The Tour of Britain came back to central London last weekend, and was once again given the profile and resources that a race of this calibre deserves. Last year had proved nothing short of an embarrassment for the organisers, whose first mistake was to shun the beauty and grandeur of central London for a rather grotty park in south-east London. Last year's opening stage, in Crystal Palace, had more of a feel of a school sports day than a professional cycling event – with no timing clocks on display, no big screens on which to follow the race and, perhaps unsurprisingly, hardly any spectators.
Bad then turned to worse a few days later, when a planning cock-up in the Pennines sent the race through an area that had not been closed off to traffic – forcing the organisers to order the competitors to stop racing until they were back on sealed-off roads. Coming just a couple of months after the Tour de France had started off in our capital, it felt like all the buzz around cycling last summer had been killed off in a single week.
But what a difference a year can make. Having seen Brit Mark Cavendish win a record four stages in this year's Tour de France, followed by incredible success for Great Britain's Olympic cyclists, cycling had begun to feel like the new national sport by the end of August.
And, thank heavens, the opening of this year's Tour of Britain lived up to its billing. Big screens along the river, loud music, live commentary and an excitable crowd all made for a great atmosphere. And while our hero Cavendish sadly decided to pick the Tour of Missouri over his home country's race, there were still plenty of big names in the pack – not least double Olympic gold medal winner Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas, also a winner of gold in Beijing.
Sadly, there weren't perhaps as many spectators at the event as there might have been. Last summer, when the Tour de France came to town, there was not an inch of safety rail without a spectator leaning over it. Although the start and finish line were pretty well populated at last weekend's Tour of Britain, much of the course attracted only a smattering of supporters.
Still, the British aren't necessarily going to fall in love with cycling overnight – and compared with last year, there must have been at least 20 times as many spectators.
Although this year's Tour will finish in the 2008 European City of Culture, Liverpool, on Sunday, the organisers have committed to ending the race in central London for the next three years. With a bit more promotion, and perhaps some better weather next time, I could see it becoming an institution.
This kind of event does wonders for encouraging people to get out on their bikes in Britain. It's great that it's now getting the backing and profile it deserves.Reuse content