The nation’s growing love affair with cycling is writ large across Guildford.
Thousands of people fill Surrey’s county town to await the arrival of the riders for the denouement of the 2012 Tour of Britain, an edition that has drawn crowds to the road side like no event, since, well, the Olympic road races and time trials.
If race organisers, SweetSpot, had hoped for an uplift from the Games, they have got it, but a glance at their minutely detailed race book is sufficient to reveal that little has been left to chance.
The leaden skies that hang over Guildford do little to dampen the enthusiasm of the thousands who throng the town centre hours in advance of the riders’ arrival. The cobbled hill to the finish line is reduced to a narrow strip by crowd control barriers, already overhung with expectant supporters arrived earlier to guarantee themselves a piece of the action.
Past the finish gantry, still under construction with the riders safely hours away, the crowds thin and the professionals work in relative peace. The WorldTour teams, supporting only six riders, have scaled their resources accordingly. The battle buses of the Tour de France are absent, replaced by smaller vehicles. Sky’s mechanical support truck, parked on a side street, does its best to be inconspicuous, but fails in the manner of a Ferrari in a supermarket car park. Happily for the spectators, the gulf in the teams’ resources has not been reflected in the action on the road. Team NetApp may be supported from a Ford Transit, but still won stage six with Leopold Koenig. Indeed, one of the many pleasing aspects of the race has been the ability of teams from cycling’s lower tiers to compete on an even footing with the sport’s superstars.
Endura Racing’s Jon Tiernan-Locke, who will later ride into Guildford in the IG Markets gold jersey of race leader, somehow typifies the increasingly narrowing gap between riders in the top tier and those from the home nation battling for a place among them. Selected for Great Britain’s world championship elite men’s road team, where the course suggests his chances of winning the world title share parity with Mark Cavendish’s prospects of defending it, he personifies the professionalism that has trickled down through the British road scene from the pinnacle represented by Team Sky. Tiernan-Locke was one of a host of exciting domestic talents recruited in the closed season by Endura Racing. The rumor is he has already been head hunted by Team Sky for 2013.
The sirens of police motorcycle outriders herald the imminent arrival of the riders on their first passage through Guildford. Shortly afterwards, the race director’s car, a small camera mounted on the bonnet, passes, followed by more police outriders and finally the four man breakaway, the arrival of the latter presaged by an auditory Mexican wave that ripples along the line of spectators from the centre of town. A little over two-and-a-half minutes later, Team Sky lead the peloton up the hill and through the town, an impassive Jeremy Hunt at the head of the line of black jerseys, Mark Cavendish in rainbow stripes at its rear. None look unduly anxious at this early juncture.
Endura Racing’s is the first team car past, reflecting their status as race leaders. Brian Smith, whose future with the team is a not a subject Endura will comment upon officially, told listeners at their launch event at the London Bike Show in January that his team would aim to win the Tour of Britain. His claims seemed ambitious at the time, but with Tiernan-Locke securing victory in the Tour Méditerranéen just four weeks later, it rapidly became apparent he may have been on to something.
While a few spectators cling doggedly to their place on the barrier, most use the break between the rider’s first and final passage through Guildford to find refreshment. While a small array of club jerseys and a larger selection of Team Sky and Great Britain kit punctuates the crowd, the vast majority of those watching the event live are, by appearance at least, non-cyclists, with young families the core constituency. The mantle of the Olympic and Paralympic Games to inspire a generation has been taken up in no small part by the Tour of Britain. As we write, overall victory for Tiernan-Locke might be mere hours away, and, if attained, a magnificent final chapter to Britain’s summer of sport.
Pictures: Roz Jones at On The Road Cycling Tours
Many thanks to Carolyn Patterson@ Guildford Borough Council for space on the balcony of Guildford’s 16th century guild hall