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What next for the Tour of Britain?

As the WorldTour expands for 2017, can Britain's biggest stage race preserve its prestige and popularity?

With the UCI WorldTour set to expand in 2017 and pro cycling at a potentially important crossroads, the Tour of Britain has once again confirmed its place as one of the most well-supported –  and exciting – races on the calendar.

Steve Cummings became only the second home rider to win the modern race, on a varied course which packed in typically tough British climbs like The Struggle, Cat and Fiddle and Haytor, and also included a time trial and split stage in Bristol. All that made for an unpredictable race with any number of potential winners, ensuring the final destination of the yellow jersey was not known until the final weekend.

Dimension Data’s Steve Cummings won the 2016 Tour of Britain, becoming only the second British rider to do so in the race’s modern incarnation. But what is next for the Tour of Britain? (pic: Sweetspot)

However, when the WorldTour expands from 27 to 37 events next year, the Tour of Britain will be one of the few major races not stepping up to the top tier – with the race’s organisers, Sweetspot, instead keen to maintain the finely-tuned balance of six-rider squads from WorldTour and domestic teams.

But, with the WorldTour continuing its global expansion and cycling’s best teams facing ever-increasing demands to attend races across the globe, what lies ahead for the Tour of Britain? What has made the race a success? And how can it compete with the new calendar to ensure 13 years of growth does not go to waste? We caught up with the race organisers, riders and team staff to find out.

“In England’s green and pleasant land…”

Anybody who watched stage three of this year’s race, from Congleton to Tatton Hall, will have witnessed the phenomenal support the Cheshire public gave to the race – ‘unprecedented’ and ‘absolutely amazing’, according to race director Mick Bennett. Thousands of people packed into Congleton, with a wall of noise at the start thanks to the vuvuzela-like horns being handed out.

In fact, every stage of the race was well supported. It’s the ace in the sleeve for the race organisers, with one of the Tour of Britain’s biggest selling points being, well, Britain itself. As a pro cyclist, Brian Holm raced in Europe’s biggest races and now as directeur sportif at Etixx-QuickStep has led the Belgian super team across the world, but he is effusive in his praise of the Tour of Britain.

“We do a lot of races, but look around you at the start of the Tour of Britain stages,” he says. “It’s a big crowd, there’s always a big crowd. If you’re looking for bigger crowds, then you’re only really getting to the Tour de France.”

The Tour of Britain continues to attract some of the biggest names in the sport (pic: Sweetspot)

Holm admits to having a special love of the Tour of Britain, but he is not the only major player to share such sentiments. In fact, JLT-Condor boss John Herety believes the Tour of Britain is equally popular with fans, riders and team sponsors alike – and that’s a potent mix which elevates the race’s status on the calendar.

“There are a lot of races on the calendar now, and teams do have choices, but I think we underestimate just how important the UK market is for sponsors,” he says.

Herety points to the crowds which lined the street in London for the race’s traditional final stage and the spectacle it creates. “It did initially surprise me just how impressed foreign riders are to be around our capital city and seeing the iconic landmarks,” he admits.

Of course, it’s not just the prestige of racing in cities such as London and Glasgow, where the 2016 race started, which attracts riders and fans, but the tough, unpredictable and exciting racing – which is where Herety’s team, and Britain’s other domestic Continental and ProContinental squads, play a big part. By remaining out of the WorldTour, Sweetspot have, to an extent, been able to handpick which teams attend the race.

Bennett says: “We’ve always driven the agenda of not having a race so full of WorldTour teams that it dominates and dictates the pace of the racing.

“When you’ve got Continental and ProContinental teams, and they’re all trying to step up to WorldTour level, the pattern in the last few years is that they’re trying to animate the race from the start.”

And so it has proved, with British domestic teams enjoying plenty of success in recently years. Owain Doull finished third overall in 2015 for Team Wiggins and ONE Pro Cycling’s Pete Williams won the mountains classification in the same year.

This time out, Jasper Bovenhuis (from the Irish squad, An Post-Chain Reaction) victory in the sprints competition, and JLT-Condor’s Graham Briggs second place finish behind Ian Stannard on stage three were among the domestic highlights.

The peloton races through London – a selling point in itself – as fans again pack in to line the route (pic: Sweetspot)

One domestic rider who has been particularly active at the Tour of Britain since his 2014 debut is Madison-Genesis’ Tom Stewart.

The Yorkshireman was in a memorable day-long break in 2014, when Mathias Brandle won the stage and Alex Dowsett claimed the yellow jersey – Stewart finishing third behind two men who would go on to break the UCI Hour Record just months later.

That theme has continued, with the now 26-year-old finishing second behind Williams in a keenly-fought contest for mountains points in 2015 before, this year, clocking more time up the road alongside WorldTour pros like Giovanni Visconti (Movistar, stage six) and Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing, stage eight).

And Stewart is adamant that Britain’s domestic teams – and riders like himself – play a big role in ensuring the race is an exciting spectacle.

The race offered up more stunning backdrops as the prestige of the Tour of Britain continues to grow (pic: Sweetspot)
Xandro Meurisse and Nicolas Roche were also in that break, and battled hard for the King of the Mountains honours. Their fight for the KOM jersey was closely fought throughout the race before the Wanty-Groupe Gobert man pulled clear (pic: Sweetspot)

“It’s more and more difficult for a team like ours to do something in the race but that’s a good challenge, and I think each year we’ve shown we are growing and progressing and we’re still able to be competitive,” he says.

