Cannock Chase offers some fantastic and undiscovered riding roads. The 68 square kilometres of lush forest are designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and popular with mountain bikers and road cyclists alike.
The area featured on stage four of the 2006 Tour of Britain and saw a fierce battle for the King of the Mountains competition. It has also been the stamping ground of some of the UK’s new professionals, including Garmin-Slipstream’s Dan Martin and Cervélo’s Dan Fleeman; it’s also the home of 1987 Tour de France finisher Adrian Timmis, who is riding with us today.
Timmis is here to help out on an organised ride for the Sabbath-Claytan squad. The local legend coaches the team’s Kieran Frend, who took an impressive victory in the West Midlands Divisional Championships this year. They meet at the 20 year old’s base in nearby Barton-under-Needwood.
It’s the obvious place to start a ride. With enough pasta in the cupboards to feed the entire Premier Calendar, a jacuzzi in the garden for after training and a gateway to some of the area’s best training roads, it’s no wonder the riders have flocked here to start their adventure.
Frend and Timmis are joined by Gareth Hewitt, Dave Coulson, Josh Andjelkovic and Sabbath Bicycles owner Greg Roche. After a bit of banter, the team get changed and roll out towards the next village, Dunstall.
Riders on the horn
The squad ride in formation through the quiet lanes; they’re making their way to the heart of Cannock Chase via the back roads. They pass through Rangermore, Hoar Cross and Abbots Bromley, home of the unique Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, an annual occasion involving dancers carrying antlers that dates back to the 11th century. The village is predictably picturesque, and passers-by look bemused as matching red-and-black Lycra-clad cyclists negotiate the traffic calming measures.
Part of the team is formed from the disbanded KFS Special Vehicles squad, where Sabbath was bicycle sponsor. Now it has taken co-sponsorship with a distributor of luxury bathroom and kitchen products, Claytan Australia. Kieran Frend and Gareth Hewitt followed Greg Roche in the move.
For a small team, Sabbath-Claytan have done well to make a mark in the UK racing scene, with notable victories from Frend in the West Midlands Divisional Championships and Hewitt in the Surrey League Five-Day stage race adding to early placings. “For the size of team, I think we have raced to a very good level and achieved some pleasing results,” says Frend. “We all get along well and as the year has gone on we have learned a bit more about riding with each other. We now talk less in races and just trust each other’s judgment.”
Team Sabbath-Claytan certainly made themselves known during the Surrey League Five-Day, and winner Gareth Hewitt also praises the team’s ability: “We rode really well as a team. Dave [Coulson] and Kieran [Frend] marshalled well from the peloton and just made sure they were in any of the chasing groups.” Hewitt, 29, has had many promising chances in his cycling career, and is mentioned in Bradley Wiggins’s book for beating him in the junior road race championships over 10
Coulson, 38, who arrived from Sports Beans in 2009, has been a mature influence in the team and was instrumental in Hewitt’s success in the Five-Day. “The highlight of my year was helping my training partner of 10 years, Gareth, win the Surrey League Five-Day, it was very satisfying to go some way to repaying him for all the help he’s given me,” reveals Coulson.
Frend leads the way, calling out hazards and turnings to his team-mates. Frend and Timmis both know these roads like the back of their hand, and the rest of the gang appear impressed with the scenery and terrain.
“My training routes back home are similar in that we do some good climbs,” comments Hewitt. “Living near Sheffield I have little choice but to train in the hills, but I enjoy the Chase; it’s not too different from the Peak District.”
The group of six home in on Cannock Chase as they pass around the imposing Blithfield Reservoir, through the village of Hixon, before crossing the A51 road. After their brief encounter with traffic, it’s back into the sticks. Before long, they cross a small bridge over the River Trent and into Milford, a village popular with visitors to the Chase. After that we’re heading through some of the busier roads towards Birches Valley visitor centre
It’s an area that Tour de France finisher Adrian Timmis knows well. “When I first started cycling, all of my training rides went over the Chase,” he remembers. “After school I used to do my hour loop and just ride as hard as I could.
“I used to gauge my fitness on how I went on the climbs. Rain or shine I’d be out. The Chase always felt like my back garden, and it still brings a smile to my face whether I’m riding or driving.”
Timmis has been using his experience and expertise to help Kieran Frend. “He has the potential and build to be a great climber, but he needs to get stronger on the flat so he can make more use of his climbing ability. With some more strength he will become more consistent, which he lacks at the moment,” says Timmis.
Josh Andjelkovic, 22, is in his first year on the team, racing while completing his university degree in civil engineering, and has gained some good experience during the Premier Calendar races after a year racing in Brittany, France. “But I bet everyone’s going to mention my lack of driving ability over anything,” he jokes. “I have managed to write off two cars, one of which was done driving up to the Ryedale GP. And I was struggling to find a job for after uni. It hasn’t been a great season for me.”
Work and no play
The team manager and owner of Sabbath Bicycles, Greg Roche, is someone else whose commitments off the bike have prevented him from doing as well as he would have liked. “I’ve been absolutely flat out with the expansion of Sabbath Bicycles so riding has taken a back seat. I’m still trying to keep a bit of fitness and stay involved with the guys in the team, but each month I’m getting busier,” he explains.
The team climb up Penkridge Bank, passing the visitor centre on their right and heading towards Rugeley town centre. Frend and Timmis know it’s not too far back home once they have crossed the A51 in Rugeley, and consequently sit on the front, keeping a good tempo. Most are managing to keep smiling, despite the increase in pace, maybe testament to the good group of mates there are within the team.
“Our constant mickey-taking creates a bit of a funny and relaxed atmosphere, I enjoy watching Kieran and Dave ribbing each other due to the big age gap, and their sizeable difference of opinion on most things,” laughs Hewitt.
It’s not long before the team arrive in Yoxall, the last village before they finish back in Barton-under-Needwood. It’s a small village and the group hook a right up the last climb towards their destination. The Sabbath-Claytan team take it easy for once, with no rider daring to take on Adrian Timmis and Kieran Frend in the sprint on the road back to their village.
Starting from Barton-under-Needwood, held out of the village towards Dunstall, bypassing the Dunstall village centre and looping around it via Tatenhill and Rangemore. Head over the A515 and follow Maker Lane towards Hoar Cross. Go through the village and join onto the B5234 and then turn right at the T-junction to Abbots Bromley.
Go past the B5013 which takes you over the reservoir, and instead turn left, which takes you around it. Go through Newton and Hixon, before turning left, then immediately right over the A51. Head towards Milford, and then towards Brocton. Briefly join the A34 and turn off at Camp Road. At the crossroads, turn left up Penkridge Bank and pass through Rugeley, heading for the railway station.
At the T-junction, take the minor Blithbury Road and follow it until Blithbury village, pass through to Hamstall Ridware, Yoxall and finally take the B5016 all the way back to Barton-under-Needwood.