“An enjoyable romp through the Black Country, using occasional bridleways and farm tracks to link largely quiet country roads, before encountering less quiet main roads. There is a short cobbled segment.”
On Sunday, along with 3 club mates and a very welcome interloper (Cyclo-cross regular and event organiser, Ned Potter of Climb on bikes), we tackled the 100km Lapierre ‘Tour of the Black Country’ sportive an event ‘modelled on the epic European classic Paris-Roubaix’; a pretty bold claim. I don’t do many sportives and the one’s that I do enter, tend to be off-road centric or slightly different, so this seemed right up my <cobbled> street. So did the event live up to its bold claims?
In that order.
That probably requires some explanation.
Arriving in Wolverhampton, it was clear that this event – in its third year – has blossomed to a reasonable size. There were cars snaking around a whopping big car park, circling for an elusive spot. We were lucky, parked and registered (a breeze, very efficient), quickly got changed and toed the start line. Again, given the large amount of entrants – around 1000 I believe – the start was pretty well marshaled and we started without a hitch.
We headed out of Wolverhampton and made straight for the sticks. The countryside was an unexpected pleasure, dispelling my quite wrong assumption that the surrounding area was very urban. Picturesque cottages, small hump-backed bridges and an idyllic canal network all providing eye candy. After 11km or so, we hit our first off-road section; 1300m of dirt track in the form of Gorse Lane. And when I say ‘hit’ I mean ‘HIT’. Call it post Roubaix cobble deprivation but we clattered into it like we were being chased by the hounds of hades. If I’m entirely honest, it wasn’t particularly Roubaix-esque. The lane effectively set out the stall for the majority of the event; gravel farm tracks, pitted with occasional holes and the odd obstacle. It flashed by swiftly and we re-entered the tarmac world.
At the end of this section we regrouped and rode together along quiet(ish) roads to the next bit of offroad. We sprinted it over it, to iron out the bumps. We finished. We regrouped. We moved on. There was an occasional hill. The odd picture postcard village. Another canal. An offroad section. We rode like nutters. We….. <repeat, repeat, repeat>. Eventually we moved away from roads and farm tracks, encountering some real Roubaix type stuff – though courtesy of the gradient, Flanders would be a better analogy – on ‘The Waltonberg’ a 22% incline compromising of cobbles and brick repairs. I launched myself up it and with about 1/3rd of the way to go, very nearly regretted doing so. Another 100 yards would have exposed the silliness of the pace at which I entered it. Again, I’ll blame that Roubaix hangover.
The Waltonberg represents the beginning and end of any really tricky offroad riding and the remainder mirrors the earlier sections of the sportive, albeit with more traffic. At the finish, we did a lap and three quarters of the track (in time trial formation), before enjoying the complimentary glass of wine and some rather lovely Jamaican cooking. Courtesy of the great facilities, It was very comfortable, civilised and relaxed.
The event is well run and has its heart in the right place. The atmosphere was good, the people friendly. I was very pleasantly surprised by some of the countryside and if the organisers can promise the same weather next year (it was bloody glorious) a fine experience awaits the sportive rider. But imaginations are stretched with the Paris-Roubaix comparisons. My main advice would be to sell the sportive on its merits (of which there are lots), rather than draw any parallels with cobbled classics and if possible, winkle some more offroad stuff out of that surprising Black Country greenery. Would I do it again? Apart from one negative navigation issue (an arrow had been removed by an irate farmer causing riders to veer off-course) and at a reasonable £25 to enter, yes. I think so.
Footnote: Before entering the Tour of the Black Country, I was thinking of entering ‘The White Road’s classic’, organised by the same company and modelled on the Strade Bianchi. I still am.