After a busy year with the launch of the Friends Life Women’s Tour and a hugely successful Friends Life Tour of Britain, Brendan Gallagher sat down with Race Director Mick Bennett to get his look back on 2014.

A “best-ever” Friends Life Tour of Britain, a triumphant inaugural Women’s Tour under the same blue-chip sponsorship, a bigger than ever Pearl Izumi Tour Series and spectacular Prudential RideLondon-Surrey Classic would seem to present a pretty impressive palmares for a season, but Mick Bennett – the Race Director of all four – won’t be resting on his laurels going into 2015. To stand still in sport is to go backwards and Bennett – and his team at SweetSpot – have spent much of the late autumn digesting the lessons of a tumultuous and mould breaking year.

For the first time the Friends Life Tour of Britain had been afforded HC category by the UCI but with that extra kudos came a very clear message from British Cycling that they wanted to see the event grow and develop even further. So the pressure was on. Ditto with the first ever Friends Life Women’s Tour which started from the premise of delivering a race for the ladies with exactly the same standards and logistical back-up as afforded to the men every year. That might sound simple and fair enough but represented a massive step forward for women’s cycling and was not easily achieved

Meanwhile the Pearl Izumi Tour Series remains an important cog in the domestic wheel, a focus for British teams in May and June, while the Prudential is still in its early days, the one day ‘legacy race’ from the London 2012 Olympics. All in all a busy year.  Four events that pretty much make or break the British season.
The flagship event undoubtedly remains the Friends Life Tour of Britain which was being raced for the eleventh time in its current format and was by common consent – riders, team managers, press and media – the best yet in all sorts of ways.  Blessed with sumptuous late summer weather and a hugely competitive field in which all the big-hitters flexed their muscles on occasions it was a furiously ridden eight day race that boasted six different race leaders at various time.

Rather wonderfully it was a relative unknown – Holland’s Dylan van Baarle of Garmin Sharp – who rode the race of his life to pip Michal Kwiatkowski and Sir Bradley Wiggins atop of a high quality winner podium. That was a result which reinforced the idea that the Friends Life Tour of Britain was an unpredictable race in which the smaller teams and lesser known individuals can enjoy their day against the biggest names in the sport.

“Looking back three months later my main memory still is of the vast crowds and how they seem to propel the race as it becomes bigger and bigger,” says Bennett. “At the Tour of Britain we have been ideally positioned to physically see British cycling grow from the ‘comeback’ Tour in 2004 to what we are now witnessing year on year. It never ceases to amaze me.

“Going into the race, our first with HC status, I suppose my one slight fear was that the increased number of World Tour teams might result in stages becoming more controlled but that never remotely happened.

“The key in my opinion remains the six man team format.  When you have got a really tough course – and that 2014 route was certainly that – it’s difficult for six man teams to take control especially if some riders are perhaps tired towards the end of the season and/or the big teams aren’t willing to work with each other. 

“The net result was full on racing every day with the smaller teams able to shine early in the stage and then a mad scrap between the big boys at the end. It made for a great spectacle and I have lost track of the number of riders and Director Sportifs who have told me this year’s ToB was their hardest ridden stage race of the year. Our proximity to the World Championships doesn’t do any harm. If you want some exceptionally hard miles in your legs and don’t want to commit to a three week Vuelta the Tour of Britain is now a very good option indeed.

“There was quality everywhere and most of the bigger names really put some shifts and showed fantastic form in this year’s race.   A week after ToB Bradley Wiggins finally won that World Time-Trial championship which had eluded him and a few days later Michel Kwiatkowski took the World Road Race Championship itself with a great ride.

“And then in October Matthias Brandle posted a new Hour world record. Between them those three riders won four of our nine stages so the 2014 Tour was distinguished by some very high quality stars operating at the top of their game. And yet sneaking in on the blindside was Dylan van Baarle for the biggest win of his career. I love it that our race can offer something up for everybody.

“Looking ahead we have pretty much signposted that in 2015 the route will be largely based in the North of Great Britain as we fulfil our promise to move it around. There is some construction work going on in central London next September so the circuit on the final day will definitely be altered a little while I am very keen at some stage soon to get a team time-trial included in the first two or three days although nothing has been finalised. 

“We are loving our ‘mountain top finishes’ and are currently scouting out a location for 2015.  It’s quite difficult logistically to stage them but they have really added to the Tour and we are aiming for one a year if possible.

“The feed-back was very good from the teams. They continue to enjoy the short transfers and good quality hotels and the TV and media coverage this year was off the scale and delighted their sponsors and backers. We had three hours live TV every day in Britain and packages sent right around the world.”

The Friends Life Women’s Tour meanwhile also attracted considerable interest, both for its novelty but also the sheer quality of rider involved. Originally the brainchild of Guy Elliott, the pledge was to give the women an event comparable to the men, it was an entirely new challenge and not without its difficulties.  TV immediately expressed and interest and ultimately there was a clamour among the top teams and riders to compete and Friends Life were also won over and pledged their support. Indeed they enjoyed their involvement so much they extended it to the men’s Tour of Britain later in the year!

