|ARCHER GRAND PRIX|
Showing his best form for years, Paul Curran, the hard man of British road racing, scored an impressive victory in Sunday's Archer Grand Prix, the first of the British classics.
WITH the deadly precision that once made him the king of British road racing, Paul Curran scored an heroic sprint victory into a headwind finish in the 39th Archer RC Grand Prix at Beaconsfield.
As if to underline his superiority, Curran also won the King of the Chilterns climbing competition in this, the second-counting event in the season-long Premier Calendar.
The workhorse in a 55-mile break, Curran (Optimum Performance-Tritech) outsprinted late arrival Steve Farrell (Tunstall Wheelers) by a length, covering the 106 gruelling miles in a time of 4-12-35.
And in so doing, Curran denied the big Stoke man a record fifth victory in conditions made bitterly cold by the strong north-east wind which was tempered only by bright sunshine.
Farrell, who had chased hard to reach Curran, was generous in his praise for his adversary. 'He deserved it.'
And of himself? 'Second is not bad, is it?'
Only four other men got anywhere near them as the amateurs ruled the roost. They were Richard Prebble (Wembley RC), third at 11 seconds, battling to hold off a late effort from Tony Doyle (Futurama), who was fourth at 18 seconds. Doyle, the best of the professionals, outsprinted new pro, Scotland's Drew Wilson (Foremost Contract Furnishings-Karrimor).
It was nearly two minutes before former British professional criterium champion Neil Hoban (Foremost Contract) took sixth place (at 1-46) ahead of four other forlorn chasers.
For Curran's 55-mile breakaway, begun with three other valiant men, was a tour de force. All earlier moves had come to nothing and the field was intact when the Curran group got down to business after the fourth wind-assisted climb of Knotty Green.
By then the crisis posed by the traffic queuing for Ziggies Monster Car Boot Sale in the field beside the finishing straight was over. It was cancelled at the last moment due, so we heard, to the field being too muddy!
Thames Valley Police on the race then won praise from the promoting club, the Archer RC, by closing off the A355 for a while, to prevent any further build-up of traffic.
Things had settled down as Curran's group took the initiative.
Besides Curran there was Chris Newton (Middridge CRT), none the worse for wear after his fall in the Girvan stage race the weekend before. The young national 20- kilometre champion is a versatile lad if ever there was one. The other two were Olympian Simon Lillistone (North Wirral Velo) and professional Gary Coltman (Raleigh), a man who made his mark in the Premier Calendar series last year.
A close look at Curran's face in this tidy group revealed an unseasonal suntan. He was also one of the few to wear tights. And no wonder.
In good form after winning a stage of the recent Rapport Tour in South Africa, Curran was still coming to terms with a 40-degree difference in temperature!
But on this typically cold English April day, he was too hot for anyone to handle.
Was this a flashback to his glory days? The former double Commonwealth Games champion (Edinburgh 1986) won the Star Trophy competition four years on the trot between 1985 and 1988. He was the scourge of amateur racing in the Eighties. Now aged 33, was this the master reborn?
It was tempting to think so.
Gradually, as the laps wore on, Curran's companions wore out with Newton the last to drop away in the closing miles. If the timely arrival of two of the tallest men in the bunch, 'Fazza' Farrell, accompanied by Prebble, momentarily disturbed the crouched figure of Curran, although nothing in his appearance suggested it. Besides, Prebble was quickly dropped.
Curran was not to be denied his first win in the Archer GP and so he gathered his wits, marshalled what considerable power he still possessed, and dealt his master stroke in the last dying yards of a classic battle.
And a veritable troop of Britain's fighting best who took up the pursuit never got a whiff of the gun smoke. Only Farrell and Prebble of the chasers got their act together.
When they first escaped the strung-out bunch over Knotty Green hill at around 49 miles, the Curran group had their work cut out to get clear.
Turning north-east up the Amersham Road, their progress was a painfully slow 20mph into a wall of wind sweeping across the Chiltems. They were a tantalizing 20 seconds clear of the field.
Spectators watching Paris-Roubaix on satellite TV in the Magpies public house rushed out to see the break struggle by with five laps and 55 miles to go.
Over Gore Hill, which rises up for more than half-a-mile from the finish line, the gap on the field had grown to 1-15, with several individuals dangling in between.
The fight was on and five miles later three chasers were together: Andy Lyons (Olympia Sport), Matthew Postle (Delta RT), and Richard Wooles (Wales).
The three enjoyed their own company for a lap. The closest they got was 1-10, before the Curran group opened up the gap again, pushing them back to 1-49 and the main field to 2-05.
