As my summation of the first four stages of the AJ Bell Tour of Britain consisted, quite predictably, of race reports, it might come as something of a surprise to read the second half, which sadly, will consist of relatively little in the way of cold, hard facts.
There are reasons for this which will unfold as we go along.
Stage 5 featured a relatively short trek through Cheshire. Despite taking in three categorised climbs along its 152.2km route, including the uniquely title ‘Bottom-of-the-Oven,’ the day was pegged for a bunch sprint from the very beginning, given the flat profile of the final 40km or so. Despite a spirited effort from the remains of the day’s breakaway, including Ribble Weldtite’s Dan Bigham, the bunch sprint would finally manifest, but it didn’t go according to plan, as INEOS Grenadiers’ Owain Doull came down on a corner 800m from the finish line, causing a split in the bunch. This prevented some of the key players from taking part in the final run-in to the line, but Ethan Hayter was in blistering form to take the win and control of the leaders’ jersey in the process.
Stage 6 – Friday 10th September
Having watched cycling on TV for a number of years, and with little experience of the real thing, nothing could prepare me for the alternative reality of taking in a bike race live. As seasoned spectators of cycling will know, to attend a bike race in person is to surrender control; to accept that in order to absorb the spectacle in real life, you must inevitably lose your grasp on the nuances of the race.
Quite besides the fact that logistically speaking, it’s something of a nightmare.
Planning your approach involves working out where you want to be, and when. Take in the start, and you won’t make the best climb. Choose to observe the riders attack the tenuous winding cobbled paths of a small Cumbrian village, and you inherently sacrifice your chance to make it to the finish line.
I opted to drive from home to the day’s toughest climb, and set out at 10.30 to head to my destination, the first of several large blocks of driving I would undertake in pursuit of the race that weekend.
The British are legendary in their approach to a sporting occasion, and across every stage of the race so far the support had been evident: even the most remote of roads were lined with fans; families, primary school children, cycling teams who’d rode the route in advance; old couples with Thermos flasks and camping chairs, cool boxes at the ready for picnic lunches, determined not to miss a moment.
Because after all, a moment is all it is (a few, if you choose wisely and position yourself on a steep section of a climb). You are present for a snapshot of a battle in full swing, content in the knowledge you will not know its outcome until later. It would be like turning on a football match, only to switch it off, just seconds later. Yet still, we came out in force, accepting of our fate. Knowing that it would be worth it just to take in a brief portion of the action.
Driving up Killhope Cross in the North Pennines, just outside Nenthead in Cumbria, was in itself a mechanical triumph, for my long-suffering Ford Focus if not for me. Nothing puts the achievements of pro cyclists into perspective quite like grinding between second and third gear up uncomfortable gradients, knowing that one hundred men on bikes will sweep up it with relative ease an hour or so later.
Killhope Cross, the highest paved pass in England, is as ominous by name as it is by nature. Long, arduous and straight for the most part, the gradient kicks up towards the summit, and the Skoda KOM summit sign marked the peak, where hope would, with any luck, be regained. We later discovered that British place naming rules very much applied in the case of this climb – it’s rarely pronounced how it looks on paper – and ‘Killup’ Cross presented the most challenging ascent of the day for the riders.
With the motos flying up the road and the tacatacataca of the helicopter flooding the moody northern English skies with sound, the anticipation rose and we were informed that a leading breakaway group of seven were riding three minutes clear of the peloton.
As the riders approached the crowds leaned inward, bowing then parting as the breakaway rose up the climb with varying degrees of finesse, the likes of slender climber George Bennett making it look easy while the improbable breakaway duo of Tim Declercq and Mark Cavendish from Deceuninck Quick-Step laboured under the stress of the gradient. The support vehicles followed, so close to the toes of the spectators it was a reminder of just how delicate the balance is between safety and chaos in a bike race, something that has been all too evident this season as fans have returned to the roadside.
And then they were gone and the roads fell silent for a few moments in their wake, aside from the buzz of the crowd comparing notes as the peloton drew closer. A second wave of activity signalled their arrival on the hill, and this time, the procession was more substantial. The bunch moved at speed despite the angle and it was all the rapt crowd could do to pick out a face here and there, to call to your neighbour to say who you’d laid eyes on; the speed just slow enough to fathom that INEOS were driving on the front, that Jumbo Visma lined up on the near side, the yellow glare of their jerseys distracting from the presence of Wout van Aert nestled securely within their ranks.
Then, finally, the stragglers; the ones making hard work of the climb, those who didn’t have the legs, or had the legs yesterday, or were having a mechanical (Saint Piran’s Ollie Maxwell could be overheard shouting ‘got a big alan key?’ into his team car as he struggled past) or were Julian Alaphillippe, who, unbeknownst to those on the ground, had just suffered a bathroom break misunderstanding and was not happy, hitching a ride via sticky bottle up the business end of the climb.
