This is a race on the UK Racing Calendar that can actually trace its History back to just after the Second World War. Back then it was mainly aimed at Amateurs and in the Seventies was dominated by the mighty USSR (pre break up) whilst wearing their iconic Red Jerseys and riding their Colnagos.
The race took a number of forms after starting out as The Tour of Britain with perhaps its most well known guise being The Milk Race. Following the break up of The Milk Marketing Board however sponsorship dried up and for a while the Race became The Kelloggs Tour and for couple of years The Pru Tour in 1998 and 1999.
Many famous names have won the Tour of Britain over the years including Hennie Kuiper, Joey McCloughlin, Phil Anderson and Stuart O'Grady. These latter winners being professionals as the race had been opened up to a wider pro-am field.
Unfortunately with harsh economic times at the end the 90's it proved difficult for the organisers to find a title sponsor and the race took place for the last time in 1999 with Marc Wauters of Rabobank running out the winner.
I remember feeling sad at the time losing such a race from the UK Calendar as I had spent many of my younger years riding out to watch The Milk Race with it being quite a regular visitor to the Malvern Hills, just 25 miles from where I live. It felt like some of my childhood had gone!!
Fortunately, after a period of 5 years an organising Company called Sweet Spot found a new way of funding the race by using local authorities and companies that would help support the race in their respective areas. In 2004 the race was back and a little known Colombian called Mauricio Ardilla won the race for an even lesser well known team sponsored by a Chocolate Company and an IT Firm from Belgium.
It was always going to be difficult to attract the better known teams and also their star riders to such a new event. However, riders were going back and talking to their teams and other riders about how well organised and challenging the event was and that it was well worth competing in.
In recent years The Tour of Britain has has some great winners including, in 2007 Roman Feillu (who now rides for French Tour De France team Bretagne – Seche Environment); 2008, Geoffrey Lequatre (now running a successful cycle clothing company), Edvald Boassen Hagen in 2009 and most recently Sir Brad himself last year. Consequently, it would be hard to deny that the race has slowly but surely become quite an exciting one to watch with many riders taking it seriously rather than treating it as an end of season wind down.
Personally I am always interested in where the event will visit and this year spotted a stage starting in Worcester and finishing where I work in Bristol. I had heard some rumours that the race was going to go over some of my Cotswold stomping ground. However, I had already accepted an invite from one of the Solicitors we deal with (RPC) who are based in Bristol for a bit of a ride followed by watching the race near the finish.
Now quite often what they do, when they announce the stage finish points is tell you exactly where that will be. However, what they don’t say is how they get there which ultimately becomes interesting bit. I knew it was due to finish on Clifton Downs after heading up Bridge Valley Road from the Portway in Bristol so accepting the invite was not a problem.
However, closer to the date I was hit by a slight issue. This being that when the actual race route was published I realised that they would be going up Leckhampton Hill out of Cheltenham, a hill I had cut my teeth on as a very young club rider. Plus, it was also going through Horsley valley from Nailsworth which had seen many a road race in its day. Nevertheless I had accepted the Bristol invite and that was what I was sticking with!
Wednesday 10th September was the same weather wise as earlier in the week, bit of a chilly start but you just knew that you would be rewarded with late summer sunshine and temperatures in the late teens. We all planned to meet up at midday in central Bristol and then enjoy a couple of hours in the sunshine before finding a convenient place to watch the riders towards the top of Bridge Valley Road.
The first part of the ride saw me ditching the arm warmers (slight bit of over-kill there!!) and battle Bristol's lunchtime traffic until we found our way to Ashton Court and a nice bit of a traffic free stretch. Though it does give you a bit of shock to the system when your muscles are not 100% warmed up with the short sharp kick up to Ashton Court itself then its lovely fast descent to the exit. Though this can cause issues when faced by a runner with headphones on running in the middle of the road who cannot hear your warnings despite of the number of times you try!!
Through Long Ashton and Cambridge Batch a right turn onto the Clevedon Road took us to the foot of Belmont Hill which required a right turn off the Clevedon Road. Unfortunately, we had to wait for on coming traffic which didn't give us the best of starts to the ascent which kicks up immediately. Consequently this left us trying to grab a suitable low gear to secure a decent rhythm. With an average gradient of 7% Belmont Hill incorporates a flat section in the middle before kicking up again towards the top. Luckily, the majority of the climb is under trees giving you a nice cool environment to ride up in.
