AJ Bell Tour of Britain: The First Half

The 108-strong cast of the 17th modern edition of the Tour of Britain rolled out of Penzance, in the far south-west corner of the island, on a sunny September Sunday, full of promise of a spectacular week of racing to come.

The backdrop to the Grand Depart and Stage 1 was the picturesque coastline and undulating roads of Cornwall – undulating being a diplomatic term for a relentless day of ups and downs. Despite offering just three opportunities to pick up King of the Mountains points, the route was almost never flat, a feature of British roads that riders unfamiliar with the quirks of road systems on a small island may come to resent by the end of their eight day stay, but which make the racing unpredictable and provide an ever-changing set for the audience to admire.

The early stages of the race played out without drama: a small breakaway was released up the road consisting of five riders, who built a modest lead over a peloton that was driven for the best part of the day by Jumbo Visma and Deceuninck Quick-Step, riding for Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe respectively, and contested all the intermediate sprints and King of the Mountains. Nic Dlamini is no stranger to the front end of the Tour of Britain, having taken the mountains jersey in 2018, but he dropped off the pace later in the stage leaving Canyon dhb Sungod’s’s Jacob Scott to scoop up the lion’s share.

The remains of the break were absorbed back into the peloton with just over 20km to go and the run-in to the final began, with Alpecin-Fenix leading the charge. With Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel pulling big turns on the front as the race wound down, it became clear that they were not setting up for a bunch sprint: the tricky climb into Bodmin would favour a punchier rider, and so it proved as Alaphillippe attacked with less then 2km to go. He was overpowered though by strong sprints from Team DSM’s Nils Eekhoff and ahead of him, Wout van Aert, who produced a dominant sprint finish to become the first leader of race.

Stage 2 marked a step eastwards into the neighbouring county of Devon. Heading out from Sherford near Dartmouth, the temperature soared and the riders were bathed in sunshine. Wout van Aert was resplendent in the blue leader’s jersey and overnight, the commissaires had reconsidered the time gaps meaning that the top 21 riders now all shared the same time.

The day’s stage would take in the most metres of elevation of any of the race’s eight stages, but this did not deter the day’s early break who fought through a number of escape attempts before establishing themselves around 15km into the race. Jake Scott, sporting the green mountains jersey, was part of the move again, a group which also once again number five riders.

An early crash caused trouble for Jumbo Visma, losing Chris Harper, and later Thomas Mein of Canyon dhb Sungod also needed medical attention.

Scott repeated his attacking moves from the previous day to once again take top spot in the intermediate sprints and climbs.

Heading into Dartmoor the breakaway were able to drop two of their number and slim to a threesome. The climb of Rundlestone awaited the riders – a long, relentless slog across Dartmoor, windy, harsh and bleak despite the sunshine.

When the American team Rally Cycling’s Robin Carpenter struck out for victory with 24km to go, Jumbo Visma, with Tony Martin at the head of the race, were unable, or unwilling, to close the gap to the leader, and no-one else seemed to have the desire to take up the mantle – Qhubeka and Movistar took turns before Jumbo Visma took over again with George Bennett and they drove the time gap down. But it was too little too late; Carpenter took the victory and the leader’s jersey in a surprise breakaway win and a huge achievement for his team, the American Pro team Rally Cycling.

The Welsh portion of the Tour began on Stage 3 with a team time trial. Taking place across a tricky 18km course featuring a number of awkward twists and turns, the stage was not ideal for teams unused to the discipline, which was basically all of them.

Pre-stage attention focused on Dan Bigham’s Ribble Weldtite unit, expected to be well-drilled in the discipline and the most likely of the British Conti teams to have an impact on the big hitters. They arrived on the start ramp sporting a selection of different aero helmets, and they set a good time, taking the early lead on the stage before the World Tour teams rolled out.

