Have you ever wanted to go to one of those crazy Flemish races where the riders fly down narrow, slippery cobbled streets with vast crowds of noisy fans along both sides of the road, but have never quite managed to make the trip across the Channel? Well, good news for you – you can experience the same sort of thing without going anywhere near a ferry because, in the rolling Shropshire countryside not far from The Wrekin, is Newport, a quiet town of around 15,000… except for once every two years, when it becomes a very busy town of 30,000 due to its famous bike race the Newport Nocturne. Many of those fans will be squeezed into St. Mary’s Street, a narrow, shop-lined street surfaced with the sort of cobbles that are just rough enough to make bikes shake and buck all over the place and just smooth enough to be as slippery as an ice rink if it’s been raining.
Does that sound like your idea of fun? Penny Rowson thinks so – she was the winner of the inaugural women’s race in 2012 (the event is biennial). Her team mate Hannah Walker, who is now with Epic-Scott, was right behind her for second place while Jessie Walker, another team mate, was sixth. No fewer than three other riders who would later join Penny and Jessie at Matrix-Vulpine were also top ten: Jo Tindley (then VC St Raphael) was seventh and won the Sprints Trophy, Louise Borthwick (then Edinburgh RC) was eighth and Harriet Owen (then Node4-Giordana) was tenth.
With plenty of live music and other entertainment to create a festival atmosphere the Newport Nocturne has something to offer the whole family, even those who aren’t interested in cycling – though if the racing on the short, tight and partly cobbled circuit is anything like it was in 2012, you may well find that those who aren’t fans have been converted by the time you head home. There really is no other race quite like this one in Britain.
Many criterium circuits are more-or-less square. The Nocturne, meanwhile, is shaped like a reversed music note and has six corners of varying difficulty, the most technical being the 175° right at the northernmost end – the approach is good and fast, but halfway through the tight turn the riders head onto the slippery cobbles. It’s a corner that requires great skill to be taken at speed in the dry, and it’s lethal in the wet. The second corner, leading away from the cobbles before a high-speed blast down the High Street, is also a tricky one – the cobbled approach takes in a right-hand bend with limited space before the road veers sharply left, easily causing handlebars to clash together in the peloton. The remaining corners are not as technical, but with an assortment of drain covers, pinch points and potentially slippery patches to catch out the unwary, it’s a parcours that can without warning punish any rider whose attention slips away for even a second or two.
Newport is located at the point where the A41 and A518 meet, making it easy to reach from much of Wales, the Midlands and further afield. The town does not have a railway station; the nearest is at Stafford, a little under 20km to the north-east – the journey takes around 30-40 minutes on the 481 bus. Better still, the towns are located by the National Cycle Route 55, which will take around one hour depending on ability.