By Gerry McManus
Although the East Midlands of Britain will miss out on a stage of this year's Tour of Britain cycle race in September, cycling fans in the area will only have to wait until Sunday 29th April next year to see international cycle racing at its best, with the announcement this week that the Rutland-Melton CiCLE Classic will in 2007 become a UCI Class 1.2 international race.
First held in 2005, the race, which was granted Premier Calendar race status by British Cycling, became an instant success with riders and spectators alike. In addition, and unusually for Britain, the race received a coveted local award for 'Event of the Year' from the local regional newspaper. The second edition in 2006 was even more spectacular, and with coverage by Eurosport and BBC East Midlands TV, began to reach the level of audience that has long been unknown to British cycling events.
Based on the two Northern classics, the Ronde Van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, Rutland-Melton follows a 100 miles (160 kms) course interspersed with a succession of short sharp climbs, and 12 special sectors of very poor to unmade roads. With the start and finish in the two major towns in the area, Oakham, the county town of Rutland England's smallest county; and Melton Mowbray; better known for pork pies than sport; the race carries with it strong community support along its route.
This year's winner was Robin Sharman of Britain's current top team, Recycling.co.uk, with international interest from the five-man Australian based FRF Couriers-Caravello team, and several individual entries from Ireland. On describing his win Sharman referred to the event being "a MANS race", and no one who witnessed the racing that took place would disagree with that definition.
"The race has come a long way in just two years," said race director and founder Colin Clews, "but I made no disguise from the outset that my aim for the race was to reach international status within 5 years. To have been able to make this move in just three shows the appeal of the race not only to the riders but also to local sponsors and community groups who see cycle racing at this level as something that they want to be involved in.
"This year the race had 150 places for riders, and in addition had to send back 43 entries. For next year initial discussions have commenced with the police regarding a 180 rider field in order to accommodate the popularity of this unique race. This would give the Rutland-Melton the accolade of having the biggest ever entry for a single day road race in Britain outside of a World Championship or World Cup race."
For 2007, the race will also increase its continental atmosphere with a 'race permanence' (HQ) within historic Oakham Castle. This will further showcase the tourism opportunities of the East Midlands area to those visiting from the continent, who are likely to be from countries served by airlines operating from Nottingham East Midlands Airport; one of the race's main sponsors.
After the success of events associated with the start and finish of this year's race, plans are also in hand to build upon this for 2007, including the staging of mass participation leisure rides over varying distances, and parts of the CiCLE Classic course one week before the international race.
"With its low traffic volumes, picturesque and quiet, challenging roads, the East Midlands offers an environment for cycle racing which is not available in most other areas of Britain," continued Clews.
"With London 2012 looming on the horizon, Britain has a need for major races to showcase the sport and to provide the levels of international competition opportunities for British cyclists that are regularly available to their continental counterparts. The CiCLE Classic has now set down a benchmark that others will hopefully now strive to emulate."