The second part of Brendan Gallagher’s interview with Tour Race Director Mick Bennett, talking about the evolution of the modern Tour of Britain.

If you missed Part One of Brendan's interview with Mick, you can find it here.

IT must have been a tardy 7am before I ventured down to The Tour of Britain Depart in Peebles this year but with the icy rain sluicing from the skies and a force seven storm blowing there was little inclination to climb out of my car. Instead I turned the heating up and settled down to read the Sunday papers purchased at the petrol station around the corner and featuring a picture of Mark Cavendish riding down this very road in blissful sunshine just the afternoon before. The irony.

Suddenly my eye was caught by a bustling, almost Napoleonic, figure marching up and down the road issuing orders and making optimist chalk marks on the sodden tarmac. Tour of Britain Race Director Mick Bennett had been onto the Met Office and the weather was going to get better. No seriously, it was. The race was on

Making the race happen, against all the odds, is what Mick Bennett does and has been doing for ten years now. Logistically The Tour of Britain, an eight day stage race in a country that historically is no friend of such dodgy ‘continental’ antics on the road is a massive undertaking and that before you factor in the delights of an early British autumn. Only once has he lost a day's racing, that was when a cyclone hit Blackpool a few years back and the sight of a set a set of traffic lights being ripped out of their concrete foundations and bodily blown down the Golden Mile suggested it was time to beat a discreet retreat.

"Days like that start at Peebles or the Blackpool cyclone – it was remnants of Hurricane Katia if memory serves – don't phase me at all. Perhaps they should, perhaps I’m a bit odd. It's all about teamwork and that takes me back to my old Team Pursuiting days when the only time that counts is the third man through the line. An organisation is only as strong as its troopers in the field and at all times the most important factor is the morale of the 5-600 people I am in charge of on any given Tour of Britain day. If their morale is good it will happen. I always treat the crew like myself. Same hotel, same food, same working hours, same communal goal.


Above – Remnants of Hurricane Katia in 2011 led to an improtu return to the Blackpool Tower ballroom for Mark Cavendish

"So whatever the Gods throw at us I try and stay calm and positive. My wife is a great advocate of that book "The Secret", I think it might be a film as well. I've neither read the book nor seen the film but she says it’s all about positive people attracting like-minded individuals, good things happening to those who wish them, order coming out of chaos if you consciously decide to visualise order not chaos. That sounds about right to me. I don't get stressed no matter what. The worst can happen is that you get very wet and cold and have to cancel a stage. Actually the worst that can happen is that a rider or spectator gets badly hurt and that is what always guides our decisions first and foremost.

"On those dirty mornings, in fact any morning on The Tour, I take an almost perverse pleasure being the first down to the start at 4.30am at the head of the crew. When we all leave the hotel in the dark in a convoy of 30-40 lorries and cars, lights ablaze, it’s a great feeling no matter what the weather is doing, stormy or fine. It's like leading your troops into battle.

"That day we lost the stage into Blackpool was both the worst and one of the best days in our ten year history. It was simply too dangerous to race, especially towards the finish but the way the team handled the situation, dealt with the Police and local authorities and the co-operation of the teams and way Mark Cavendish rallied around and drove the whole route, waved to the fans and signed autographs and presented signed jersey to dignitaries was memorable in its own way. It sums us up really."


Above – Mick Bennett with Mark Cavendish at the London stage of the 2013 Tour, a man who has become synonymous with the modern Tour of Britain

That Bennett ended up as The Tour's ringmaster is happy chance really after a shocking car crash in France ended his racing career in the mid-‘80s. He was two years getting back into some sort of health although chronic sciatica is still a legacy of that awful day. His bike shop kept him busy for a couple of years but then he teamed up with Alan Rushton as an event manager with a young Pat McQuaid also joining the party on occasions.

"We staged all sorts. Nissan Classic, Kellogg’s Tour, UCI World Cup events in Leeds, the 2000 World Track Championships in Manchester, the Tour of Langkawi in Malaysia and the Tour of the Philippines. Actually the latter is possibly the most rewarding thing I have ever done. A million people on the road some days and the winners became Peso millionaires so the race changed their lives overnight. A remarkable country, rarely do you see so much wealth co-habiting so closely with real poverty. Hugely corrupt in parts but a lovely long suffering people."

Bennett's reputation as "can-do man" started to precede him and in 2000 he was called to interview for the job of Cycling Development manager for London Transport where he suggested that staging the Tour De France Depart would be the best way of promoting cycling in the capital. He didn't get the job but Board Chairman Mick Hickford remembered him two years later when Mayor Ken Livingstone started thinking along the same lines. Secret meetings were convened, flow diagrams and maps consulted and Bennett tasked with putting an ultimately successful bid together.

"Looking back it was a bold move by London and very much a case of right place right time for ASO and Christian Prudhomme, who was starting his first year as the Race Director. Ever since that day I have heard hundreds of cycling folk say that the London Depart was probably the best in Tour de France history. London and the South East certainly put its best foot forward that weekend and it went off brilliantly."

