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British National Championships – Preview

British men's road champion Ben Swift (Ineos Grenadiers) will defend his title on Sunday, October 17
British men's road champion Ben Swift (Ineos Grenadiers) will defend his title on Sunday, October 17 (Image credit: Getty Images)

When the red, white and blue jersey worn by the British champion last sat upon a different set of shoulders, coronaviruses, if known at all outside the medical and scientific communities, were known for causing colds and the rarer illnesses of SARS and MERS. In the intervening two-and-a-half years since June 2019 when Ben Swift (Ineos Grenadiers) and Alice Barnes (Canyon-SRAM) took victory in the men’s and women’s elite road race, all that has changed. 

Twice postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the British National Road Championships will finally take place in Lincoln October 14-17, 2021. The national circuit race championship will be included in this schedule for the first time, creating a veritable festival of British cycling in which eight national champion jerseys will be presented. A sportive and the Michaelgate Hill Dash will also be held, allowing amateurs to participate in the festivities. 

The championships begin on Thursday, October 14 when the passage of time will be carefully measured and recorded, more so than usual, as all four time trials are squashed onto the same day. The circuit races will be held the following day, and the road races on Sunday, October 17.

Lincoln is well-versed in cycling. For 60 years it has hosted the Lincoln Grand Prix, an event steeped in prestige and famed for Michaelgate, a cobbled climb that rises towards the city centre. The last time that the national championships visited Lincoln in 2015, Michaelgate proved decisive in both the women’s and men’s races.

Lizzie Deignan (then of Boels Dolmans) attacked on the penultimate ascent of this climb, and eventually won by a minute while Peter Kennaugh (then of Team Sky) finally distanced Mark Cavendish (then of Omega Pharma-Quick-Step) on Michaelgate’s cobbles shortly before the finish line. 

The Road Races

British Road National Championships 2021

Circuit for British Road National Championships 2021 (Image credit: British Cycling)

The rose windows that adorn the northern and southern sides of Lincoln Cathedral are a rare example of this feature in English medieval architecture. Rose windows are much more characteristic of European architecture, and, indeed, bike racing in Lincoln bears remarkable similarities to its continental cousin. 

The centrepiece of any race in Lincoln is Michaelgate, and with its cobbles, exceptionally narrow roads and steep slopes, it is reminiscent of climbs found in a Belgian town. Though it is only 200 metres long, its maximum gradient of 20 per cent provides a stern test for any prospective winner, while its position shortly before the finish line offers the launchpad for a late attack. 

Beginning and ending in Castle Square, the route of the road races is formed by repeated loops of a 12.6km lap, containing about 470 feet (143 metres) of elevation gain, around Lincoln. It first leaves town for a short foray into the Lincolnshire countryside, then descends after the village of South Carlton before climbing back into the city centre via Michaelgate.

The women will tackle this circuit eight times, a total distance of 101km, and the men will ride 13 laps totalling 166km. While there isn’t a separate U23 road race, the best young finisher in the men’s and women’s elite road races will be crowned the U23 national champions.

The Time Trials

British Road National Championships 2021

Course for time trial championships (Image credit: British Cycling)

Situated in a slightly more rural setting than the road races, the time trials will take place in the Lincolnshire Wolds, a designated Area of Outstanding National Beauty. They too are formed by a circuit - 15.3km in length - that starts just outside the village of Tealby, climbs up Walesby Hill, before heading back to Tealby again.

It is a challenging course that contains 500 feet (152 metres) of climbing on each lap, with much of this elevation gain on Walesby Hill. This 2.4km climb possesses a deceptively shallow gradient of 4.1 per cent with a maximum of 10 per cent on its steepest slopes. 

The elite men’s field will complete two full laps of this course and a slightly truncated final lap since the finish line is positioned about a kilometre before the start, totalling 44.7km. The elite women, under-23 men and under-23 women will ride one full lap and one shorter lap in a 29.4km time trial. 

The Circuit Races

British Road National Championships 2021

Course for circuit races (Image credit: British Cycling)

Folded into the wider National Road Championships for the first time, the circuit races will take place on a one-kilometre floodlit route through Lincoln’s historic city centre.

