Behind the scenes – how our road race is run

Acting club Press Officer Roger Gollicker, outlines what it takes to run our annual road races

Whilst I’ve been involved in various ways with the club’s annual road race over the last seven or eight years, this year saw me enjoying quite an eye-opening experience, as I got to take on my press officer duties, from the back seat of one of the commissaires cars.

As someone who’s always trying to encourage members to write a blog on their cycling experiences, I thought I’d write one myself to enlighten you all a bit on how the club’s biggest event of the year is run.

Banbury Guardian headline – summarises our event well

First a bit of history, our annual road race is traditionally held on the last weekend of May. Over the years it has been held on three different courses. The first race was held in 1954 over a distance of 75 miles on four laps of a circuit south of Banbury, around the villages of Deddington and Enstone. This lasted until 1970 when a more central location, known as the Queensway Circuit, was used. It was much shorter as well, with its eight laps totalling around 48 miles. With increasing town traffic volumes, its future was always under threat and the last race took place in 1993. It was not until 2002 that the club found its current 45-mile three lap circuit, taking in Edgehill.

Planning and organisation are the key to running an event like this and over the last four years, Mike Gillett has done a fantastic job to make it all run so smoothly. This year he had some great additional help from Tobi Ng to lighten the load.  Early preparations start as far back as September. First, the club must agree a date and register the race with British Cycling (BC) and its women’s team event; additionally, now registering the men’s race as part of the Oxfordshire Road Race League.

Then, in the new year the bookings start, NOA for the HQ, ordering the chip timing, the paramedic cover and the National Escort Group (NEG) motorcycles. During March the course is inspected, with any bad road surface reported to “fix my street”. Sponsors are then sought and confirmed, race numbers and pins are ordered and around 150 residents’ letters are printed for distribution along the course. Towards the end of April, the first call goes out for volunteers and convoy drivers, plus a liaison with BC regarding accredited marshals and commissaires required.

Nearer the event we need to locate and arrange collection of all the race equipment and signs etc, deliver the residents letter, sort catering details and arrange cash prizes and provision for expenses. On the Saturday afternoon, a team of around six volunteers erect 30 or so course signs at all junctions as per a risk assessment. Race morning is all about the signing in of officials and competitors, equipping all the convoy cars and marshal briefing.

Whilst all riders will, or should know, the rules and regulations of the race, plus course details beforehand, a short pre-race briefing is given by the chief commissaire just before the start. The number one message that is given to the riders concerns their safety and the need to obey all traffic regulations etc. Areas of caution, potholes and other course details are also mentioned.

Now to the race itself and how it’s run and controlled.  This is managed via the convoy vehicles, which for our race with a maximum field of 80 riders, comprised of, four cars, three NEG motorcycles, an ambulance and a broom wagon. The latter, if you didn’t know, is there to collects all those poor souls who meet a mechanical problem out on the course. It should be mentioned that Stuart Quick and his van provided this service, as well as collecting all the race equipment.

In the lead car, driven by Barry Duplock, was BC chief marshal Gary Nixon, who at the appropriate time radios ahead to an accredited marshal to close the oncoming road junction – always staying in this lead position. Following initially were two further cars, the first of which was driven by Mark Boyles, followed by the commissaire car “Comm 2” driven by Chris Bean, his passenger, BC commissaire Dave Pittman.  Dave had a key role, starting the race, adopting control of neutralising the front groups if needed, monitoring the head of the race, time gaps etc. and sending general race information back to the chief commissaire. The final car, driven by Oli Wright in commissaire car “Comm 1”, which tends to remain at the rear of the race. In this car is chief commissaire Steve Giles, who with Dave’s input, helps adjudicate and control the race. All these vehicles, together with the accredited marshals, are in radio contact with one another.

When ready, the riders leave NOA directly behind Dave’s Comm 2 car, who leads them in a controlled neutralised manner, past all the roundabouts and lights out onto the Warwick Road. When he’s satisfied that the whole peloton is together and the road ahead is clear, he drops his chequered starting flag and they’re off.

The riders get a bit too close for comfort on the lead out along Warwick road – that’s a keen Tobi far left

An early break is often made in races and this needs to be monitored closely by the commissaires to see if they need to move cars, or motorbikes between the breakaway and peloton to provide safety cover. However, whilst both races had attempted breakaways, nothing really significant happened until the first ascent of Edge hill. After that, breakaways and bunches did start to form in both races and that’s when Dave (Comm 2) has to start making decisions regarding the placement of vehicles and motorbikes. One of the first decisions made was to move his car up behind the leading breakaway and to move the car driven by Mark back behind the chasing peloton. As we know though, with our course the ascent of Edge hill really splits up a large field, so the commissaires are kept constantly busy, making decisions on how to position the cars and motorbikes in the interests of safety and policing.

The NEG riders in particular play a key role in the race, aided by their speed and agility. I expect that to most motorists they initially look like the police. They are also used, on the commissaires’ instructions, to ride alongside the peloton and issue any orders or instructions to riders. This happened along the Warwick Road in the women’s race when riders were crossing the central white line for long periods. They also help with assisting the advance closing of junctions, the slowing of any fast-oncoming traffic and helping with congested sections like Edgehill village.

Comm 2 behind the leading bunch

One thing that was good to witness at this year’s event was the performance of the women’s race winner, Emily Proud. Before the race I’d asked Lisa West, who looks after the Team Series, about the possible favourites and she named Emily as one. So, when we came to the last lap climb of Edge hill there she was, nicely placed in the leading bunch of 11 riders. Once on the climb, however, she was the first to be dropped and really seemed to be struggling. At the top of the hill, she was a good 30 seconds in arrears – so much for the favourite, I thought.

Dave initially thought about overtaking her to get back in touch with the leading bunch, but we could all see she was now putting in a great effort to try and reduce the gap. In what was a six-mile solo chase, she managed to catch the leaders on the edge of Horley and then go on to win the sprint finish by barely a second. Very impressed and as they say in sport – never say never!

Another highlight to mention, was the live race reporting via the club’s Instagram account. Updated by Hayley Holland and Bella Boyles, working alongside her dad, the feed contained photos and short videos of the races progress with useful captions. The screenshot below illustrates my point and it’s certainly something I think we should promote and develop for next time.

I never thought when I started to write this, it would be so long, but as I hope you can see, an awful lot of work goes on behind-the-scenes to run such a successful event. I’d like to thank Dave Pittman and Mike Gillett for helping with some of the input they’ve given me, as well as checking that I’ve got my facts right.