The London Depart was a huge stepping stone in terms of national confidence heading towards London 2012. Back in 2007 many – the majority possibly – were still nervous about Britain's ability to pull it off even though the bid had been won in fine style. Would the security issues be too much too handle bearing the tragic events of just two years earlier in the London bombings? Would the crowds come out for sports they barely understood? Would the infrastructure and marshalling be up to it? The Depart weekend answered all those questions in one fell swoop.


Above – Mick and the SweetSpot team during the 2007 Grand Depart in London

It was soon after masterminding the original 2007 bid, in the spring of 2004 to be precise, that Bennett was approached by Hugh Roberts who had the notion of re-starting The Tour of Britain. "I remember his opening gambit to this day," recalls Bennett. 'Hi Mick, Hugh Roberts here. I’ve been given your number, we ought to resurrect The Tour of Britain. I will get the money together, you organise it. Do you think you can do it and do you think we can do it by early September this year?’

"The answers were yes and err maybe! I was on board straight away though, what a challenge, just what cycling in this country needed. But we only had four months starting from scratch to pull it off. By a combination of good fortune and good planning we immediately struck on the only commercial and logistical model which I believe is workable for a Tour of Britain and that is to forge great working relationships with a family of sponsors and a network of Regional Development Agencies and County Councils. It’s the model the Tour de France has always adopted which gives the sporting world its biggest annual spectacle and is a template that fits us well on a smaller scale.

"The issue with a huge single event sponsor, that's even assuming you can find them in testing times, is that if they lose interest or their economic situation calls for cuts down the line the entire event can go up in smoke as, historically, various Tour of Britain’s discovered. This way you at least you have a chance of riding through economic dips.

"We were still up against in those early years though. Initially the Regional Authorities and Tourist Boards had to be cajoled a little before they realised what was on offer and came on board fully. The stampede soon started and we were inundated which remains the case today. There are few better ways of promoting your region and one of the great benefits for us is that have such resources and manpower at their disposal and are the very people who can make things happen en route. I also contacted my old contacts from the Kellogg’s and PruTour to get some of the venues booked. As ever life is often about the people you know and who you have hopefully done a half decent job in the past. If you don't burn your bridges, if you are decent and honest with your dealing with people, it often comes back full circle in your favour.

"The timing was basically good, vycling was starting to happen in this country and Hugh had picked up on that but frankly it was still a big ask that first year. We had no national escort team to call on – the police outriders to control the race bubble – it had been closed down a few years earlier so we painstakingly had to contact every single police authority through which we passed and ask them to provide, for a fee obviously because the tax payer foots their wages. Happily soon after the escort group was resurrected and it was a good deal simpler to hire a very skilled and expertly trained band of guys for the duration.

"We also set out to make it rider friendly. September is the getting towards the end of a long season and the weather can be dodgy – it can also be wonderful as well I might add. Anyway early on we set out to put teams in decent hotels with a bit of comfort and to organised early starts so we can finish mid-afternoon and the 'circus' can move on in good time. We've come a long way in ten years, from a five day stage race to eight, from 2.3 UCI category to 2:1 although I think just about everybody accepts we should have HC status. We've developed from modest crowds to huge Tour de France type days. We've introduced a time-trial and even had out first 'mountain top' finish on Dartmoor this year.


"Lots of great memories but I think my favourite was Cav win the last stage of the 2012 Tour up the cobbles of Guildford High Street [Above]. That was a tough Tour and a pretty demanding final stage and I remember him asking me that morning was it a sprint day. I said if you are in touch over the final climb 20km odd out or even just a minute behind it would be a sprint. Cav can climb when he needs to on those kind of stages and what a rider when he is in full cry. He was unstoppable that afternoon and the sight of him roaring towards the line in his World Champions jersey with all the crowds packed close to the road will say with me. I think I'm right in saying it was his last day racing in the rainbow jersey and you could sense he wanted to make it special.


Above – Tom Boonen wins the final stage on The Mall in 2006, ahead of Roger Hammond and Mark Cavendish

"From a Race Director's viewpoint it was pretty special getting The Mall closed for the first time in 2006. Tom Boonen, Roger Hammond and a young Cav was a pretty useful podium that day looking back. In terms of spectacle those big-crowd days down in Devon have been remarkable with the Haytor finish this year possibly my favourite while the Caerphilly mountain stage is becoming something of an institution. As I alluded to earlier that day in Blackpool, when we had to cancel but achieved it an orderly fashion without any dramas, is also a source of pride."

And what of the future? Earlier this year The Tour of Britain organisers SweetSpot, had to tender to British Cycling for the right to stage the race for the next five years and fought off the challenge of a number of interested parties including ASO who own and run the Tour de France. That was a victory in itself but now the challenge is to expand the race during that period and achieve that elusive HC status, given to only a handful of events worldwide. 

If you missed Part One of Brendan's interview with Mick, you can find it here.