Tour of Britain: Mark Cavendish back for sprint pack’s moment in the sun
At first sight, it seems a brutal ask for the Tour of Britain, placed this year in the calendar against the final week of the Vuelta a España. The two events usually clash, but 2017 is different: Chris Froome is bidding – extremely successfully for the first two weeks of the Vuelta – to become the first Briton to win a Grand Tour other than the Tour de France and the first cyclist to achieve in the same season since Bernard Hinault in 1978. History being made in Spain? Not easy to compete with.
However, for its 14th edition since its relaunch in 2004, the British Tour has an answer or two. In recent seasons the eight-day event has positioned itself as the optimal preparation for the world road race championship – the Vuelta being largely considered too tough – and this year is no exception with contenders for the rainbow jersey such as Alexander Kristoff of Norway, Michal Kwiatkowski of Poland, Philippe Gilbert of Belgium, and Elia Viviani of Italy.
The Vuelta this season offers slim pickings for pure sprinters such as Dylan Groenewegen, Fernando Gaviria and Caleb Ewan so the British Tour – hardly by coincidence – has served up its flattest route ever with six of the eight stages virtually certain to end in a terrifying mass gallop.
Mark Cavendish returns for his first race since leaving the Tour de France after the , although his form will be uncertain given he has barely raced this year due to glandular fever and his mishap in July.
The two standout stages are Thursday’s 10-mile time trial in Clacton, one for the home boy Alex Dowsett or Team Sky’s Vasil Kiryienka, and Saturday’s leg across the Cotswolds, which goes over Cleeve Hill just before the finish in Cheltenham. Even there, a lightweight sprinter such as Gaviria or Viviani might well be able to finish up with the leaders.
The kneejerk assumption is that flat stages mean predictable, structured racing, but that is not necessarily the case, particularly in an event where teams are limited to six riders. Given that in recent years teams seem to have shown fresh interest in racing hard in the wind, the organisers are praying to the weather gods on four stages in particular: day two down the east coast to Blyth, the tortuous day three into Scunthorpe, the time trial and stage six into Aldeburgh.
“If you look at the Belgian teams, Lotto and Quickstep, they have shown time and again that they can make a race interesting in those conditions so I’d expect them to be on the case if there is much of a breeze,” says the organiser, Mick Bennett.
“The nature of this year’s course might encourage even more hard racing than in the past,” says John Herety, the team manager of Britain’s top domestic squad, JLT-Condor, who is relishing his annual chance to take on the best in the world. “The easier terrain will give far more riders a chance than when it’s really difficult, so they will be more willing to get in the break, you don’t have guys writing themselves off beforehand. If you look at this year’s Tour de Yorkshire, the really controlled stage was the hardest one.”
The final element in the mix is one the organisers have been pursuing for some time, but has lain in the lap of the television partner ITV4: live coverage of every stage from start to finish. That has to be seen as a major development, given the resources involved and that this level of coverage was a rarity until adopted on this year’s Tour de France.
The obvious implication is that fans will now be able to watch what is often the most interesting period in any stage; the early kilometres when a breakaway is forming before the day’s racing takes shape. That in turn means that the teams looking for television exposure will be particularly active, most notably the British squads JLT, Madison Genesis, Bike Channel Canyon and One Pro , whose sponsorship can hinge on a strong ride in the coming week.
There is greater exposure for a region that pays to host the race, but the game is also changed for spectators in the stage towns, who can now turn up in the knowledge that they can watch an entire day’s racing develop before them on the big screen.
At three finishes – Kelso, Blyth and Cardiff – the race passes through the finish at least once for a final circuit before taking the chequered flag, making the race even more of a day out.
If are anything go by, the national Tour will hold its own, even if many of the fans will have one eye on events in Spain.