A Classic Love Affair - The Past, Present & Future with Colin Clews
Google maps offered up a 50 minute, direct journey along A road arteries. I declined this option in favour of the deserted morning lanes through arable farmland under an expansive flat, slate sky. With my destination in mind, it seemed more fitting to drive these twisting lanes and enjoy some time winding through the region’s prime road racing country, passing the familiar landmarks - punchy inclines whose gradients I knew too well, the windmill which indicated the turn I needed to take - so fittingly iconic to Northern European road racing. I could very easily have been in Flanders, rather than rural Leicestershire heading to meet with a man who lives in a house named 'Roubaix'...
It is no accident that the Rutland-Melton International CiCLE Classic, ‘Britain’s Paris Roubaix’, is run off each year over the rock-strewn, unsurfaced ‘secteurs’ and sharp, sapping ‘bergs’ that lie hidden in this maze of farmland and villages. But this race delivers the chain rattling, tubular shredding maelstrom of the traditional Northern Classics in a manner that has long since outgrown the need for any caveats or deferential sub-headings. Colin Clews is the father of this race- father rather than founder. This distinction echoes throughout the tones in which he speaks of his ‘baby’, of the passion he has for the race as he watches it grow and take on a life and legend of its own. No mean courier himself in his day, Colin exudes a friendliness and disarming charm that is underpinned by forthright views on the current state of racing in the UK, couched within an admirably direct yet diplomatic articulation as befits a UCI International Commissaire of some 25 years standing. Living at the heart of the rural tapestry his race furiously criss-crosses each April, Colin Clews is the only man you’d want in charge of the UK’s much loved and iconic Classic.
Tim: How did the race come about? How long was it a pipe-dream rather than a reality?
Colin: The background to the race is that in 2003 I lost my first wife and then took the opportunity of early retirement. I had a lot of time on my hands and I rode my bike a lot. I’d always ridden around here, for the 10 or 12 years we’d lived here and I’d always thought there are some lovely roads around here, especially going over towards Owston- small lanes, that sort of thing. I did a lot of work for the UCI, over in Belgium. You see the races and you think to yourself “Well, what’s different?” And the answer actually is nothing is different, apart from the actual will to do something and make a race look good! So, riding along one day I thought “I could put a race on here- would anyone else be daft enough to come along with me!?” I put a little piece into the local paper saying I was interested in running a race. I’d talked to the two local councils who happened to have sports officers and asked if they’d be interested. The proviso was, though, I wasn’t not going to put a race on out in the back woods, it had to be where people are- in this area the natural choices are Rutland and Melton. The Councils thought it was a great idea: We had support- in principle… I then had two people ring me up. The first guy, Dick Harvey, a major farmer & businessman, said “I’m willing to put money into the race as long as you bring it to the village I live” I asked him where he lived- Owston! The exact place that inspired the race! The next guy was Toby Day- the then Desk Sgt at Oakham police station and an avid cyclist. He said if I needed any help at all with the police side of things he was my man!
I then went out begging, basically, and managed to get together about £3500 in 2005. That was it- we'd run it! Essentially I funded the race that year; it cost about £8000 for what was, back then, a Premier Calendar. It was a success. Everybody, the riders, spectators, backers, loved it. And so the legend was born that very year. I managed to get further sponsorship and began planning and increasing- I said “let’s do this right- let’s aim for, within 5 years, to be an international event”. Since then, we’ve struggled along- it’s only the last 2 years were we’ve actually broken even.
Tim: This race is about more than financial interest and viability though, what is the true driver?
Colin: The passion: It’s born out of passion and over the years it has taken over my life to make sure it happens! The passion to make something that looks like a bike race- not a fish and chipper- to put a bike race on and people are going to know that ‘There is a bike race on!’ On every corner or junction of the race there is a sponsor’s banner- over a 180km bike race, that’s some doing. But that’s what we’ve achieved. Especially places like Owston, we really got to town there. And it works- the feel is there, the atmosphere, people come, the riders love it, it’s something different. I absolutely love it.
I go away to races for my work with the UCI and every time I go to a race, I’m looking at the race, talking to the organisers, looking at what they’re doing with their race, looking at ideas- and when I come back there’s always something that I think "yep- we could do that to make the CiCLE Classic look better". The money thing has always been a struggle though and will always continue to be a struggle.. But at the moment we have four good sponsors: Giant, Rutland Cycling at Rutland Water, Schwalbe Tyres and Dare2B Clothing who are all fantastic. And now we have the chance to hold a new Women’s event which will start and finish in the middle of Melton, a race and a sportive. It’s going to be a big event and I’m very pleased to be able to make that move.
