After the fun of the 2017 edition of the Velo Birmingham, the event made its belated return in 2019. A completely different route saw the riders head east into North Warwickshire instead of west into Worcestershire. This made a difference to the parcours with a flatter profile and smaller rolling hills. It also meant paying a visit to the lovely Coventry city centre.
Thankfully after attempts to sabotage the event before it started in 2017, there were no such incidents before the 2019 version. The 2017 event got savaged for running out of supplies and water at feed stops, so it would be interesting to see if they avoided this second time around.
Velo Birmingham and Midlands 2019 Sportive Route and Profile
Velo Birmingham and Midlands 2019 Sportive Review
Hannah and I parked up at Kings Heath, partly to avoid parking in the city centre, and also to roll down to the start pen with the bulk of the Gorilla Coffee Cafe guys. We’d both decided to move backwards to the last starting pen so we’d all start together. We got there far too quickly and easily, so ended up waiting about 30 minutes for the start. Once there, there was the usual lack of information, or a clock, or anything, until the front of the pen just suddenly got going.
We had a tiny bit of pre-start before getting to the real start, long enough though for Julian to find himself on the deck on the second corner of the day. I didn’t see it but apparently the swearing afterwards was particularly impressive. The sheer amount of people made it impossible to see anyone other than the person immediately behind you. As such all of the Gorillas except for about 5/6 of us ended up completely split up – this included Hannah.
Having some experience of the madness of mass start sportives (I count La Ronde Picarde in this) and going through smaller gaps when I used to race – I put myself on the front of the group as we left Birmingham. Riders were scattered all over the road and just like the motorway, the left-hand side was completely empty. Everyone huddled in the middle of the road. As the riders going the quickest, we took the far right-hand side of the road, and started calling forwards to make our presence known.
Suburban roundabouts presented issues as things got tighter and people wouldn’t hold their line without a shout. Parked up event motos didn’t help much either as they created a bottleneck that could’ve gone very Geraint Thomas. Once out of the city it did open up a little bit more but it didn’t stop some people riding badly. I took a shoulder bump from someone who suddenly moved without looking behind. Despite the speed wobble, I managed to hold it and push on.
After 23 miles, we were encouraged to slow down on a descent by some of the volunteer riders. There was a large bottleneck which had brought riders to a stop. We then had to walk up the next small hill before it became obvious why we’d stopped whilst still walking on the next descent. Ambulances were in attendance, the mashed up bike, cracked helmet and pool of deep red blood on the road made this a sober moment. Unfortunately, this is the spot where it was later reported a rider had died on the Velo Birmingham.
Back on our bikes and still picking a path through riders, we made it to the outskirts of Coventry. This saw us ramping up the pace on the long, straight flat roads to just under 30mph – almost like the lead-out train for a bunch sprint finish. We hit the city centre which was barriered off quite tightly for the riders. Then took on some cobbles, right next to the famous cathedral. I had to shout to people to keep pedalling because they’d backed right off here for some reason, and then made our way onto the delightful Coventry ring road.
As we rode out of Coventry, Andy nearly got clipped by a rider chopping him up coming off an island. He didn’t like our head-shaking and got all aggressive about it – he was ignored and left in our wake. So far I had done something like 85% of the work on the front of our group for these first 50 miles. The legs were now starting to flag a bit on the ups and down heading to Meriden. It was agreed that we’d stop at the feed station there for a rest and regroup. Whilst we were there, a few more Gorillas appeared to add to our complement – now up to double figures briefly.
A couple of the quicker guys now in our group shot off as we slowly rolled back up to speed after the stop. I sent the next 5 miles gradually reeling them back. At 62 miles in, whilst taking a left-hander at my usual quick pace, my front wheel suddenly went twang. Unmistakable as the noise of a spoke threatening to die. It seemed to be holding but was complaining whenever I hit something not perfectly smooth on the road. I took myself off the front and sat a couple of wheels back in our group to see how it would fare.
