Gabriel Cullaigh proved both his form and mental guile in winning the Rutland–Melton International CiCLE Classic before a massive crowd in Sherrard Street on Sunday.
The Team Wiggins rider outsprinted former world points champion Karel Domagalski (One Pro Cycling) to take the glory after 189km, and almost five hours of racing.
From a field just short of 180 riders who left the start line, the Yorkshireman and Pole were the two remnants of a late breakaway group who went clear with around 30 kilometres remaining.
It could prove a breakthrough moment for the team launched in 2015 by Tour de France winner and multiple Olympic champion Bradley Wiggins, as they secured their first win in a major UK race.
“It feels good to win that,” said Cullaigh (22). “It’s just great to win especially Rutland. It’s my first time of doing it, and I know the prestige of the race so to pull off the win is amazing.
“We were putting the pressure on all day and once it started to split, we were throwing the attacks in so credit to all the boys in the team.
Everything is positive this year riding with Wiggins, I know how to win bike races and they are allowing me to do that.”
The 14th edition of the Classic proved a slow burner, with the reverse direction of Rutland Water for its two laps proving non-decisive, and although the pace was high, a leading four-man group was allowed to form just before the end of the first lap.
With the lead established the main peloton appeared to slow, allowing the four escapees a sizeable lead as the race raced headed back towards Oakham.
The four, comprising Adam Kenway (Vitus Pro Cycling), Peter Kibble (Wales Racing Academy), Mickey Mottram (Morvelo Basso) and Spain’s Sam Rodriguez (Guerciotti-KiwiAtlantiico) were quick to take advantage.
Mottram helped himself to the Oakham Town sprint award, sponsored by Oakham Wines, as the group’s lead approached three minutes.
Worryingly for race officials was the news that a train was due at Oakham Station, and with the level crossing barriers to close at 12.13pm, the entire race passed through with no more than a minute to spare.
Once into the smaller lanes beyond Barleythorpe, the lead group’s advantage continued to extend to 3min 45secs as they shared the various sprint and King of the Bergs prizes among themselves.
Mottram again showed his pace to win his weight in beer at the Grainstore Brewery-sponsored sprint on the second passage of Owston where a massive crowd welcomed riders on each of their six passages of the village.
The race behind the leaders finally came to life at the first passage of the Somerberg off-road section.
A blistering turn of pace at the front of the peloton, set by former world junior cyclo-cross champion Tom Pidcock (Team Wiggins), saw the lead group’s advantage evaporate within 12 kilometres from 3min 40secs to just 44 seconds.
The inevitable catch was only a matter of time, and after almost 100km spent out in front, the quartet’s day in the spotlight ended as all the favourites moved to monitor the head of the race.
Pidcock’s attack had brought to the front around 20 of the strongest riders, and although the group ebbed and flowed as riders suffered crashes and mechanical problems, others managed to join the group after spirited chases from the back.
Finally a seven-strong group formed on the first passage of the Stapleford Park off-road sector and they rode into Melton for their first crossing of the Sherrard Street finish line.
Here, Cullaigh rehearsed his winning sprint by claiming the Melton Town award of a giant pork pie, sponsored by Dickinson and Morris.
Heading Burton Road and into the penultimate off-road sector at Sawgate Lane brought further drama as three of the leaders punctured on the broken surface, and were left as the lead group went flat out for the finish.
Domagalski was now the favourite, having won the Chorley GP just seven days earlier, and he continued to force the pace through Stapleford Park for the last time and then onto the flat Saxby Road run-in to Melton.
The speed at the front detached several others, but Cullaigh and Dutch rider Koos Kers (WPGA Amsterdam) stuck closely to Domagalski’s wheel.
Kers finally had to give way on the final dash along Thorpe End and into Sherrard Street, but Cullaigh stuck to his task well to take the win.