Historically high achievers in the team trial discipline, Jumbo Visma were handicapped by the loss if Chris Harper from their ranks, and an imbalance in abilities was evident in the early phase of the race where Gijs Leemreize had to fight to regain the wheel of his team after time trial specialist Wout van Aert set off at a blistering pace. After eventually dropping Leemreize, the team suffered further catastrophe as Pascal Eenkhoorn had a mechanical close to the finish, and they were forced to slow to allow him to catch up, then urge him across the line to record a time. The first of the World Tour teams out of the blocks, Jumbo Visma still took the lead, but were later pipped to the post by a well-oiled Deceuninck QuickStep team by a margin of just three seconds.

Jumbo Visma weren’t the only team to suffer misfortune during the race, Qhubeka-NextHash suffering a crash and distancing their own riders repeatedly as they struggled through the course.

INEOS Grenadiers were on another level, though. With strong time triallists among their number and no weak link they were always going to be favourites for the win, and so it went, as they put in a powerful and disciplined team performance to better Deceuninck’s time by 17 seconds. Along with the stage victory, Ethan Hayter claimed the blue leader’s jersey for the first time, Rally’s Robin Carpenter having worn it in anger for just under 22 minutes.

Climbing from the south to the north of Wales, Stage 4 was touted as the queen stage of the race, and at 210km it as also the longest.

Jacob Scott continued his dogged pursuit of the mountain’s jersey, and was joined in the breakaway by another familiar face, Nicolas Sessler of the Global6 Cycling Team, Caja Rural’s Jokin Murguialday, Robert Donaldson from the Great Britain team, Ollie Peckover from Swift Carbon and local boy, Ribble Weldtite’s Gruff Lewis.

The breakaway built their gap up to around nine minutes but as the peloton began to reel them in a second breakaway group headed up the road, comprising the unlikely trio of Tom Gloag, Ben Healy and Marc Soler. They caught the first group with just over 60km to go and the expanded breakaway worked together for a while before the inevitable occurred and the groups came back together. A further group of hopefuls including Team DSM’s Max Kanter, Gonzales from Caja Rural and Mauro Schmid tried their luck but were once again swallowed up again as they came into Wales’ largest seaside resort, Llandudno.

The bunch were tense heading through Llandudno into the final double climb, which began with Marine Drive, breath-taking with its dramatic backdrop of rock walls, cliffs dropping down to the coast as the riders wove around the headland. Owain Doull pulled hard on the front for INEOS and it looked as though the main group would go into the final climb together, but Movistar’s American climber Matteo Jorgensen had other ideas, launching a hopeful attack from the front going into the last part of the climb. He pulled out a 15 second lead but without support it wasn’t enough and once again, the group came together on the descent as they headed for the spectacular Great Orme.

The dramatic, short sharp climb maintained a relentless 13% which stretched out the peloton, spear-headed by Jumbo Visma’s George Bennett, towing Wout can Aert, and as the climb kicked up to 15% a small group attacked led by Israel Start-Up Nation’s Michael Woods. Woods kept the tempo high with Julian Alaphillippe looking strong beside him to gap all but van Aert who dragged himself up the climb behind the Canadian and the World Champion going into the flat section with 1km to go.

The easing of the gradient enabled race leader Ethan Hayter and Alaphillipe’s team mate Mikkel Honore to close down the leading trio, and with 300m to go Honore attacked, provoking an immediate response from van Aert, and leading into the killer final stretch Honore led out Alaphillippe for a two-up sprint with van Aert. The sprint to the line was agonisingly close but van Aert took it by the slimmest of margins, both riders veering across the line from the sheer effort. They later collapsed side by side, spent from pouring everything out on the road, and as van Aert reclaimed the leader’s jersey from Ethan Hayter, cycling fans both from within and outside of the UK marvelled not only at the epic battle that played out in North-West Wales, but at the course itself, which seemed almost monument-worthy in its sheer difficulty.

George Bennett leads the charge up the Great Orme for Team Jumbo Visma

INTERMISSION – please be aware that the second half may contain flash photography. Along with piecemeal reports, missing pieces but hopefully, some rider interviews. As I am attending stages 6 and 7 – see you on the roads!

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