DISTANCE 55 miles or 88km
MAIN CLIMBS Cat ’n’ Fiddle, Axe Edge, Brown Edge, Norton Green and Smallthorne.
Ever since Brian Rourke was able to have Sean Kelly join his challenge ride, I have always secretly hankered to have a go at the ride myself and take up the chance of riding with a legend of the road.
Back in Kelly’s heyday I always used to check the results pages to see how he was fairing in the big races, particularly Paris-Nice. ‘The Race to the Sun’, as it is also known, always seemed such a glamorous race. The classic images from Graham Watson that made the covers and pages of Cycling Weekly back then showed the immaculate Alan-framed bike beneath the craggy musculature of the KAS team superstar, all set against those Continental backdrops. Years later you realise it’s perhaps not all glamour but the legend and memories live on.
So it was on a mild, sunny, autumnal Sunday in early October that myself and many others had their chance to ride with Kelly and many other star names as we set off from Brian Rourke’s shop in Stoke.
What is key to the Rourke ride is that it’s there to raise funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. As Brian stresses: “It’s about having a good social day out on the bike. It doesn’t matter what time you do it in, as long as we raise some money for the CFT.”
It’s something that Rourke is very proud to be associated with and it has been close to his heart due to his association with the local Shenton family, whose son Alfie has cystic fibrosis. Alfie and his family, along with their family and friends, Martine Granger the regional fund-raising manager for the Trust and her team, all pool resources to help Brian organise and run this challenge ride. And having Kelly there along with an ever increasing number of ex-pros and current stars has raised the profile of this ride, with bigger numbers taking on the challenge ever year.
Last year saw around 1,300 riders take the start and help raise nearly £50,000 towards the work the Trust undertakes. This year it is hoped that that figure will be matched as 1,293 riders took the line from pre-entries, and another 176 took the start on the day. That’s nearly £23,000 in entry revenue before all the extra money from sponsored riders has been taken into account.
Sign on and set out
There is always a buzz around the community hall sign-on area as riders gather and set out. Some wait up the road at Brian’s shop to set out with the ‘stars’ after their photo-call with the local press. Alongside Kelly this year were his Eurosport co-commentator David Harmon, Martin Earley, Malcolm Elliott, James Taylor the ex-Plowman Craven rider, and Neil Martin with sons Dan and Tom. Other names that had started out earlier were Andy Collis and Lee Davis, team-mates of Elliott at the Pinarello RT, Dan Fleeman and Terry Dolan.
After taking a few pictures myself with a pocket sized compact camera I’d brought along for the day, I set out with the bunch with some pleasant autumnal sun warming our backs. We pass through the residential areas of Tunstall and Kidsgrove before the right turn onto the A34 out towards Congleton. Things start to get more rural along this stretch and the pace is already brisk with Elliott and Dan Martin on the front. Dan had ridden for Ireland at the World Championships in Stuttgart the previous Sunday. My computer already reads an average of 18mph.
There is a general relaxed air to this ‘big club run’ as Kelly and co chat away behind while Brian moves up and down the bunch checking everyone is OK. We catch and pass many small groups of riders that had headed out earlier as I chat with James Taylor and also Simon Blythe. Simon it turns out is in the RAF but does some massage and soigneur work for
the Recycling team. I knew I recognised the face.
As we pass through the small village of Eaton there is a small crowd of people to cheer and shout encouragement to the groups that pass along their way, all eager too to catch a glimpse or a picture of their heroes. The turn at Warren takes us away from the main Congleton road and down the quieter lanes for a while as we head towards Macclesfield. It’s a chance to try and grab a picture or two myself.
Stopping briefly before trying to catch up again, I find that the gap to the group is greater than I anticipated. I put it in the big ring and make pursuit. I pass over the canal and take the left turn on to the main Macclesfield road. There is still quite a gap but the road is good and I get a rhythm going and put a 28mph effort in that brings me onto the back of the group.
Cycling legend Sean Kelly (right) in action. Ride organiser Brian Rourke is on the left.
