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A Day At The Races – Tour of Britain 2015


Tour of Britain Stage 7 – Fakenham to Ipswich

Terrain: Country lanes & military airbase

Weather: Lazy drizzle & grey skies

Total Distance: 227.1km                Crowds: Waterproof ponchos everywhere

Start: Fakenham Racecourse        Best Game Face: Graham Briggs

Bradley Wiggins Factor: Parting fans like Moses to make sign-on


Lean racing machines stalk Fakenham racecourse as commonplace, so to see a crowd gathered around the parade ring is nothing unusual here. But today’s runners and riders distinctly lack the expected glossy manes of racehorses, even if Rasmus Quaade does sport a powerful moustache, however plenty here still share a fondness for oats with the thoroughbreds who normally excite the grandstand. This toy town sized venue sits nestled amongst the intricate spaghetti work of Norfolk’s roads, testing both bus and driver as much as any Alpine ascent, resulting in a tediously drawn out transfer for all the riders.

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Unsurprisingly, the day’s dank dawn has done little to persuade the teams away from their space age wagons, with only a handful of British domestic teams bold enough to saddle up on the turbos outside. So unattractive is the weather, that for many of the squads here, the sign-on process has turned into a 100m dash from bus to stage and back. When out onstage however, the speakers gurgle with the daily spiel, guaranteeing each rider’s wave earns a cheer from the crowd; now steaming beneath their complimentary rain ponchos.

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Despite the sport’s huge groundswell of interest on British turf thanks to Cavendish, Wiggins, Armitstead Hoy, Pendleton and Froome; cycling remains a strange beast. There are no true limitations for ambling around the riders and their buses, teams relying on the constraints of social norms stopping strangers from inviting themselves onto the bus and generally being weird. The majority of today’s attendance is firmly ensconced within touching distance of the Team WIGGINS van. A sea of limbs grasping smartphones in place of autograph books, contorting their bodies to rattle off selfies with the thread slim Bradley Wiggins stalking the crowded barrier in shot.

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This knight’s fellow men-at-arms form the remaining five sixths of his battalion, three of whom slink away to sign-on and return with little interest from the crowd. Bradley on the other hand cycles the hundred meters to the stage with an amateur town crier ahead of him, negotiating a gangway through those magnetised into orbit by his charisma.

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Wiggins narrows the scope of a race so acutely that appreciation of the breadth and depth of riders here can became momentarily suspended. Regardless of whether Britain is truly enamoured or simply infatuated by cycling, the profile of the sport has struck an exponential phase of development. This 2015 line-up bolsters World Champions, several National Champions, Grand Tour jersey winners, Monument winners and one of Eritrea’s favourite sons. A once backwater race now sits at the top table of cycling with the room to grow in stature yet further still, admittedly how best to do so is uncertain, though Tour of Britain’s take on the eccentric Tour de France advertising cavalcade could be a start.

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Fakenham’s drizzled starting line becomes populated all of a sudden, the weather inspiring riders for a Le Mans style scramble to saddle up and ride out with no hanging around. The previous six days of racing are already etched deep on the brow of many, exaggerated by the tangible heavy sigh pressing down on the peloton from the cinderblock sky above. As they trickle out from the racecourse like a loose thread, it seems that a miserable day is all that lies in store for these riders.

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Finish – Ipswich Town Centre

Weather: Blue skies and obscene levels of sunshine

Crowds: Skilled in parkour to get a good view

Bradley Wiggins Factor: Encouraging the 60+ age group to sprint over walls


Like ants beneath a magnified sun, the riders now skitter across scorched tarmac, sailing through the technical kilometres preceding the Ipswich town centre finish. Britain’s climate has impersonated a more continental vibe for the latter half of the day, spectators swap their hot chocolate for cool lagers, while riders strip down to short sleeves for the heated finale into town. Whereas Fakenham’s departure point felt like a juddering steam engine building up pressure to leave the station, the habitual scanning from ‘jumbotron’ to finishing straight (and back again), is more akin to waiting for a thundering bullet train to blitz its way to the line. So eager are those gathered to witness the anticipated showdown between Elia Viviani and André Greipel, that the rooftops of estate agents, apartments, bars and banks now become sky-high terraces for those able to negotiate their way to the summit.

