Read the thoughts of NFTO Pro Cycling DS Sean Yates on the Friends Life Tour of Britain and their chance of success with Adam Blythe in this feature interview.

ONE of the enduring joys of the Friends Life Tour of Britain is the annual chance for David to give Goliath a bloody nose, with one of the smaller domestic teams claiming a stage win over the might of the World Tour teams. This year there will be an all-time high of eight World Tour and five Pro Continental outfits for the emerging British squads to tackle but hope springs eternal. The underdog can still bite.

Witness the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey Classic last month when NFTO celebrated the biggest win their short history as Adam Blythe took off down The Mall and left a very select break including Ben Swift and Philippe Gilbert in his wake. A repeat of that is far from impossible in one of the eight stages that make up this year’s Friends Life Tour of Britain which starts in Liverpool on Sunday afternoon.

“No question we are definitely looking to get something out of The Tour,”
says Sean Yates, DS for the NFTO team, who needs no introduction to British cycle fans. “We have no GC rider as such – its a tough course and strong field this year the Tumble climb on Stage Three will ensure that it’s a proper GC fight and no unexpected winner- so we will be justified in concentrating purely on trying to bag a stage. We won’t be the only ones.”

“Adam is obviously key for us.  Stage One on that fast 13km circuit in Liverpool is definitely one we will be having a good look at it suits our team pretty well, I’m giving no secrets away there. Of course a certain Mr Mark Cavendish and his team might well be thinking along similar lines and Cav looked pretty much back to full fitness the other day in Germany so we know there will be a big challenge there. I’d like to see us take it on and give it a shot.

“Stage Two has got quite a lumpy finish in Llandudno, I’m not quite sure exactly how that will play out, but I still fancy that could end up as one for the quick guys so I want us on red alert that day.  Adam has found some really good form, he’s a class ride and we will be well psyched up for it. Stage Three with the Tumble climb is clearly a GC day and the following day on the Bristol Downs might be a bit too tough at the end for the sprinters as well but there will be other opportunities. Hemel Hempstead probably and London for sure. In a race like the Tour of Britain all sorts of scenarios play and this course looks designed to offer something to every sort of rider.”

NFTO’s kingpin Blythe is of course no stranger to the big time. After taking himself out of the GB system he served a tough apprenticeship with number of amateur Belgian teams before being snapped up by Omega Pharma Lotto where he rode for two years, a stint which he repeated at BMC Racing. Very much confined to team duties and with his opportunities limited, Blythe accepted an offer by NFTO owner John Wood to drop down a couple of levels and enjoy the thrill of racing to win again rather than just being a cog in a very big wheel.  It was a big and important decision for the Yorkshire rider.

Since returning to Britain Blythe has clocked up the Prudential Ride London-Surrey Classic, the National Circuit Race Championships, the Otley Grand Prix, the Pearl Izumi Jersey International Road Race and the Circuit of the Fens, plus victory in the Ipswich Coastal GP at the weekend, as well as a host of second places including the Jock Wadley.

“Adam’s win at RideLondon was huge for us and hand on heart not a total surprise,” admits Yates. His form had been building nicely and for a British team, apart from the Tour of Britain, RideLondon, is the next biggest race of the season for us. So we really went for it. It was important to lay down a marker. He was well pumped up for it and we were pretty sure it would come down to a sprint, albeit it might be from a smallish select group.

“It was a really hard-ridden race with just five riders left at the end and although I was confident Adam was the fastest sprinter left on a quick finish like The Mall he actually won it by going early and making that split. And he was able to do that because he was in really good shape generally, not because he was the quickest sprinter left. He rode a really clever race and put himself in the right place at the right time.  There were some tricky narrow roads out there and a lot of debris from the bad weather early that morning.

“Adam that day showed just how good he can be. In the past, and Adam will be the first to admit that perhaps he hasn’t always been the most serious rider with regards to his career, but he got it together big time on the day and showed everybody what a class rider he can be. He’s still only 24 which is no age for the sort of rider he is and there could be a lot more where that came from. Certainly from a team point of view we are hoping that there is still plenty in the tank for the ToB”

Rather like the NFTO team generally Blythe made a slowish start to the season which in retrospect was probably no bad thing for a team that wanted its marquee rider firing on all four in August and mid-September although in an ideal world NFTO, as one of the new teams on the British block, has wanted to hit the ground running and make an impact from the start.