“We’ve certainly animated the racing this year. I think it’s really important that teams like ours continue to compete in these races. I know I would say that, but it’s for a number of reasons.”

For starters, he says, by having domestic riders, who compete in the UK week-in-week-out on the Tour Series and Premier Calendar circuit, British cycling fans can gain a better appreciation of the level of competition at a race like Tour of Britain.

“They know how fast we race,” Stewart explains. “Then you can see us at the Tour of Britain, either get our heads kicked in or be competitive and all of a sudden it becomes more realistic and more relatable.”

But it’s not just riders and staff from Continental-registered teams, naturally driven by an agenda to compete in the race, keen on their inclusion, with support for a varied start list coming from the upper echelons of the sport, too.

“The smaller teams are quite motivated and make our life really, really hard,” says Holm.

But ‘smaller’ also refers to the size of teams out on the road, with the Tour of Britain contested by six-rider squads, and, just as it did at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, has a vital role to play in ensuring unpredictable racing.  Indeed, Tour of Britain boss Bennett admits to being pleased when Greg van Avermaet, the Olympic champion, pledged his support for six-man teams in big races in future.

Tom Stewart was particularly active in the 2016 Tour of Britain and believes having domestic riders in the race helps add context for British fans (pic: Sweetspot)

WorldTour worry?

However, while the race carries undeniable prestige, with WorldTour teams having to commit to more races in 2017 and stretched ever-thin across the globe – even with the UCI vowing not to make every one of the 37 top tier events compulsory – could races like the Tour of Britain take a hit?

Bennett doesn’t think so, pointing to the competition the Tour of Britain has already beaten in attracting top name riders to the race. It does, after all, already compete with the Vuelta a Espana, GP de Montreal and GP de Quebec for riders.

And Holm, whose Etixx-QuickStep team is arguably one of the biggest on the WorldTour, also allays any fears fans may have of the WorldTour’s reform impacting on the Tour of Britain.

Etixx-QuickStep won two stages in this year’s race – Julien Vermote triumphing on stage two to spend several days in the yellow jersey, and Tony Martin winning the stage 7a time trial – and Holm believes success in the Tour of Britain carries as much – if not more – prestige than success in some of the races set to feature on next year’s WorldTour.

“From my point of view, it’s one of the big races on the calendar,” Holm says. “There’s a good history, everyone likes to be here, it is one of our highlights of the year.”

Holm even believes the expansion of the WorldTour, rather than harming the Tour of Britain, could even play into its hands as the top tier of pro cycling loses some of its pull.

Julien Vermote surveys the crowd as he pulls on the yellow jersey. His Etixx-QuickStep DS Brian Holm believes the Tour of Britain’s prestige helps it stand above some WorldTour races (pic: Sweetspot)

“For me, we can talk about the ProTour but some races have been picked up without the big history,” he says. “I think it will always be attractive to come to the Tour of Britain, for riders and staff, regardless.

“There’s something special about coming here. Some people might want to go to Abu Dhabi, and it may be a WorldTour race, but trust me I’d prefer Britain!”

Holm even suggests the WorldTour has been devalued and believes its importance now comes more from the guaranteed invites top tier teams get to the biggest races, like the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders, rather than the calendar as a whole.

He argues: “So what’s the WorldTour now? In the past you have the [WorldTour] leader’s jersey – Sean Kelly won it a lot – so there was something special and visible about the big races.

“But tell me who the top three on the WorldTour are now? Nobody has a clue. Tell me the top three teams last year? Nobody knows.”

World(s) view

While the Tour of Britain has established itself as a prestigious race in its own right, organisers having also responded to feedback from major teams and riders who have requested harder racing in order to prepare for the worlds.

And Stewart believes that combine of rising prestige and harder racing has been evident out on the road.

“The race is gaining in stature and getting more respect from the WorldTour guys,” the Madison-Genesis rider says. “There’s a lot of people using it as preparation for the worlds, but also targeting it as a race in its own right that they want to win.

“If you look at the WorldTour teams, each had a stand-out leader. I’m not sure how the WorldTour will work next year but I think the quality of the Tour of Britain in terms of the course, and the timing of it, lends itself very favourably to those riders coming.”

“Even though it’s a busy time of year they’re still sending strong teams. It shows how important the race is for those guys.”

Tour of Britain chief Mick Bennett, right, hopes to expand the race (Pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWPix.com)

Bigger and better?

Has the Tour of Britain found the magic formula? It seems so, with a valuable spot in the calendar combined with tough, unpredictable racing contested by a range of six-rider squads, all watched by huge crowds appreciated by riders, teams and sponsors alike. Putting on a exciting, prestigious race remains the goal for Tour of Britain organisers, not neccessarily taking a position in the WorldTour.

But Bennett remains ambitious for the race. The Tour of Britain started as a five-day event but has gradually grown to eight days and the man behind its success wants more. Bennett has eyes on  a longer race which reaches more corners of the country – but first he must overcome the challenge of budget and approval from British Cycling.

“Could we do with more days? Yes we could,” he says. “Do we have the budget currently to do that? No we don’t, but we are looking for a major sponsor to enable us to expand the race.”

Until then, the Tour of Britain has once again proved itself to be one of the sport’s key races, WorldTour or not. In Bennett’s safe hands, and with both international and domestic teams buying into the race, that looks set to continue.

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