Full lowdown on the 2017 Tour of Britain
Yet another edition of the Tour of Britain passed without a win for Britain’s domestic Continental teams — can they ever make a breakthrough?
There were three things you could predict with confidence ahead of this year’s Tour of Britain: that a sprinter would win all of the road stages; that each day’s breakaway would contain a rider from a British Continental outfit; and that no rider from one of those four UK Continental teams — the third division of professional cycling — would win a stage.
That last may sound unduly harsh but no rider from a British Continental team has won a stage since the modern race’s inception in 2004. That’s 107 stages without a victory.
Jonathan Tiernan-locke, riding for British Continental team Endura Racing, won the race overall in 2012, but failed to win a stage; regardless, his win was retrospectively wiped off the record books after he was later banned for anomalies in his biological passport.
This year, the teams attempting to reverse that 14-year barren run were Jlt-condor, Madisongenesis, Bike Channel-canyon and One Pro Cycling.
Their odds of winning a stage were lengthy, some longer than others. John Herety, team manager of Jlt-condor, offers up his honest, candid opinion as to why their chances were slim.
“We have a slightly skewed perception of how good we are in the UK. We are nowhere near as good as the other teams, or as good as we think we are,” he says.
Herety isn’t being defeatist, he is just merely pointing out the facts. The Tour of Britain for British riders in cycling’s third division is, to use a football analogy, the FA Cup final. It’s what their season is geared up towards; it’s what prompts their non-cycling friends to stand at the roadside to catch a glimpse of their mate.
The level between themselves and the Worldtour peloton — there were 27 Grand Tour stage winners on the startline in Edinburgh — is significant, but in every sport, once in a while, an underdog triumphs.
While Sam Bennett won for An Post Chain Reaction in 2013, they are Irish-registered.
There have been seven secondplaces and 10 third places for the UK Conti teams, the last of which came on stage seven of this year’s race via Brenton Jones of Jlt-condor. But why no win? Why no Leicester City moment?
Wrong race prep
In the absence of Kristian House, who would have made a record 12th appearance in the race had he been selected by One Pro Cycling, Rob Partridge of Bike Channel-canyon was the race’s grandfather this year, making his 11th start.
When asked if he can foresee a time when a Conti team will win a stage, he is absolute in his prediction. “Yeah, definitely. We’re not far off — you’re talking fractions.”
But to do so, Partridge is adamant that whoever the successful team will be, they will almost certainly have had a big European calendar and not predominantly racing the UK domestic programme, which is criterium-heavy and includes just eight National Series road races, all of which (except the Tour of the Reservoir) are single-day events.
The UK scene, he believes, is detrimental to the teams’ prospects. “It’s all down to race programme,” he explains.
“You look back to Endura in 2012 with Tiernan-locke, and then to 2010 when I was with Endura. We had a brilliant programme then, we hardly raced in the UK, and I finished eighth overall in the Tour of Britain. Every time I came back from Europe I won a Premier Calendar, won this or won that.
“It shows that with the programme, you’re constantly at that strong level, constantly improving and you are going to be competitive.
“At the moment it’s hard for us to prepare for a race like this doing the Tour Series. We prepared for this race with five races in seven days in Europe, which was great and a big workload. If you had that consistently throughout the year, the level would just go up across the board.
“If you want to prepare for this race in the UK, it’s not possible, you have to go elsewhere.”
A Pro-continental team last season, One Pro Cycling had a more complete European programme, which saw them compete at the Tour of Poland, their first and only Worldtour race.
“When we were doing stage races last year, there were a lot of stages over 200km, so when it came to this race, it didn’t feel like a step up,” Peter Williams, riding his ninth national tour, observes.
“This year, with us not doing those races, it does feel like a step up and the race run-ins become a lot quicker than usual. Last year it felt like the norm as you had adapted to that.”
Indeed, Williams argues that it is no coincidence that Jones recorded a third-place finish and four further top 10s at this year’s race. “Look at their calendar — they do a lot of European and stage racing,” he says.
Waiting for a break
Riders and managers are united in their belief that one day, one of them will have a David versus Goliath moment. They are split, however, on the method.
It seems logical to assume that should a third-tier rider cross the finish line first, they will do so having been part of a breakaway.