Fittingly multi Olympic and World champion Marianne Vos took the honours in the Women’s Tour, beating Sweden’s Emma Johansson into second of the place with Rosella Ratto in third place. Vos expressed a keen interest in the race from the moment it was announced and the Dutch superstar was one of the big names who helped draw big crowd to the event.

“To be frank we were blown away with the success and still are,” admits Bennett. “It was a gap in the calendar that badly needed filling and despite some pretty ropey weather in the first few days the crowds came out and the racing was very entertaining.

“There was a lovely atmosphere about the race which was entirely spontaneous. I can’t think of a more enjoyable day in recent years than the start in Oundle on that first day, it had the feel of an adventure and something very worthwhile. You could feel the support for and appreciation of the riders and I can only thank those local authorities which showed such strong support for the Women’s Tour from the off.

“There are a few challenges in staging the race, one being the big difference between the world class stars at the front end and one or two of the less experienced riders at the back. The gap in time and distance can be considerable, so that presents a few peloton and traffic control issues but luckily we have developed such and experienced core of police bike riders now that we can cope.

“We will be continuing with the format of basing the five days racing in one fairly central location to keep travelling and transfers downs and the only really significant change I would hope for is that the UCI let us plan one or two longer stages to shake the racing up a little.

“We are deadly serious about our pledge in making the race the best women’s stage rage in the world inside three years and I believe we are on target to do that by 2016.  For next year we will be moving the dates to June 17-21, which will avoid any possible clash with the new Tour de Yorkshire event and to give us a slightly better chance of better weather although in cycling it doesn’t do to try and second guess the weather. You get what you get!

“The response was overwhelming at the time and continues in that vein.  As I sit here towards the end of December, 15 top teams have already been in contact seeking invites, that’s before any of the details of the race have really been confirmed and we have thought about who needs to be invited.

“And then just last month we were asked over to the UCI to make a presentation as to how we put the Women’s Tour together and how it became such a big success from the off. They were very supportive and I don’t think it would be overstating the case to say they see the Women’s Tour as possible template for similar events around the world as women’s cycling looks to go to the next level. It’s an exciting time but we must continue to keep our eyes on the ball.” 

The Pearl Izumi Tour Series was introduced in 2009 as a series of town centre races  – one hour plus five laps – to cater for the domestic teams in a very special format based first and foremost on the team although there are individual winners each evening.  The positions of a team’s top three riders are used to determine the victorious team in each round with the squad with the fewest points winning.  In addition there is a sprint competition with three sprints in every race for the quick men if they want to contest them. This year John Herety’s Rapha Condor JLT took the team title while Jon Mould from NFTO took the overall sprint title.

NFTO enjoyed considerable success during this middle part of the season and it was another one of their quick men, Adam Blythe, who took line honours in Prudential RideLondon going for a long one down The Mall and getting the better of Ben Swift and Julian Alaphilippe with former world champion Philippe Gibert in fourth place.

“Again we were really pleased with how the Tour Series went off this year, it gives a real focus for the British trade teams and the important thing is that it retains its unique city centre atmosphere. It’s a very different event, not really that closely related to other road racing event, and we quite like it that way. We like the Tuesday night, Thursday night format rolling through May and June. It’s got a feel of its own.  

“The Tour Series was a really strong event this summer and the most important thing for me is that we always retain its town centre atmosphere and cache. This is an event that spectators can either hang on from work or just park up in town and make an evening of it. There is some really good racing and action to enjoy and it’s very accessible.

“We had a debrief with them recently to get their feedback. We are considering some of their suggestions and we might tinker a little with the scoring system but nothing has been decided yet. Watch this space.

“For me the sight of young 17-year-old Great Britain rider Matt Gibson (right) attacking on the last lap to solo a win at Peterborough was the highlight of the Series and one of my best memories from the entire season. That alone would make the series worthwhile, just giving a young athlete like a chance to shine and make a name for himself. 

“This coming year is looking very promising and there is every indication that our usual loyal teams will be joined by a ‘Team Wiggo’ line-up and One Pro the new team being supported by England cricket star and cycling fan Matt Prior, They will both be very welcome. One way or another 2015 is going to be some season.”

With the move of the Friends Life Women’s Tour to mid-June (17-21) first up will be the ten events of the Pearl Izumi Tour Series, once again including the women’s Matrix Fitness GP Series, starting off on Tuesday 12 May running through until Thursday 11 June.

Less than a week later and the five days of the 2015 Friends Life Women’s Tour will kick off, before the Prudential RideLondon weekend over 1-2 August building up to the Friends Life Tour of Britain from 6-13 September.  Add in the Friends Life Tour Ride sportive on Sunday 4 October and it’s another pretty full calendar to look forward to!