17.05.2014 Norfolk, UK
Start: 52°50’32.07″N 0°48’37.15″E
Everyone knows that women’s cycling hasn’t been in a healthy state for several years, and has only started to show signs of recovery – thanks to the hard work of riders and fans alike, as well as the unsung believers who toiled under McQuaid and will now hopefully be able to make a real difference under the more favourable tenure of Brian Cookson – over the last couple of seasons. If you ask people what it is that needs to be done, you’ll get a whole host of ideas and opinions, and one you’ll hear again and again is “more effort at grassroots level, to encourage more women to get into racing in the first place.”
So how do you do that? Well, the organisers of the North Norfolk 100 have a pretty good idea, and they’ve proved beyond reasonable doubt that they’re fully committed and truly dedicated not just to the future of women’s cycling, but to cycling in general – they’ve made it free for women and juniors to enter their event. This 100 mile (161km) individual time trial is not as widely known as it deserves to be despite having existed in some shape or form for more than decade, but with organisers that passionate about the sport it soon will be. Likewise, North Norfolk is not nearly as well-known as a cycling destination as it ought to be – a look at the parcours for this event demonstrates that the district is perfect for a short break.
In 2013, the race was hit by torrential rain and only 36 riders finished. Five were female, in this order (numbers in brackets are their overall placings in the mixed result)…
1(26) Kathryn Smith (Sleaford Wheelers CC) 5h21’10”
2(28) Naomi Shinkins (Tri London) 5h27’40”
3(29) Roslyn McGinty (Tri London) 5h28’17”
4(34) Martina Geraghty (Penzance Wheelers) 6h02’56”
5(35) Maria Greaves (North Norfolk Wheelers) 6h05’16”
The race is also contested by tricycles as the Tricycle Association (East) 100, with five riders taking part last year – including one woman, Jane Swain (Willeden CC), who later in the summer became World Tricycle Criterium Champion!
Other than the fact that the county is home to Alan Partridge, a lot of ill-fated turkeys and Stephen Fry, the one thing that everyone knows about Norfolk is that it’s very flat. This is indeed the case – the highest point in the county, Beacon Hill near West Runton, rises to just 103m above sea level and makes Norfolk the flattest British county (only the City of London, sometimes considered a county, is flatter – its highest point is High Holborne at 22m above sea level). However, cyclists who visit North Norfolk will find that it’s flat in the same way that Flanders is flat: the hills are low and few and far between but some are surprisingly steep, and there are many dips (some of which drop below sea level) which have much the same effect on the legs when climbing out of them. This parcours, being a long time trial, avoids the worst of them but is still considerably more rolling than someone who has never been to the county might expect – the steepest section anywhere on the circuit is no more than 5.4%, but the total elevation gain in a complete lap is 234m. Over the course of three laps, that has an effect.
At Hillington they’ll turn left for the first time, taking the B1153 south – the corner isn’t tight, but some care needs to be taken (especially if conditions are as slippery as in 2013, when the race was hit by torrential rain) due to a traffic island immediately upon entering the new road, and riders should be aware that there may be loose gravel on the road just before the church approximately 0.25km from the turn. 21.7km from the start and still on the B1153 is Congham which is probably a far more pleasant place without the oil mill that once stood in the village and processed dead whales brought from the docks at King’s Lynn. There are a couple of rather awkward drain covers upon entering the village, just as the road bends slightly left and a likelihood of more loose gravel just ahead where it bends right again, then the buildings thin out before the race comes to Grimston – a tiny village today, Grimston was once an important producer of pottery and that is was once a wealthy town can be seen by its large and grand church. The road bends left and then right just past the church by a row of white cottages on the right, then left as it leaves the village behind before coming to a sharper left and right 23.1km from the start. It then enters a fast 2.45km section leading into Gayton where the section of the race heading south comes to an end at a crossroads near the windmill which no longer has its sails.
