We often hear about the unique element of cycling that says it is the only popular sport where the general public can readily do the same challenges in the very same arenas as their professional heroes. The fact that anyone can take a bike out on the roads used in the world’s biggest races is shown as proof that cycling – more than football, rugby or motorsport to name just a few – is truly the real sport of the people.
Of course this ideal is subtly changing, evolving as all things do. Access to riders at start and finish lines is much more restricted than in previous years and exponential increases in salaries are removing some pro cyclists from having the common touch that was also once the preserve of top level footballers and was still a truism in cycling many decades after the soccer players had lost it.
But cycling as a genre, as an idea, as a concept in the perception of the masses is still something that they ‘own’ and which others borrow. We can all be cyclists it feels, some people are just better at it than others and can get paid to do it. Greg Lemond’s famous words that “It never gets easier, you just go faster” is a simple acknowledgement of this fact. Cycling is of the people. And when people get directly involved in cycling events, great theatre seems to happen, as anyone who has watched a crowded summit finish or a packed criterium can tell you.
The atmosphere that is engendered on those high mountain passes and tight city streets doesn’t need an acoustically sympathetic stadium or pre-rehearsed songs extolling the singular virtues of a left wingback to work. It usually only needs a bit of paint, a skinful of beer and some bicycles going past at some point. One does get the feeling sometimes that you could send any old member of the public on any kind of velocipede past those crowds and they would shout and scream and applaud and encourage just the same. And do you know what?. They would be right. The recent Jupiter London Nocturne is just about the best proof you can get of this.
As we are somewhat lacking in Hors Category mountain tops in our floodplain of a capital city, the Nocturne sensibly opts for the Criterium format for it’s lively afternoon and evening of racing. And whilst they do attract star riders to the tight, twisty course around the fully functioning city-centre meat market at Smithfield, it’s the eclectic nature of the race programme that makes this such an inclusive event.
The Nocturne Series is now in its seventh year and has become something of a institution on the British race calendar. It’s kind of like a school Sports Day and Summer Fair combined, where the competition is light-hearted but everyone taking part really wants to win. With all manner of races open to the public and, having watched from the sidelines for a couple of years I felt it was time that I joined in. Inspite of the obviously limiting fact that I don’t actually own a folding bike, I signed up for the IMImobile Folding Bike race as soon as entries were opened.
The Folding Bike Race at the Nocturne is an institution within an institution. A key part of FACE’s vision for the Nocturne to be a ‘celebration of cycling in the city’, it’s been on the programme since the very first one. It requires business-suited riders to perform a Le Mans style start; running 30metres to unfold their machines before completing a few laps of the circuit. The heats are the fun-filled openers of the schedule but the fact that nearly all the riders wear cleats and shorts show it’s not only the suit jackets that are seriously business-minded. A friend of mine at work owns a Brompton that I could borrow and, by doing so, I could take to the very same course that Ed Clancy, CJ Sutton, Nathan Haas, Kristian House and a host of other ‘proper’ cyclists, would be competing on later. I would be doing it just for fun though, right?
The roots of the success of the Nocturne can actually be traced back much further than 2007, when FACE Partnership organised the first one on behalf of founding partners Rapha and Condor Cycles, who were looking for an event company to help them create an event in the city. FACE had been doing other cycle orientated events very successfully since 2003, when they initiated the track racing Revolution Series at the Manchester Velodrome in conjunction with Dave Brailsford. But at that time events were just a sideline for FACE, which had initially been set up by James Pope and Fran Millar as a management agency for pro riders. I met with both of them recently to find out more about FACE, Revolution and, of course, The Nocturne.
You often hear about the ‘genesis’ moment of companies being re-told years later, dredged up (and probably tidied up) from the memory banks of owners but it’s unusual to have it recorded on international TV. It’s also unusual for it to be recorded by the Maillot Jaune of the Tour de France but there were many novel things happening on July 1st 2000 and David Millar’s mention of a summer party going on in Guildford on the day he won the Prologue Time Trial at Futuroscope in his very first Tour appearance was understandably not the biggest news of the day.
The garden party in Guildford in the summer of 2000 was not a cycling event. It was a regular summer thing for a bunch of ex-school and uni friends. It was, by all accounts, a nice day and no-one wanted to be inside watching the telly. Except Fran Millar, whose brother David had just set an early fastest time over the 16km course on the first day of the Tour, and James Pope – a young cycling fan – who was uni friends with Fran’s boyfriend, Matt Ellis, and who had just moved down to London from Manchester where he had been studying.