Rather than operating within the constraints of a fixed distance, these circuit races are timed. They will be contested over an hour with a final five laps after this time period to decide the winner.

Positioning will be crucial in this race since there will be little room to manoeuvre on Lincoln’s narrow, cobbled streets that wind their way through the historic city centre. 

The Contenders

IMOLA ITALY SEPTEMBER 25 Alex Dowsett of The United Kingdom during the 93rd UCI Road World Championships 2020 Men Elite Individual Time Trial a 317km race from Imola to Imola Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari ITT ImolaEr2020 Imola2020 on September 25 2020 in Imola Italy Photo by Bas CzerwinskiGetty Images

Alex Dowsett at the 2020 Road World Championships in Imola (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Men's road race

Each race of these national championships is stacked with former or defending national champions. Alice Barnes (Canyon-SRAM) returns to defend her road race and time trial titles; Alex Dowsett (Israel Start-Up Nation) will seek to win a record seventh title in the men’s time trial; while three former national champions will take to the start line of the men’s road race - Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Ben Swift (Ineos Grenadiers) and Connor Swift (Arkéa-Samsic). 

Last year, Ben Swift attacked from a small breakaway, reeled in his then-teammate Ian Stannard, and soloed to victory in the final kilometre. He arrives in Lincoln this year following a solid, if unspectacular, season but the short, punchy Michaelgate climb suits his style of racing.

His cousin and the 2018 champion, Connor Swift, has enjoyed somewhat of a breakthrough season, winning Tro-Bro Léon and the Tour Poitou, as well as finishing an impressive fifth in the Bretagne Classic. Cavendish’s late career resurrection, meanwhile, continued after his near-miraculous Tour de France, with victory at the Sparkassen Münsterland Giro; his hopes for a second national title rest on his ability to crest Michaelgate with the rest of the peloton.

Alongside these former champions are several riders seeking to win the national title for the first time, among whom Ethan Hayter (Ineos Grenadiers) is perhaps the outstanding favourite.

Since winning an Olympic silver medal in the Madison, Hayter has taken the general classification at the Tour of Norway and narrowly missed out on the overall win at the Tour of Britain where he matched Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), two of the world’s best cyclists, pedal stroke for pedal stroke. As Hayter showed in the Tour of Britain too, his sprint seems relatively untamed by short, steep inclines and so he should be suited to this course. 

Hayter’s partner in the Madison, Matthew Walls (Bora-Hansgrohe) also won Olympic gold in the Omnium and has followed his success in Tokyo with a stage of the Tour of Norway and victory at Gran Piemonte. Further competition will come from riders such as Jake Stewart (Groupama-FDJ), Matt Holmes (Lotto Soudal), Fred Wright (Bahrain Victorious) and James Shaw (Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling). 

Alice Barnes

Alice Barnes in her national championship jersey (Image credit: Canyon-SRAM Racing)

Women's road race

The start list of the women’s road race is equally studded with potential winners. In her time as the British national champion, Barnes has shown the power of her sprint, finishing second at a stage of the Vuelta a Burgos and Simac Ladies Tour. It was this sprint that she utilised to win the national title, emphatically beating a small group of four to the line. 

Contained within this group was Anna Henderson (Jumbo-Visma) who returns to the race aiming to swap her second place in 2019 for a national champions jersey. Her mixture of climbing and sprinting abilities, perfect for this course, was showcased by a third place on the hilly final stage of the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta. 

Astonishingly, given that Barnes is 26 and Henderson is only 22, younger riders threaten their attempts to emulate the result of the 2019 race. Pfeiffer Georgi (Team DSM) has ridden strongly this season as a key part of the lead out train for Lorena Wiebes (Team DSM), and has also taken a victory of her own at La Choralis Fourmies Féminine. 

The domestic scene in 2021, meanwhile, has been dominated by two exciting young riders - Abi Smith (Team TIBICO-Silicon Valley Bank) and April Tacey (Drops-Le Col s/b Tempur), who finished first and second, respectively, in the National Road Series. Smith’s strengths lie in her ability to sustain a high power output rather than a sprint finish, suggesting that her best strategy for victory might be a long range attack, while Tacey possesses a more powerful kick.