Myself, Kelvin Hoy and Tony Ferrari, who’ve been with me throughout, we’ve had so much fun and every penny I’ve spent on the race has been worthwhile- just giving me the satisfaction of seeing the race run and seeing other people enjoy it and take satisfaction.
Tim: You mention your work over in Europe and the inspirations are clearly visible - which race holds the biggest place in your heart?
Colin: It always used to be Paris-Roubaix, but over the last few years my allegiance has tended to move more towards the Tour of Flanders as I think it is more of a match to what we do, with the short, sharp climbs and the rough secteurs. I’ve worked on them both. But there are so many races over in Flanders - Nokere -Koerse for one - which are massive, with a tremendous following and coverage. That’s what we need to aim for.
My sadness is when I look back, forty or fifty years ago, at the big events that everyone looked forward to: GP of Essex, Archer GP, Tour of Cotswolds, Tour of the Peak – these were our Paris-Roubaix or Tour of Flanders! Every one of them has been allowed to die. Could you ever imagine that happening in Belgium!? To me it’s total sacrilege that we’ve allowed that to happen to our sport. I have a pop at British Cycling from time to time, I’ve always felt that we get a bad deal from British Cycling, we don’t get a great deal of support for the race. Yet we’re putting on a Junior National Series event which they get the benefit from along with a major international event that attracts foreign teams - more apply than I can presently take! If I had the budget to take twenty foreign teams I would do so - I could do it, they want to come! The event seems more famous and more attractive outside of this country. That saddens me; I think it’s an indictment. More should be done to bolster up organisers in the UK. Not just myself, other organisers that suffer in the same way.
The question has to be asked: Why would anybody want to run a National Series event when there’s nothing in it for the people concerned? They get a little bit of a TV program that’s seen in the small hours or something, otherwise there’s no benefit in running a National Series event in this country. I was talking to someone about TV the other day – in the UK the TV companies don’t pay out to cover the races: You have to produce the film and they then perhaps take it from you free of charge. “Why should we go out and film a bike race?” is what TV is saying, “Why would people tune into watch a race other than the Tour de France?”. For them the answer is simple: We in the UK don’t make races look special enough. You go abroad and there’s so much razzmatazz and activity around it. TV companies in Belgium are vying for every event! Nokere-Koerse, hardly heard of here, but TV want it because it's so attractive, it gets the crowds out. That’s what we have to do here when it comes to road racing. Track is fantastic, sure, but road is being left far behind and unless we move our standards up and push them forward we’re going to lose a lot more races that have been around for so long. I really don’t understand it; the federation should be putting some money in to make that happen. It isn’t so many years ago that they were funding things like the Lincoln GP, Tour of the Cotswolds or Tour of the Peak to run as international events.. Not a massive amount of money but at least it told organisers that ‘we value you’...
Tim: Have there been points when you thought "Sod it, enough is enough"?
Colin: Back around 2010/11 we did have a stumble: We lost a major sponsor, the East Midlands Development Agency, which would still be around today if Government policy hadn’t changed. We were on the verge of having to scrap the event. But we got away with it. A last minute sponsor was found. That, in fact, is the main line that we come back to each year; Kelvin, Tony and me will come back to the house after the race and look at each other and ask ourselves “Did we get away with it?” And as long as the answer is “Yes!” then we’ll keep on going. That's because seeing somebody stand on that podium at the end of every race, standing there, proud of what they’ve achieved and being appreciated for what they’ve achieved - I think “This is why I put this race on”.
Tim: What are you most vivid memories of the race's history so far? The stand-out winners and the epic editions.
Colin: I’ve got fond memories of Rob Sharman’s win. Rob, along with Sean Snodden, came out with me when we were first putting the route together and I said how I wanted to bring them over Somerberg and Rob says "No, No!! Bring them over twice! Send them over the other way too!" So that’s what we did. Then, in the 2nd year we ran the race, I was in the car behind the lead group, we’d just gone over the last rough secteur and Rob Sharman had been dropped off the back and was about 80m adrift as the group exited that final secteur. I thought “well, that’s it- Rob’s gone”. We were sat there behind the break, it’s all stretched out and Rob makes it back, using the cars – all legitimate, mind! – In time for the railway bridge just before the finale. Everyone is delaying and Rob just went on straight down the outside and got 30m. That was it! He won the race! I was absolutely delighted that someone who’d been so enthusiastic and supportive of the idea had won the race.
