Written in Stone: The Rapha Lincoln GP
Reflecting on the celebrated past and uncertain future of Britain’s oldest and most iconic road race.
01 June 2023
Photography:Stephen Dalley and Samuel Craven
The spectacle of bike racing can be a fairly tricky thing to pitch to those not already enthralled by the sport, particularly when races take place in the UK. Usually rainy, a little dangerous and always chaotic – as spectator sports go, it's a pretty weird one.
Fans spend all day standing by the side of a road awaiting the seconds-long blur of sweaty, sweary lycra to fly by. Then it’s over almost as soon as it began. Unless of course, the race takes place on a circuit, in which case we’re given a second (or sixth or thirteenth) chance to glimpse up close such impossible athleticism. It’s pretty awesome.
Without race reporting, there’s no knowing what's occurred out on the course, so it’s not until the riders come by do you have the chance to make an on-the-spot deduction of what’s gone on behind closed roads. Unticketed, with the odd jauntily-placed barrier making an attempt at some level of officiality, they’re pretty much a free-for-all.
Lincoln GP is Britain’s finest example of such eccentricity. Established in 1956, the men’s race is the longest-standing one day road race in the UK calendar. Then, in 2015, Lincoln opened its start line to women. Its notoriety is mostly owed to the ascent up Michaelgate – a brutal cobbled climb into the city centre, topping out at 20%.
Crowds cram onto centimetre-wide curbs as struggling riders fight their way up, inches away from spectators. The atmosphere is fabled. There are cowbells, cobblestones, shouting fans and a legendary compère, Carl Lawreson, who barely draws breath between endless factoids and constant commentary. It is the best of British racing.
“It’s the Michaelgate climb that makes Lincoln different from other races”, Abi Smith of EF Education-TIBCO-SVB tells us. “Everybody knows it, it’s short but oh-so cruel. The rest of the lap is pretty flat and open, but every time you come back round into Lincoln, there’s a real fight for position because it’s such a pinch point – that’s where the action happens. The atmosphere is always amazing, every year without fail.”
But how are races of this calibre received? With near-cancellation, constant sponsorship struggle and an undetermined future. Such is the state of the British domestic cycling scene. It’s clear however, that the race itself has taken on none of this strife. It maintains a certain magic, a kind of pop-up, transportive power right in the heart of the city that provides hope for any cycling fans lucky enough to see it for themselves.
The issues that Lincoln and other races like it face belong to a wider problem at large. Soaring costs, collapsed teams and lack of funding has created a crisis in the sport. Opportunities for younger riders to rise through the ranks and benefit from the development funnels that smaller clubs offer are no longer there. A system that once provided riders with this support, and saw some of the UK’s biggest names in cycling progress onto the world stage, is dwindling.
Back in 2020, the race found itself in a similarly dire situation, without sponsorship and contemplating collapse. But as is often the way with much beloved bastions of sporting communities, the fans stepped up. One fan, in particular. Long-time Lincoln enthusiast and Rapha employee, Jess Morgan, decided something had to be done to save the race. With support from founder Simon Mottram, Morgan pleaded with each department at Rapha for any spare change their budgets might allow for.
Collectively, enough money was raised for the race to go ahead. Morgan also struck up a deal with the product team to create a Lincoln GP cap, the profits of which went directly to the sponsorship fee. This has since become the cornerstone of keeping the race running, even in the face of changing budgets.
Despite the current climate, it was clear this year at Lincoln that its spirit remains untouched. You only needed to be amongst the crowds atop Michaelgate, shouting at the scrambling riders to feel it. It was the perfect reminder of why these events are so instrumental to the sport. Unseasonably nice weather, big crowds and some truly exciting racing made for a truly memorable day.
A light mist and early start lent the women’s race an atmospheric air. As the seventh edition of the women’s race unfolded, crowds slowly began to grow as the riders made their way around the 13 km course, which saw them take on the infamous Michaelgate cobbled climb a total of eight times. Halfway through the race, a breakaway consisting of five riders had begun to put a decent gap between themselves and the peloton, which proved ultimately successful as they entered the final lap with a 1’50” lead over the bunch.
