With its place on the calendar coming just before the World Championships in Limburg the 2012 Tour of Britain provides a perfect alternative to the Vuelta for riders fine tuning their form for the Worlds.
This year stars, Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Ivan Basso are due to line up in Ipswich on Sunday for the opening stage which finishes 203km later at Norfolk showground. This stage is likely to suit the sprinters and Mark Cavendish would make a very popular winner in front of a home crowd. The first points sprint comes after only nine kilometres, so this year’s Tour will be off to a fast start right from the gun.
Three sprints and three sets of King of the Mountains points will make the stage anything but boring; but with some big sprinters and no major challenges on route we should see a bunch sprint into Norfolk. One note of caution - with the stage running alongside the coast, the peloton will have to be vigilant for echelons forming.
Stage two runs for 180.7km from Nottingham to Knowsley Safari Park. With lots of small climbs right from the start and three first category cat KOM's all inside the first 60km, this stage could be a jungle. After the final KOM the roads flatten but passing through small villages will mean the riders have to stay alert for a break creeping away.
However, I think with big teams like Sky and Orica-GreenEDGE, this stage will see a small break form, but it will be brought back for another bunch sprint.
After a long transfer, the third stage sees the race head over the Scottish Border and into Dumfries and Galloway. Jedburgh to Dumfries is a short stage at only 150km, and features undulating roads and stunning landscapes.
But with the first sprint and KOM both coming within the initial 20km the riders won’t have much time to take in the scenery. With two first cat and one second cat climb this may sound like a hard stage; but with these coming inside the first half of the stage and with this level of field in a relatively short stage, I can still see another bunch sprint in Dumfries.
Stage four is another 150km stage but back on to the English side of the border. The stage starts in Carlisle and finishes in Blackpool, which has had a stage finish for the past few years. Each time has seen a big bunch sprint and I can see more of the same this time around.
There are a few hills along the route but nothing to make me think that the big sprint teams won’t be able to control it.
Stage five is the standard Stoke-Stoke loop which has featured every year since 2009. That year I was in a four man break which went early and was only picked up by the bunch inside the final few kilometres.
The last two years have seen this stage blow the GC apart with a 20 man group going clear either early on or around the rolling, windy roads between the Oakamoor KOM and Gun Hill KOM. I don't expect the race to be won today but it could certainly be lost. There’s a new loop near to where I live, up on Cannock Chase; it shouldn't change the race too much but will provide great scenery for the riders and spectators. Passing Blithfield Reservoir could provide an opportunity to form echelons along heavy roads, if a coup of like minded teams decides to come to the front. I would expect a group of 20-25 of the strongest riders to fight out the finish in Hanley.
Stage six is the first day I can safely say will not be a bunch sprint. The stage starts in Welshpool and finishes 190km later in Caerphilly. It’s an undulating stage with the real sting in the tail coming with the two passages of Caerphilly Mountain inside the final 12 kilometres.
Last year this climb saw the bunch trimmed down to around 15 riders with only one passage, so the second passage could see the group whittled down even further. I was told on good authority that last year the then reigning world champion Thor Hushovd averaged 550 watts for five minutes to make the group over the top; he then went on to win the small group sprint after a three km decent. Expect a small group with the winner being a strong man rather than a pure climber.
Stage seven is 170km long from Barnstaple to Dartmouth along the notoriously heavy roads of Dartmoor. The fact that this is the penultimate stage, coupled with constantly undulating roads should make this one of the hardest days in this year’s Tour. Two short, kicking climbs could provide a great attacking opportunity for a stage win with the draining roads of Dartmoor likely to leave a depleted peloton at the finish.
After three stages for the strong men, the sprinters should get a chance for revenge in the eighth and final stage of this year’s Tour of Britain. The 147km from Reigate to Guildford on mostly flat road should give Mark Cavendish a chance to close the Tour of Britain in style. After the show London put on for the Olympics, expect big crowd to witness that bunch sprint into Guildford.