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Cyclists are a tough breed, everyone knows that – if you’re going to go out protected from the elements and abrasive road surfaces by only a layer of lycra and, when weather dictates, a lightweight jacket, you have to be. Nevertheless, as the snow began to fall on the 81 women lined up in the narrow road leading through the little Northumberland village of Blanchland, more than a few were clearly thinking “what the hell have I let myself in for?”
The Alexandra Tour of the Reservoir, named in honour of Princess Alexandra who opened the reservoir the race laps, isn’t the kind of race riders enter unless they’re the kind who know how to suffer, though. It’s become (in)famous for atrocious weather, and the testing roads with loose gravel waiting on every bend and corner are more than capable of catching out even riders with first-rate bike handling skills – and that’s even without frost and frozen puddles. Because the weather was so bad, organisers took the decision to delay the start by an hour and although this meant the women would compete over a shorter distance while the men’s event due to take place in the afternoon remained intact, for once it wasn’t met with the usual condemnation from those fans that were there specifically to see the women’s race – no true fan, after all, wants to see a rider crash, and the extra opportunity to drink coffee in the warm was welcome.
The race was fast right from the start with numerous riders after decent placings to help give themselves a better chance at a good overall time once they’d faced the tough climbs of Stage 2, and a four-strong break led by Irish National Road Race Champion Lydia Boylan of WNT got off the front during the second lap. The main group, ever shrinking as more riders felt the toll of the pace and fell off the back, was mindful of the damage such a strong break could potentially do and picked up the pace in order to begin putting on pressure; the break was caught a lap later, but the higher speed led to a crash apparently caused by a touching of wheels on the dam wall which ended the race early for one or two riders including Sian Botteley – an unpleasant end to the recent run of good luck for the Starley Racing rider who won both the Dave Peck Memorial and the Lovelo-Cinelli RR in recent weeks. Fortunately Sian escaped injury and, with her superb current form, should be back to winning very soon. Julie Erskine suffered less serious misfortune with a mechanical issue; while it took her out of contention for a stage victory, her ultimately successful attempt to rejoin the group was one of the stand-out performances of the entire event.
No further breaks formed, but the peloton was visibly cracking into smaller sub-groups before the sprinters began massing at the front for the final blast along the dam. Ejay Harris was among the riders who got stuck behind a crash, leaving Podium Ambition team mate Grace Garner seemingly at a serious disadvantage to rivals with lead-outs in the sprint. However, using a combination of brains and strength, she cleverly found a draft, then selected her line and then powered her way to victory over Team Breeze’s Mel Lowther and Charline Joiner of Ford Ecoboost. It was a spectacular finish and, with the clouds threatening further snow, a welcome one.
1 Grace Garner (Podium Ambition p/b Club La Santa; Elite) 15pts
2 Melissa Lowther (Team Breeze; Elite) 12pts
3 Charline Joiner (Team Ford Ecoboost; Cat. 1) 10pts
4 Abigail Dentus (Team Breeze; Elite) 8pts
5 Eleanor Dickinson (Drops; Cat. 1) 6pts
6 Jennifer Holden (Fusion RT-Fierlan; Cat. 2) 5pts
7 Emily Wadsworth (Beeline-Gener8; Cat. 2) 4pts
8 Alice Cobb (Matrix Fitness p/b Corley Cycles; Cat. 2) 3pts
9 Hilde Oudman (Starley Racing; Cat. e) 2pts
10 Nikki Juniper (Ford Ecoboost; Elite) 1pt
Lydia Boylan’s quartet had brought early action to Stage 1. On Sunday her team mates Jo Tindley and Hannah Walker did the same for Stage 2 with a superb break, escaping the pack soon after the race got underway. With many kilometres and a lot of climbing still to go two team mates working together would have had their work cut out for them making the break stick so when Hannah began to feel the strain and returned to the main group it looked like the fireworks were coming to an end. However, Jo’s well-known for being one of the peloton’s hard-as-nails brawlers and, with luck on her side, things might just have worked out for her, so Ford Ecoboost’s Charline Joiner (herself a famously tough rider, and the team mate of 2015 Road Series Champion Nikki Juniper) took on the task of catching her. But she couldn’t, and Jo’s lead extended to a minute and a half – which wasn’t at all bad, considering that Jo had only escaped so as to be in a better position to negotiate the icy corners, as she explained after the race.