“It was Fate really.” says James in FACE’s low-key offices above a cafe near Farringdon. “I’d always followed cycling when I was a kid, watched the Tour on Channel 4, so I knew the significance of what was happening. So we just kind of connected on that.” David’s time held throughout the day and even managed to survive the ride of the last man off the ramp, a certain Mr Lance Armstrong.
Fran also believes in Fate and starts her retelling of the day of FACE’s inception with a similar marker. “David’s time was 19:03” she says when I meet her in Smithfield. “The same number as the first year that the Tour de France was run. I took that as a good omen. Lance’s time crossing the line was 19:05 but at first they showed him as the winner anyway. But then it was corrected and Dave had won.” Moments after his ride, when the possibility of the overall win was perhaps still an intangible dream, Millar used his time with the TV cameras to do a quick shout-out. In a very boyish fashion, the then 23 year old asked “Ooh ooh, can I do something quick? Can I say hello to my sister and friends in England who are at a party right now?” And there you have it – the very moment FACE was fated into existence captured on film; a moment which at the time was lost in the then still rare novelty of a British Maillot Jaune.
The original faces of FACE – James Pope and Fran Millar
Back in Guildford, as Fran and James celebrated – “He went mental” says Team Sky’s current Head of Winning Behaviours of her former business partner – the foundations for the formation of FACE had been laid, with all the ingredients in there from the start. At first FACE was, in Fran’s words, “100% about David. We did his website, then set up a rider management company. We had Dave, then Baden Cooke and Stuart O’Grady. But we weren’t very good at it. In those days people didn’t understand that professional riders even had managers. The early days were hilarious. People thought we were representing bike shops or something.”
James agrees. “Matt was a designer, I was working in project management, but we bought some books and did the millartime.com website. I followed Dave around the Tour de France in 2001 – which wasn’t the best as he crashed in the Prologue but from that we started the agency. David wasn’t very happy with IMG, so we created a business plan, quit our jobs and took the plunge to set up FACE. But I think we were a bit too early for cycling. The riders weren’t earning any money and you felt guilty about taking ten percent from them.” So as a extra revenue stream they helped organise a track event at Herne Hill in 2003 to coincide with the centenary running of the famous Good Friday meeting.
“Dave rode at the Herne Hill event.” says Fran, “He wanted to recreate a famous photo of Coppi at the track in 1959. I’d never even been to a track before but Dave B[railsford] was there – it was the same year he became Head of British Cycling – and he asked us to come up to the Manchester Velodrome to meet the manager Jarl Walsh. Together we agreed to put on a track race series. Dave Brailsford wanted to call it ‘Track Wars’.” Whilst marginal gains and man-management may be Sir Brailsford’s undoubted forte, naming things doesn’t seem to be so high up his skills list. Fortunately James and Fran came up with an alternate moniker with more staying power ‘Revolution’.
A quick look at the Brompton in my office made me have a bit of a rethink. The orange colour was good but I wasn’t sure that the three-speed Sturmey Archer gearing would help me get through the heats into the final. I felt that I needed something a bit, well, a bit racier.. My body’s competitive juices, normally dormant in the extreme, were starting to bubble a little inside and I started to think of speedier alternatives. Building yet another bike at home was not really an option due to time and space issues so I did the next best thing. I blagged one.
I’d met Sam Pearce, the Nottingham-based inventor & manufacturer of Loopwheels, at the Bespoked event earlier in the year. I had been in conversation with them about getting a Loopwheeled bike to test for a review for a while and here was an opportunity to kill those two proverbial birds with that single proverbial stone. Loopwheels would lend me a bike – a nine speed Dahon P-9 – with their wheels for a week that would culminate in the Nocturne event. They even offered to send Sam and his teenage son Robbie down for the day to act as my pit crew. The thought of making it through into the final grew in my mind and I quickly realised that I wouldn’t be happy with anything less.
For once The Jersey Pocket gets to travel Business Class
The Revolution Series quickly became a big hit with riders and audiences as it crested the wave of track cycling enthusiasm born out of the success of the British squads in Athens and Beijing. Almost every cyclist of note that this country has produced in the last 10years has taken part with Hoy, Wiggins, Hayles Cavendish, Pendleton, Kenny and Trott very much at the fore. The multi-city format with both established stars and up and coming riders worked well in the burgeoning track scene and James especially really took to event management. Which was good for FACE as the management side wasn’t proving enough to live on. “We were surviving on the events” recalls Fran, using a phrase that somehow reminds me of Factory Records’ dependance on New Order’s success to keep their doomed club the Hacienda afloat. “We made good events. We’d get nice hotels for the riders, treat them properly. That was our USP. We would say bring your wife, bring your girlfriend. Everyone enjoyed it”. Unlike the New Order and Factory debacle though, FACE were able to reconcile one with the other.