Men's time trial

The men’s time trial will feature a multiple national time trial champion and an Hour Record holder. Reigning Champion Alex Dowsett has won the national title six times, and following his announcement of a World Hour Record attempt in November, he should be approaching peak fitness. Fresh from setting a new British men’s hour record and a strong showing in the time trial at the world championships, Dan Bigham (Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling) will also challenge for the title.

Neither of these men, however, seem to be the strongest British time triallist currently as Hayter continued his impressive season with an eighth place in the time trial at the World Championships. He will attempt to balance his ambitions in the time trial and road race.

Women's time trial

Alice Barnes will also face stiff competition in her defence of her time trial title. Newly crowned world hour record holder Joss Lowden (Drops-Le Col s/b Tempur) has never worn the jersey of the national time trial champion, and this more hilly course suits her abilities, offering an opportunity to fill this gap on her palmarès.

A second place in the recent time trial at the Women’s Tour, behind only Demi Vollering (SD Worx), confirmed Lowden’s form though the small gaps between her and the other Brits in the field- only four seconds separated Lowden and Barnes- suggest that this will be a finely poised race. 

Three other British riders finished in the top-ten of this time trial – Hannah Barnes (Canyon SRAM Racing), Abi Smith and Anna Shackley (SD Worx) who will both race in the U23 category. Hayley Simmonds (CAMS- Basso Bikes), though she underperformed at the Women’s Tour time trial, will also surely challenge for her third national title. 

U23 and circuit races

The men’s U23 time trial has become a much more open race, following the withdrawal of Ethan Vernon (TEAM) due to injury issues. His absence provides opportunities for riders such as Ben Turner (TRINITY Road Racing), Leo Hayter (Development Team DSM) and Sam Watson (Team Inspired). 

In the women’s race, Abi Smith recently won the Women’s Curlew Cup, and was able to translate this road racing form into an impressive seventh place at the individual time trial held during the Women’s Tour. She will be challenged by Pfeiffer Georgi who represented Team GB at the recent World Championships and Anna Shackley whose climbing credentials were confirmed by her selection for the Olympic road race in Tokyo. 

The circuit races’ addition to the wider national championships have created a somewhat hybrid start list for this event, composed of circuit race specialists and road racers. In the women’s race, Eluned King (Team Breeze) who won the Otley Grand Prix circuit race in June will line up alongside Abi Smith whose stellar season has included topping the Women’s National Road Series. They will be joined by Hannah Barnes, a former national road champion, and Beth Morrow (Storey Racing), runner up in July’s Ilkley Women’s Grand Prix circuit race. 

A similar constellation of riders constitute the men’s circuit race start list. Joey Walker (Crimson Orientation Marketing RT) will wear race number one as the defending champion, following his victory in 2019. Reece Wood (Canyon-DHB-Sungod) too will seek to emulate his exploits at the Men’s Ilkley Grand Prix circuit race where he took victory.

From the road racing scene, the Ineos Grenadiers pair of Hayter and Owain Doull, and Finn Crockett (Wheelbase CabTech Castelli), who has consistently placed on the podium in the National Road Series, pose a threat to the circuit race specialists.

Schedule

DateEventLocationLengthTime
Thursday, October 14Men’s U23 Individual Time TrialTealby29.4km09:00 – 10:50
Women’s U23 Individual Time TrialTealby29.4km10:30 – 12:00
Men’s Elite Individual Time TrialTealby44.7km12:00 – 14:30
Women’s Elite Individual Time TrialTealby29.4km15:30 – 17:00
Friday, October 15Women’s Circuit ChampionshipLincoln1 hour + 5 laps17:40 – 18:45
Men’s Circuit ChampionshipLincoln1 hour + 5 laps19:00 – 20:05
Sunday, October 17National Women’s ChampionshipLincoln101km09:00 – 12:00
National Men’s ChampionshipLincoln166km13:00 – 17:00

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