It’s been many years since the Shrewsbury Criterium was last held and almost three decades since it was last considered an important race, back in 1985 when it was won by Sid Barras (who enjoyed 18 years as a professional and won some 380 races). That edition was the first for three years; Keith Lambert of Falcon Cycles won it in 1982, after Barras had won in 1980 and 1981. Prior to that, there hadn’t been a cycle race in the Shropshire town since 1946 – when Ernie Clements, who went on to become Falcon’s chief designer and frame builder from the 1950s to the 1970s (when Falcon made some of the best racing bikes in the world, rather than simply being a name stuck on cheap, heavy, imported bikes) won. In other words, with the exception of intermittent cyclo cross races (including the National Championships earlier this year), Shrewsbury is not a town on the cycling map.
Bike racing has become a big draw in Britain over the last few years, though, and the first Shrewsbury GP on the 25th pulled in thousands. The usual old hands were out in force – club cyclists from all over the region and a good selection of lifelong fans who could well have been there to see Barras winning (and, in some cases, Clements), but there were also many who’d probably never seen a bike race before. It’s the latter group that is boosting the current swelling in support for women’s cycling: they turn up with none of the old hang-ups, wanting and expecting to see a good, competitive race and completely free of the old misconception that the women’s event is merely a sideshow intended to provide a bit of light entertainment before the “proper” race – which, in the dark days when the sport received virtually no backing from British Cycling, it did indeed often seem to be; with a handful of riders putting in a handful of desultory laps around a shortened circuit, for a prize worth a few quid at best. That misconception is dying fast among more experienced fans, but even today you’ll see a few of them at any race staking out the local cafes while the women are on the parcours; the newer fans meanwhile will be out there banging the boards. The women, of course, deliver – their races nowadays are every bit as exciting, dramatic and competitive as the men’s, sometimes more so- and they delivered in spades for the Pure Telecom Women’s GP.
“I felt like I was riding the Olympics, the crowd were so supportive,” said winner Brit Tate of GBCycles.co.uk. “I have never won anything like this before. I’m completely speechless.”
The first corner, a left into Mardol Head, set the tone: sharp and narrow, it led into an even narrower road and featured a slippery drain cover right in the centre to catch the wheels of any rider pushed to the right of the peloton. A fast stretch of 250m followed and was just long enough for the stronger riders to put serious pressure on tired rivals in the final laps, finishing with an even tighter and very technical left onto Cross Hill which led almost immediately into a third left (with more drain covers), then a right onto College Hill. A sharp left-hand bend near the end of College Hill preceded a fast but tricky left onto Princess Street, after which the riders had just under 50m to line themselves up for a sharp left onto narrow Milk Street. With seven tight corners squeezed into the 0.84km circuit, there was ample opportunity for riders to lose position in the bunch and many found themselves suddenly forced from the front to near the back as the riders jostled one another to get around, but with so little room to overtake on Milk Street any rider at the front would have an advantage once around the final cobbled left corner carrying the race back onto the High Street.
Tate, who has been riding for three years and claims semi-seriously to “actually hate cycling,” showed she’s clever and tough by executing this last corner perfectly, taking control on Milk Street, then laid down the power to hold her position against strong challenges from Matrix-Vulpine’s Harriet Owen (who relishes a circuit such as this one and is a formidable opponent), Lydia Gurley of Merlin Cycles and the superstrong Rowsell of Wiggle-Honda.
“To have won against such a talented group of riders including [Olympic champion] Joanna Rowsell is fantastic, I’m just so pleased,” Tate said afterwards.
Shrewsbury GP Top Ten
1 Brit Tate (GBCycles.co.uk)
2 Harriet Owen (Matrix-Vulpine)
3 Lydia Gurley (Merlin Cycles)
4 Joanna Rowsell (Wiggle-Honda)
5 Iona Sewell (GBCycles.co.uk)
6 Nicky Healy (Mammoth Lifestyle Racing)
7 Maisie Duckworth (Wolverhampton Wheelers)
8 Emma Birtles (Lichfield City CC)
9 Eleanor Jones (VC St Raphael)
10 Gina Riley (Chester RC)