The agency side did grow, to a peak in 2008 when Ed Clancy, Geraint Thomas, Jamie Staff and a young Mark Cavendish were all being represented by FACE. “That was really Fran’s area though,” says James, “She had really good relations with the athletes. We had about 10 then. So when she integrated into Team Sky at the end of 2008, it was quite a natural development for the agency side to fade out. We kept with Cav until 2011 but by then he needed a global agency.” Either that or FACE simply had too many vowels for the nascent CVNDSH brand. Whichever, it left James, on his own at FACE, able to focus fully on the next project: The Nocturne.
“Rapha and Condor Cycles brought the idea to us.” says James, noting the bike manufacturer’s proximity to his own offices and Rapha CEO Simon Mottram’s passion as key enablers in what quickly became a partnership of like minds. “They had an idea for an event but needed our help. It’s grown now and is a separate limited company. We are the ones driving it forward but they will always be there in whatever direction it goes.” At the time of our meeting James had yet to formally announce a new title sponsor for the event. Following the exit of previous sponsor IG Markets from cycling – “New marketing guy, kinda more into his rugby..” laments James – FACE revealed Jupiter Asset Management a couple of weeks later.
The events close ties to The City and it’s bedrock home in London seem clear now but it wasn’t always that way. “We took the Nocturne to Salford in 2008 as a post Olympic tie-in. Edinburgh and Blackpool in 2009. We did three years that way I think. We did see it as a home series, like the Revolution.” James says, “But IG only wanted to sponsor one event and it didn’t seem to work quite as well outside London so we came back to just one event.” The JerseyPocket’s friend Olly Stevens, now the owner of the VeloHouse cafe in Tunbridge Wells, set up the deal during his time at IG but it was only for three years and this year James had to find a new sponsor to match his new ambitions. “We want to take it international.” he says with a convincing smile. “One in London, one in Berlin, Paris.. That’s our vision for the Nocturne.”
The first couple of test days on the Dahon didn’t go so well. I’ll be doing a separate review of it soon but a mystery clicking at the rear end led to Loopwheels sending out another one a couple of days before the event. Without that distracting me from the otherwise excellent ride that the internally suspensioned wheels give, I could concentrate on honing the new riding position and practising the all-important unfolding. The P-9 was a lot less fiddly to erect than the average Brompton and I began to feel more confident about the day ahead. Even with bad weather forecast for the early afternoon when my heat would be run, I felt that I could get a good start and then just hold position instead of taking too many risks on the unfamiliar circuit.
The expected rain didn’t materialise on the day so I too went for a shirt, jacket and shorts combo. I made sure I rode over to Smithfield in very good time so that I could get onto the circuit and do a few practice laps to test the corners and look for pot-holes. The events crew were putting the finishing touches to the advertising hoarding that encircle both sides of the 1.1km course – a rectangle around and through Smithfield with a wickedly tight turn down on an extra small loop in the South-West corner – and the pro-team cars were parked up in the elite athletes area but, for the moment at least, the crowds were thin.
My ace pit crew – Robbie and Sam from Loopwheels
After meeting up with Sam and Robbie and having the first of many impromptu conversation with people about the Loopwheel bikes, we got signed on and headed into the pits. I had signed up for the second heat so that I could see how the first one was run this year and plan a bit more. I had decided to ditch the jacket on the way over to Smithfield so the race numbers went straight onto the shirt. At 4.29pm, with the crowds now more fully formed and giving ample encouragement to the folding bike riders, I stepped out onto the track to race. By 4.33, and less tha halfway around the first lap, my race was already all but lost.
Accidents and incidents are no stranger to The Nocturne. Racing – even in all the many guises of the Nocturne – is still racing and the bumpy roads, tight turns and frantic pace is a real test for riders at whatever level. The afternoon’s programme was severely interrupted by a crash in the Leigh Day Kermisse for Cat 2 riders when a Dulwich Paragon rider fell at that tight corner I had noted on my recce laps and broke his schapoid. Most of the races in the second part of the afternoon and evening had to be shortened to catch back up with time and the Track Criterium racers unfortunately had to wait a long time on the start line whilst a medic (and then an ambulance) were called to attend the faller. My problem was more incident than accident but I reckon my blushes might have matched the intensity of the poor Paragon rider’s roadrash.
