Features Interviews The B-side

Inside the Cold Dark North: the art and joy of race organisation

Alexander Smith speaks to Deb John and Toby Cummins, the team behind Cold Dark North, about race organisation, the Proper Northern Race Series and their future plans

The end of March sees the start of the new ‘Proper’ Northern Road Race Series. Set up by Cold Dark North, it builds on their experience of over six years running races in the North West of England. At a time when important domestic races have teetered on the edge of existence, it is refreshing to see a new coherent gender-equal national race series appear on the calendar. Our interest piqued, we tasked Alexander Smith with finding out who Cold Dark North are, and what the Proper Northern Road Race Series entails.

The brand was started in 2015 by friends Deb John and Toby Cummins. Although neither is a Northern native, both had fallen in love with the local area and saw potential for “Rapha-esque cyclo-tourism”. 

“We quickly realised there wasn’t a future in trying to organise holidays for people here, with the weather window being so small.” Toby says. “We’d already created the brand and had a social presence. So we thought we would just see where it led us!”

The key objective of the brand is promoting cycling in the North West through their events, social media, and their ever-expanding race portfolio. 

“Most of what we are about is really just getting people on bikes!” says Toby. 

Toby braving the foul weather at the race finish line of the 2019 men’s National Masters Road Race Championships. Photo: Ellen Isherwood

Their first foray into race organisation came in 2017 when Deb, already a keen volunteer at races was asked if she would be willing to take on the organisation of Capernwray Road Race, as the race organiser at the time was intending to step away. 

“I mentioned it to Toby,” Deb says, “and then we immediately agreed to just jump in at the deep end as the race has a prestigious history. I’m very proud to have organised it!” 

This then led to organising other races, including the men’s and women’s National Masters Road Race Championships, the North West Regional Championships, 2/3/4 races, and the Emergency Services National Championships. 

The aim, they say, is to provide top-level racing, available for all, locally in the North West. Deb is focused on the race organisation, whilst Toby covers the social media.

There has always been equal prize money for men’s and women’s racing, it’s just fundamental

Deb John

Key to Cold Dark North’s approach has always been to put up equal prize money for men and women. 

“When we started, we really wanted it to be inclusive,” Deb says. “So, for us, there has always been equal prize money for men’s and women’s racing, it’s just fundamental – alongside providing race entries for up-and-coming juniors and a best junior prize in order to give them the opportunity to race against some of the top racers in the country.”

“We try and give spaces to upcoming juniors, to make sure they get a chance to race at a high level. It’s trying to give a path (that’s not just a British Cycling path) to racing on bigger and better teams.

“I’ve seen juniors go from last one year to the top ten the next in some of our races,” Deb says

Deb John at The Struggle Hill Climb. Photo: Ellen Isherwood

The likes of Matt Holmes, Dan Bigham, Joss Lowden, and Lizzie Banks have all competed in Cold Dark North races, and Toby jokes that it’s almost a “requirement” that if you podium one of their events you have to go on to race in the WorldTour. 

Central to everything that Cold Dark North does is the fun and enjoyment they get from riding their bikes. “We do things because they’re fun to do, not because we need to do them to make money or drive a certain agenda,” Toby says. 

So this year, they are trying to bring that fun ethos to the new ‘Proper Northern Road Race Series’ – a collection of three tough National B races on established courses starting on the 27th March, at Capernwray, then moving to Aughton and Oakenclough on 15th May and 10th July respectively. 

There will be prizes for both men’s and women’s individual and team winners, in each of the races and the series as a whole. Teams will be allowed a minimum of four three riders, and a maximum of five, with the first three finishers counting for the team competitions. 

They’re proper courses with proper climbs! It is much easier to do the results, too, without having a bunch sprint

Toby Cummins

Every round will feature a gruelling uphill finish. Despite other races on these circuits using faster, flatter finishes, Cold Dark North make a point of finishing up a hill, affectionately known as “stabby bastard hills” on their social media!

“They’re proper courses with proper climbs! It is much easier to do the results, too, without having a bunch sprint.” Weather has also always seemed to be a factor in their races. “I would like to claim that that was us trying to make it hard for riders!” Toby jokes. 

“Capernwray always seems to be the best weather and it’s in March!” Deb laughs. 

Alicia Speake (Team LDN – Brother UK) winning the Women’s National Masters Road Race in 2019 at Dolphinholme. Photo: Ellen Isherwood

“I feel misled as at our first race, that Lizzie Banks won, the sun was gorgeous, and I thought that if this is what organising races is like, it’s great!” 

“I swear 80% of them since then have been in biblical conditions!”

They are also keen to stress that, like all cycling race and event organisers, they make no real money off the events. They also highlight the lengths they go to, to ensure that the race goes smoothly. 

You would never be a race organiser to try and make money, I don’t think. You have to want to do it for love

Toby Cummins

“You would never be a race organiser to try and make money, I don’t think,” Toby says, “You have to want to do it for love.”

“We let people that live on the circuit know before the race that there’s going to be a race, and that’s been really appreciated by the community.

“One farmer even mowed the entrance to his field where we park our judge’s car so we’d have better access, it was just so nice.”

But, of course, races need to be funded – and Deb explains that the costs have gone up significantly in the past few years. 

However, she does say that this has been a positive in some ways, with improved safety standards, especially regarding first aid. Every penny spent on expenses for a volunteer, a commissaire, NEG moto, or Accredited Marshalls is money well spent as these races could not continue without their time and commitment. 

Most of the money that goes towards the organisation of the races comes from the entry fees, and anything left from the race fees goes into a fund that contributes to organising future races and events. 

