Tour of Britain or Tour of Spain?

Mark Cavendish wins stage 2012 Tour of Britain

Will we see this sort of thing at the 2016 Tour of Britain?

Is the ‘new’ Tour of Britain better preparation for the world road championships than the Tour of Spain?

Once upon a time the Tour of Britain was a Cinderella race amongst fabled events in the European race calendar. But in recent years, that’s changed. Now, the British race is the royal road to the rainbow jersey.

During the first week of the 2014 Tour de France, no sooner had the race regained France after its stay in Blighty, than teams were already planning to go back. Word was that Sylvain Chavannel, the big hitter at IAM Cycling, was keen to start the 2014 Tour of Britain. Really? Actually ‘keen’? As it turned out, the rumour was true and Chavannel and the team’s enthusiasm were genuine.

“Do we struggle to get riders to go to the Tour of Britain? Absolutely not. The riders genuinely want to go and race there. The parcours is reasonable, the stage lengths are good and the hotels are good too, no, really, riders want to race there,” insisted directeur sportif Serge Beucherie.

Sure enough, Chavannel finished seventh overall in the British tour that year and was second in the final London time trial stage, just eight seconds down on Wiggins, while his young team mate Matthias Brändle won two stages and went on to set a new Hour Record (without having ridden the Tour de France).

For a variety of reasons, after a number of false dawns, the latest incarnation of the Tour of Britain has managed to carve a happy niche for itself in the international racing season. The revamped and rebooted Tour of Britain has managed to occupy a position in the UCI calendar in a way that the earlier Kellogg’s and the PruTour versions of the race never quite managed. Finally, after years or chipping away at the national consciousness, the Tour of Britain appears to have established itself. In fact, in some senses it’s now turning into a threat to the Tour of Spain, because if you want to be in the frame for the rainbow jersey, the Tour of Britain might just be turning into the new default preparation race.

What’s going on? To some extent the current Tour of Britain finds itself in the right place at the right time. With the upsurge in popularity of the sport in the UK, a reputation for good organisation, a more efficient system of (safer) rolling road closures, more TV coverage, comfortable hotels and reasonable length stages, the Tour of Britain – now with Hors Category status and accompanying UCI points – is a more attractive proposition to World Tour teams than any previous incarnation of the race.

“We make a conscious effort to make the race attractive,” insists SweetSpot race organiser Mick Bennett. “It’s obviously not as hard as a three-week Grand Tour, there’s no jet lag like there is with the Canadian races, riders can fly in the day before the race and fly out the same day the race finishes. The hotels have all the parking the teams need, they’ve got power and water for the mechanics, we pay attention to those things.”

After years of having to convince race sponsors that modest Belgian kermesse squads and bigger teams comprised of soon-to-retire veterans and stagieres were going to bring out crowds, SweetSpot Events, the current organisers of the Tour of Britain, has a much easier job selling the event to TV companies and stage towns. Years of lobbying meant that there were three hours of live television broadcast every day in 2014 and that has clear appeal to team and race sponsors.

Improvements in the rider security since 2008 – which have come at financial cost because the Police don’t see themselves as a charity – have helped attract higher ranked teams and their bigger name riders. Bennett admits that the police costs runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds – the biggest expense on the race.

“We’ve had a bit of good fortune in that circumstances in the UK have changed compared to previous versions of the Tour of Britain,” explains Bennett, “so I’d say people ‘get’ cycling in a way they didn’t in the 1990s. Now, with a rolling road closure, people are much more likely to get out of their cars and cheer to support the race.” Simultaneously the race owner, British Cycling, has also made efforts to boost the profile of the race, given that it is the flagship race in the UK and an advert for both the Federation and the sport. “The aim of British Cycling is to make the Tour of Britain one of the top 10 bike races in the world,” said a spokesman, “we want it to be a race everyone can be proud of, a race that fans want to see and riders want to take part in and win.”