Hitting the fiddle
We are soon in Macclesfield and the group swings right at the lights and starts the climb of the Cat ’n’ Fiddle. The pace drops and I pick my way forwards. The group is bigger than I thought but soon starts to string out up this first part of the climb. We pass through the tree cover as the road winds up the gradient. Out of the trees the views start to open as you look back towards Macclesfield. I try taking a few shots while riding and grab a picture of David Harmon as he takes on the Cat.
After passing the main groups I put in a concerted effort and stop at a point about a kilometre above Walker Barn. The first big group is led by a smiling Malcolm Elliott as he sets a good tempo over the lower section of the climb. I wait for the Rourke, Earley and Kelly group who are a little way behind and try to get a picture to show the views offered back to Macclesfield and Manchester beyond. Camera back over my shoulder, I grab my bike and catch the groups once more.
Time to relax
Elliott comes alongside and asks if I’ve been riding much lately. I tell him I’ve done about 160 miles that week, to which he replies: “Well it’s 160 more than I’ve done!” It turns out he his just back from Bermuda and not ridden the bike since getting back. I admire Elliott’s Pinarello Prince he’s riding and ask what he thinks: “It’s very nice and you do feel a difference. It’s definitely a step up again from what I’ve used previously.”
The Peak View Cafe is always a favoured stop and we find it filled to the rafters with challenge riders. Brian checks the situation inside as Kelly peers through the window and jokingly offers a colourful suggestion to those inside that they should get out on their bikes to make some room. No room means we carry on over the summit by the Cat ’n’ Fiddle pub where an organised drinks station was available.
We press on, however, over the summit plateau before descending towards Buxton. I have Elliott on my wheel as we flow through the S-bends on this fast rewarding descent. I’m thinking: “Don’t do anything stupid and disappear in to the scenery. It would be so embarrassing.” The T-junction at the bottom takes us straight in to the next climb of Axe Edge.
Elliott sets the tempo on the front and I hold his wheel on this grippy climb. Again there are groups of people out on the roadside to applaud the groups as they pass. I hear someone shout, “Go on Malc, you’re going well,” as we near the top. Then I hear someone in our group say: “There’s been some damage done there,” as riders get strung out back down Axe Edge. Past the Winking Man Inn and it’s down the descent towards Leek, passing below the distinctive sharp edge of Ramshaw Rocks close to the Roaches. Elliott tucks down and I’m just behind as we hit 50mph before the road levels out. It’s an absolute thrill.
There’s another drinks station before the last 10 miles or so back to Stoke. I have to admit it was a welcome stop as I was feeling a bit low on fuel having had a very early breakfast and then not putting enough food in my back pockets for the ride. A Wagon Wheel, a couple of cups of SIS drink, and an energy stick from Kelly, which he tells me are “like the ones Bettini uses” and I’m feeling back on form for the last three climbs. Brown Edge, Norton Green and Smallthorne come in quick succession and offer a sting in the tail to those who may already be feeling weary.
Eurosport commentator David Harmon joined the ride
Tea and cake anyone?
Before we know it we are back to Brian’s shop and the finish. It’s been three enjoyable hours out on the road. There are many riders gathered outside the community hall all telling their own tales of their ride. Inside, the hall is full as Kelly, Elliott, Rourke and others wander in.
They are happy to chat with everyone over a welcome cup of tea and slices of cake, all put on by the Trust helpers. I overhear one couple ask Kelly: “If you had to pick one win from all the wins you had, what would it be?” A smile comes over Kelly’s face and after a pause he answers: “If I had to just pick one then it would be my first Paris-Roubaix.” It’s a
great clubroom atmosphere and a perfect finish to a memorable ride.
From Rourke Cycles, Waterloo Road, Burslem take A50 towards Tunstall and Kidsgrove. At the junction of the A50 and the A34, turn right (TR) on to A34 to Congleton. Exit Congleton on the A536 direction Macclesfield. At Warren TR then TL on to unclassified road to Gawsworth and Oakgrove. At T-junction TL on to A523 to Macclesfield.
TR on to A537 Cat ’n’ Fiddle to Buxton. At T-junction TR on to A53 to Leek. Continue out of Leek on A53 to Longsdon. Continue to Endon to TR on to B5051 to Brown Edge, Norton Green, Smallthorne to Burslem. At junction with A50 TL to finish back at Rourke Cycles.
Brian Rourke Cycles