The UCI Road World Championships kicked off in Yorkshire on Sunday and the Great Britain team made it a perfect start to their home event, surpassing their own expectations to pick up the bronze medal in the team time trial mixed relay.
“We never anticipated getting a medal,” said Harry Tanfield, one of GB’s sextet. “We knew it could be close, but we knew teams like Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands were going to be super strong.” As Dan Bigham put it: “We had to ride absolutely out of our skin just to get close.”
They did just that. On the men’s leg, Tanfield, Dan Bigham, and John Archibald posted the second fastest time on the twisting, undulating 14km Harrogate circuit, while Anna Henderson, Lauren Dolan, and Joscelin Lowdon finished the job with a solid second leg.
“Everyone gave everything they had,” said Tanfield. “I really don’t think we could have given much more than what we did.”
In the end, the Netherlands stormed to victory, as they did in the inaugural running of the new TTT format at the European Championships last month, while the German women rescued their men to take the silver medal. Italy, however, stumbled, losing Elisa Longo Borghini to a puncture for nearly half their women’s lap and coming home just eight seconds down on the British time.
While no one shied away from the role lady luck played in hampering Italy’s strongest woman, there was also plenty to be said for that notion of home advantage.
“We reconned the course a lot, so we knew every inch of it,” said Henderson. “We just carried our speed through and, yeah, I think we made up a lot of time on the technical sections.”
Bigham pointed out the men’s trio had been selected six weeks ago, and the women’s trio a fortnight ago. With Henderson the only other rider with another race at these Worlds – until Archibald was called up to replace Geraint Thoams in the individual time trial – they had plenty of time to prepare.
“I think that was one of our strengths, knowing the inside of every single corner and how far you can really push it,” said Bigham. “We took a few of the corners too fast in training, which was a bit scary, but you learn your limits. Maybe it comes down to the crits in the Tour Series – we race enough in wet town centres, so it was just another one of them, right?”
Even if Tanfield felt he could have taken more risks - “I bottled it a little bit” - Bigham described his teammates cornering as 'outrageous', and the same adjective was applied to Henderson.
"Going back to the Tour Series, she has dominated those, so through that tight, technical, twisty stuff, where it’s really punchy, she came into her own. That was always the strategy - get Anna to the end as fresh as possible, and those last five or six minutes are hers to smash up."
Having been the fourth of the 11 teams to start, Britain stormed past Belgium and Spain into the hot-seat, where they remained practically until the conclusion of the event. When a rival team’s relative time would tick by and enter the red, there’d be high-fives, which turned to full-on celebrations when Italy came home and a medal was guaranteed.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever sweated so much in my life. I was shaking, I’d had so much caffeine as well,” said Henderson. “It was a great experience being up there on the hot-seat.”
The tension was never higher than when Longo Borghini punctured, opening that window of opportunity. Initially, her teammates rode on without her, but she grabbed a new bike and set about clawing her way back, eventually making contact again inside the final kilometre before doing most of the work up the final straight.
“It was outrageous to see her ride that back. It just shows her strength," Bigham said. "We knew they were quite heavily reliant on her, we knew she’s a good time triallist and she’s a reigning TTT champion from last year. There was always tension, it was nail-biting. We didn’t actually know, but the relative splits were coming from the car behind Borghini, so actually the Italians were quite a bit ahead, and actually they just died off in the back end.
“I think there’ll be loads of videos of our antics in the hotseat. It was good to enjoy it. My phone was going wild and the UCI were like ‘no phones on the podium’, so you have to be a bit careful. But we just enjoyed the moment, and lapped it up. You see your friends and family out in the crowd and, yeah, you just enjoy being there at a home World Championships.”
In contrast to the outright exuberance of Bigham, Tanfield looked out at the crowd with a more complicated web of emotions. The North Yorkshireman’s friends and family hadn’t had to travel far to support him but, crucially, one important person wasn’t present: his mother, who died at the end of August.
“For my family and stuff to come watch, and obviously to come away with a medal, it’s fantastic,” Tanfield said. “That’s why wanted to do this, so they can be proud of me.”