Tour of Britain riders in the Scottish Borders

Tour of Britain crowds have grown since 2012…

British Cycling, much as current organisers SweetSpot, has an interest in making the race look as good as possible from every angle. The decision for BC to put the running of the Tour out to tender in 2012 was much criticised, but it was a sign that BC was applying some pressure. SweetSpot had been organising the Tour of Britain since 2004 and this was clearly BC giving the incumbent organising team a nudge, suggesting it was serious about wanting to see improvements. In light of recent events, who can say that pressure hasn’t paid off, particularly with roadside popularity of the post-2012 events.

Historically, the hitherto Cinderella sport of British cycling looked like – to mix the metaphor a little – the ugly sister of Europe. Britain lacked the tradition, the teams, general interest and media coverage in the sport. Hardcore cycling fans were almost always the only roadside spectators throughout the 1980s and had an inferiority complex when we read about the races and riders from continental Europe. That’s no longer the case.

The crowds for the ‘new’ Tour of Britain easily trump those who gather at the Criterium du Dauphine and Paris-Nice, races with more history and more strength in depth in their start lists. Additionally, British riders can increasingly hold their own in the pro peloton and domestic teams are willing to have a go at World Tour riders. The organisers bold decision to limit squads to six riders per team is something that generally makes for more entertaining racing, but it doesn’t provide World Tour teams with an easy ride if they fancy defending a jersey and trying to ‘control’ a race. The upside for everyone though is that with a final stage in the heart of London – in front of massive crowds and under Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament – teams can treat their sponsors to a decent day out in a global capital.

None of this has happened by accident. The place occupied by the Tour of Britain in the UCI calendar didn’t come about by chance and its rise has been noted, particularly by the Tour of Spain. Perhaps the Vuelta – part-owned by Tour de France owners ASO – will fight back by cutting its duration or making its parcours less arduous? A decade ago, who could have imagined that the Tour of Spain would be looking enviously at the Tour of Britain?

Froome and Quintana at Pena Cabarga, Vuelta 2016

Froome and Quintana at Pena Cabarga, 2016

The Vuelta or Tour (of Britain)?

Apart from the nature of the race – its route, hotels, security, duration, difficulty – the Tour of Britain is holding another attractive card. Increasingly it looks like a good option for riders preparing for the World championships which follow not too many days later. In this sense, the Tour of Britain appears to be usurping the Tour of Spain.

For well over a decade – since 1995 in fact, when the Tour of Spain was moved from April to its current autumn position in the race calendar – the road to the rainbow jersey was invariably routed via the Vuelta. Which is not to say that the winner inevitably came from the Vuelta, rather that the selection of riders in the finale and the podium were heavily biased towards those who had competed in the Spanish Tour.

In recent years however, the cast-iron predictability of this ‘golden rule’ has started to crack. The rise of a credible parallel calendar between the Tour de France and the World road championships means that alternative preparation strategies have paid dividends. Participants in the Eneco Tour, Tour of Poland and Tour of Britain have seen riders performing well in the World time trial and road race championships.

Why is this? Is the Vuelta now getting too hard for its own good? Are the shorter stage races better as training events than the Vuelta? Or is the idea that you can train to race – and train more effectively than using races to train – taking hold and actually bearing seed? Back in 1994, the then organisers of the Vuelta were quite happy with the late-April and early May time slot they had and their resistance to their race being bumped to the end of the season was ‘paid for’ by the re-location of the World road championships from August to its current slot after the Vuelta. In the space of one season, the autumn Vuelta became the preferred event for riders with rainbow ambitions.
Statistically, historically, the Vuelta route to the Worlds has been a winning formula. Since the date shift, 14 out of the 19 world road champions have come out of the Vuelta and 35 out of a possible 57 medals went to Vuelta riders. Though it looks like another one of those immutable truths of bike racing that’s losing its lustre.

Paradoxically, when the road worlds were held in August, it used to be a cycling truism that the winner of the World road race championship had to have ridden the Tour de France. In the days before power meters and detailed personal coaching, riders knew that the training effect of slogging your way around a three-week stage race was worth the short-term fatigue. A bit of judicious rest after the end of the Tour – not too many lucrative criteriums off your tits on amphetamines – and your form for the World championships was generally good. The same crude ‘training principal’ held true for many years when the Vuelta and Words dates were switched. But that received wisdom is starting to crack – and its good news for the Tour of Britain.