But the race that truly sticks in my mind is 2012. It hadn’t rained for about a month and then, the day before the race; it started raining and just didn’t stop. Overnight it played havoc with all of the preparation we’d done- the banners were all blown to bits and we were getting reports of trees down all over the course – we only ended up with 22 finishers- It was an organiser’s nightmare! If we hadn’t got the police cooperation that we did we would not have finished that race: I had to re-route the race three times as it was running! We’d receive a report in the Commissaries' car “You can’t get down that road, it’s completely flooded!” It got to a point when the police, that Desk Sgt from Melton, just said to me “You just tell us where you want to take it and we’ll make it happen”. And they did it, they closed everything down for us, wherever I told them that we needed to take the race, they made it happen. That day... the pressure that was on to get the race to the finish, thinking ahead all of the time…without the local knowledge we had we'd have been sunk. I’ve never had a day like it, as either an organiser or a Commissiare! Alexander Blain won on his own with an epic ride. That guy in the rain and the cold, absolutely amazing.
We learnt many lessons that day. Now we have a back-up route and extra road closure orders in place. That one - that has to be the epic edition....I’ll go to my grave thinking about that one it nearly sent me there!
Tim: Is there a racer who you would say is, so far, sorely absent from the race's winner's list?
Colin: The one person who time and time again has proved he’s a man for this race is Yanto Barker. His continual placings in the top ten, he’s amazing - just there all the time. It’s one of those races though; you just never know how it’s going to figure out. Like we had with Tom Moses the other year, nobody really gave him much of a chance - but a late attack, 100m to go, off up the road, everybody sits and looks at each other and it’s his! I love the race because it is so unpredictable. We’re back to the Paris-Roubaix or Flanders thing again: Unpredictable. You can have all the form in the world, but you miss out on getting across a small gap or you puncture at a strategic time and the whole thing has gone. Malcolm Elliot used to say it was his favourite race, because you always had to ride at the front, you couldn’t allow somebody to go up the road- you had to be at the front controlling everything, because if you didn’t, you were going to miss the move. We’ve got 180 riders out there and with some of the continental riders you just don’t know who is good. Time and time again they’ve proved themselves - maybe not had the number of foreign winners that I’d like to see - but the British guys are proving themselves and matching them on their own ground. We’ve got some big names lined up for this year - there’s some quality in there and this is what I want to see.. It would be nice to see Yanto come good on it at some stage.
Tim: How far can you take the race? It's a UCI 1:2 at the moment, where does the future lie?
Colin: The funding is the issue, I’ll be honest. As far as the Commissiare reports and everything else goes, everything is fine. The only thing that they picked up on was cars had no sunroofs! The only thing they could say about the race as a negative! So, when we get a report like that it indicates the quality of race we’re putting on. If we had the cash we could do a 1:1. That said, the hesitation I have is I’ve always wanted the race to give the opportunity to British riders to race an international event in their own country, on their own roads and not have to go abroad to face foreign competition. If you move up a tier you slice off club teams, regional teams. We would lose that element. Over the years there have been people who’ve made their breakthrough in the race, they’ve been an unknown and then place in the top ten and go on to bigger things, it’s nice to see that happen, a nice characteristic of the race... But if somebody came along and said "Here’s that cash to run a 1;1" I’d probably snap their hand off! I’m not getting any younger. It will always be my baby- but I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to keep running it myself... I’d like to have that achievement though: Running a 1:1 race at some stage in my life. But if it doesn’t happen it doesn’t happen...
Tim: How did the recent crowd funding initiative go?
Colin: We had a good response but not as successful as I’d hoped. It gave us a small pot of money, a starter for ten. We can approach others now and we only have a smaller amount to find. But the big thing that came out of crowd funding was the women’s race but the logistics are that we can’t run it on the same weekend as the men’s. The only way to do so will be chop the Junior’s out and we don’t want to do that. The offer was out of the blue- we could never have predicted it! When somebody says in a Facebook message that they’ll fund a complete race you tend to think “Hmmm... here we go..” So you say “You do realise this is going to cost you £30,000?” And when they then reply “Is that all? Bargain!” you realise they mean business! We have that - the race is underwritten. What I then said to them is that I was not willing to just run a women’s race as a one off and I can’t be sure of funding for a second or third year. They came with a full funding option for the second year and a part funding plan for about five years! We’re so fortuitous - and the person involved just wants to see this racing go ahead.