And then they, too, were gone. Like a group of traveling minstrels, the assembled company packed up their flasks and lunchboxes and flags and moved on, almost instantly. Many climbed on their own bikes and rode away; cars pulled out and disappeared, flowing down either side of the hill unburdened by the incline.
After the rush, the silence. The air inside my car was stuffy and I took the chance to grab a bite to eat as I trailed out of Cumbria and into Tynedale. The chase was on: via a somewhat less circuitous route than the peloton, I would aim to reach Gateshead, park up and make it to the finish ahead of the leaders. The irony of chasing a bike race while being hampered by cyclists was not lost on me, but progress was steady, and winding my way through small villages and around haphazard corners, I was blissfully unaware that a few miles north, the race had encountered torrential rain, or that the breakaway continued to lead through the downpour.
Across the North Pennines things got surreal. Fighting the effects of days of anxiety-fuelled broken sleep, with Led Zeppelin blasting from the stereo, I was alone. The wild expanse of the moors lay to every side of me and a scattering of sheep were my only company. The minutes ticked down but I was on course to arrive on time. The closer I came, though, the more the traffic built, until I was taking detour after detour to avoid tractors and buses. Ignoring the road closure signs which lie in wait for the race procession, I found myself on the course itself, the signage helpfully informing me I had 5km to go. The buzz of anticipation was back as I completed my own race to the finish line, taking in a damp, sketchy descent that filled me with dread on behalf of the riders, who would take its sinuous curves at twice the speed I dared to.
Finally making it to the car park, finding a space, collecting a press pass, running flat out to the finish line. The voice of Jez Cox, the race commentator, rung out through the PA system and the big screen displaying there were 17km to go. With plenty of time to spare I picked my spot, beyond the finish line. The torrent of information on the race was overwhelming after the 90-odd minutes of rock music and the rush of my own thoughts, a shock to the system as I remembered how things were all that time ago, on the hill in Cumbria. As if to close off that chapter, the breakaway were swept up almost immediately after I arrived and the race for the finish began. With an obscured view of the big screen I relied on the commentary and waited.
The waiting feels different when you watch in person. On TV the final kilometres of a race seem to tick by with increasing speed; in person it’s almost comically slow. When the race eventually drew within a kilometre the crowd came to life and by the time Wout van Aert raised his arms across the line, I felt as though the day had lasted a year. The resultant podium ceremony, in which Wout van Aert smiled and waved, and Ethan Hayter threw a bunch of flowers, badly, came and went in a flash, and press duties called, before the buses rolled out, keen to move on to the next location.
They weren’t going anywhere fast. Rush hour on the A1 to Newcastle is bad enough at the best of times, and crawling back home with the INEOS team bus right behind me was yet another surreal reminder of the reality of bike racing. What other sport finishes for the day after five hours of competition, then jumps on a bus, and rides to a hotel, ready to relocate for another day?
Stage 7 – Saturday 11th September
Sleep still hard to come by, the 6.00am alarm was unnecessary on Saturday morning and with another hour and a half in the car ahead, the day began with my intrepid travelling companion and I navigating our way to the Scottish border town of Hawick. Two for two in the ‘British place names that aren’t pronounced how they look’, we were late to find out that in fact, the name was ‘Hoick’. Which instantly transforms it into Scottish expletive. Onomatopoeia at its finest.
The skies were dark and heavy with the suggestion of rain as we took the narrow country lanes to our destination, feeling like royalty as the cavalcade of motos and race support vehicles seemingly escorted us along the otherwise almost deserted route. Apparently no-one travels to the Scottish borders first thing on a Saturday.
Once parked, getting to the start line didn’t come without its obstacles, namely an unfinished bridge across the river heading into town. I took photos and waxed lyrical about the metaphorical significance of the bizarre sight, a symbol of the fractured union between Scotland and England perhaps, before remembering we had places to be.
The area was busy and the street lined with people as the ever-diminishing group of riders arrived for sign on. Despite the low numbers the process was more than a little chaotic, with teams arriving out of order and drifting into position reluctantly and at different speeds, like a herd of confused cattle.
Once on the start line though, the atmosphere intensified once more, and the distinctive scent of deep heat laced the morning air. Aside from the obvious significance of the front row, with the jerseys on display, a hierarchy presented itself: Wout van Aert, head down, eyes on his computer display, sitting in line with Pascal Eenkhorn and Gijs Leemreize; much further back, Andre Greipel and George Bennett chatted and laughed, taking the whole thing less seriously. When the countdown began, Bennett wasn’t even on his bike, which he mounted in an almost comically relaxed manner moments after the riders at the front had already rolled away.
It would be a long day in the saddle for riders such as Bennett, who had spent swathes of energy in the breakaway the previous day, but the riders weren’t the only ones heading North.