Having spent a good half hour the previous evening re-testing my unfolding technique and ensuring on the start line that I placed my bike correctly for the neatest getaway, I totally failed to properly engage the lock of the handlebars and stumbled as I set off. Cue lots of riders passing me as I reset and fumbled with the bars, my practised rhythm shot to pieces. “It’s OK”, I was telling myself as I eventually got going, almost at the back of the field. I only needed to place 21st out of 40 to get into the final and still had 3 laps to do it. I could still do that. I set my sights on the next few back-markers and put my head down.
I negotiated the tight corners on the SW loop safely and moved up about 5 places before I saw that there was quite a gap to the next bunch and began to panic again. Throwing the bike into its biggest gear on the back straight – just where a tarmac ramp had been installed as part of the nearby roadworks for the CrossRail project – I pushed hard on the pedals. Which just spun around completely ineffectually. At first I thought I’d gone off the bottom of the sprockets, heaved back on the twist-shift lever and tried again. Nothing. The chain was off at the front, nestled down neatly between the chainring and the outer guard that would be protecting the leg of my suit trousers had I been wearing them. At the top corner of the lap, near the Malmaison hotel where I hoped the elite riders were not watching from their room windows, I cruised to a halt and fumbled for a few slow seconds to get it refitted. I set off again but I knew my time was up and that I couldn’t make up the numbers needed anymore. Riding just for pride now, I re-caught the back markers again and then rode alone for the last lap, taking a bit of a chance to enjoy the atmosphere and acknowledge a few of the name shouts I got.
Just before the chain incident – still hopeful of making the final
As I said earlier, I’m not normally a very competitive character, so I was surprised how angry I was at the end for not achieving my stated goal. I didn’t actually hurl an empty plastic drinks bottle across the pits but I came pretty close. It was a weird feeling. Sam & Robbie, perhaps relieved that my belated re-appearance past where they were standing on Lap 1 was due to the failure of a Dahon chain-limiter rather than their fancy wheels – were great support and I realised that part of my disappointment was the feeling of letting them down as well as myself. We resolved there and then that this was ‘unfinished business’ and to return next year for another go.
As I came to terms with the abrupt end to my racing ‘season’, more serious riders were out on the circuit in the Cat 2 kermisse race. Sam, Robbie and I grabbed some refreshments and walked around the circuit a few times, meeting people in the crowd, who were now 4 deep in many places, and waiting for the track Criterium and the Penny Farthing races. FACE has added various races over the years as the budget and production values have increased and James mixed up the format again this year by dropping the Longest Skid competition and including an inaugural CityHire Bike challenge. Tying in with the yellow TdF bikes with have been introduced alongside the more usual blue ‘Boris’ bikes, it was a neat idea but the race seemed to lack some of the atmosphere and support of the others. Another new event – The Brooks Retro Challenge – caught my interest as I am due to take part in the similarly themed L’Eroica Britannia in a couple of weeks time. This one looked good and got plenty of support where I was standing.
The Penny Farthing race, which took place a little earlier, was as hugely popular and as hugely entertaining as ever. Just seeing 20 full size Pennys in the pits was quite a sight but watching them go full-tilt, hell-for-leather around a compact, technical circuit was a revelation. The seriousness of the racing was evident form the general lack of ‘costume’ clothing. Full lycra was the order of the day for the men and women riders who leaned over their huge steeds and powered them around the course at breakneck speed. Watching with a cycling engineer like Sam was a revelation too, as he explained all manner of principles about Penny’s, Loopwheels, 29’ers and loads of other bikes in the short time we had together. Thankfully, I think it was the last ‘crash course’ of the afternoon.
The Penny Farthing race was fiercely fought. Richard Thoday took the win. Photo via NFTO ProCycling
For James and FACE, the “unique blend of entertainment and elite sport” is key to the events that they want to host. But with that come challenges, particularly in getting the message across about the seriousness of the elite races that finish the evening. “We fought for many years to get the press in particular to understand that the Revolution, for instance, is proper, serious, high-level racing. It’s hard sometimes when there isn’t a gold medal moment..” At Nocturne, by contrast, James acknowledges that the hardest part has been bringing in revenue streams to fund the event. As a free to attend spectacle – though there were also ticketed grandstands this year – simply generating money is an issue. “We need to keep evolving to keep people coming, to maintain interest. The challenge is to keep the event fresh. We are trying to build the fans each year, instead of having them one year and then losing them the next.” The 400 grandstand seats sold out this year and FACE plan to double this capacity next time around.
