds for a week.
Harrogate has the required transport links, facilities and experience of fitting the Tour de France opener in 2014. It’s very pleasant too: the kind of town you’d take your mum for tea, regularly voted one of the happiest places to live in the United Kingdom.
We visit on a scorching summer’s day in late June 2018, joining the Yorkshire 2019 team, three delegates from the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and UCI World Championships general manager Kevin Benjamin as they walk around the finale of the circuit.
They are just pleased to be on foot after spending three days on a minibus tour of Yorkshire lay-bys, stopping to look at routes, satellite coverage black spots and locations for static cameras. Particularly in the road races, overhanging trees can mean a signal dip for following motorbikes: there’s no point having a World Championship that a televisual audience of millions can’t see.
This mission leads to some odd scenes. The group of a dozen stand on the pavement outside a local bar and American burger chain, pointing at road furniture in intense discussion, wondering whether it can be unbolted for rider safety. “Can we move this street sign to make it as nice as possible?” Benjamin adds.
This is the decisive final turn of the Harrogate circuit. From here, it’s 500 uphill metres to the finish, seven per-cent initially before turning into a gentler false flat.
We walk up Parliament Street to where the finish area will be, next to the Stray, the town’s 200-acre central grassland, and a church. Probably best that couples intending to tie the knot don’t book their wedding on the last week of September 2019.
The 14-kilometre circuit has a bit of everything: a long, straight drag in the first kilometres, a gently rolling technical section and then its sharpest climb after eight kilometres on Cornwall Road, 700 metres with a section at 11 per cent.
Then, there are a slew of technical corners heading through central Harrogate, past the manicured lawns of million-pound properties on the circuit’s back end. The 220-metre-per-lap elevation might be benign, but the men’s race’s 285-kilometre distance is the longest for over 40 years, thanks to the extensive neutralised zone leaving the start in Leeds.
Time in the wind will be precious energy wasted. It looks made for the likes of Peter Sagan, Marianne Vos and local Lizzie Deignan.
The full version of this feature was first published in Rouleur 18.7