In a poetic turn of events, it was local rider Robyn Clay of Pro-Noctis – Heidi Kjeldsen – 200 Degrees Coffee that took the victory, and the biggest win of her career so far, leaving the breakaway behind with a big final kick up the cobblestones to ride solo over the line to roars of applause. Team Boompod’s Charlotte Hodgkins-Bryne took second, with third going to DAS-Handsling rider Sammie Stuart.
The finish line was quickly littered with spent riders, who soon caught their breath and filled the street with congratulatory chatter and a chorus of in-depth race debriefing. The scene was somewhat similar to that of the women’s bathroom in a nightclub, a sacred place if you’re lucky enough to have experienced it, with everyone rushing to compliment one another and discuss excitedly such events.
With women’s racing still so far behind men’s, it’s no surprise that, despite encouraging interest in the sport, people are less certain about spectating it. Where the men’s race sees crowds of fans audibly shouting at riders between guttural cheers and rallying cries, it seems fans aren’t so sure about how to shout for the non-male riders. There was polite applause and a few self-conscious words of encouragement during the race, but the lively atmosphere of the finish line was a world away from the roadside.
This was contrasted all the more by the ending of the men’s race. The very same spot was awash with heaving bodies, but very few words. It was hardly surprising, seeing as the men had battled Michaelgate a total of 13 times. During which, the cowbells and crowds were in full swing, with people lining the streets all throughout the city centre and creating a somewhat more raucous atmosphere.
Team Saint Piran had the best day of all, with an unprecedented 1-2-3 podium finish. There were a few shifting riders driving the bunch throughout the race, as well as one or two failed breakaway attempts, but with four laps to go, Saint Piran riders Alexandar Richardson, Zeb Kyffin and Jack Rootkin-Gray and an outnumbered Dean Harvey of TRINITY Racing had a 20’ lead over the rest. Overpowered by teamwork, Harvey dropped off allowing for a Saint Piran triple podium, with Richardson in first, followed by Kyffin and Rootkin-Gray just behind. The result was certainly in keeping with the team’s stellar season, which sees them already placed well above the rest in standings.
Alice Barnes, two-time winner of the race, understands more than most the electric atmosphere of Lincoln. “I feel Lincoln is the most prestigious race in the UK, it’s the one that everyone targets. It’s like our own little Flanders. The crowds always show up for it, especially on the climb, so there is always such a good vibe that makes you push so much harder.”
The race has been host to many big names in British cycling – Dame Sarah Storey, Geraint Thomas and Sir Bradley Wiggins – as well as boasting a star-studded list of past winners, including Lizzie Deignan, Peter Kennaugh and Ben Swift.
The role races like these play in the sport is instrumental. Not only in their showcasing of emerging and established talent, but for the wider sport. Unticketed but painstakingly planned, the nature of bike races means they’re financially unviable. This puts at risk the unique privilege of being able to rock up to the roadside and see these incredible athletes inches in front of you. Fans can ride up the very same cobbles one day, and watch the pros doing it the next. The level of access to all aspects of the sport is unparalleled.
With no stadiums to visit or courts to book, courses simply appear overnight, totally transforming a place, and are then whisked away the very same day as if they were never there. The beauty of this is the ever-evolving nature of the races and the proximity spectators can have to the action. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a jettisoned bidon or be nearly knocked over by the sheer power of a peloton in full.
Sponsorship is currently tied to keeping the cycling scene alive, with teams heavily reliant on these partnerships in order to stay afloat. But the model is an unsustainable one. If we are to keep the totally weird and always wonderful world of bike racing alive for years to come, teams and events will need to seek alternative revenue streams – be that marketing opportunities, public rides, fan access, or something else.
Races like Lincoln have a phenomenal past. And whilst Lincoln’s place in British cycling history is certainly set in the stone of its cobbles, so must its future.