With four laps to go (40 miles) Curran and Newton sparred once more for the Gore Hill prime, with Curran taking it.
The climb formed the springboard for the counter attacks from behind, with several riders crossing to reinforce the chasing trio, swelling their ranks to 14.
The line dropped fast off the hill, swinging left to make the most of the cross-tail wind that would take them to Winchmore Hill and another trip through the lanes.
That's the winning move, onlookers must have thought at the sight of them: Lyons, Wooles and Postle were joined by seven more amateurs and four pros: amateurs Farrell, Prebble, Roger Hammond (Invicta RC), Stuart Dangerfield (North Wirral Velo) - pros, Doyle, Bernie Bums (Aire Valley), Steve Douce (unsponsored), Drew Wilson (Foremost), Tim Harris (Maestro), Neil Hoban (Foremost) and Simeon Hempsall (Choice Accountancy).
But their numbers were more a hindrance than a bonus. A winning move on paper only, they were going nowhere fast in that combination.
Curran added to his prime tally at Knotty Green and the gap was 1-15 on the chasers, a number of whom appeared to have purchased passenger only tickets. From looking a purposeful group, they began to lose headway as some among them laid off.
After 78 miles, Lillistone was dropped from the leaders. But this appeared to make no difference to Curran who soldiered on with Newton and Coltman.
At the back of the chasers, Postle was dangling, making heavy work of staying in contact.
Meanwhile, another series of counter attacks from the bunch signalled life remained in the field yet, as another worthy bunch of 13 gave chase, including three former winners. There were five amateurs and eight pros.
The amateurs were Peter Longbottom (North Wirral Velo), the winner in 1992, John Charlesworth (Delta RT), Paul Esposti (Wales), Graham Birch (Wrekinsport CC), and Wayne Randle, winner in 1986, an Optimum Performance team-mate of Curran. The pros were David Rayner and Chris Walker (Lex-Townsend), Nigel Perry (Maestro-Baxters), Chris Lillywhite (Foremost), Rob Holden (Muddy Fox), Tim Hall (Raleigh, team-mate of Coltman), plus John Tanner and Mark Walsham (Choice Accountancy), the winner a decade ago.
The situation with two laps to go was - Curran, Newton and Coltman led the race. Farrell was stirring the first group of chasers just over one minute back and they would soon collect Lillistone, as he fell back towards them. Then we had 13 in a third group nearly two minutes down.
Into the teeth of the wind up Gore Hill for the seventh time, the three leaders each took a bottle from helpers. The effort to reach out, grab the bottle and cage nearly cost Coltman his place, but he gamely fought back the length or two he lost.
On the descent, Newton took up the running. Farrell could see that his group was getting nowhere fast. In 20 miles they had not dented Curran's advantage one bit. Clearly, the man wanted no callers.
So Farrell tried gate-crashing. The big man attacked hard, to the right, and a line peeled off, clinging to his wheel as the race, now on the bottom road with the benefit of a cross-tail wind, moved into the final phases.
At about the same time, Walsham in the third group got tired of their negative racing and he too attacked, too late to make a difference but it would restore his morale.
It was all change now. Up front Coltman at last gave best, leaving Curran and Newton together. Only 30 seconds behind, and coming up fast on the suffering Coltman was Farrell and seven others: Hoban, Burns, Doyle, Wilson, Hempsall, Prebble and Dangerfield. But nearly 10 miles later they still were no closer to Curran and Newton.
The bell lap. Up Gore Hill for the ninth and last time, the leading duo steamed ahead. This was real attacking riding. Behind them, the Farrell group split as Farrell once again strung them out. He was away and only Prebble could follow, at 20 yards at first, but he clawed his way up to the Stoke rider's wheel and they pow-ered towards Winchmore Hill.
It was two and two.
Suddenly Newton was done for. He told Curran he could do no more and the next mo-ment he was gone. It was the slope up Winchmore Hill which had finished him off.
With nine miles remaining, Curran was alone in the lead - briefly. Sweeping first past Newton and up to his wheel came Farrell and Prebble.
The threesome dropped to the valley for one more crack at the Knotty Green prime and the race was on a knife edge.
The chasers had these three in their sights, and as Wilson made the running up the hill, with Doyle going after him, further up, near the top, Farrell made his bid for victory.
But Curran, in the lead now for half the race, was not to be shaken off.
Prebble was their victim, and as the race moved at last into the final act, he was to hang on for grim death, dangling between the leading two and the chasers hoping he would he their stepping stone.
Farrell and Curran knew that foxing about was out of the question if they were to stay clear and decide this between themselves.
So they plugged into the headwind, two seasoned amateurs, sharing the work, taking stock of each other, until only 200 yards to go.
