Brendan Gallagher’s last column looks at the Yorkshire Grand Depart, the non-selection of Sir Bradley Wiggins and the new Omnium rules on the track.

It’s exactly 40-years ago since the Tour de France first ventured onto British shores and a rather modest 15,000 crowd basked in perfect sunshine along the A38 Plympton by-pass which had been closed for the day to provide the rather unambitious venue for the up and down circuit route the TDF organisers had planned. Devon County Council had planned a magical mystery tour of Dartmoor but were over-ruled by the Tour organisers.

This weekend I will be amazed if less than 4 million spectators flock to roadside of the three stages, the two in Yorkshire and then the sprinters fest from Cambridge to London and the anticipated burn up down The Mall. The rise and rise of British cycling – as a sport and an industry – is a modern day marvel and seemingly impervious to the scandals that have surrounded the sport.

Customs officers delayed the riders and officials for two  hours at Exeter Airport that day with spot checks and the Tour, unsurprisingly, didn’t visit again for 20-years when Britain hosted two stages in Sussex and Hampshire. That went much better but the Eureka moment, not just for British cycling but modern day British sport, came in 2007 when London hosted the Depart.

July 2007 and Britain was still sceptical about the 2012 Olympics and licking its wounds from the bombings two years earlier which had caused a shudder just 24 hours after London had won the Olympic vote. Could we handle the crowds, the security and the terrorist threat? Could we host a major sporting event? Would the crowds come and support sports they didn’t yet fully understand and in which British interest was growing but still largely peripheral? All Valid questions.

Well come the day  – July 7 – of the 7.9km Prologue a minimum of 1-million spectators were on the route for a faultlessly  organised gala occasion and those spectators created scenes we have yet to see repeated on the opening day of the Tour. They made it their business to understand what was going on, cheered the British riders until they were hoarse and instantly ‘got’ that a Tour stage is also about kicking back, having a day out with friends and family and living in fantasy land for a few hours.

That was impressive but nothing prepared me for the monumental crowds on the route down to Canterbury the following day, without a doubt the biggest ever sporting gathering in Britain (estimated to be approaching  2million) and all, frankly, for an extremely routine stage that didn’t really get going until the sprint at the finish although David Millar did fly the flag and get in the doomed break.

Tour Director Christian Prudhomme said then that he wanted to get back to the UK asap and has been true to his word and the result could well be the best and toughest opening to the Tour in recent decades. Having proved its credentials as host and kept the faith during some dark days for the sport Britain is now being properly rewarded.

In an ordinary year Stage one  – Leeds Harrogate – would be considered tough enough with no guaranteed sprint finish but Stage Two (York-Sheffield) should be an absolute cracker, described by most of the teams as a Liege-Bastogne-Liege route which could even see some significant GC action. Stage Three is an out and out sprint, no question, and if ever we are to get the definitive picture of Mark Cavendish arms aloft along The Mall it has to be on Monday. And then it’s back onto Eurostar or the Dover ferry and back to France. I haven’t seen a Customs officer in five years – do they still exist? – so hopefully no delays this time.

Below – Holme Moss (which The Tour of Britain climbed in 2004-2006) features during the Stage Two route into Sheffield.

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FINAL thoughts on the Bradley Wiggins saga. I know the man well enough to happily acknowledge that he can be a fully paid up member of the awkward squad.  He can charm but he can also be prickly and occasionally appear ungrateful in public although actually in private I have always found him generous in praise of others including Chris Froome as it happens. Wiggins has always insisted he is no role model, he is far from perfect, and has proved that more than once!

 

Having said that he has been extremely hard done by over his non selection for this year’s Tour. Purely on this season’s form and his all-round ability to contribute on a very tough and mixed course he should have been the second or third name down on the Team Sky list behind Chris Froome and possibly Geraint Thomas. What other Sky rider this year boasts a range of form that includes a GC win at the Tour or California, a top ten Paris-Roubaix ride and a dismantling of two world class Time Trial riders in Thomas and Alex Dowsett at the British Nationals last week? Lack of form has had absolutely nothing to do with his non selection despite some disingenuous attempts to suggest it is

Apparently he can’t ride with Chris Froome? Well who knows, they have only ridden on the Tour de France one together in 2012 when they first and second. Since then Sky have kept them apart in any race that matters. Wiggins’ also can’t be trusted to ride support apparently.  In what way?  If we are talking trust wasn’t it Chris Froome who twice appeared to attack his team leader in 2012? Once on Toussaire when Wiggins had ridden hard to bridge an attack with Froome hanging on for dear life before he attacked his leader as he recovered, and then again on the final slopes of the final mountain stage. With the stage and race totally under control Froome ‘went’ again before retreating.

Actually Froome should have been allowed to forge ahead and challenge for the stage win that day, the Tour de France was done and dusted, but chose instead to almost mock his leader with his gesticulations and that theatrical slowing down and shows of exasperation. At the time he said he was trying to chivvy Wiggins along and I certainly bought that explanation but revisiting those pictures recently I found them uncomfortable viewing. He was trying to make some sort of point when he should have just got on with his extremely well paid job. Others, notably Riche Porte and Michael Rogers, had contributed more significantly to Wiggins’s title in 2012 in their support roles than Froome with much less ostentatious show. Study the 40-hours of 2012 TDF tapes and tell me I am not right.