It held fine for the next 20 miles as we got ourselves onto our home roads. Some of which we’ve done weekly in the dark all winter on our Thursday bash route. Impressively, with the sun out and 70 miles into the sportive, we even managed to set some PBs on these routes. Even though it feels like we’ve worked really hard on them before. It was going up a climb by Highter’s Heath after 82 miles that my spoke finally snapped and died completely. Helpfully this was right next to a feed stop. I pulled in, confirmed it had properly snapped and tried to tuck it in between other spokes to keep it out of the way. It was here where I re-met some Gorilla riders in Graeme (who’d been with us since the start but had been dropped along the way) and Maria who’d been riding with someone else so far.
We tried to ride together but again it all got split up. Riding on roads that I should have recognised, they looked completely different with so many riders on them and riding on the other side of the road. I overtook some of the Stafford riders I know as we briefly went back out into the countryside again. Descending back into the city suburbs, I watched a rider fall off immediately after giving some children a high-five. This was followed by the aftermath of another crash with two riders requiring an ambulance. Hopefully, everyone was alright.
All of a sudden after this point we had a series of half-decent, steep hills for the first time on the ride. My spoke tidying solution had only held for 6 miles before getting itself loose on a descent, clanging around. I ended up pulling over and bending it back and forth until it snapped at the top end. This left me with one less spoke – weight savings! I ended up re-overtaking some of the riders I’d been passed shortly before linking up with Maria for the next couple of climbs.
The bottom-left corner of Birmingham is full of decent, steep hills – the Lickeys, the Waseley Hills, Frankley, Ley Hill and Mucklow Hill. We did the hill next door to Mucklow Hill which was the final climb of the ride, taking us into Quinton. I would lose Maria once again, probably because I knew where I was and was back to cornering at speed. We’d now got a downhill smash to the finish for the last 5-6 miles. I managed to average just under 25mph on my own as I tanked it along some of my old training roads to the finish line.
Thanks to the spoke issue, I ended up finishing around 18-20 minutes behind the guys I’d been with. My finishing time was 5 hours and 37 minutes, but my moving time was 4 hours 55 minutes. This meant that I just about scraped a 20mph+ average speed for the ride.
Hannah rolled in with a time of 7 hours 32 minutes having ridden nearly all of it solo.
Reflections on the 2019 Velo Birmingham and Midlands Sportive
During the registration, riders provided an expected time that they would finish the ride in. Apparently this helped to create mixed ability rider pens. This sounds good because it means the slower riders who will take the longest time won’t be at the back at the start. And also find themselves on their own early on. In reality, it meant that there were wildly different skillsets and experience levels amongst riders on tight roads. Whilst it’s a closed road sportive, it would’ve been useful to advise riders in the rider pack how to ride it safely with large groups around passing at speed.
Linked to this is the crashes – of which seemingly there were lots of on the day. Compared to events with similar amounts of riders, I don’t remember seeing any on the Tour of Flanders last year. That was an event on open roads too. Obviously a rider died on this year’s ride, in a crash which the circumstances are unknown so I’ll steer well clear of that.
The three crashes I saw first-hand were all daft ones. From the rider that took Julian out in the pre-start, to the rider who crashed on his own into the verge in a straight line and the one with the high-five guy were all completely avoidable. I had my own incident where someone attempted to crash into me too. The aftermath of some of the other crashes with ambulances around looked very serious and wasn’t confidence-inspiring. It was a worrying trend throughout the day.
The spectators were once again one of the major plus points of the Velo Birmingham. Many of the spectators had a friend of member of the family out on the road somewhere, waiting for them to come past and cheer them on. Plenty more were people ‘trapped’ in their homes for the day who were embracing this event on their doorsteps. From the unofficial water stops and the Haribo hand-outs to the Indian family in Edgbaston banging some traditional drums just a couple of miles from the finish. Now some people were idiots. Like the person who ran over a marshall, breaking their hip, because the road was closed. To the riders on the road though, the support was fantastic and made the Velo Birmingham what it is.