On Friday Mark Stewart pedalled out of Glasgow, heading north for the Campsies, climbing the Crow Road, then doing a loop around the Carron Valley. “It was nice to be back on home roads,” he says, “but it was fresh. Arm and leg warmers weather.”
It was the first longish ride he’d done since finishing the Tour de l’Avenir, the nine-day race in France known as the “Tour of the Future,” and his last before the OVO Energy Tour of Britain, which rolls out from the Royal Mile in Edinburgh this morning.
Stewart, who turned 22 during the Tour de l’Avenir, will be riding the national tour this week for his professional team, the Irish-registered, Belgium-based An Post-Chain Reaction. And he has a dream for stage one, which takes the riders into East Lothian then heads into the Borders, with a circuit that will take them through Kelso once before the finish in the town. “I’ll look to get into the break on the first day and hope that my legs will be on the same wavelength as my head.”
It all depends on how he has recovered from France. “It was six flat days, a rest day, then down to the Alps and for three days we hammered the hills. It was brutal. So I don’t know how I’ll go. I didn’t feel too bad this week. I could be flying.”
The Dundonian rode the Tour of Britain last year and was blown away by the reception when the race started in Glasgow. “I’ve done a lot of track racing, and there’s always a good crowd and great atmosphere in the velodrome, but Glasgow was phenomenal. And that carried on all the way; London on the final day was crazy. The racing was really, really hard. I had good legs, but it’s on a different level. It’s the biggest race I’ll do all year.”
The ideal scenario for Stewart would be to make the break on stage one, hope it stays clear, then use his track speed and pursuiter’s power to clip off in the final few kilometres. That would be the stuff of dreams, but he’s a realist: he knows there’s little chance of this happening.
The race this year boasts arguably the best field in the race’s 14 editions, with a dazzling selection of sprinters. This is partly because the Vuelta a España, which is about to enter its third and final week, has so few stages that suit sprinters. So the on-form Elia Viviani of Team Sky, European champion Alexander Kristoff, Caleb Ewan, Dylan Groenewegen, who won the final stage of the Tour de France, and perhaps the best young sprinter of them all, the Colombian Fernando Gaviria, will all be taking part.
And then there is Mark Cavendish, making his return to racing after his dramatic exit from the Tour de France, when he collided with Peter Sagan’s elbow – or Sagan’s elbow collided with him – and he crashed into the barriers, fracturing his shoulder.
Stewart isn’t the only Scot riding. Tao Geoghegan Hart, the first-year pro for Team Sky, competed for Scotland at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. He has been hugely impressive in his first year racing at this level, earning praise this week from his boss, Sir Dave Brailsford.
While Hart’s ambitions lie on the road, and his commitments to his team mean he will probably miss next year’s Commonwealth Games, Stewart’s are on the track and the Gold Coast Games are a big aim. “I’d like to ride road and track but I’ll definitely target track. I would’ve said I’d be aiming for the points and scratch races but after the Europeans [where he won the under-23 pursuit title and the omnium] I’m considering the individual pursuit.”
Beyond that, the Tokyo Olympics will start to loom on the horizon. “That’s everything for me,” says Stewart. A place in the team pursuit is the goal. The stakes are high, but so are the potential rewards – the British team won gold in the last three Olympics. “I’ve had a good year on the road,” he says, “but it’s hard, and it seems to get harder every year to mix road and track. Both are getting so specialised.”
After the Tour of Britain Stewart will return to the track for a winter of World Cups and six-day racing. “I do enjoy the road,” he says. “But I seem to better on the track.”