In the recent past, post-Tour de France British stage races had trouble attracting talent to ride, based partly on limited appearance money on offer, low crowd interest, fears over the system of rolling road closures and the fact that ambitious riders preferred the Vuelta as a preparation race in the run-in to the World championships.

The Vuelta-Worlds connection

1995 Abraham Olano; 1996 Gianetti (silver); 1997 Laurent Brochard, Hamburger, Van Bon; 1998 Oscar Camenzind, Van Petegem; 1999 Zberg silver; 2000 Olympic year, no medals; 2001 Oscar Freire, Andrej Hauptman (bronze); 2003 Igor Astarloa, Valverde (silver); 2004 Oscar Freire, Zabel, Paolini; 2005 Tom Boonen, Geslin (bronze); 2006 Paolo Bettini, Zabel, Valverde; 2007 Paolo Bettini, Kolobnev, Schumacher; 2008 Alessandro Ballan, Cunego, Breschel; 2009 Cadel Evans; 2010 Thor Hushovd, Davis (bronze); 2011 Mark Cavendish; 2012 Philippe Gilbert, Valverde (bronze); 2013 Rodriguez (silver), Valverde (bronze); 2014 Valverde (bronze).

Tim Kerrison Team Sky cycling head of performance

Tim Kerrison, Team Sky

Training to race? Or racing as training?

Head of Performance at Team Sky, Tim Kerrison has been a supporter of what might broadly be termed the ‘training to race, not racing as training’ school of thought. It was Kerrison who oversaw Bradley Wiggins preparation in the run up to Wiggins’ triumph at the World time trial championship in Ponferrada. (The fact that Tour of Britain finishers Michal Kwiatkowski won the road race and Ryan Mullen won silver in the Under-23 time trial add more credence to Kerrison’s analysis.)

“I’ve always seen the view that ‘you must do the Vuelta to prepare for the worlds’ as another one of cycling’s myths that deserves to be challenged. What the Vuelta does provide is a guaranteed workload and three weeks of structure, which for some riders, at that time of season, can be an ‘easy’ way of getting the required workload done. What it doesn’t provide is the flexibility to do the specific training, or to manage the workload to optimally prepare for an event like the World time trial championships – because the workload is largely dictated by the parcours of each stage and the way it is raced. Within that framework there is some scope for a rider to have a relatively easy or harder day, if the team’s situation allows this flexibility, but there is only so much you can control within a race.”
Kerrison added: “A structured training block obviously allows much more freedom to do exactly as required – or, better still, the combination of a shorter stage race (e.g. Tour of Britain), supported by structured training blocks before and after, which is what Bradley ended up doing. Personally I believe this has the potential to be a better approach to preparing for the Worlds than the Vuelta – combining the right balance of racing with the flexibility to do specific targeted training within the four weeks leading into the World Championships. And it turns out that (perhaps for the first time?) both the winners of the World Championship Road Race and Time Trial took this approach in 2015.”

But, for all that Kerrison can see an advantage of racing the Tour of Britain over the Vuelta, there are other factors in play that, for obvious reasons, the Tour of Britain will be unable to match. The Tour of Britain is a national Tour, but not a Grand Tour. “For beyond the Worlds, looking towards the following season, doing the Vuelta certainly provides a guaranteed big workload through August and September, and doing this in a structured race environment is, for some riders, an easy way to keep with workload high through the back end of the season, even if they have no specific performance objectives for the race itself.”

It won’t have escaped your notice that lots of riders gain their first Grand Tour experience at the Tour of Spain rather than the Tour. Racing for three weeks is always a leap into the unknown. “Aside from the workload, there is all the experience gained in racing a grand tour, learning to deal with the many challenges encountered when racing at that level for three weeks straight. For example, at Sky, we saw the 2015 Vuelta as a big learning opportunity and, whilst we didn’t win the race, we learnt a lot and everyone left the race feeling like they had been part of a successful campaign.”