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If the start’s modest crowd of enthusiasts and dedicated Rapha/Wiggins acolytes demonstrated a local interest, Stage 7’s town centre finale confirms a nation’s burgeoning obsession. Barriers are five bodies deep, even beyond the finishing line, with 50km still to race before the peloton begin bearing down on the county capital’s outskirts. Time is said to be relative at best, but waiting for first sight of a rider exiting the final bend exaggerates this further still, spectators hung in suspended animation, as minute by minute nothing changes in Ipswich. ‘Jumbotron’ serves as the only assurance that there is indeed a race worth waiting for here. A breath which never quite suffices or the infinite fall of shepard tones, being a spectator feels punishing on occasion, with the prospect of watching paint dry seeming electric after a while.

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Time at the line is focused on one calculation: the exact moment at which your eyes can scan down from the live TV and register that the riders are now before you with only 100m left. From rider to spectator, road racing’s facets are sunk deep within hours of increasing tension, before venting frenziedly and abruptly for the mad rush across the line. Synapses spark in an attempt to translate the initial smattering of vibrant jerseys into rider names, and in turn, vocalise some sort of motivational howl to nudge your favoured rider over the line. Today that rider is André Greipel, cementing his season’s final victory in a year which has seen him collect at least one win from nine of his ten stage race appearances. Who said sprinting stopped at 33 years old?

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Then it dawns across the crowd – “That’s it.”
The race both comes to life and fades within several pedal revolutions; perhaps no other sports is so tightly bonded to ‘the moment’ in that respect. Rugby, tennis and football drag beyond an hour and have their entirety spectated upon from one location, while much of track and field, or even gymnastics, is the repetition of efforts in pursuit of perfection. Staying at home for armchair race coverage fails to guarantee witnessing everything either, as directors cut from camera to camera in an attempt to please every nation’s fans; missing breaks suddenly forming, riders being dropped or losing everything altogether as weather sabotages live feed.

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Those who prop themselves up against a race barrier exchange hours of staring at dire advertising hoardings, for a fleeting moment which places them alongside their heroes. In that moment comes the satisfaction of sharing it with those who inspire you, a process repeated for fans from kilometre zero to the day’s final podium presentation. Photography mirrors this attribute of cycling well, all of the shots here could be flashes in the memory of any individual who turned out for the day. There is no football style ‘build up play’ to be remembered when standing roadside, this sport hinges on being in the right place at the right time; on either side of the barriers.

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Ultimately it becomes an addiction, wanting another pass by the peloton, spotting your favourite rider or dreaming of seeing the race winning move vanish up the road. Even nowadays with parades of press motorbikes surrounding the bunch and helicopters overhead, certain aspects and stories of the race are only documented through those dedicated followers at the roadside. For those who decided to watch Stage 7 at some point from Fakenham to Ipswich, all now possess a moment which intertwines them with the race. Yet a lucky few will have walked away with a story too and it is in the pursuit of those tales which fuels interest to become obsession.

END.


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Il Lombardia – Preview

Course:

The curtain call for 2015’s Classics season is heralded once again by The Race of the Falling Leaves, more commonly Il Lombardia. After a second half to the year focused upon grand tours and the World Championships, we see the racing come to a close in 2015 with a particularly gruelling edition of this Italian monument, 245km from Bergamo to Como and some of the hardest climbing the organisers could squeeze into this course.

Similar to Spring’s battles in the Ardennes, little of note occurs during an opening stretch of 170km which serves to warm the riders up and begin building the attrition subtlety. The Colle Gallo does however feature early on as the peloton are tasked with climbing its 7.4km ascent after only 49km have passed. It possesses an average gradient of 6%, but remains relatively consistent right the way to the top and reaches the 10% maximum gradient before the halfway point. The subsequent descent places them back upon level ground for the most part and does not task them with another climb until the simple Colle Brianza once they reach the 108km marker.

Roads continue to roll with ever increasing contrast and begin to hint towards what awaits the riders during the finale of this race. Madonna del Ghisallo will be the first to land a blow upon the favourites, opening their run to home with 72.5km remaining with the initial 3km being contested at a relentless 9%. From here another 5.5km separate the riders from the summit, the middle of which offers a plateau upon which to recover temporarily, before then kicking onwards to the final 1.2km contested at 9.5%. Considering it even touches 14% at one point, should somebody feel strong to make a move here, it might prove difficult to immediately close them down with a sharp acceleration given the terrain.

A fast and technical descent of only 6km will compound their preceding efforts as they almost immediately charge headlong into the base of the infamous Colma di Sormano. A 6.6% average gradient reels the pack up the opening 5km, but all focus will be placed upon the concluding 2km which shall be a truly brutal affair for even the strongest on the day. This final section includes a mind numbing stint of 27% with less than a kilometre to the summit, and overall, the entire run to the top will be against an average(!) of 15.8%. Just shy of 50km shall be left once they complete this ludicrous Ghisallo-Sormano combo and spectators will have now been provided with a clear idea of who has the legs to contest the win by Como. 

