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Last Updated: Friday, 4 May 2007, 16:32 GMT 17:32 UK
Tour of Britain breaks new ground
Roger Hammond
British star Roger Hammond claims a fine victory in Blackpool last year

By Matt Slater

What links Crystal Palace's motor racing track with Exmoor sheep, the most beautiful park in England, Postman Pat's home patch and Scotland's bid for the 2014 Commonwealth Games?

A contrived opening to a feature? A wiggly line on a map? This year's route for the Tour of Britain?

Yes, it's all three, but only the last two should concern us from here on in.

Because as simple as it sounds, plotting a course for a week-long bike race from London to Glasgow requires the precision of a racing driver, the patience of a shepherd, the vision of a landscape gardener, Mrs Goggins' local knowledge and the managerial skills to pull it all together when it really counts.

The headlines after the 2007 Tour of Britain's recent media launch told of a bigger, better, brighter spectacle, full of new twists and turns.

We have to work within the constraints of a UCI calendar that has 350 events and 400 days of racing a year in Europe alone - it's not easy

Mick Bennett
Tour of Britain race director
What they didn't tell is the story why it is those twists and turns, and the challenges the organisers face when putting on Britain's leading professional cycling race.

To deal with the headlines first, this year's race, the fourth since its return after a five-year hiatus in 2004, is a day longer, goes from the south to north for the first time and starts with a fan-friendly prologue on 9 September.

It also runs from Sunday to Saturday to catch two weekends, nine of its 13 venues are new and none of the finish venues has ever hosted a finish before.

So far so good. This appears to be a straightforward case of the increasing popularity of cycling in this country and this nation's burgeoning reputation as a cycling power being reflected in the growth of our "Tour".

But the history of British cycling, and the Tour of Britain in particular, has never been entirely straightforward, and that is reflected in the race's timing, distance, field, route and even it's name.

606: DEBATE
The timing issue is a thorny one as the race clashes with one of cycling's three Grand Tours, Spain's Vuelta, and another of the International Cycling Union's (UCI) ProTour events, the Tour of Poland.

The Tour of Britain is clearly a lesser event than the Vuelta but the UCI, cycling's governing body, also ranks it two notches below the Polish race. Getting extra days and a higher profile therefore requires tactful diplomacy on the part of the Tour of Britain's organisers.

As Mick Bennett, the race's technical director, said: "We have managed to convince the UCI that we need an extra day. We restarted in 2004 with five, went to six last year and now have seven. It's a reflection of British cycling's higher profile.

"But we still have to work within the constraints of a UCI calendar that has 350 events and 400 days of racing a year in Europe alone. It's not easy."

Already the longest UCI category 2.1 race in Europe, Bennett said they would be asking for an eighth day next year and later joked that they needed 10 days to take the tour to every part of the country that wanted it.

The tour's popularity amongst fans, riders and sponsors is clearly on the up but, like a canny rider, the organisers are mindful of pushing too hard too fast.

Chris Lillywhite
Chris Lillywhite, the 1993 winner, gives the race's title sponsor its due
Therefore the race is a modest (for pro riders) 1,000km trip, with most of the stages in the 130-150km bracket. Tour de France stages, by comparison, are frequently over 200km.

But the British organisers have been sensible. Pushing the distance up, this late in the season, would only leave you with a lot of unhappy riders. The distance chosen should ensure fast, competitive racing.

Still, 1,000km (600 miles in old money), is considerably longer than the 600km straight line I would take up the nation's hard shoulders.

But then my "as the trucker drives" route wouldn't make for pretty pictures, sell many holidays or satisfy the Tour of Britain's regional partners.

And this is where the route makers' art becomes part science, part art, part naked commercialism.

The science is the quantifiable stuff: kilometres pedalled, distance between stages, hotel beds available and dozens of other little headaches.

The art comes in finding the "wow factor", hence visits to the New Forest, the Malvern Hills, Bradford's Lister Park (voted the nation's most beautiful park) and Longsleddale in Cumbria, the inspiration for "Greendale" of Postman Pat fame.

The commercial arm might not seem to be coordinated with the logistical arm but the commercial arm has to showcase each region in the best way it can

Hugh Roberts
Tour of Britain chief executive
And the naked commercialism bit is how you pay for the whole circus. The Tour of Britain doesn't talk about sponsors much, it prefers "commercial, regional and supporting partners".

So each stage is contained within a region, making chief executive Hugh Roberts' job of selling the race much easier.

The race's first visit to the West Country, for example, is brought to you by Exmoor National Park, Fleet Air Arm Museum and Somerset County Council, with additional support from the race's main partners, energy company E.ON and Transport for London, and official suppliers, Canon, Madison, Memory-Map and Shimano.

As Roberts explained: "The commercial arm of the race might not seem to be coordinated with the logistical arm but the commercial arm has to showcase each region in the best way it can.

"Cross-regional stages are a nice idea but it works well for us to do it (on a single region basis)."

To give another example, the Glasgow stage, which has nine regional partners, has been arranged in the hope that it will boost the city's chances of hosting the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Tour of Britain in Blackpool
The race can seem like a whistle-stop tour of Britain's tourist sights
The preference for this patchwork financial approach is understandable given the history of the race. It goes back to 1951 but there have been a few breaks along the way and previous incarnations struggled when "title" sponsors, such as the Milk Marketing Board or Prudential, pulled the plug.

By spreading the burden across a "raft of sponsors", Roberts said the race was safeguarding its future and retaining a degree of control over the race's "marketing direction".

Sensible stuff with the 2012 juggernaut on the horizon but it does have one unfortunate by-product that makes life difficult for the race's route makers, long transfers between a finish and the next day's start.

Riders hate long transfers. When their work is done all they want is a massage, meal and bed. Hours spent travelling after a day in the saddle eat into this R&R and the amount of time wasted in this way on the Tour of Britain has been noted by some teams in the past.

"Long transfers are an issue for every large stage race but if you look at the geography of the route there are good motorway links between each finish and start," Roberts said.

Another "issue" that the organisers have been keen to address is rider safety.

Roberts is certain the resurrection of a "Multi Force Escort Team", a group of police outriders that will stay with the race for its duration, will ensure no repeats of the last year's fiasco that saw the riders take a detour into a supermarket car park. This led the riders to stage a brief "go slow" protest.

The Tour of Britain
The peloton piles through a quintessentially English high street
The mistake was compounded the following day when a police motorbike collided with a marshal's motorbike on the deviation route away from the main race.

What all this brought into focus is the difficulty of staging a race this big on roads that are only temporarily closed - often for only 10-15 minutes as the peloton whizzes by.

As Bennett said, Britain's roads are crammed with 65 cars per kilometre while France's have only 16.

But with new police guarantees, such as no parked cars in the final 8km of each stage, Bennett, who won two Olympic track bronzes in the 70s, is optimistic that any rider-safety issues have been resolved.

He is also hopeful that any temporarily inconvenienced commuters will take the opportunity of their chance encounter with the race to get out of their cars and enjoy the show.

After all, this year is the year of bike in Britain and it would be shame to let a bad mood get in the way of great sport. Particularly when it comes to you and it is free.



SEE ALSO
GB is top cycling nation - King
30 Apr 07 |  Cycling
Tour 'to learn lessons for 2007'
04 Sep 06 |  Cycling
Pedersen pedals to Tour success
03 Sep 06 |  Cycling


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