“We also contribute to a number of charities, as well as sponsoring some women riders in other races, supporting them to have a go at time trials, crits, and we put on race training at the local crit circuit for women too,” Deb says.

Ross Lamb (SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling) wins the 2021 Capenwray road race. Photo: Ellen Isherwood

Toby thanks their sponsors and partners, all of whom he says have stuck by them throughout the past few difficult years. 

“We are supported predominantly by Ribble Cycles this year, but we have been really lucky with all the sponsors we have worked – they have stayed with us through the last three or four years.

“When we talk to them in December/January time about what we are going to do next year, it’s always a very easy conversation. 

“We work with Attacus clothing, Jam Cycling (Become Wild Edale – a glamping site with a cycling focus), and Crimson Performance. And then on a smaller scale with the local business who give us contributions to some prizes like Fell Brewery and Atkinsons Coffee” Toby says. 

The response to the series has been good so far with entries from a number of best local teams including Ribble Weldtite, and other elite teams from across the country.

We even had a message from James Knox. He said it’s fantastic that someone is putting on a high-quality National B series in the North West

Toby Cummins

“There seems to be really warm, positive noise around the race series. We are looking forward to hard, fast exciting races.

“We even had a message from James Knox [Quick Step – Alpha Vinyl rider from the North West]”, says Toby. “He said it’s fantastic that someone is putting on a high-quality National B series in the North West and if there hadn’t been races for him to go to in the area then he doesn’t think he would’ve made it to where he is now.”

The 2021 Cold Dark North 2/3/4 race. Photo: Ellen Isherwood

What are their aims for the series, in the long-term? They say that they could potentially expand the series, but this is not something they would be doing initially. First, it’s about getting this series right.

“We’re always open to looking at new possibilities for races,” they both say. 

I think a really good idea is to help out in a race beforehand – so you see the nuts and bolts of the race, and you can pick the race organiser’s brain in a more practical context

Deb John

As you would expect from being seasoned race organisers now, Deb and Toby have plenty of advice for those thinking of setting up races themselves. 

“I think a really good idea is to help out in a race beforehand – so you see the nuts and bolts of the race, and you can pick the race organiser’s brain in a more practical context,” Deb says.

“It always helps to talk to other organisers, and the comms [commissaires] will give you an awful lot of information about the circuits and what you need.”

Also important is race information: 

“We send out our race brochure a week in advance of the races, it is very detailed and clear. Apart from the rider lists and race info, we cover, where to park, where the toilets are, facilities at the HQ, how to get there, what the course is like, all those things are really important and have been really well received by riders and volunteers,” Toby says. 

“I run around with a cowbell ten minutes before the rider briefing to tell the riders they need to be back at HQ, so it’s just small things like that that really aren’t a big deal for us, but they make a really big difference for the riders.”

The 2021 Capenwray road race. Photo: Ellen Isherwood

Alongside the racing, they also organise and support a range of other events. Again, they say they organise events that they want to do and that they find fun – and that means that occasionally they are random and last minute! Building on the initial plans to be a cyclo-tourism brand, much of what they do is focused on exploring and showcasing the fantastic cycling roads in the North. 

“This year the key is going to be trying to find good excuses to have fun with people that want to ride bikes, in the same places we’re going to be riding bikes anyway!”

They are keen to make use of their supporters, aiming to organise social rides from the Fell Brewery in Cartmel and the Ribble showroom in Clitheroe, in the next year. They also are hoping to bring back their end of season raffle ride in October or November. 

Cold Dark North will also show continued support for the Struggle Hill Climb an event they’ve sponsored in both years it has run.

Toby recounts their support of this event in 2021, where they thought it would entertain the crowds if they both raced it. Setting off a minute apart from each other, with Deb going second, it was, as the name of the hill suggests, a struggle!

“You couldn’t see anything for the thick mist up the climb; you couldn’t even see the finish line!” Toby remembers, “But you could hear the cowbells at the top!

“I won by one second over the 22 minutes it took to climb!” Toby says.

“I was gutted!” Deb adds. 

We want to do everything we possibly can to promote bike riding up here because we think it’s fantastic and we want people to experience the great places we have around us

Toby Cummins

Their enthusiasm is evident, as is their enjoyment in everything they do as a brand. Their ethos is very much organising events outside of racing whenever they can, and this will continue into 2022.

“We’ll try and do as many ad hoc things as we can, like women’s racing skills nights, we’ll sponsor some riders to do some exciting things that they may not do otherwise” says Deb. The focus on promoting equal opportunities for all, and expanding the women’s racing community especially is clear. 

“There are a number of really good women racers already based up here and we want to support their opportunities to race in the North in 2022” says Deb. 

“We want to do everything we possibly can to promote bike riding up here because we think it’s fantastic and we want people to experience the great places we have around us.” Toby adds. 

“From Preston to Penrith, Asgarth to the Atlantic; the Pennines to the Dales; the Lakes to the Forest of Boland and everything in between.”

Toby Cummins. Photo: Ellen Isherwood

It is evident throughout our conversation that the Cold Dark North duo are much more than just the race organisers, and their ethos of inclusivity and just having fun on bikes is fantastic. 

No matter where in the UK you live, they are definitely a brand to follow. If you are able to join them in any of their social events, or to enter their races. In my view, they have all the right focuses for growing cycling, and getting more people on bikes – whether fast or fun. 

Keep an eye on their social media for more information on any upcoming events. As Toby says, they tend to be spontaneous, but they have some exciting plans for the coming year – starting with The Proper Northern Road Race Series in a few weeks’ time.

“We’ll see where life takes us along the way through the year, it’s a fairly organic social calendar that we run!”

Featured photo: Ellen Isherwood. The 2021 Capenwray road race.