As the saying goes, when it rains, it pours. Racing Sunday’s Tour of Britain opener through a yellow weather warning in Aberdeenshire was always bound to mean trouble.
First, live TV coverage was delayed by the adverse weather for 90 minutes as powerful wind at the broadcast compound at the finish line meant a delay in erecting the necessary hoists.
During this hiatus in a downpour, the peloton briefly went off course on the outskirts of Inverurie, 25 kilometres into the 180km stage between Aberdeen and Glenshee Ski Centre. Although, like a tree falling in a forest, if there’s no TV coverage to show it, did it really happen?
“The organisers sent us the wrong way,” said Ineos Grenadiers rider Magnus Sheffield at the finish. “Fortunately, I was able to catch on as I’d just flatted on my front wheel. I was actually a bit happy I got to come back a bit easier.”
“It was only three or four hundred metres, but it was really funny. I was coming through the cars and it seemed like everyone looked super confused,” he said.
The delay was several minutes, with some riders taking the opportunity for a natural break before resuming on the right way to Glenshee Ski Centre, where Corbin Strong (Israel Premier Tech) outsprinted Omar Fraile (Ineos Grenadiers) to take victory.
Their respective teammates Michael Woods and Tom Pidcock are among the favourites in a competitive field, though there are noticeably fewer WorldTour squads at the UCI-rated 2.Pro race than in recent years.
Ten lined up in 2019; this year, there are five. Regular attendees Jumbo-Visma and QuickStep-Alpha Vinyl, who have provided past champions Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe, are notable absentees.
“There’s many, many multiple factors,” race director Mick Bennett told Cyclingnews at the start of stage 1 in Aberdeen. “The World Championships is within five days of the final day of this race.”
“Brexit hasn’t helped. The queues at Dover haven’t helped,” he added. Every team crossing onto British soil requires a stamped ATA Carnet, an international customs document permitting the temporary import of goods. It needs to be stamped before entering the country. Each visiting pro cycling team is obliged to list every item they are bringing and assign a value to it. Most teams come with approximately £40,000 worth of equipment.
Continental squad Team Qhubeka had an especially trying journey. After driving from their Italian base, their mechanics spent a whole day in Dover because their document was not stamped in Calais. “Big, big problems. It was a bit difficult to get here,” their directeur sportif Simone Antonini said.
Compounding the packed autumn racing schedule, as the race coincides with the Canadian WorldTour one-day races and the Vuelta a España, squads are also stretched especially thin due to COVID-19 positives for riders or staff.
“The WorldTour teams have got 24 cases at the Vuelta, so they can’t do quadruple programmes. That’s a question you’ve got to ask the UCI, but those are the main reasons,” Bennett said.
Nevertheless, the experienced organiser is looking forward to an exciting edition of the Tour of Britain. “I think the real decider will be [stage 4 to] Duncombe Park and Carlton Bank. That’ll be the sorting out,” Bennett said of this year’s course, referring to the hilly final 30 kilometres on that day.
“I think it’d be unusual for a team like Ineos or Israel, who’ve got strong riders in it, to dominate from day one. You’ve got to defend it for seven days.”
The final stage is on the Isle of Wight for the first time in race history, with a short transfer by ferry before an uphill finish on The Needles. It promises to be an exciting denouement and a logistical test.
“We’ve had many discussions about how we’re going to manage the Isle of Wight,” Bennett said. “To have a finish on the Needles on a road that’s one and a quarter metres wide for one and a half kilometres, where you can’t have team cars.”
The race for the overall went down to the wire last year, with Wout van Aert overhauling Ethan Hayter by winning the final stage into Aberdeen. “That would be fantastic, but I think and I hope it’ll be decided by then, which makes the race on the road easier for us,” Bennett said, smiling.
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