Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by swpix.com
A question mark hangs over the future of the Tour of Britain following the liquidation of race organisers Sweetspot. As we wait for (hopefully) good news, let’s look back at some of its best days during Sweetspot’s 20 years in charge
I will start by saying that this is very much a personal list. Since the Tour of Britain returned to the international calendar five years on from the final edition of the PruTour (which had begun life as the Milk Race before becoming the Kellogg’s Tour), I’ve attended or watched most editions and these 10 picks largely come from those races. I’ll add the caveat, though, that I’ve undoubtedly missed out some of the race’s very best days.
Looking back, it was notable how the race evolved. Very much focused on city centre starts and finishes in its early years, race director Mick Bennett and his team gradually became more audacious in the racing challenges they set. They were able to do so because the local councils and regional bodies that provided essential support came to trust their judgement that crowds would congregate wherever the race went. As the route became tougher, more of the top teams supported it, often sending their leading names, many of them searching for the final test of form prior to the World Championships.
While this all sounds valedictory, I very much hope it isn’t. Race owner British Cycling is reported to be examining new options on the organisational side. At the same time, it’s hard to believe that a country where cycling went from niche to mainstream over the past decade or so can’t sustain a national tour. While we await further news on this, here’s my top 10…
2008, stage 5 Hull-Dalby Forest: The young Mark Cavendish had already taken a couple of stage wins the previous year, but the rider who was being hailed at that point as the next cycling phenomenon was Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen. Having won on the steep ramp into Stoke-on-Trent that was so favoured by Sweetspot, he followed up the next day with this victory on Dalby Forest and went on to take another later in the race. He was dubbed “the new Merckx” as Team Columbia’s rise from the ashes of T-Mobile began. Boasson Hagen won four consecutive stages and the GC a year later, but the Merckx comparison would prove extremely overblown.
2012, stage 6 Welshpool-Caerphilly: Leopold König won the stage ahead of Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, a young Englishman riding for Endura who had already boosted his profile by winning three stage races in France earlier that season. It seemed like a fairytale story as he went to win the overall title and that continued with Tiernan-Locke joining Team Sky at the end of that season. However, anomalies in his biological passport during that same 2012 period led to a two-year suspension, the loss of the Tour of Britain title and the effective end of his racing career.
2013, stage 2 Carlisle-Kendal: The finish at Beast Banks in Kendal was one of the race’s classic venues, and on this occasion saw German powerhouse Gerald Ciolek edge out young Irish sprinter Sam Bennett. The highlight of the day, though, was the mid-stage attack by recent Tour de France runner-up Nairo Quintana in very testing conditions on the Honister Pass in the Lake District. Although the Colombian was later reeled in, it showcased his great versatility as a racer.
2013, stage 6 Sidmouth-Haytor: Regularly criticised for the lack of hill-top finishes, Sweetspot finally persuaded one of the regional backers to support a rural finale and the result was this memorable stage. Riding for Great Britain, Simon Yates put himself in the shop window when he shot away from the GC contenders on the Devonian peak of Haytor, while Bradley Wiggins took a big step towards overall victory. The rush of success for British cyclists seemed relentless.
2014, stage 7 Camberley-Brighton: After Alex Dowsett had grabbed the lead the previous day with a show of aggressive opportunism, the race turned upside down on a long and undulating stage into Brighton where two wholly unexpected names stole the show. Julien Vermote won it, while an almost unknown Garmin domestique called Dylan van Baarle emerged from the chaos to take the lead and, ultimately, the title. This remains one of the best days of racing I’ve seen in recent years.
2015, stage 2 Clitheroe-Colne: This stage encapsulated the essence of the Tour of Britain for me. It drew a big crowd to the start town, featured some spectacular countryside and roads and finished in front of massed ranks in Colne. Coming a year after the Tour’s start in Yorkshire, it confirmed that bike races could attract large and enthusiastic audiences wherever they took place in the country, that the sport had arrived. Petr Vakoč won a super sprint up Colne’s main street to top it all off.
2018, stage 5 Cockermouth-Whinlatter Pass: Sweetspot were getting even more daring in their route planning. This edition featured consecutive finishes on the Lake District’s Whinlatter Pass. The first was an uphill team time trial won by a LottoNL-Jumbo sextet led by Primož Roglič and also featuring the perhaps slightly surprising figure of Neilson Powless, who I’d forgotten turned pro on this team. Wout Poels won the road stage on the pass the next day.
2019, stage 4 Gateshead-Kendal: Beast Banks never seemed so aptly named.This was the first season that Mathieu van der Poel (pictured after winning) devoted almost totally to the road, and the cut a swathe through the opposition from the start of it to the end. This Tour of Britain encapsulated his beautiful and brutal power, starting with this tough finish where he rocketed away from the rest of the field, finishing three seconds clear. He claimed two more wins on his way to the overall title.
2021, stage 4 Aberaeron-Llandudno Great Orme: The rugged headland that overlooks Llandudno had often been talked about as a possible stage finish and when it finally occurred the finale it served up was outstanding. It pitted Wout van Aert against Julian Alaphilippe and Mike Woods, the Belgian edging out the Frenchman and Canadian for the second of what would be a quartet of stage wins. Alaphilippe took revenge in the best way, winning the world title on Van Aert’s Belgian soil a fortnight later.
2023, stage 8 Margam-Caerphilly: Sweetspot’s final edition was dogged by complaints that the racing was dull and the stages too easy, criticism that now seems wholly irrelevant given the ructions that were already taking place behind the scenes. The final two stages were brilliant, though, and particularly this one into Caerphilly, won by Spain’s newly emerged Tour de France hope Carlos Rodríguez, while Wout van Aert had to fend off countless attacks in order to cling on to the leader’s jersey and take the title for a second time.
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