With less pressure than the previous day due to the length of time we had available, we were able to grab a bite to eat and decompress from the adrenaline rush before we were on our way again. Back past the broken bridge and in the car once more, we headed away from Hawick and through the Scottish countryside. Truth be told, there’s little I remember about that journey. The lack of sleep was catching up with me and we sang at the tops of our voices to an eclectic selection of rock and pop classics in an attempt to stay awake. Arriving in Edinburgh was a shock to the system, fraught with all the usual one way systems, dead ends and ‘no right turns’ that city centre driving in the UK gifts drivers with in order to keep them endlessly circling, like frustrated vultures.
The sensation of disconnect from an actual sporting event was stronger on stage 7, probably because watching a diminutive peloton roll over a start line and disappear from view cannot possibly transmit any sense of what will occur later that day, particularly bearing in mind they don’t race in anger until a few kilometres down the road.
Descending into a media centre in an Earth-themed museum doesn’t help with that sense of connection: dinosaurs wearing masks and busy gift shops with families spilling out of them created a weird schism, already triggered by the dramatic shift from a small town, in which everyone was focused on the start of a bike race, to a big city, in which it wasn’t immediately obvious that anything out of the ordinary was going on.
At the very least the media centre afforded the opportunity to catch up on the race, where we discovered that a strong breakaway group had escaped the bunch and had a significant lead. By the time notes had been made, lunch consumed and post-race interview logistical strategies thrashed out, it was time to head out once again, with the race just over 10km away and closing in fast.
Edinburgh is a dramatic city, and the clouds that had hung low throughout the day so far lifted, scattered by a stiff Scottish breeze to reveal an electric blue sky beneath. Arthur’s Seat, the craggy volcanic outcrop that dominates the skyline, would be the stunning backdrop to the race finale, and with the harsh glare of the sun searing our retinas we chose positions 500m from the finish line to watch a breakaway win stamp their authority on the race’s closing stages. The speed with which Yves Lampaert, Matteo Jorgensen and Matt Gibson flew by was quite literally breath-taking, a stark contrast to the laid-back rolling out of Hawick some four and a half hours earlier, as with heads down they charged for the finish line, still engaged in full-on race mode.
The riders that followed were less frantic in their approach to the finish line and following the race, many complained about the difficulty of a day which, on paper, hadn’t looked the trickiest, given its relatively flat profile in comparison to the day before. However the active, strong breakaway had forced the peloton to work harder than it needed to, for the net result of basically nothing, other than for INEOS who retained Ethan Hayter’s leaders’ jersey for another day.
Perhaps because of how hard a day it had been, there seemed to be less of a rush to get away, with riders willing to chat by the buses and Jumbo Visma the only team seemingly keen to make a quick getaway.
There was a grimace-inducing bus v car incident in the car park and a few Greenpeace protesters picketed outside the INEOS Grenadiers team bus, looking as awkward as race leader Ethan Hayter did when he climbed aboard, but outside of these mini-dramas slowly the teams trickled away and off to their next destination, and we were left to reflect on what had been a hectic but memorable day.
Later on, footage would emerge of the young rider Xander Graham, streaking along ahead of the breakaway and finally being presented with a bidon by Pascal Eenkhoorn for his troubles, and the following day he received the all-star treatment courtesy of Jumbo Visma, warming hearts and inspiring an outpouring of positivity on social media. Not to be outdone, Mark Cavendish’s young son Casper was presented with an adorable replica jersey by his hero Wout van Aert, and the hug between them ensured that there were no dry eyes left in the house. Jumbo Visma’s marketing team were lauded for their good work on a day in which there were no losers, and the winner was cycling.
The winner, also, was Wout van Aert, who stormed to his fourth stage victory in the Stage 8 sprint finish in to Aderdeen, grabbing enough bonus seconds to oust Ethan Hayter from the top spot and claim the overall victory.
The incredible success of the whole event was testament to Britain’s ability to really pull out all the stops when it comes to a big occasion. A sporting event in particular captures the British imagination like nothing else, and kudos to everyone involved for making it a spectacle so vibrant, inspiring and memorable that the after-image of the race lingers long, with nostalgic social media posts still persisting well into the following week. The race was arguably the best ever, with an incredible calibre of riders, fantastic route-setting taking in some jaw-dropping scenery, and the weather, uncharacteristically, playing its part, robbing the home crowd of their ability to have something to complain about for the eight day duration of the race.
It seems unthinkable that it could be this good again. But with a defending champion who is odds-on favourite to become the World Champion, a talented crop of British riders rising through the ranks at every level, and the success story of this year’s race chalked up in the annals and fondly etched in the memories of everyone involved, there’s no reason to suggest that the 2022 edition won’t be just as amazing.
So, let’s do it all again next year, shall we?
*All photographs by Anna McEwen – Twitter @AnnamacB
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