It was a rainy day in Ramsbottom.

(All the best stories start this way).

No barriers stood along the sides of the steep bank that twisted from somewhere in the bowels of Greater Manchester and ascended into the clouds, so the people formed an orderly line along its edges, a fringe of Gortex-clad die-hards, thoroughly British in both their stoicism and the fact they were basically queuing, upwards.

The Rake is a fearsome climb – maybe not by European standards, but for any local cyclist who happens upon its daunting slopes by accident, perhaps taking a wrong turn on the way to the local coffee stop, it would come as something of a shock. Just 970m long, but with an average pitch of 9.9%, parts of the climb kick up to over 19% (though if local knowledge – and signage – is to be believed, it’s more like 25%). Would it be more adequately titled the Mur de Ramsbottom? It seemed to fit the bill.

After the interminable string of race vehicles and motos had burnt out their clutches in pursuit of the summit, it was time to see the riders take it on, in analogue fashion. Two legs, two pedals, turning latent energy into power, and of course, some pain. My trainers were already wet through and I was anxiously angling my umbrella so I wouldn’t poke a rider in the eye (a very real concern when there’s nothing separating fans from athletes), when a figure clad in blue rose into view. Lizzie Deignan, of Lidl-Trek but riding for a strong Great British squad, already wore the Queen of the Mountains jersey, and was powering up the climb in search of the final points that would unequivocally seal the deal.

It meant something, to see Lizzie up there, leading the bunch who were hot on her heels – Kopecky, Georgi, Paternoster and more attacking in a group behind, followed by the rest of the peloton, working at their own pace, various expressions of grim determination etched on their features. Lizzie Deignan is a leading light in British women’s cycling, an example to follow and an enduring figurehead and spokesperson for women in cycling. There was a poignant symbolism to her rising up the climb first, in a race she had already animated, in a career in which she’s achieved a huge amount. The winner of the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes, no less. But can she do on a rainy Sunday in Ramsbottom? Yes, she absolutely can.

The rest of the riders rolled through, or rather, struggled up, and they were shouted on by the crowds, consistently lining the road so there was no break in the support they received. From sprinters and rouleurs simply trying to get it over with, to younger and more inexperienced riders getting their first taste of competition in such exalted company, it was testament to the hard work of each individual that they had made it this far. And from where we were standing, they had just a short distance to ride to the crest of the climb, before continuing on back to Leigh Sports Village to contest the finish. And what a finish it would be.

125 days

That they were there at all, was something of a minor miracle. After a year in 2023 in which the race was cancelled due to a lack of funding, and following the loss of event organiser SweetSpot who had run both the women’s and men’s races previously, a precarious question mark hovered over this particular slot on the UCI calendar. For a while, it was even taken off the calendar entirely, spelling doom for the future of UCI level racing in the UK, despite the announcement in the autumn that British Cycling would be taking over the running of the events.

But like a phoenix from the flames, the Women’s Tour was born again, renamed the Tour of Britain Women, and a four-stage route put together in record time – 125 days is the number repeated by race organisers and British Cycling representatives throughout the week – and it was no small undertaking.

‘There's must have been so much work going on behind the scenes,’ Lizzie Deignan said, on the organisation of the race. ‘I'm grateful to the people who've probably had some sleepless nights putting it all together.’

CEO of British Cycling Jon Dutton confirms how touch and go it was, getting the event itself over the metaphorical finish line. ‘It was really close,' he admits. 'When we got to December there were many people who said it would be impossible to do what we’ve done, and that has been a huge motivating factor.’

Race director Andy Hawes has been at the centre of the drive to deliver the event. ‘We turned this around in 125 days,’ he says. The number so often repeated during the week of the race it gives a sense of just how unlikely this achievement was. ‘It was a tall order, and there were times when we thought, “are we actually going to get his across the line?”  There were certain things that we needed to happen with the infrastructure, the staff, and everything that’s involved in putting this bike race on but we kept the faith, kept pushing on, and we had an amazing team to pull it all together.’

Stoicism, and umbrellas

This isn't to say the race, or the day, was perfect. Let’s go back to the beginning of Stage 4, for a flavour of British bike racing at its best.

There was a brief suggestion of sun as we peered hopefully out of the window in a sleepy Manchester suburb, long before anyone else’s day had started. The previous day had been glorious, if not a little windy. It was all downhill from there, however. The rain started early and just got worse. We toured the bus area looking for soundbites in between gusts of bracing northern wind and hints at what was to come later, umbrellas opening and closing in a dance of uncertainty, trying to preserve dryness for as long as humanly possible.

There was some respite for sign-on and to watch the start, the rain mercifully holding its peace as the peloton was guided away from the National Cycling Centre by angled barriers as they set off into the unknown, a bright explosion of colour against the grim northern skies.

There was a healthy dose of assumption going on that day though. The drum troop stationed outside the centre, sending the peloton off in a joyful wave of rhythm and power, assuming they'd get away without being drenched, and still with a buzzing crowd hanging around to be entertained (they were lucky). Myself, packing light in the sunny North East and assuming 'it would be fine’ to wear running shoes and bring only one change of socks (I was not so lucky). And at the back end of the day, when Lotte Kopecky, clear to seal her GC victory with a third triumphant stage win, attempted to do something nice for her teammate, Luxembourg champion Christine Majerus, in a misjudged moment of hubris, assuming it would be fine, because they were SD Worx (the results speak for themselves). The results themselves were an inversion of the weather, with the rain holding out until the final stage, where SD Worx held firm until the final finish line.

