Monday, 7 April 2014

Cragg Vale: Review/Tour de France Preview

With the Tour de France visiting Yorkshire (and Rochdale I hasten to add) in less than 100 days, many events are taking place to celebrate is. It's fantastic to see people riding the wave of hysteria (in cycling circles at least!), with activities ranging from Bernard Hinault taking a ride around a couple of weeks ago, yellow bikes hanging from pubs welcoming cyclists, to one of the more abstract ideas: pulling a grand piano up a mountain. Not just any climb, the longest continuous climb in England, Cragg Vale. Click here for the news video from the BBC. Cragg Vale is a climb I know well, so I thought a review/preview hybrid was in order.

The Climb

Welcome to Cragg Vale!
With an elevation gain just shy of 300m over it's 8km distance,  Cragg Vale has an average gradient of roughly 4%. Don't be fooled, there are 1 or 2 steeper sections, 7% possibly, but also gentle ramps for starter and dessert. The route starts just outside Mytholmroyd (which I can't wait for Sean Kelly to try and pronounce during the Tour!), whereby riders are greeted with a sign proclaiming the longest continuous gradient, and the first road marking...8.6km to go, with markings counting down each kilometre from there forth.

From here, the road curves between rows of terraces, betraying the industrial heritage of Caldervale, or the Calder Valley. These soon give out, replaced with sheep, before a slight left signals an increase in gradient, as it meanders through an escort of trees. This carries on, hugging the curves of the valley, with stones houses and smallholdings peppering the steep sides, with plenty to catch the eye, including the terrifying fellow below!

I wouldn't hedge my bets against this guy...!

The steady gradient continues for the next couple of km, with brief straights punctuated with the valley's subtle sweeping corners. Houses start to appear as you reach the village of Cragg Vale, with a long straight followed by an exposed left corner signalling a slight increase in gradient. This continues past Cragg Vale School and the Robin Hood Inn, which has had one of the yellow bikes synonymous with the Grand Depart hanging from its walls for what seems like years!

A final row of terraces and a right corner signify the end of the village, and the emergence of the road from sheltered valley to the barren and exposed top. Emerging out of the valley tunnel, the village has a potentially double barrel way of discouraging an exit. A short, sharp kick in gradient rounds a right hand corner, into what can be a demoralising headwind, or an inspirational tailwind.

The final 3 or 4km climb gradually over an empty land of heather and peat bog, which is somehow a desolate beauty, best seen with ones heart pumping at 180bpm! This section can be punishing, with winds unhindered by any natural windbreak reducing even the most seasoned riders to a near standstill. In fact my last trip up in January came with 84mph gusts, which nearly sent us back downhill! Side winds can also be tricky, again with nothing to provide shelter, but a tailwind can really send you flying to the end. This is signaled by both the final marking on the road and the appearance of the reservoir, at which point the riders will turn left, down towards Ripponden, which is a straightforward descent.

84mph gusts of wind with hail stones can make for a miserable finish!

The road surface is pretty good the whole way up the climb, with any potholes being sorted last summer. These have been done rather well in preparation, with proper tarmac patches, rather than useless filling of the hole, which usually lasts about a week. One slight concern is at the very end of the climb, by the reservoir, where the road has started to resemble a ploughed field due to the foundations being washed away by regular flooding. The council may well fix this prior to the day, although it would make for an interesting KOM sprint! Come to think about it, this is in the half a kilometre or so where the race passes out of Yorkshire into Rochdale...the different council in charge may have affected this. I hope they sort it, what an embarrassment for Rochdale if a crash occurred!

Where to Watch

With 8.6km to choose from, there a plenty of options for those wanting to observe the Tour on Cragg Vale. In terms of where the action may be, the steeper sections bookending the village itself may provide a springboard for attack, however, being quite early in the stage this may be unlikely. Of these, a tailwind on the tops could provide a great opportunity for a lone rider if they timed the attack just prior. Other than this, there will likely be a decent sprint at the top for KOM points if the bunch arrive as a whole. I suspect however, that there may be an early breakaway on this stage.

In terms of best places to stand on Cragg Vale, I would suggest avoiding the very bottom, being almost level, all you will probably see is a blur. Some of the route, especially around the village is quite tight in terms of pavement, with  a drop to the valley, but with wide roads, a big crowd shouldn't cause any problems even for the whole bunch. The atmosphere will be best in the village, with two pubs and imagine other hospitality. Otherwise, the tops will provide an unrestricted view, with the potential KOM sprint, and being flat, I suspect that staff with musettes may be present, using the opportunity for a feed stop. Finally, the 90 degree turn down to Ripponden will slow the riders momentarily for a great view, and the nearby White House pub can provide facilities.

Overall, I think the atmosphere around Cragg Vale will be fantastic! I'm not too sure where I'll be watching from yet, but I think I may go for the end, near the turn. Blackstone Edge climb leads to this point, the other side of Cragg Vale, which as my favourite climb may well feature in another review post soon!


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