On Saturday 15th September the Tour of Britain cycle race passed through Devon, starting at Barnstaple and ending four hours and 108 hilly miles later in Dartmouth.
As readers who watched the tour start in Hatherleigh three years ago may recall, the start of a stage gives a really good chance to see the riders close up. Whereas out on the stage, although the action is exciting, the race can pass by in what is just a few seconds – blink or raise a can of cider to your lips and you’ve missed it!
So it was off to Barnstaple to watch the start, with a view of hopefully catching up with the race later in the day on Dartmoor. After parking in the Park and Ride, rather than taking the bus, I enjoyed a picturesque and amazingly sunny walk at the side of the Taw through Rock Park. Chuffed with saving the £1 bus fare, I joined up with an old workmate of mine down from Reading with his son, and took up pole position next to the podium in The Square.
It was not long before team Rapha Condor Sharp arrived en masse to sign on, looking very smart in designer specs and gear. (And so they should, with Rapha being a retailer of rather smart and upmarket cycling apparel.) The rest of the field rode up in dribs and drabs, sometimes in teams, sometimes individually, to sign on for the day’s race, as is required each day.
Commentary was provided by a chirpy Race PR man. He introduced us to the “four faced liar”, the local name given to Barnstaple’s town clock, which is renowned for showing slightly different times of day on each of its four faces.
At stage 7 into the race, the PR man was now familiar with most of the riders’ faces, although he was still struggling with the pronunciation of some of the more exotic Spanish and Italian names of the truly international field.
I too then recognised a face to one side of me – that of our very own wonderful postie Stuart, with his wife. “How’s your new bike going, Stuart?” I asked. He looked a little a sheepish. “Oh sorry, have you not told your wife yet?!”
Fortunately, the star of the show, Mark Cavendish, then arrived on the podium and took everyone’s mind off other things. Cav looked resplendent in his World Champion’s jersey, and many were eager to try to get his autograph – so much so that I was barged into and knocked sideways by a lady of no meagre figure shouting, “Mark! Mark!”
“Cheeky!” said my friend as I yielded a little to let her through – well you would have too if you’d seen those arms and tattoos.
Sadly there was no Bradley Wiggins that day – he pulled out after stage 5 due to a stomach upset. So as the cyclists massed for the rolling start we left and made our way up onto Dartmoor.
It would have been good to then have seen the tour closer to our doorstep at Hatherleigh, or racing up South Hill towards Little Torrington, but with the road closures along the tour’s route there was no chance of performing a leapfrog. We opted instead for the Winkleigh – Mortonhampstead route, to meet the tour head on again at Dartmeet.
A combination of good weather, British riders’ success in the Olympics and Tour de France, plus it being a Saturday to boot had brought the faithful out in their thousands, hundreds of them on their bikes. Add a few tourist coach tours and a rather bemused vintage car club that had rather rashly picked that Saturday for their annual Dartmoor outing, and it all meant that progress over the moor was slow.
Fortunately a benevolent (or perhaps recompensed) farmer had opened up a field for additional parking just before the dip into Dartmeet, so we parked up, relieved ourselves on his fence in thanks, and headed down into the valley and then upwards onto a King of the Mountains section ending at Coffin Stone.
We positioned ourselves on a bank with a good view over the start of the climb and were no sooner settled in, tucking into sandwiches and pop, when the first of what seemed like forty or more police motorbikes started coming past. They really are well organised, keeping a rolling road-block of all side roads, without which the tour could not take place. Most road closures are just kept to thirty minutes or so, which is amazing when compared to the Tour de France’s two to three hours minimum.
The tour riders arrived, and we picked out Cav reportedly struggling a bit on the climb. I say “struggling”, but he, along with the rest of the main peloton, managed the seven to eight mile long climb from Tavistock up to Merrivale in less than fourteen minutes! We also spotted Devon’s own Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, who was keeping enough time between himself and his nearest rivals to maintain his position as the tour’s overall leader at the end of the day in Dartmouth, and indeed went on to become winner of the 2012 Tour – the first GB winner for nineteen years!
Along with thousands of other spectators, the camera crews, the helicopters, the coaches and the vintage cars, we then cleared off the moor, leaving it again in its normal wild and wonderful state – until next year!
October 2012 (Autumn issue)