Cycling: A tale of one city for victorious O'Grady

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The Independent Online
AUSTRALIA'S Stuart O'Grady rode into Dickensian Rochester yesterday to win the seventh stage of the Prutour (Tour of Britain) and give himself great expectations of becoming the champion when the race finishes in Holborn today.

O'Grady was given the 105-mile stage victory in a photo finish beneath Rochester Council and takes a 46-second advantage over his Gan team-mate Chris Boardman, the former World and Olympic champion. Gan have dominated the 900-mile race that began in Stirling. Yesterday in hot sunshine on a difficult, undulating route through the home counties, the Gan team watched every move at the head of the peleton.

The only disappointment for the crowds was that the 38-year-old Sean Yates, the great Tour de France rider, who had accepted a late entry into the race, failed to turn up for yesterday's penultimate stage because he was attending a wedding. It was particularly hard on the many people who had turned out from his home town of Forest Gate, which was only four miles from a section of the course.

As the riders approached the Medway towns, the peleton was travelling at 40mph, making it inevitable that the last few yards would become a sprint finish. O'Grady crossed the line barely a tyre's width ahead of his Gan colleague, Magnus Backstedt. O'Grady said afterwards that he allowed the Swede to win, but the camera saw it differently.

O'Grady had taken the overall lead from the second stage earlier in the week and held it in an unrelenting grip. His all round ability allowed him not only to finish high on every other stage but to collect bonus points for his power in the special sprints held along the way. His lead over Boardman is such that today in London he is certain to become the first Prutour winner. Indeed he has assumed victory, saying: "The whole team have been winners - I was the lucky one."

Although the sponsors are happy enough, they would have been even more pleased had the competition for leadership not been so dominated by one team.

Through the winding, tight and leafy lanes of Surrey, Sussex and Kent, the Gan team submerged every attempt by other riders to get away yesterday. Huge crowds watched the race as it climbed Box Hill, and every village along the way was lined, though almost entirely with the curious rather than the dedicated. Nevertheless, on a day when the sun blazed and the wind was never more than fresh, it was almost possible to feel continental.

The bravest attempt to make a break on a stage that began and ended at a fierce pace but dawdled in the middle, was made by a Briton, Rob Reynolds- Jones, who escaped after 63 miles and held off the bunch for another 17. But his effort, like those of all the others who made endeavours to get away, was subsumed by O'Grady, Boardman and their Gan colleagues.

Twice along the route the peleton narrowly avoided being held up by the closing gates of level crossings. Both Reynolds-Jones and Glenn Holmes, of the England team, who at one point had a 45-second lead, could have done with seeing the gates come down behind them. But even luck favoured the Gan team, and everyone got through.

All week the race has drawn big crowds to the roadside, but as another attempt to recreate what stubbornly remains a foreign passion is merely re-emphasised that the only time road-racing attracts headlines is when something goes dreadfully wrong or goes amusingly awry.

The death of a police outrider on Thursday, when the stage was sympathetically annulled, and the sight of over 90 riders all going the wrong way when trying to find their way to Blackpool on Tuesday attracted more media attention than a week of well organised and good class racing. Even from the early days of the Milk Race, that has been cycling's burden.

For all of the crowds of enthusiasts and simply vaguely interested at the start and finish line and the valiant work to import a version of the sport that captivates mainland Europe - including the holding of Tour de France stages in Britain - the chances of anyone standing on the road as the race goes by and singing "Cycling's Coming Home" remain distant.