Someone asked me a really good question the other day. As I was stood in a hotel car park waiting for the riders to file down on the morning of the second stage of the Tour of Britain, I explained to a member of the hotel staff how the team structure in cycling works.
Using Team Sky’s enormous “death star” bus as an example of a team at the very top of the highest level, and Rapha Condor JLT’s rather more modest collection of vehicles as an example of a team in the continental ranks, I thought I’d described the system quite succinctly. When I finished though the curious receptionist asked: “So are they all competing for different prizes in this race then?”
Of course, they are not. Olympic Time Trial Champion Bradley Wiggins was racing for the very same gold race leaders jersey as riders who, only a year ago, were racing on restricted gears in the junior ranks, and who were perhaps thinking about getting a part-time job in the winter.
It struck me then that the cycling world is an awfully complicated one at times, and a race like the Tour of Britain, which sees Tour de France and Classic winners against 18-year-old novices is a fine example of both the sublime and the ridiculous sides of the sport.
Working on the race with the Rapha Condor JLT team I do get asked these kinds of questions a lot. I imagine working as a press-officer for a World Tour team is quite straightforward: you win or you lose. But with a development-focused team like ours there is always a caveat, and you have to explain time and time again to fans (and hotel employees) that some of our riders haven’t come here with any notion whatsoever of winning, and that there are dozens of other reasons to actually be in a bike race.
In years gone by this wasn’t such an issue with this race. When I first rode the Tour of Britain in 2004 it was very much a low-level pro race, with that end-of-term feeling that races at this time of year often have. The winner was an unknown Columbian, and a certain Bradley Wiggins, it is alleged, stayed up in the bar until 2am each night.
At that time the Tour of Britain was a nice break and change of pace for a few European teams, and an opportunity for UK-based riders to measure up against them. There were no superstars and superteams to warp the playing field, and the contrast didn’t seem quite so apparent.
Skip forward 10 years and the race has dramatically changed. At the top you have the likes of Team Sky and Garmin Sharp sending teams with very serious ambitions of overall victory, and at the lower end of the spectrum you have a raft of British based teams, whose sponsorship revenue is now largely based on their performances in the race. The void, it seems, is enormous, and the playing field decidedly slanted.
On the surface this year’s race looked to be something of a procession for Team Sky, who rode on the front of the race almost since the flag dropped on the first day, and who, apart from a few Dan Martin attacks, had things their own way.
But Rapha Condor JLT’s story at the race is a good example of a team that came with high hopes, but modest ambitions. Apart from team leader Kristian House, the rest of the team is made up of young riders hoping to find some small way to shine in what is the biggest race of their careers so far.
The golden ticket — thanks to the race’s undulating terrain and the desire of the big teams for controlled racing — seems to be that elusive breakaway that will somehow slip the net and be allowed to contest a stage finish. With live TV for the final two hours the stage-long break is a win-win situation.
Each day as the racing got underway there was a moment of tension until the numbers of the first break go up. Who has made it? Who has missed it? For most teams the race is in some ways a little like the second week of the Tour de France: the leading team wants the break to go as quickly as possible, and the rest of the teams are desperate to be in it. It makes the first hour of each day unbelievably hard for everyone while the riders roll the dice and hope that they will get the right combination.
“It is hard coming here to race like this,” agrees House, last year’s King of the Mountians winner. “There is only so much we can really do here, Team Sky have come to win and they’ve been on the front literally since day one. All that leaves for most guys then is the opportunity to look for breaks and even then there is only a one in a hundred chance that the break will be allowed to stay away.”
So if it is so hard to compete, and only the crumbs from the table are on offer, what is it that makes the Tour of Britain so appealing to teams like ours? The chance of exposure for sponsors for one, and secondly the opportunity for young riders in teams like Rapha Condor JLT to see just how good the guys at the top of the sport are.
As team manager John Herety explained, “There is a difference between these World Tour riders and our riders. We run a development team and so that means that our guys don’t get changed in a big bus, and they can’t dictate the racing, but they can watch and see how these guys do things and see hopefully what they are getting wrong or right. It is hard though, because we aren’t here to spectate and we want results too. But we have to accept that what we are taking from this race just isn’t as simple as winning or losing.”
So getting a result against Bradley Wiggins may not be easy for a lot of the field at the Tour of Britain, but a lot of the riders here are getting something. After all a third division football player would perhaps never get the chance to play against Wayne Rooney; in cycling though these things do happen. And that is cycling, and that is the Tour of Britain – complicated, quirky and a little something for everyone. Oh, and yes, it rains a lot too.