Sam and Robbie left for their train ride back to Nottingham just after the Penny Farthing race, cycling off on two sets of Loopwheels, still turning the heads of the crowd. I met up with my neighbour David to test out the rider massage tables (very good) before heading out to watch the final of the folding bike race – won yet again by Keith Henderson – and then the Womens and Mens elite races. With a couple of beers in hand, the light fading, the music cranking up and the crowds beginning to beat the rigid hoardings each time riders passed, the atmosphere noticeably changed again.
Now more like the kind of outdoor club you find a couple of streets back from the beach on holiday, it was harder to keep an eye on the racing as I kept bumping into people I knew and the social aspect of the meeting really kicked in. Constrained to a velodrome seat you only see the few people around you, but in the rolling scrum of the Nocturne crowds a couple of circuits reveals more than a few familiar faces. As well as plenty of local cycling mates I was able to chat with Ned Boulting, Rod Ellingworth and Simon Mottram before catching up with James again at a bar towards the end of the evening.
He was happy with the way the day had gone, though the strain of the delay and the shortening of all the subsequent races clearly played on his mind a bit. The post-mortem had already begun as he and another FACE organiser dissected the evening in an attempt to ensure that they capture the mood and harness that to make the event even better next time. As the elite men careened around the circuit, coming impossibly close to the barriers and the baying crowd who were cheering them on, I was reminded about what James had told me earlier about FACE’s next project ‘ParkourRide’, which will hit a disused carpark in Tobacco Dock on October 4th.
Pitting BMX against Mountain Bike against Road Bike in a multi-level urban parcours with each floor slightly differently done, FACE are looking to bring the idea of sport and clubbing to the next level. “That’s my little baby” James had said at our meeting, as the raw-edged vision of Factory’s Hacienda rose again in my mind, “It’s been over a year in development. We’ve been working closely with [World BMX champion] Liam Phillips on the circuit but I also think that the key to it is the production and using technology to bring it to life. We are working a lot on how you can track people across the race using screens, 3D mapping and rider avatars so you can follow the racing on whatever level you are on. And each level will feel like a different floor of a club – we are speaking to brands about sponsoring each floor so it becomes very experiential, like a different level of a nightclub.” I am assuming that it won’t be the usual Nocturne and Revolution compere – the venerable Hugh Porter – who will be calling the action at ParkourRide. With the greatest repeat to Hugh, it sounds like it calls for someone a little more ‘street’.
Tobyn Hamilton finishes the event with a win for Madison Genesis
It’s clear that the guys and girls at FACE have no wish to rest on their laurels. James’ vision is much bigger than FACE is today – even with seven permanent staff and crew of around 30 others who come in to bolster them during the actual events. Even as the evening draws to a close with a win in the elite series mens race for Tobyn Hamilton and Nicola Juniper taking the Womens title, the organiser’s work is far from over. Not only is a there an awful lot of dismantling to be done but there is also the small matter of the famous FACE hospitality back at the Malmaison. James confirms that the high standards mentioned by Fran have not slipped since her departure and that they still look to create a proper “FACE experience”. I walked the short way back towards the Malmaison with Team Sky’s CJ Sutton, who was slow-pedalling his Pinarello as a warm down from the race he had just completed. He didn’t sound too impressed with his 13th place finish but he was well ahead of team mate Josh Edmondson and the Garmin-Sharp duo of Nathan Haas and Tyler Farrar and perhaps he was already thinking about the after party that I’m told that they all enjoyed for a few hours afterwards.
No such frivolity for me though. I made do with a quick last beer in a local pub with the rest of the crowds who had chosen to linger a while longer. With the circuit now empty of riders again the streets quickly regained the anomalous feeling that the meat market – only usually inhabited in the pre-dawn hours – has in this busy part of the City. It’s obvious that fans need races and riders to support but Nocturne most clearly shows that races need fans and that when they are able to engage with other directly and be a part of each others world for a short while, things can be even more interesting. With this in mind I eventually headed back home, already planning to be an integral part of next year’s race.
Last Photo: Wig Worland/Nocturne Series