It’s worth revisiting 2012 actually. A TT friendly TDF route in prospect, superb form in training and wins at Paris-Nice, Romandie and the Dauphine had clearly established Wiggins’ right to be the team leader, end of story.  Froome had started the season slowly in comparison although is form was clearly building nicely.  Wiggins was introduced to us as the race leader before the Tour yet mention was also made of Froome being Plan B following the previous two years when Sky had been caught without a back-up plan following Wiggins poor form in 2010 and crash in 2011.

That’s a tricky dynamic for the stated team leader to deal with, especially if he’s not totally in the loop. Have you got 100% support or not? One thing is certain, Wiggins’ needs weren’t considered paramount like Froome’s this year. Despite the mission statement of winning the Tour GC inside five years and the pressure Wiggins would have felt after two ‘failures’, Sky also decided to select the world’s greatest sprinter in Mark Cavendish who was hungry for a green jersey and stage wins and increasingly miffed at playing second fiddle. So Cav was selected and given Bernie Eisel as his personal domestique with the versatile Edvald Boasson Hagen was also pencilled in to help out.

Key mountain-train worker Kanstantsin Siutsou crashed out after couple of days and Sky were down to eight riders including those primarily there for the Sprints. To handle that situation, to still provide three lead outs for Boasson Hagen and Cavendish in the last eight days of racing and to over-rule DS Sean Yates and insist on riding for Cav at the Brive stage speaks, when push comes to shove, of a high levels of diplomacy and loyalty.  As does coping with a colleague who twice appeared. at the very least, willing to attack you at the precise moment when Wiggins had a right to expect his unambiguous  support  Factor in the daily interrogation from the world’s media about doping and wonder he occasionally blew his stack at press conferences.

Come his best selling book later in 2012 Wiggns wasted little time on the politics and tensions although they were referred to but Froome went into much more detail in his ghosted book which came out last month and unsurprisingly fanned the flames. Froome’s tome was also in stark contrast to his comments last December. “We’ve had a talk about things,” Froome told us training camp with Wiggins in Majorca in December “It was very constructive and we are in a good place now. It was important we did that and it was important for the team, too. To be honest we should have done it a very long time ago, just to clear the air, but we are on good terms now.”  

Anyway the greatest occasion in British road cycling history will now pass this weekend without any trace of the man – still in fine form and capable of contributing mightily –  who did more than any other to establish the popular support of the nation for the sport. It feels like Wiggins had been found guilty of disloyalty, incompatibility and an inability to work with his team in advance of any supporting evidence which is a new one.  Froome and Wiggins should and could be burying the hatchet as well as the opposition in one fell swoop in an effort to see Froome atop the podium again but for whatever reasons that opportunity has been lost. Both – at heart very decent individuals in their own ways – will come to regret that bitterly for the rest of their lives, let alone their riding careers.

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JUST when I was beginning to get the hang of the Omnium the UCI have devised a different socring system. The UCI – whose unofficial motto is surely Si in dubio, quod mutatum est (if in doubt change it) – are now going to flip the whole competition on its head and reverse the scoring system. Previously the winner of each of the six disciplines was awarded one point, second place two and onwards down the field and therefore the rider with the least points at the end of the entire competition will then be deemed the winner. Less is best

Seems simple enough although slighty counter-intuitive in a world where we are constantly taught that more is best. In the Grand Tours and big road races the winner of the points jersey is always the rider who has accumulated the most points so in many ways the Omnium is merely falling into line. From now on the winning rider in each discipline will receive 40 points for winning, 38 for coming second and so on which again seems simple enough although it strike me, admittedly no mathematician, that the potential for tied overall scores has suddenly just gone up

But there is a sting in the tail here. Not only is the points system being changed but the order of disciplines has been switched so that it now finishes with the Points Race an event which in itself those new to cycling have only just begun to get their heads around in recent years.

Now pay attention because this get complicated and frankly I might need some help.  What has been decreed now, and I quote from the UCI, is this: “Prior to the start of the Points Race, a current ranking with points totals shall be drawn up and riders will start the Points Race with those points accrued over the first five events. Riders shall add to, and lose points from, their points totals based on laps gained and lost and points won in Sprints during the Points Race. The final overall Omnium ranking shall evolve through the Points Race”

So hang on lets run through that again. The overall Omnium points you can earn from the Points Race are not dependent on where you actually finish in the race – 1st 40; 2nd 38; 3rd 36 on so on – it will be calculated on the separate elements of the race and the points you win there. Ie Five points for winning one of the sprints every ten laps, 20 points for gaining a lap. Wow, that’s a bit of a departure and is going to take some getting used to.

It feels like there is potential for some anomalies there. In many Points Races that ability to take a lap right at the end is the clincher and often results in you coming from seemingly nowhere to win the actual race, ie gaining a full 40 Ominum points. Here your reward might be rather less. Time will tell.

The other thought that immediately strikes you is that this running score on the scoreboard is heavily dependent on 1: The usually ultra-reliable Tissot timing and scoring systems not encountering a rare glitch and 2: the not so ultra-reliable electron scoreboards around the velodromes of the world not malfunctioning and going tech for even a few seconds. This could all go horribly wrong!

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Tune in to TheTour.co.uk later on this week for a very special feature by Brendan Gallagher about Lawrence of Arabia’s very own Tour de France…