After a quick regroup at the top, we took a left and skirted the edge of Failland going straight over the busy main road towards Lower Failland. A tight country lane brought us down to Portbury where we took another left. This lane took us behind the rugby pitches you get to see when you head south past Gordano Services on the M5. We then had the option of going under the M5 towards Gordano but chose to take a left into Carswell Hill. This road effectively paralleled the M5 and took us up a lovely steady gradient with a few dips; eventually leading to a junction at the top of Naish Hill, a hill of which, I was inform would have been a far worse proposition than the one we had just completed.
We then had a choice, either to head back the way we came (which cyclist does that??) or loop round on slightly more busier roads. As we were a small group the main road option (B roads) was deemed to be the better one. We passed Noah's Ark Farm before reaching a junction where a left turn took us back towards Failland passing the National Trust property at Tyntesfield, somewhere worth a visit so I am told.
After Failland we turned left at a set of traffic lights which would enabled us to cross over the Clifton Suspension Bridge. This stretch of road is known as Beggars Bush Lane and is quite a quick section of road which we decided to take advantage of. Soon we were travelling past the rather large houses of Leigh Woods reaching the grand Clifton Suspension Bridge in no time at all. As cyclists we did not have to pay and whilst I have ridden over the Severn Bridge I would say that the Clifton Suspension Bridge beats it hands down. Fantastic views down the Avon gorge and back towards Bristol. A quick detour into Clifton itself and we found a Co-op to grab some food and drink before we made our way across to the top of Bridge Valley Road where the riders would take a left turn to join Circular Road on the Clifton Downs where the race would finish.
We managed to find a good place on a slight bend that would allow us to see the riders turning off Bridge Valley Road, past us and continue to the next left which was marked the KoM point. It was clear to see that cycling has really become popular at all levels with men in suits mingling with the 'traditional' cycling fans in their cycling kit. There was also a group opposite us writing their message to Mark Cavendish who apparently was 'put out' by a comment made the day before about Doughnuts. It took a while to realise what they had written but it soon made sense – 'Cav not a fatty just cuddly'. Like any bike race the crowds started to build and what amazed me was the sheer number of people watching on what was the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday.
A number of official vehicles started to pass and then the all too obvious sound of a helicopter behind us heralded the arrival of the riders on the Portway down below us from where they would take a sharp left onto Bridge Valley Road. A few minutes later and the Police outriders sped past us and the crowd became excited with the road becoming like a Tour de France climb as the 2 lane road was narrowed to one by 'people power'
Then the riders were upon on us, or at least a small group of breakaway riders consisting of a rider from Giant Shimano followed closely by a rider from Garmin Sharp with a slightly larger group behind him. It clearly evident the climb from the Portway had really taken it out of a lot of the riders.
One big surprise though was how high up in the group was Mark Cavendish was and how far back Wiggo seemed to be. That said, there was a fairly flat/fast run in to the finish theoretically leaving enough time for the pack to regroup. I was surprised that that a rider I greatly admire as an allround nice guy, Kristian House, was drifting off the back of the Bunch. What I didn’t realise was that he had been in the break all day and was forgivingly 'taking it easy' to the finish!!
Being just outside the kilometre to go sign we weren’t sure who had won the stage so made our way to the finish area just in time to see Michał Kwiatkowski presented as the winner. How he did that was amazing to see on the replay being shown on the big screen – coming from nowhere to catch the Giant Shimano & Garmin Sharp riders totally unawares just before the finish line.
We all went our own separate ways after the finish area with myself enjoying the ride back in to town in the company of another guy on a Trek Emonda and me on a Domane comparing notes!!
On a final note it was interesting to see 2 future World Champions using the Tour of Britain as preparation with Michal Kwiatkowski (Road Race World Champion) and Sir Bradley (Time Trial World Champion) rather than the traditional route of the Vuelta.
For me, I can’t wait for next year’s edition and to see which parts of the Country this race will get to so I can make an excuse for a day off from work!!