WHEN the Tour of Britain was revived in 2004 it got off to an inauspicious start. The first stage from Manchester to Blackpool and back into Manchester city centre almost descended into farce when the breakaway – including Scotland’s Duncan Urqhuart – built a lead of 18 minutes and heavy traffic impeded the chasing peloton.
In the end, the peloton caught the escapees but in the final kilometre there was more confusion when some riders misunderstood the marshals’ instructions and went the wrong way.
Standing beneath a bus shelter close to the finish, shaking his head at this shambles, was the new British Cycling performance director, Dave Brailsford. A few yards away, finishing safely in the bunch, was a young Bradley Wiggins. But both, even Wiggins, with an Olympic gold medal on the track, were relatively anonymous figures in what was then a cycling backwater. Tom Boonen, the Belgian star, was scathing: “In other countries it’s possible to run races safely, so why not here?”
Since then the event has developed in tandem with the sport in this country, with Brailsford and Wiggins two of those who have spearheaded the growth. These days Britain’s national tour isn’t a race that the continental stars attend begrudgingly, but one that many want to ride. Last year was arguably the best yet, with Michal Kwiatkowski, the young Pole, riding aggressively and finishing second overall. A couple of weeks later he was crowned world road race champion in Spain: a feather in the cap for the British tour, suggesting that it could rival the Tour of Spain as preparation for the world championships.
This year’s eight-day race starts today in north Wales, continues with a hilly stage in Lancashire on Monday, then comes to Kelso on Tuesday, with the stage finishing at Floors Castle. It could see a replay of one of this year’s Tour de France stage finishes, with Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel, the German who won four stages, both riding. The riders travel to Edinburgh for Wednesday’s start then head back south, through Duns, finishing in Blyth after 218km.
As well as Cavendish, Wiggins is back, riding for his own team, Team Wiggins, made up of riders who could join him in the team pursuit at the Olympics next year. For Wiggins this race is training for his track goals. Cavendish’s future is less certain. He may also ride the track in Rio, but a more immediate concern is his next contract on the road, with an exit from his current team, Etixx-QuickStep, seeming inevitable.
Since the Tour Cavendish’s manager has been frantically trying to sort out his future, with the African team, MTN-Qhubeka, his most likely destination. With MTN withdrawing their sponsorship, the rumour is that Cavendish will bring a new sponsor along with his own entourage of riders and staff. An announcement is expected between the end of the Tour of Britain and the world championships, which begin in Richmond, Virginia, on 19 September.
Brian Smith, the Scot who is general manager at MTN-Qhubeka, confirmed this week that they have been negotiating with Cavendish. “But at this moment, we cannot afford him,” added Smith. Cavendish bringing his own title sponsor would look to be the answer, then.
As well as Wiggins and Cavendish there is quality throughout the field: Tour stage winner Zdenek Stybar, America’s Taylor Phinney, Britain’s Alex Dowsett and Ben Swift, and the Scots, Andy Fenn of Team Sky and Tao Geoghegan Hart.
The 20-year-old Geoghegan Hart, who grew up in Hackney and rides for an American team, will represent Great Britain this week, though he has signed as a stagiaire (trainee) for Team Sky for the rest of the season. Riding with impressive maturity, he was 15th at the Tour of Britain last year and he has progressed this year, finishing seventh in the USA Pro Challenge and third in the under-23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“I’m coming into it with some hard racing in my legs,” he said this week of the Tour of Britain. “It’s a different course, but you know roughly how the stages are going to be. It’ll be aggressive, a great race, and the roads always surprise a few riders.”
Geoghegan Hart revealed this week that he will not, despite his trial with Sky, turn professional next year. “It was a big decision because it’s every rider’s dream to turn pro,” he said. “It might look strange not to do something you’ve always aimed for. But I hope over the next eight to 12 months to become a better all-round rider, and to prove that I’m strong enough to turn pro.”
Level-headed and talented, many believe that Geoghegan Hart has a big future, and that in not turning professional in 2016 he is merely delaying the inevitable. As Cavendish and Wiggins begin to fade out, he represents the future of a sport that is, as the Tour of Britain is set to demonstrate once again this week, in rude health.