After the brilliant show London put on for the Tour de France this summer, I was quite excited when I got an invite to go and watch the time-trial of the Tour of Britain with its sponsors, Eon, a couple of weeks ago. The prologue was held in Crystal Palace Park (nice and convenient for me as a south Londoner), and I expected to find a massive crowd and a great atmosphere there to encourage the riders on.
When I made it down to the park, however, I soon realised that this was not quite the miniature version of the Tour de France I'd thought it might be. In fact, there was a mere spattering of people around the 1.5-mile course, and although I was lucky enough to be invited into the hospitality tent just near the finish line, it was still almost impossible to work out what was going on, even from this prime vantage-point.
For a start, there wasn't even a timing clock above the finishing line – or anywhere else, from what I could see. I pondered whether the whole race might be being timed on someone's Casio wristwatch or mobile phone.
Even good old Phil Liggett, the veteran cycling commentator, who turned out to provide live commentary on the event, seemed to be finding it pretty hard to keep on top of things. When Robbie Hunter crossed the line – he was one of the very few names I'd heard of in the race – Phil announced it was someone else entirely, only correcting himself a few minutes later. He was also having trouble with the timekeeping, usually having to wait several minutes before he could confirm anyone's time or position.
The other real letdown was the lack of any kind of big screen to show you what was going on. Watching live cycling can be pretty unrewarding. If you're watching a regular stage, the experience tends to last no longer than a few seconds as the pack blasts past you. Even when watching time trials, you only see one rider shoot by every minute.
When the Tour de France came to town, however, there were no fewer than 28 big screens around the course, allowing spectators to keep up with everything that was going on, no matter where they were standing. Sure, it was a much bigger event, but couldn't the Tour of Britain organisers have at least stretched to a couple of screens for the start and finish lines?
Nevertheless, in spite of the rather underwhelming nature of the British event – and all its flaws – I still felt the promoters had missed a trick. I'm not sure if I would even have been aware that the event was taking place at all had I not received an invite – and I write about cycling for a living. I saw no adverts or promotions, yet I'm sure that, with a bit of effort, they could have drawn quite a big crowd in the very year that the Tour de France came to our shores.
I'm not sure what attendances were like around the rest of the country, although I read that the race descended into farce on Thursday, when a row between the organisers and North Yorkshire County Council meant that not all the roads had been closed off on stage four from Rotherham to Bradford. As a result, all the riders were forced to stop racing for a 24-mile stretch in the middle of the stage. What a joke.
As if cycling hadn't already built up a bad enough name for itself after the drug and doping scandals of the past few years, our home event has now become a laughing stock as well.
At one point Fabio Cancellara, who so brilliantly won the opening time trial of the Tour de France in London in July, was due to race in the event. However, he eventually decided to snub our tour for the Tour of Poland. When I first heard the news, I was outraged. But after the events of the past week, I can quite understand his decision.