12th September 2021
This year, I have been a regular viewer of the evening television highlights of cycling’s three Grand Tours – Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España – via the Eurosport, ITV4 and/or Quest channels. The quality of the respective presentations has varied – notably the editing and post-race analysis – but each event has been good to watch over its gruelling three-week duration. I am probably no nearer than I was at the beginning of the summer to donning the Lycra and sitting on a bike myself, but I do now know a little more than I did about the tactics of a breakaway or the timing of a sprint finish.
(An aside. When the various 2021 Sportsman of the Year accolades are being awarded, I suggest that those who decide these things look beyond the Olympic Games and Euro 2020 to consider the case for the Dutch cyclist, Fabio Jakobsen. Just over a year ago, he was near to death in a Polish hospital following a horrendous crash at the Tour de Pologne. The catalogue of the injuries he sustained makes for very grim reading. At this year’s Vuelta, he won the Green Jersey for the race’s overall points competition. A heroic and uplifting story).
ITV4 has been the broadcaster of the AJ Bell Tour of Britain, an eight-day race that ended today. (Another aside. My search on Google revealed that AJ Bell is a “public limited company that provides online investment platforms and stockbroker services”). It has to be acknowledged that the Tour does what it says on the tin – the start was in Penzance and the finale was in Aberdeen – albeit with some sizeable jumps between stages. Yesterday, the penultimate stage was of 195 kilometres from Hawick to Edinburgh and I duly took up a place to watch the final stretch down Queen’s Drive at the foot of Arthur’s Seat.
As with my journey to the football match in Cumbernauld earlier in the week (“A Commitment Made Good (Partly)”, 9th September 2021), I drew on the resources of public transport to make the journey from Milngavie. This can be risky at weekends. I had known that there would be a replacement bus service at the start of the trip (though I hadn’t anticipated that the driver would lose his way on the short journey between Bearsden and Westerton stations and start making his way back to Milngavie), but it was a surprise when I reached Queen’s Street station in Glasgow and learned that the flagship train service to Edinburgh would also involve a replacement bus from Linlithgow.
As the bus crawled down the A8 through Corstorphine on the outskirts of the capital, I was anxiously looking at my watch and fearing that I would arrive at Queen’s Drive to see the peloton disappearing into the distance. However, to my relief, it turned out that I had about 25 minutes to spare before the first riders came through.
My vantage point was just inside the last kilometre at the start of the final slight incline that led straight up towards the finishing line. This had been my intended spot: it enabled me to see the riders as they came around the long curve of Queen’s Drive and then head into the distance. As if to recognise my neat bit of scheduling, the dark threatening clouds overhead started to be replaced by the bright sunshine that would last for the remainder of the afternoon.
I waited next to a couple in late middle age who were both cycling and walking enthusiasts. The man told me with some pride that the cottage they had hired as the base for a walking holiday in the Pyrenees had been on the route of this year’s Vuelta. In common with some others around me, he had been following the progress of the day’s stage on his mobile phone and he told me that the numbers in the breakaway had been whittled down to five, though none was in contention in the General Classification to win the overall Tour.
The leaders passed in an initial group of three – Matt Gibson, Yves Lampaert and Matteo Jorgenson – followed, after a few seconds, by Davide Ballerini and Pascal Eenkhoorn. The peloton swept by about a minute and a half later. (The Belgian, Lampaert, was the eventual winner). Whilst acknowledging that I was not witnessing a severe mountain climb or a frenetic sprint finish, I did think that there was something smooth and elegant about them all.
All the riders were greeted by warm and polite applause from the spectators behind the barriers on both sides of the road, the clapping seeming to complement the soft purr of tyre on road. This support was replicated for the stragglers who came in a little later – perhaps delayed by a crash or a “technical” (which, I understand, usually means a puncture) – including the young rider from the Great Britain team who, at the foot of the incline, inadvertently followed one of the support cars down the wrong road before being redirected on to the correct route.
Not surprisingly, many of the spectators – including whole families – were dressed for the part in their cycling gear, most of whom, in turn, had brought their own bicycles. It is not difficult to sense that this sport is healthy (in both senses) in Britain and one, moreover, that encourages participation as well as spectating.
Many of the spectators remained for some time after the race, hoping to catch a glimpse of the riders as they returned to the team buses, which were parked not far from where I had watched the race. The area was cordoned off to respect the current Covid-19 regulations, but this did not prevent Mark Cavendish – Britain’s greatest sprint cyclist – from patiently working his way along the line for a series of selfies with his fans before he boarded the Deceuninck-Quick-Step bus. He did this for several minutes: an impressive effort, I thought, from someone who must have been close to exhaustion after another demanding 4½ hours in the saddle.
As with all cycling competitions on the road – and particularly the various Tours – there was a large entourage of accompanying vehicles: organisers’ car, team directors’ cars, cars racked with spare bicycles, police motorbikes, ambulance, and so on. In addition, the staffing requirements on the route are significant, of course, with each potentially dangerous item of street furniture requiring someone to man it and wave a warning flag. After the race, I passed the group of police outriders – is there are collective noun? – as they gathered together by their vehicles near the entrance to the Queen’s Gallery of Holyrood Palace. From the north country English accents that I overheard, they were clearly drawn from across the country.
I waited for a few more minutes before crossing Queen’s Drive to look back at the views. The team buses – their sponsors’ names and riders’ photographs prominently displayed on the outside and appropriately led by Jumbo-Visma – started to leave for Stonehaven in preparation for today’s final stage of the Tour. I decided to re-cross the road and head for the Starbucks on the Royal Mile for (as it turned out) a flat white coffee and a slice of chocolate caramel shortbread. One of the officials in high-viz jackets was manning the crossing point. “You can cross now”, he said, his back to the traffic. I waited. “You can cross now”, he repeated, as if both surprised and impatient at my non-movement. “There’s a bus coming, mate”, I replied, as the vehicle containing the combined ranks of Deceuninck-Quick-Step – including Cavendish, no doubt – sped towards us.
Today’s stage from Stonehaven to Aberdeen was won in a sprint finish by another Belgian, Wout van Aert of Jumbo-Visma. This gave him the overall victory in the 2021 Tour of Britain by six seconds from Britain’s Ethan Hayter.