Since 2011, six breaks that formed at the stage’s start have succeeded, with two occurring in 2016. But the flatter parcours this year nullified each break’s chances: where there were usually hills to attack on and distance riders, this year there was just flat road followed by yet more of the same.
Richard Handley was one
“At the moment it’s hard for us to a prepare for a race like this doing the Tour Series”
of two Madison-genesis riders alongside Alex Blain in a five-man break on stage four, a break that was widely accepted in the peloton as being the strongest of the week.
With 20km to go they still had 2.20 to the chasing peloton, and with 10km remaining they rode 75 seconds ahead of the encroaching pack. They were caught before the finish, but it was the closest the day’s break came to succeeding all week.
“We knew that the majority of the finish was a tailwind, so we just had to press on and hope that something came from it,” he says.
“You couldn’t predict how it was going to go. At 10km, it was 1.15, which looks good, but I think at that time we needed two minutes. There’s more chance of a win coming from a break.”
Herety disagrees, though: “I can’t see the breakaway happening. It’s the way the race is ridden with the Worldtour guys. They dictate how it is ridden and as a consequence it’s very rare that a break stays away until the end.
“Our guys ask what they should do and if the time is coming down. But they can’t press on any more. It’s not a case of if you can stay away, it’s a case of whether they want to catch you.
“It will take a miscalculation on the peloton’s part, or if they decide that they don’t want to bring it back because of, say, time bonuses.”
His rider Russell Downing, who has chalked up six second and third places in the race, concurs: “If the big guys want to bring that break back, they will. If you are at 10 minutes, they will still bring it back, unless they get a calculation wrong. That’s the only way.
“They’re use to it. Day in, day out, they’re working it out and bringing breaks back for their sprinters or to the bottom of the climb. They’re so use to it that they don’t mess up.”
The Worldtour teams may have a stranglehold on how they want each stage to eventuate, but the composition of the break is also paramount to their chances. Downing adds: “Stage four’s went really well because they all stuck together, communicated well and said, ‘Right, let’s go deep as a unit,’ whereas the day before [Ian] Bibby and [Harry] Tanfield were attacking each other for however long and you’re not going to make it like that. If you have a few good mates in there, it helps.”
“You need strong lads who can put the power out and you need to trust each other,” offers Wiliams, a veteran of TOB breaks. “If you are going to get to the finish everyone has to work well together. You can’t have guys
pulling zero turns and making it hard for everyone.”
Partridge had experience of just that on stage one. “I was in the break with Worldtour, Pro-conti and Conti guys. When some were getting a bit gassed, and the bunch behind was splitting in the crosswinds, some were waiting for the group of 50 to catch us and were gobbing off.
“I said to them that just because you’re on however many tens of thousands and have done this and that, it doesn’t mean you can be disrespectful to other riders. In the end I just said to one of them, ‘We’re not team-mates, so do one.’
“Most Worldtour riders are normal guys and don’t look down on you, but you do get a couple. And you think, we’re just as competitive as you, we are sticking our noses in the wind, beating ourselves up for our team and sponsors, so if you miss a turn, you’ll get a mouthful.”
The way to break the duck, then, could be in a bunch finish, whether it be on a climb or a sprint.
Herety admits that his team had gone into this year’s race targeting a stage win with Jones. In recent years, they had hoped for similar fortunes from Chris Lawless. “We’ve only been encouraged by this week that one day we can do it,” he says.
But riders like Jones and Lawless are not standard Cont riders. They are riders destined for higher plains: “The thing is, the Conti riders who are that good, aren’t Conti riders for very long.” See Jones, who is moving back to Pro-conti level in 2018 with Delkomarseille Provence KTM.
The race for Continental teams is as much about testing a rider’s ability against a large selection of the world’s best, as it is giving sponsors brand exposure, and for some like Jones, a shop window.
Claiming a classification jersey pleases sponsors — it is why they
were mostly occupied by Conti teams throughout the week — but the golden ticket that could secure a move up cycling’s divisions or secure a team’s future for another year, remains elusive. Fourteen years and counting.
Another break succumbs to the well-oiled Worldtour machine
The Conti teams were joined by no less than 27 Grand Tour stage winners