It was Farrell who moved first. He jumped, Curran slipped in behind, and holding all the aces until the last, came round him in a powerful surge to take a most deserved victory by a length, a truly gutsy performance.
From 98 starters, 24 completed the distance, while the remaining 45 finished 'at a lap'. In fact, these backmarkers were instructed to finish a lap early, to comply with police wishes to minimise traffic delays around the course. Of Curran's original companions, only Newton finished in the top 24, placed 15th at 3-35.
Curran - a turn-up
Not one for showing his emotions, Paul Curran allowed himself a wry smile after his victory. 'This is a turn-up for the books for me,' he chuckled leaning on his bike at the finish. I've never won this one before. I've always got cramp.'
He put his form down to riding the Rapport Tour last month, where he won a split stage, and keeping himself healthy since returning from the South African heat to chilly England.
Curran explained what happened to his breakaway companions. 'We got rid of Simon Lillistone. Then Gary Coltman sat on for a lap. So I said to Chris Newton - we train together - we'll jump him up that hill with two laps to go. And we just rode as hard as we could, both of us.
'We got time checks. We knew that group (Farrell's bunch) was at 1-10, then next time check we got it was at 38 seconds. I thought. Oh, Jeeze.'
Curran did not need reinforcements, but come they did so he took to studying Farrell's behaviour on the run in.
'I thought we could have held on. When Farrell and Prebble caught us, I sat on. Then Farrell jumped up the climb and Prebble got dropped while I went with Farrell. I did a couple of turns with him and didn't know whether to sprint or not, then I just watched him. And I thought, I'll have a go in the sprint.
'It was a headwind as well, so I thought I'll leave it as late as I can.
'Farrell led out, he went about 200 yards to go and it was bit too early. I took his wheel, and jumped him with about 50 yards to go. He should have left it until the last 100 yards.'
Is he planning a crack at regaining the Commonwealth Games road race title?
'Well, I don't know. I had set my mind on motor-paced racing. But the way I'm road racing, I just may...Oh, I don't know. I'll see how I go. If I start winning more road races, maybe I'll switch.'
It was so nearly win number five for Steve Farrell. 'No, no. He was away all race, Curran deserved it,' he said, adding that there were too many doing nothing in his chasing group, otherwise they might have reached Curran earlier.
'They were messing about, so many sitting on. So I got rid of seven of them so it was better then, everyone was racing. Then they let me sneak off really. It wasn't really an attack - they just let me go. And then Richard Prebble came up and he was doing big turns. So we caught Paul and I attacked up that last climb to try and get rid of them. But Paul stayed with me. And then it was bit and bit to the finish. Yeah, I thought I'd cracked him on that hill.
'We got quite a gap. I led out and I was on a bit big a gear really, and he got by.'
Richard Prebble did well to hold off the chas-ers and finish third: 'I was just knackered for that last hill. I just did my best to hold off the chasers as long as I could and it worked.'
Chris Newton made the running with Curran until the distance proved too much for him. But the 21-year-old earned praise from national coach Doug Dailey for a fine effort. Newton, the national 20-kilometre champion, is to concentrate his talents on the track. He hopes to bid for a medal at the Commonwealth Games.
'I was feeling strong, but the race was just a lap too long for me,' said Newton. 'I started yo-yoing and just lost it.'
He said that Coltman's turns were just a bit late and that he had sat on for a couple of laps before they dropped him.
'I've only got one more Premier Calendar road race, then it's all track from then on,' said Newton.
1. PAUL CURRAN (Optimum Performance RT-Tritech) 106m
2. S. Farrell (Tunstall Wheelers) st
3. R. Prebble (Wembley RC) at 11sec
4. Doyle (Futurama) at 17sec
5. Wilson (Foremost Contract) at 18sec
6. N. Hoban (Foremost Contract) at 1-46
7. Burns (Airs Valley Sports)
8. S. Hempsall (Choice Accountancy)
9. S. Dangerfield (North Wirral Velo)
10. M. Walsham (Choice Accountancy)
11. M. Postle (Delta RT) all st
12. W. Randle (Optimum Performance RT) at 3-15
13. Davis (Bournemouth Arrow) st
14. Rayner (Lex-Townsend) at 3-35
15. Newton (Middridge CRT) st
16. C. Walker (Lex-Townsend) at 3-52
17. C. Lillywhite (Foremost Contract)
18. Holden (Team Haverhill)
19. P. Esposti (Wales)
20. G. Birch (Wrekinsport), all st.
1. Paul Curran (Optimum Performance) 25pt
2. Newton 18
3. Howarth (SG Bollington) - R. Wooles (Wales) 10.