Cycling: Britain finds a real wheeler-dealer

Alan Rushton is a man driven by his mission to put cycle racing back on the country's map. Andrew Longmore spoke to him
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The Independent Online
YOU would need more than a penny to unscramble the thoughts of Alan Rushton at present. Pull the lever and a whole flurry of problems tumble down. There is the absent deposit of one of the race teams, the race doctor who has decided to quit, the road signage which is still in production when really it should have been ready by now, and the Russian rider short of a visa. Oh, and if anybody knows of a couple of drivers free for 10 days, experience of driving in a cycle race convoy essential. And if the phone rings, it will be one of the officials complaining about the leg measurement on his new M & S suit. No wonder, Britain's Mr Cycling mops his brow and takes a deep swig of a glass of cold milk.

By the time the Tour de France juggernaut rolls away from Ireland in mid-July, Rushton will have organised four major bike races on two continents in six months, stopped more traffic in more cities than the Carabinieri and shifted more supplies across wider terrain than the Desert Rats.

In February, it was the Tour of Malaysia, the fourth biggest race in the world, last week the Tour of the Philippines and, on Saturday, a project closest to his heart, the start of the PruTour which marks the return of a big stage race to this island after the demise of the Milk Race and the Kelloggs Tour.

July sees the small matter of the Tour de France in Ireland, the long- awaited encore to the spectacular pageantry of those hazy, crazy days in the summer of 1994 when, in defiance of French pessimism, two million people turned out to fete the passage of the Tour through the south.

While we recall the camaraderie and the street parties, Rushton has a vision of eight pantechnicon lorries, piled high with the Tour gear, stuck halfway up the hill to Dover Castle in the early hours of a summer morning. No way forward, no way back and no English spoken. "The castle was designed to keep the French out, and it did," Rushton says. The entente cordiale narrowly survived a hectic retreat.

The PruTour, which begins in Stirling on Saturday and ends nine days later with a 50-mile dash into the centre of London, is not on the same logistical scale. There is no need to alter the air-traffic control frequencies for this one. But when the 108-strong field set off for a prologue, eight stages and 825 miles, the significance will not be lost on Rushton, who has laboured long and hard to develop a continental culture of cycle racing in the land of the motor car. The Tour de France proved a mirage as sponsorship budgets were hit by recession and the sport dissolved into political chaos.

"Personally, it was a pretty shattering time," Rushton recalled. "My company lost staff, we had a very public row with the Cycling Federation and at the same time we were trying to attract new sponsors." This dawn looks brighter than the others. Prudential are committed for four years, time enough for Rushton to establish the event in the national sporting consciousness and find a niche in the international cycling calendar. "This is a heaven-sent opportunity for us to push this thing over the hill and start rolling down the other side. That means developing an understanding of top quality cycle racing and encouraging more bicycle usage in the country."

First things first. Rushton has to negotiate 108 riders, 600 extras, 100 cars, a troupe of jugglers and a convoy of trucks through a rolling programme of road closures the length of Britain. New traffic calming measures in many villages and towns have made progress more difficult than four years ago. Courting popularity has never been one of Rushton's aims, which is just as well given the sure grumbles of the disrupted shoppers of middle England. His attitude may be too cavalier for some, but his expertise is not in doubt.

"A few people might think they could organise a race of this size," one leading official said. "But Alan is the only one who can actually do it." It takes cash and clout to attract top professional teams like Gan, led by Chris Boardman, Festina and US Postal to a new race. Last week Mobilvetta, an Italian team, joined the field, which includes a number of national teams preparing for the Commonwealth Games. It takes a rare gift to attract a team from all home countries - and Great Britain.

"A bike race is like no other sporting event," Rushton adds. "It's a living, breathing organism and it has good days and bad days. It's just a matter of learning every day and working on the things which went wrong. I don't panic because events run to a pattern. Once the race has started, it's a very comfortable feeling. But right now with a week to go it's a very stressful time, very tough on all the people involved." Curiously enough, his next meeting was with the sponsors on the touchy subject of "crisis management".