“We had some good winter camps in Majorca and Australia and were really revved up for a big start but some of the races we had lined up for the lads didn’t materialise and we lost a bit of momentum,” explains Yates. “There was a lull and then we hit Tour of Reservoir which is one of the hardest races on the Premier Calendar and the guys were a little undercooked. We are not a climbing team and that race caught us with our pants down. We took a bit of a battering physically and mentally and it took us a while to get going again.

“We enjoyed a decent bit of success in the Tour Series where Jon Mould found some good form and more or less carried us along with three wins while Adam who chipped in with three second places from memory. Ever since then we have really started to hit our stride and touchwood we are enjoying a strong end of the season. In fairness we are also a very young team at the start and it always takes a time to gel at the start. That was a factor but you have also got to acknowledge is that some of the other teams were riding really well, especially Rapha. It’s been really competitive out there.

“Mould will be riding the Tour of Britain, largely in support of Blythe on sprint days, while the versatile Sam Harrison who is already a World Championship Silver and Bronze medal winner on the track with GB Team Pursuit squad is another who might figure, The team is completed by the reliable Dale Appleby and Hugh Wilson while James Lowsley-Williams possibly has the horse power to get in a break one day. 

“Sam Harrison is really strong and has got pedigree in my opinion but coming out of a track season he made a delayed start to the road season and then has a crash which messed him up a bit. But he showed me in the Beaumont that he is really strong and given the opportunity Sam is definitely a guy who can go along way in a breakaway and get a decent result. And he could be a good man to help with a sprint lead-out if it comes to that. If you can ride sub four minutes in a TP you have got a serious turn of speed on a bike and if you can transfer that across to the road you are ideal lead out material. The World Tour peloton has a number of riders of that ilk. But it takes time to adapt.

“Jon Mould had a fine Tour Series for us and now his aim must be to confirm that he is a bike rider capable of performing at a level quite a bit above that. If he has ambitions to ride at some stage at World Tour level he needs to learn all about riding demanding stage races and the Tour of Britain is a good testing ground in that respect. Jon needs to show that he can ride these longer races and be there at the finish. Clearly you have to be there at the death or you will have no chance. 

“In terms of sheer pace Adam is undoubtedly our quickest sprinter and Jon’s main role in the pure sprints will be leading out but Jon is a strong quick guy who certainly in the Tour Series showed an ability to burn people off his wheel with a sustained long effort. That is his forte if he gets an opportunity. With Sam and Jon we can put together a decent train at the sharp end but the finishes can get very hectic. I rather suspect it will boil down to a mad scramble to get Cav’s wheel. Whatever it will all be good experience though.”

Yates has been involved in the Tour of Britain in its many manifestations – Milk Race, Kellogg’s, PruTour and the Tour of Britain – for over thirty years and is amazed and excited where the event now is.

“I first rode the Milk Race in 1982 and over the 30 years the huge almost unbelievable difference, is the size of the crowds and the actual race organisation. There is no comparison and they are connected. The huge numbers of fans who now know their stuff means they almost police themselves in way and the great experience the Police escorts now plus the closed roads in the big finishes makes for a really well organised race.

“I know for a fact that the Continental lads get a buzz racing over now, they feel very appreciated and why wouldn’t you when you look at the support of events like the London 2012 Olympic races, the Tour de France Depart and the Tour of Britain every September.

“This will be the hardest fought Tour of Britain of the modern era and with all the extra live TV I have been reading about recently the 2014 is an important step up form even the recent past in my opinion. We are up to 20 teams and the strength in depth is the greatest we have ever seen but it is still only six man teams which makes the race very difficult to control given the road and the weather which sometimes comes into play.

“One of the big teams could still find it very difficult to defend the jersey should they take it after Stage Three if the guys in second and third or close by have no reason to help them close down the race and are working away for time bonuses. Once Stage Three is over and the time gaps appear all sorts of team like us will be looking for our chance to get in a break. I guarantee you one thing about this year’s Tour of Britain. Whoever takes the race will be a worthy and very tired winner.”