The left turn onto the B1145 heading east at Gayton is not technical, but it is essential that riders obey the rules of the road here and race organisers warn that marshalls will be in position and will disqualify any rider who does not check to the right for traffic.This is not a closed circuit; the penalty for failing to give way could be far worse than disqualification. The B1145 section is another fast road that climbs gently through the first half of its 12.7km length, with no villages or tight bends to distract riders from getting their heads down and pushing hard. The hedges along the road, however, are low in many parts; if the wind is blowing from the north (as is frequently the case) or the south, crosswinds may cause problems (if you’re visiting the race with a bike, this would be a good place from which to spectate as it would be possible to ride along the pleasingly-named Drunken Drove 5.9km from Gayton, then to Great Massingham and north to the A418 at Harpley for the next lap. Presumably an old sheep drove – the economy of Norfolk was, in former times, based largely on sheep farming, rather than arable farming and tourism as it is today – Drunken Drove bears a slight resemblance to Koppenberg – but with a maximum gradient of 5.5% and asphalt rather than “children’s heads” cobbles, you don’t need to be a pro cyclist to get up it and will probably beat the riders who are taking a longer route in the race).
After covering 38.5km from the start, riders come to the A1065 and turn left to head north. There may be loose gravel on the road immediately before the turn due to a parking area on the right. The turn is wide, but once again it’s essential to check for traffic before joining the new road. Shortly after the turn, the road passes through woodland – something that isn’t seen often in Norfolk – for 2.1km; there is an increased chance of punctures here. On the other side it reaches Weasenham All Saints, where the once very convivial Ostrich Inn has stood derelict for twelve years and looks ready to collapse; locals in search of a pint now have to go to Weavenham St. Peter, which the race passes through a kilometre further north. Wandering gradually to the east, the road continues to first South Raynham and then East Raynham, location of Raynham Hall where one of the most famous photographs purported to show a ghost – the Brown Lady – was taken. The Hall is not open to the public, but can be viewed from a circular walk that passes through the estate.
13.2km from the turning onto the A1065 and 51.7km from the start, the riders pass Shereford Road on the right. Just beyond it, separated from the road by a patch of grass with a red post box, is a area in front of a row of cottages; during the first and second laps the riders will continue straight past, while on the third lap they will arrive at the finish line here. Less than half a kilometre further ahead they cross a bridge which doesn’t narrow sufficiently to be a hazard, then pass Fakenham on the left after another half a kilometre, then continue for another half a kilometre to a roundabout where they’ll turn left to rejoin the A148 heading west. They pass a graveyard on the left then, 1.88km from the turn, arrive back at the layby from which the race began and start a new lap.
Not yet available
Getting There and Staying There
Fakenham has an undeserved reputation as a boring town, mostly as a result of a retracted comment on the Knowhere Guide website that was misconstrued in the press as stating that the town had been voted the most boring place in Britain. It isn’t; it’s probably not a bad place at all to live and most certainly a pleasant place to visit, and enough people are aware of that for there to be a good selection of small hotels nearby ranging from the expensive to cheap. TripAdvisor is a good place to find them. Cheaper still is Greenwoods Campsite, located just off the A148 at Tattersett some 5km west of the start. Do be aware that stays of one night at the site must be booked and paid seven days in advance.
The largely unspoiled North Norfolk coast is perfect for bike exploration if you plan to make your visit to the race part of a short tour. Hunstanton is worth a visit, but for what must be one of the best beaches in Britain head to Brancaster – which nearly became the rocket launch site for the British space programme in the 1950s. While you’re in the area, why not make the 25km trip straight down the A1065 to Swaffham where you can pay your respects at the grave of one of Britain’s first female cycling heroes, Evelyn Hamilton? Hamilton lived an amazing life, setting numerous cycling records in the 1930s and acting as Gracie Fields’ body double in Sing As We Go before setting up a bike shop which might have in reality been a front for the Free French Forces and possibly employed one of the Pélissiers (the brothers of 1923 Tour de France winner Henri Pélissier) during the Second World War while she was away in France where she just might have been a secret agent. She died in 2005, and her gravestone bears the name Evelyn Alice Helsen – leave a bidon or something similar, like we do when we pass Tom Simpson’s memorial on Ventoux, to show that a truly remarkable woman has not been forgotten.