The penultimate week of June can only mean one thing, the national championships. This season, the British national championships will head to the Isle of Man to decide who gets to wear the blue and red bands for the forthcoming year.
The choice was a welcome one for home riders Mark Cavendish, Peter Kennaugh and Mark and Anna Christian. It's not the first time that the national championships have visited the island in the Irish Sea, with Robert Millar winning his one and only national title 1995.
Back then, the race formed part of the, since defunct, Manx Cycle Week. The route was much the same as the riders will face 22 years on, with the famed TT circuit forming the bulk of the course. The national championships doubled up as the Manx International, which returned in 2016 after a 13-year hiatus and is set to be a two-day race next season.
Adam Blythe (Aqua Blue Sport), Hannah Barnes (Canyon-SRAM), Hayley Simmonds (Team WNT) and Alex Dowsett (Movistar) will head to the island to defend the titles that they won in Stockton-on-Tees last season.
The road races
As it did in 1995, the road races will compete over the TT course. The 37.5-mile route over public roads has just played host to the TT motorbike festival. The riders will certainly not be hitting the 130mph plus average speeds, but the course will be fast and technical at parts with small, twisting roads playing a factor.
After leaving from the Grandstand on Glencrutchery Road on the outskirts of the capital Douglas, the peloton will hit the fast descent down Bray Hill before turning a sharp right and heading out to the west of the island. On their way, they will face rolling roads as the first reach Peel and then Ramsey at the north of the island.
Coming out of Ramsey is where the riders will face the toughest gradients. The ride from the town up towards the island's only mountain Snaefell last over eight kilometres and regularly hits gradients of over 10 per cent and goes as high as 14 at certain points. The road levels out a touch as the race passes Snaefell, before a fast descent from the Creg-ny-Baa into Onchan and then the short, sharp descent back onto Glencrutchery road.
The men's peloton will complete two laps of the TT circuit while the women will do one. From there, the riders will complete the finishing circuit, which turns right before Bray Hill to loop back onto the finishing section of the TT course by riding up the 1.5-kilometre rise up Scollag Road to re-join the course on the run into Onchan.
It's a tough course that should reduce the peloton to just a handful of riders by the finish line. An aggressive strategy could work well here with the twisting descent towards the finishing straight a good platform for an attack.
Ian Bibby won the Manx International last year ahead of Erick Rowsell and has been in good form so far this season. The finishing loop up Scollag Road makes this race a tougher prospect than last year's offering. Local, Peter Kennaugh will be highly motivated to do well here, on home territory and just ahead of the Tour de France, and it is a course that suits him well. With a string of Team Sky riders set to line up, any of whom have a feasible shot at victory, the squad has a strong chance of getting one of their riders in the jersey – although working as a team is technically not allowed, it often happens.
Island resident Ben Swift showed that he has his climbing legs by finishing second to Kennaugh on the Alpe d'Huez at the Criterium du Dauphine. If he can do anything close to what he did on that day, then he could feasibly take his first national title.
The island, of course, has Mark Cavendish in the mix - although how he'll go on a route such as this after his lay-off is unknown – as well as Aqua Blue's Mark Christian. Axeon Hagens Berman's Chris Lawless has been on form recently and could break the run of WorldTour riders that has taken the title over recent years.
In the women's race, former British Champion Lizzie Deignan a hot favourite for the win, although she did not look her best at the recent Women's Tour. Drops rider Alice Barnes finished second to Deignan on the hilly Lincoln course two years ago, and after her performance at the Women's Tour earlier this month, she could get one over on Deignan this time around. Her sister, defending champion Hannah Barnes is also going well and with the course finishing on a downhill rather than up she too could be in the mix in the finale. Watch out for Dani King too, after a consistent run throughout this season, and local rider Anna Christian.
The time trials
It is hard to go very far in the Isle of Man without going up some sort of climb and the time trial course will have to tackle a few of its own. Starting next to Tynwald Hill, an area of political significance to the island, the race will head north towards Kirk Michael via the narrow Switchback road. The ride up to Kirk Michael features a relentlessly undulating route that will challenge the rider and their bike and with open fields on either side wind – which is a common occurrence on the island – could provide another challenge.
The road widens as the course turns onto the A4 just past Ballagyr, but it is no less up and down. As the riders approach Kirk Michael, they will take a sharp right and make their way onto the TT course, going the opposite way to the one they'll take during Sunday's races. The return towards the start/finish is comparatively wider, but no roads are ever really that wide on the island. The riders can expect even more rises and falls as they head towards Ballacraine corner before turning onto the short finishing straight. The hills are not that big, but they are relentless and ready to catch anyone out.
Hayley Simmonds will go in as the favourite for this as she hunts her third straight title. Hannah Barnes will be looking to get her week off to a good start with a strong result here and Olympic gold medallists Katie Archibald and Elinor Barker, also a junior world time trial champion, could pose serious threats.
Alex Dowsett has dominated the men's competition over the past few years and is looking for a record-equalling sixth title. Owain Doull and Jon Dibben from Team Sky will be looking to get in his way while last year's podium finishers James Gullen and Ryan Perry will be looking for a return trip to the rostrum. Katie Archibald's brother John Archibald could be an outside bet after he beat Graham Obree's 25-mile time trial record recently.
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