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The Modern Tour of Britain
WORDS: Tom Southam | PHOTOS: © Graham Watson
During the final stage of last year’s Tour of Britain, as Jonathan-Tiernan Locke cruised toward Guildford looking assured of overall win, an intense debate raged in the press room: just who were the previous British winners of the Tour of Britain, and who could actually claim to be the last one?
Some said that it was Robert Millar, winner of the 1989 Kellogg’s Tour, the last truly professional Tour of Britain, while others said that it was Chris Lillywhite, winner of the Milk Race, in 1993. A few chancers even mentioned 1992 Kellogg’s winner Max Sciandri, the Anglo-Italian who was, at the time, still racing on an Italian licence.
But they were all wrong. The Milk Race had history, lots of it, but it was an amateur race, and couldn’t be called the Tour of Britain, any more than the Rás Tailteann is the Tour of Ireland. The Kellogg’s Tour was a professional Tour of Britain – but not only did it run concurrently with the Milk Race for a number of years, rather unsatisfactorily, it only ever had two British winners. As for short-lived PruTour, well, no one really knew what that was.
As I sat back and listened to the journalists throw in their two pence-worth (‘you can’t count Robert Millar, he’s Scottish’), it seemed to me that many people felt they had to credit the Tour of Britain with being more established than it actually was.
The very fact that these things caused such a debate though seemed to prove to me at least that the Tour of Britain’s history is checkered at best and, if you were feeling ruthless, virtually non-existent.
The Milk Race was a great amateur race, but it was an amateur race. The Kellogg’s Tour was a pro race, but it ranked fairly low down on the agenda for the continental professionals that rode. And, well, let’s not talk about the PruTour.
In a sport that was (until very recently) deeply connected to its traditions, getting a new race to succeed was not an easy task. What was more, any race that gets dealt a late season spot on the calendar (that clashes with the third Grand Tour of the season) risked having a fairly unmotivated bunch of riders turn up. With that in mind, I could see why people would be keen to attribute history to a race that had only a brief one.
In my mind though the Tour of Britain, which will celebrate it’s tenth anniversary this year, should seek to establish itself as a race apart from all of these predecessors, because it doesn’t really need them.
The Tour of Britain doesn’t need to construct a history because it has done a great deal with its ten editions, and grown so much in the time that it has existed, that it should by all rights hold its head high as it is.
The fact is that the Tour of Britain is a highly modern race, with a progressive attitude. The infrastructure race has improved steadily but continually, year on year; swiftly ironing out the hiccups with traffic that usually plague races in the UK. The route has also constantly improved, with organisers Sweetspot managing to find challenging routes that represent the whole of the UK, giving the race a feel of being an actual tour of Britain.
As a rider, someone who works on the race, or as a fan the tour feels highly modern; like a new kitchen, where the surfaces all shine and the draws are full of useful implements. The fans are enthusiastic, the hotels are nice, the transfers surprisingly brief, the stage routes make the most of the countries topography, and the ambiance in the peloton is always genial as a result.
The racing itself has also started to come on too, last year’s race provided a particularly dramatic stage across Devon to Teignmouth, where local boy, and former Rapha Condor Sharp rider, Jonathan Tiernan-Locke sewed up the overall win. What is more, the races proximity to the World Road Race Championships has paid dividends; the eight days of racing offering riders an alternative option for Worlds preparation, other than riding half the Vuelta.
It is this all this that has (along perhaps with a few happy economic and sporting coincidences) allowed the Tour of Britain to be punching well above its weight for its years, and in my mind puts it well ahead of races like the Kelloggs, and the Milk Race.
This year’s race looks set to be another popular event, with the presence of riders of the likes of a hungry Bradley Wiggins, former World Road Race Champion Mark Cavendish, as well as another name worth watching – Giro d’Italia stage winner, Alex Dowsett. Cavendish will no doubt look to take home another fistful of stage wins, while Dowsett, and Wiggins will both be looking to try to take the overall victory.
Until last years edition the overall race had been near impossible to predict: the weeklong race previously suited a fast finishing puncheur who had a nose for the right breakaway, and had the strength to defend the lead: riders of the likes of Edvald Boasson Hagen, Lars Boom and Michael Albasini are all former winners, while Thomas de Gent, Danilo DiLuca and Ben Swift have all been spirited competitors in recent editions.
But with a tenth anniversary route that is unashamedly tailor-made for disciples of that very English tradition of time trialing, the overall winner looks likely to be a strong time trialist with an even stronger team.
One thing will be certain at this year’s event though, when the press are scrabbling through their notes on the final day there will be no debate as to who the last British winner was.