Once they have made their way to Como the riders shall approach the first of two circuits of the rolling roads which thread their way around the city and utilise the ascent of Civiglio. The climb itself is another punch to the guts in order to ascertain the real contenders once again, though only 4.2km in total, its average gradient of 9.7% grinds its way to the summit and includes ramps of 14%. Another drop will funnel the pack downwards again, once they have reached Civiglio’s peak with just under 17km remaining and begin approaching the finale. This climb would be a perfect launchpad for a race winning move, but given the immense depth of talent present at 2015’s edition and the attritional nature of this particular course, we might see the divisive move come even later. The final chance to make a difference will be placed before the hopefuls only 8km from home, the San Fermo della Battaglia may only be 3.3km long, but its average of 7.2% and maximum of 10% will feel like a herculean obstacle in the wake of the day’s preceding climbs. From 5.3km out it begins tipping downhill and ultimately only levels out 1.5km from the finish line, it was during this part of the race last year that the elite lead group were caught napping by Dan Martin as he attacked and sailed away solo to secure the win.

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Contenders:

Vincenzo Nibali is entering this race as the favourite and could finally secure the elusive monument win which so far is absent from his palmares. Not only does the gruelling nature of the day’s route suit Nibali well, but the high possibility of rain combined with the technical descents offers all the ingredients required to bring the Italian to the fore when it matters most. Having missed out on ridding the Vuelta a España due to his disqualification for cheating, he arrives here fresher than many of his rivals and has already demonstrated this fact by winning Tre Valli Varesine last week. Often this race is decided by an elite group sprinting late on for the win, something which would normally be a negative for Nibali, but today’s arduous finale should guarantee him the opportunity to attack and come to the line solo for his debut monument victory.

Alejandro Valverde could prove to be Nibali’s greatest adversary in pursuit of Il Lombardia, possessing an encouraging record at the race but having never stood atop the podium. However, he shares the biggest unappealing factor as many of the contenders here, arriving at the start line off the back of a difficult Vuelta a España. A day of bad weather could actually become a positive for Valverde, the pace subsequently being reduced and taking the sting out of some rivals’ attacks. Like Nibali he will be comfortable on the technical descent and will no doubt be the favourite in a sprint should a small group make it right the way to line.

Rui Costa tends to be forgotten when it comes to these races, despite having won the biggest one day race of the year (2013’s World Championships), but remains a clear danger today. The Portuguese rider was third in last year’s race and certainly has the skill set required to go even better today, but his exact condition is somewhat uncertain. However, the fact he placed 9th at the World Road Race in Richmond is a big hint at what could lay in store, a dangerous rider who might mistakenly be provided with too much room to attack.

Dan Martin is the defending champion and appears here in the colours of Garmin-Cannondale for the final time before moving onto Etixx – Quick Step next season; no doubt a sign that he will wish to sign off with a good performance today. Sadly for the Irishman, his preparation heading into the day has been far from ideal, only making his return a few days ago since the shoulder injury which forced him to abandon the Vuelta a España. Despite this, he did finish 14th and less than a minute down on his comeback at Milano-Turino, so there is evidence to suggest he will at least be competitive to a certain extent. He does not have the effects of a hard grand tour still lingering in his system like others here and certainly fits the mould of a likely winner of Il Lombardia yet again.

Bauke Mollema may emerge as a surprising animator of the race today, the Dutchman has looked to be in strong form as of late and certainly suits the amount of climbing in this addition. His one-day racing credentials are a good support to his claims of a win, though the most positive suggestion of a good showing is his continued form throughout the Tour of Alberta, GP Quebec & Montreal and a great team role during Richmond too. Like Rui Costa mentioned above, he is the sort of rider who could be underestimated and afforded far too much room in order to make a race winning move.

Thibaut Pinot has made this race a huge goal for himself at the end of the season and will ride amongst a FDJ.fr team which offers no real alternative beyond their leader. Given the amount of horrendous climbing in 2015’s route, this is a great chance for Pinot to secure a surprising monument amongst his palmares come the end of the day. If he can mirror the sort of strength we witnessed during the Tour de Suisse earlier in the year, Pinot would be the strongest pure climber present at the race and no doubt ensure everybody is aware of this fact when it matters most.

Outcome:

1st Vincenzo Nibali 2nd Thibaut Pinot 3rd Rui Costa