Ford Ecoboost once again responded with Charlotte Broughton next to go after the leader, accompanied by the Army Cycling Union’s Chanel Mason and Delia Beddis of Les Filles. Knowing that Jo would be starting to feel the pressure, WNT’s Boylan and Keira McVitty went after them ready to assist their team mate, but it wasn’t until the third lap, with Jennifer Hudson (Fusion RT-Fierlan), Eleanor Dickinson (Drops Cycling) and Henrietta Colborne (Ford Ecoboost) no also chasing, that Jo’s advantage began to shrink and, finally, she was caught. After a few kilometres in which the peloton took stock, a group of riders managed to split off; however, the break didn’t stick and they were caught after ten minutes, at which point Ford Ecoboost’s Julie Erskine attacked and gained 30 seconds, but once the race returned to the circuit’s biggest climb leading up to the Manor House Inn Matrix Fitness’ Alice Cobb, one of the most promising young climbers on the British scene, attacked hard and took her place at the front. Anna Turvey (Ford Ecoboost) and Maddi Campbell followed, with Campbell continuing on the flatter section and descents and ultimately gaining a small lead, but with the race now drawing towards an end a group of twelve riders were on her case.
As the race turned onto the road leading up to the dam, approaching it from the opposite direction to Stage 1 so that the riders faced a deceptively steep final climb to the finish line, Nikki Juniper was near the front and was favourite to win – not only because she’s defending Series champion, but also because she’s a phenomenally powerful rider who excels on a range of parcours types. However, a perfectly-timed last attack by 100% ME’s Alice Barnes got the better of the Ford Ecoboost rider, and there was a clear gap between Barnes’ rear wheel and Juniper’s front at the line. Nevertheless, Juniper’s work was done – having finished Stage 1 in tenth place, her overall time was sufficient to take the overall victory. Just behind Juniper, and with their noses on their stems as they forced their bikea over the line, were Lucy Shaw and Ellie-May Dickinson; a truly impressive performance, and likely portentous result, for the two Drops riders who are, remarkably, only 18 and 16 years old respectively.
1 Alice Barnes (100% ME; Elite 15pts
2 Nicola Juniper (Ford Ecoboost; 12pts
3 Lucy Shaw (Drops; Cat. 2) 10pts
4 Eleanor Dickinson (Drops; Cat. 1) 8pts
5 Maddi Campbell 0pts
6 Emily Wadsworth (Beeline-Gener8; Cat. 2) 5pts
7 Jennifer Hudson (Fusion RT-Fierlan; Cat. 2) 4pts
8 Natalie Grinczer (WNT; Cat. 1) 3pts
9 Alice Cobb (Matrix Fitness p/b Corley Cycles; Cat. 2) 2pts
10 Jennifer Holden (Fusion RT-Fierlan; Cat. 2) 1pt
1 Nicola Juniper (Ford Ecoboost; Elite 60pts
2 Eleanor Dickinson (Drops; Cat. 1) 52pts
3 Maddi Campbell 0pts
4 Emily Wadsworth (Beeline-Gener8; Cat. 2) 40pts
5 Alice Cobb (Matrix Fitness p/b Corley Cycles; Cat. 2) 35pts
6 Jennifer Holden (Fusion RT-Fierlan; Cat. 2) 31pts
7 Sophie Wright (Renvale RT; Cat. 3) 27pts
8 Anna Turvey (Ford Ecoboost; Cat. 2) 23pts
9 Lucy Shaw (Drops; Cat. 2) 20pts
10 Mel Lowther (Team Breeze; Elite) 17pts
11 Alice Barnes (100% ME; Elite) 15pts
12 Jennifer Hudson (Fusion RT-Fierlan; Cat. 2) 13pts
13 Keira McVitty (WNT; Cat. 1) 11pts
14 Neah Evans (Glasgow Sprint Track CT; Cat. 2) 9pts
15 Karla Boddy (Drops; Cat. 2) 7pts
16 Annasley Park (Team Breeze; Elite) 6pts
17 Annabel Simpson (Drops; Cat. 2) 5pts
18 Detta Guerrini (Footon-Velosport; Cat. 1) 3pts
19 Rebecca Carter (WNT; Cat. 2) 2pts
20 Eve Dixon (Starley Racing; Cat. 2) 1pt