Whether it’s a hangover from colonial sour grapes or just plain Darwinian pleasure in witnessing natural selection, there’s no country Australians love to beat or see beaten than Britain. Yet during the past few years the Poms have really lifted their game when it comes to bike racing. Steve Thomas takes a look over the years leading to the rise of the ‘Brit Pack’.With so many feasible contenders on the start list, all looks set for a battle royale at this year’s Tour de France. A good number of those are suited in the black and blue colours of the British Team Sky.
Alongside my favourite, Alberto Contador, there’s the British duo of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, the Team Sky riders who took the top two slots overall in the 2012 race.
Wiggins is now considered as something of an old hand, a rough-cut track racer who gradually turned his hand to road racing. His path to the top step of the Tour podium was a long one, which weaved around so much that few would have ever figured on the lanky Londoner getting there.
His prowess on the track left little question of his natural ability, but it took years of perseverance to channel his track racing skills and ‘statistical promise’ into road results.
British Cycling really started to make its mark on the international scene through its successful track program – which was (and is) very much like the AIS system. Although they had always managed to produce good pursuiters, it wasn’t until Chris Boardman’s 1992 Olympic pursuit gold medal that cycling got any real recognition in the UK. It was that ride that helped raise the profile of the sport and sow the seeds for government funding.
Follow this up with the construction of the country’s first indoor velodrome (Manchester in 1994 – as part of a bid to host the Olympics) and the nation finally had a rain-beating training facility and a little cash. The rest, as they say, is history.
Then at the 2000 Sydney Olympics (1km TT) Jason Queally took the first cycling gold medal, which gave the new program and its funding a huge boost, and things went from strength to strength.
By 2008 the Brits had become the top track-racing nation at the Olympics, and funding was also slowly finding its way to the much less controllable road squad.
Cycling was slowly becoming a mainstream sport in Britain, yet any real form of road racing prominence was still a way off.
Although the British Cycling system has produced a solid stock of top-line riders, its latest Tour contender, Chris Froome, took a very different path to the top, through the Kenyan bush. “I think it was at that critical time when I turned Under 23 that I began to shine and show my colours. It was also when the British thing started to take off and a Pro-Tour team was being talked about, so the opportunity was there. But when they were riding the track I was probably out riding a mountain bike somewhere in the Kenyan bush” said Froome.
With his South African ‘twang’ and different origins it’s unlikely that Froome will ever grab the nation’s attention and steal their hearts in the same way that Bradley Wiggins has done with his Olympic and Tour double, and of course his ‘Mod revival’ style. It will be interesting to see if Wiggins does indeed roll over and allow the underdog to have his day – or if we’ll see a Lemond-Hinault like battle all over again.
Brits on Tour
As the final chequered flag fell on the Champs Elysees at last year’s Tour de France, the first ever British victor of the race stepped on to the podium; Bradley Wiggins, the Belgian-born son of a former Australian six-day racer and a British mother.
As if that wasn’t a big enough achievement, another ‘half’ Brit, Chris Froome, also stepped onto the podium of the great race, which was dominated by the Team Sky double act.
Until 2012 no British rider had ever even made it into the top three of the Tour. Sure, there have been some close calls, with Wiggins and Robert Millar both having fourth place finishes (twice for Millar).
As of July 2012 no Brit had ever won a grand Tour, which is amazing when you consider the long-term strength and prominence of British riders in the pro peloton. The closest calls had all come in the Vuelta a’ Espana, thanks to two second place finishes by Robert Millar and the 2011 second place overall by Chris Froome.
Other Commonwealth countries were happy to step up; last year Ryder Hesjedal took the Giro title for Canada, while the year before Cadel Evans took Australia’s first Tour de France victory. Ireland has won all three of the grand tours but the Brits just couldn’t crack the top spot.
It was way back in 1937 when the first British riders lined up for the Tour, Charles Holland and Bill Burl. Back then individuals could enter the race (and possibly get accepted). The duo where both independents (semi-pro) and at the request of the organisers formed a British Empire team, along with Canadian Pierre Gachon.
The Canadian rider was dropped and retired on the first stage, while Burl was floored by a photographer on the second day and retired with a broken collarbone. Holland rode strongly, and was just behind the leaders on stage 8 through the Pyrenees, but suffered an unfortunate series of punctures and ran out of tyres, forcing a frustrated retirement.
It was set to be another 18 years (1955) until a British rider finally finished the Tour, with Brian Robinson finishing 29th and Tony Hoare last. The duo formed part of a British national team (as were all Tour teams during that era). Robinson became the first Brit to win a stage in the Tour in 1958 when he was awarded victory on stage seven, the rider who beat him was relegated to second place after a ‘hot sprint’.
In 1962 Tom Simpson finished sixth overall in the race, and along the way he became the first Brit to don the leader’s yellow jersey, a feat which wasn’t to be matched by another Brit for more than 20 years.
Simpson was a great and respected champion, though he tragically collapsed and died in the 1967 Tour, just short of the summit of the Ventoux. The autopsy revealed alcohol and amphetamines in his system, a deadly cocktail when combined with the heat of Ventoux. He was just 29 years old.
A young and scrawny Scotsman named Robert Millar rose to fame during the early ’80s, finishing fourth overall in both the ’83 and ’84 Tours, as well as taking Britain’s first and only King of the Mountains title in 1984 and three career mountain stage victories. For some time Millar was considered as a Tour contender, but he was lacking against the clock, and also never seriously considered himself capable of winning the race overall.
Although British composite and national teams had competed in the tour, and the British sponsored (but Dutch based) TI Raleigh squad were a dominant force during the ’70s and ’80s, it wasn’t until 1987 that a fully-fledged British registered pro team were granted a start in the race, the infamous ANC Halfords squad.
It was to be a disastrous Tour for the team, whose best GC finisher was Adrian Timmis in 70th. The highlight of the race was a third place stage finish by Malcolm Elliot. The low-light was the mid race disappearance of team owner Tony Capper, leaving a pile of debt and little else behind.
Twenty years on (2007) and the South African sponsored, but British registered, Team Barloworld also earned a wildcard entry to the Tour. They took away the mountains classification (Mauricio Soler) and two stage wins (Soler and Robert Hunter). In 2010, of course, Britain’s first true Pro Tour team, Team Sky, took the start, operating from a much higher base than their predecessors.
During his career Boardman made the prologue and opening yellow jersey of the Tour his own, a mantle that passed in some degree to David Millar in later years.
Before the Tour rolled into action last year a total of 44 individual Britons had started the race, with 29 of them making it to the finish. In all there had been four British wearers of the yellow jersey, an overall polka dot winner (Millar) and an overall points winner (Cavendish 2011), between them all is a tally of 44 British stage wins.
A staggering 20 of those 44 pre-2012 victories had fallen to Cavendish, a tally that he added to last year, along with Millar, Froome and Wiggins – making 50 British stage wins so far in the race.
Team Sky and British Cycling have delivered the goods – can the AIS and Orica GreenEdge match their eternal nemesis in the near future?