If we've learned anything from our experience, it's that it's wise not to make assumptions at bike races, especially when they’re British bike races (the recent wash-out at the CiCLE Classic is testament to that). But that final day swing, in weather AND results, was a metaphor for the race itself. The weather that was good, until it wasn't. The team that won, until they didn't. The race that wasn’t, until it was.

Safe in the knowledge the race would go ahead – because the riders were all here, on their bikes, and everything was actually happening – we all forgot about reality for a few days as joyful, glorious sunshine poured down on the first three stages and we witnessed everything we have come to expect from the stoic, loyal, sport-obsessed public of the United Kjngdom: that they would close schools for the morning to allow the kids to wave to riders as they shot by, even though it was just for a few precious seconds. That excited fans would gather in start areas, and at podiums, and along roadsides, and cheer and celebrate and collect autographs and be inspired. That ultimately, the people would show up. Even if they had grumbled weeks earlier that the stage didn't come directly past their house. Because if we do nothing else well in this country, it’s come together to support sporting endeavour.

And the impact was visible from wherever you were in the world, on TV, social media and beyond. Letizia Paternoster waving to schoolchildren despite being embroiled in the pointy end of proceedings on stage 1. Lotte Kopecky and many more taking time to sign autographs, and jerseys, and small kids rolling around on their balance bikes, waving flags, and soaking up the atmosphere. It's everything that this sport does well, and it was happening on our doorstep (or at least, our landmass).

Room for improvement

But ultimately, did everything go exactly as it should? Not exactly. Was it perfect? No. Of course, it would be good to extend the race to take in more stages, to have a peloton with more strength in depth, and more World Tour teams making the journey over. The over-zealous broom wagon on the final day collecting up conti riders at the back and preventing them from completing the race so roads could open sooner was a down side. Such is bike racing. Such is the UK. The organisation did a truly special job pulling together and smoothing over any bumps, sticking plasters on any 'not perfects' and ensuring that the show would go on – and most people wouldn’t have known any different. On the face of it, it went off without a hitch.

It may not have been perfect but it happened. We got a race. Have we secured its future by proving there is still an appetite for road racing in the UK, and that stops will be pulled out to make them go ahead? It seems to be a tentative yes, for now. With Brexit, political upheaval, and an ongoing war between motorists and cyclists raging in the media and on the roads, nothing can be certain when it comes to the UK domestic cycling scene but for as long as there are wheels and roads to ride on, the six British continental teams – and a few friends from the World tour –will be there to ride. And with the recent boost of the Lloyds Bank sponsorship, there’s every reason to believe that in future years the races will go from strength to strength.

Lizzie Deignan recognises the importance of the race to the fragile domestic racing scene. ‘We’ve got two world class events with this and Ride London, and this event has been really important to me in my career,’ she said. ‘It's an important stepping stone for the next generation of women cycling. There's so many teams here that got the opportunity to race in a brilliant race and against some of the best riders in the world. We need that.’

Deignan’s view is supported by Rick Lister, sports director of continental side Pro Noctis–200° Coffee–Hargreaves Contracting. ‘Being able to race here in something that’s televised live is really important for us,’ he said. ‘It enables us to showcase the team, and showcase what they can do, and our sponsors can get their logos on the telly.’

Head of British Cycling Jon Dutton recognises how crucial the race is to the domestic teams and in the organisation’s goal to ‘‘bring the joy of cycling to many’. ‘We appreciate its hard. Brexit has made all our lives more difficult. We want to prompt that conversation, work with people, support that domestic structure,’ he said. ‘It’s a huge step in the right direction. This is only the start of our new adventure, and an exciting future ahead.’

It’s hard to decide who’s in a more buoyant mood at the end of the final stage, as race staff begin the task of dismantling gantries and packing away sponsor banners, surprise winner Ruby Roseman-Gannon (Liv-AlUla-Jayco) or race organiser Andy Hawes. Despite being wet and cold Hawes describes his mood as ‘amazing’ and says he’s ‘blown away’ by how the race has unfolded.

Will Hawes and his team sit back for a while and relax, basking in the glory of a job well done? Not a bit of it. ‘We wanted to deliver two world class events, we have delivered one,’ he says, pragmatic. ‘I go away tomorrow on the first route recon of the men’s Tour of Britain.’ A race organiser’s work is never done, it seems. With just 86 days between now and the start of the men’s race, the team will once again be up against it, in order to be ready on time.

But brinkmanship, while not an ideal state of existence, can lead to momentum – nothing brings out the best in people like adversity, and just as Roseman-Gannon was able to capitalise on the unlucky puncture for her teammate Letizia Paternoster and drive the team’s hopes through the pedals to deliver her first win on European soil against the odds, so too will Hawes and his team face the challenges that lay ahead to build on the momentum that has been set in motion by this race. The first step on British Cycling’s five year event plan which includes multiple disciplines and perhaps will offer hope to cyclists, regardless of their specialism, that the organisation believes it is more than just a medal factory.

If you believe in signs from the universe, then there is a beautiful symmetry about the fact that Letizia Paternoster celebrated victory on stage 1 before being denied by World Champion Kopecky, and that the puncture the Italian suffered on the closing stages of the final day of the race opened up an opportunity for her teammate to strike for home at the expense of SD Worx, who themselves celebrated prematurely. It offered a ray of hope, that the Dutch super team are beatable, along with a cautionary tale, as SD Worx were burned once again by an early celebration.

If you believe in signs from the universe, then rain falling on the final day of a four-day race in Britain is the world’s way of saying we were lucky to get three dry ones. That a lot of things went well, but there’s still room for improvement. And that maybe there’s hope for better things, from British Cycling. But don’t forget to pack a raincoat, and a spare pair of socks.

All interviews produced in association with the On Yer Bike Podcast.

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