I think the women’s race will be even more of a challenge, more difficult than the men’s race because at least for the men we send them on wide roads around Rutland Water to start with and it can stay together before we hit the secteurs. For the women, they’ll be in the lanes from the start, they’ll be on the climbs from the start - by the time they get to Owston first time around we could have a very fragmented bunch! There’s a £1000 for the winner... But they’re going have to earn it!!!
Tim: After the race finishes each year, is it a darkened room and a wet towel on the forehead?
Colin: We certainly get through a few Duvels! It would be wrong not to as they are a sponsor. But for me it’s a case of “Ok, let’s start thinking about next year”. I drive my wife crazy! But she realises that if I didn’t do this I wouldn’t be the same person now, it’s just in my blood. I created it and it’s a baby that I’ve seen grow and grow and there’s things I still want to do with it. Make it look better- things that I want to improve.
Tim: Would this have been a race for Colin Clews back in the day?
Colin: I would have loved it! I really would! So many other people would have too: Hugh Porter, our commentator, I remember taking him out the first year to Somerberg and him looking at it and saying “Colin- I would have F’in loved this! Loved it! Over these roads, around these corners” - and to hear him swear is a very, very infrequent thing! Hugh tells me “I feel every pedal stroke I see these guys doing- and I think "what could have I done on this course?”". That’s lovely to hear from somebody like Hugh who’s ‘been there, done that, got the tee-shirt’, a rainbow 'tee shirt' at that! It’s nice to work with people like that, so passionate. The crew that we have, they come year after year from all over the country - they share my passion. And that’s great. They know what I’m about and what I’m trying to create, it’s really lovely. The race is a big family. Also, the race has opened up knowledge of the local roads around here for many people, but it can be a double edged sword, however... maybe 2 or 3 times a year I’ll receive a phone call from an irate farmer:
“Your cyclists are creating havoc over here!! Riding all over the place!”
“Hold on!! MY CYCLISTS!!?” -It’s October or something- "What’s this got to do with me??!"
But I’m the one in the paper; it’s me with the phone number printed...
Tim: Let's talk about your work with the UCI...
Colin: I qualified as an International Commissaire in 1991 for road, track & CX - the following year as a MTB Commissaire. I’ve worked for the UCI in many ways. The last couple of years I’ve opted to do anti-doping work. I’m quite proud of what I’ve achieved: The only British Commissaire who’s commissiared a World Cup CX event - 7 of those. I’m right in saying I’m the only Commissaire who’s commissaired the UK road, CX and MTB champs in the same season, several times, in fact. I have a love for the sport, I love doing it. Anti-doping gets me to the Tour de France and the Giro as well as the pre competition testing. I’ve worked on most of the tours internationally, Denmark, Belgium, Norway, ENECO, Mediterranean...
Tim: How have things changed? Have they? Are we winning the doping war? Is there a ‘Win’?
Colin: I think it a case of you’ll never win totally. Let’s face it, we a have a professional sport with big rewards there for people so it’ll always be a fine line of cheating of some sort, be it mechanical as we hear of now, or doping. Looking at races in the last couple of years I’m seeing a different character - it is very noticeable. Five years ago we used to get people go up the road and that would be it, race over. You’d think “how the hell are they managing to stay out? How do they do that?” But the suddenly, about 2 years ago, we started to see people going up the road – and coming back. And you see this now, increasingly. We’re all cyclists; we all know what is possible and what isn’t possible. You’re seeing a much more normal pattern of what you would expect; if somebody goes up the road for 100km at some point they’re going to be cream-crackered. No two ways about it and that’s what we’re actually seeing. You see that evolving. So I think we are getting there and it’s good that we’re reaching that. To a degree, and it isn’t smugness, you sit back and watch what’s happening in athletics now and what’s being said there is everything that’s been said in cycling 10/15 years ago: Denials. For years and years people have had questions about athletics. The best thing, for me, would be to see those Operación Puerto blood bags identified and not destroyed. That’s still up in the air after so many years. If that came out we would see sport in its proper light and cycling in a much clearer context: We’ve been there and we’ve done something about it. There’ll always be bad apples in the barrel. We’ve got a sport that we can be proud of. We can look at event and think "Yes, this is honest racing". I feel a lot happier now than I did about ten years back.
Photos credit - Andrew Peat Photography