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Women's Tour starts on a high as big crowds catch riders by surprise

Hannah Barnes leads next generation of British road racers after noise of spectators deceives Armitstead into attacking too soon

The ambition is to make the Women’s Tour the “biggest and best” race in the female calendar within three years. On the evidence of day one of this race through England that might prove a modest timescale. On Wednesday the riders, gathered from 21 countries, were visibly taken aback by the size of the crowds that waved them off from Oundle and welcomed them here into Northampton at the end of stage one some 60 miles later.

“It doesn’t need three years – I think it is already there,” said Hannah Barnes, the first Briton home in third place behind Sweden’s Emma Johansson and Marianne Vos, the Dutch pre-race favourite. “The crowds were amazing. I didn’t even recognise Northampton and I live five miles away. It was great.”

The London Olympics marked a sea-change for sports outside the mainstream in this country. Britons have always watched football and rugby in large numbers, but now it would seem the nation will watch any high-level sporting occasion in impressively buoyant numbers.

The Olympics have not got more people to take exercise  –  one trend that London 2012 looks unlikely to buck, though it has created a legacy of supporting more sport en masse, and it has impacted positively on women’s sport in particular. Australians are supposed to bet on two flies crawling up a pub wall; Britons would turn up in their thousands to watch them, especially if one of them was in red, white and blue.

“This is one of my most emotional moments in a life in sport,” said Tanni Grey-Thompson, who started the race. “London 2012 was brilliant but this is the real legacy of the Games. It’s about having events, inspiring people, and it shows what great support we have in this country.”

Even riders as experienced as Johansson and Vos were startled by the numbers, which matched the turn-outs for last year’s men’s Tour of Britain complete with Sir Bradley Wiggins and Co. The organisers of the women’s race, Sweetspot, also run that men’s event and estimate that it took four years for it to attract such crowds. This was year one, day one of the Women’s Tour.

The numbers lining the route into the finish even had an effect on the outcome of the stage. Lizzie Armitstead, who is expected to chase Johansson and Vos for the yellow jersey, thought the thickening crowd meant the finish was nearby and so launched her attack too early. She went with half a kilometre to go, uphill and into a headwind. Her effort was not sustainable and first Vos and then Johansson went past her. The Swede tucked in on Vos’s wheel and then edged past the Dutchwoman on the line. Armitstead finished in eighth, and will begin the second stage 10 seconds back.

“It was really special,” said Armitstead. “As a British rider you don’t get to experience this. I felt so proud to be British and so grateful to people for being there. We’re going to have to get used to the crowds. I started far too early basically. I knew that it was uphill with 500 metres to go. It was just simply a case of getting too excited.”

Johansson finished a disappointing sixth in the London 2012 road race but ensured better memories from her second ride in Britain, seizing on Armitstead’s error and then tracking Vos down over the closing metres.

“Lizzie got a bit too excited,” said Johansson, who  was even alarmed by the crowd support the peloton received. “It’s been crazy. I actually got a bit scared when they are shouting – we’re not used to it and you think maybe it’s a crash or something and it’s actually the crowd shouting you on.”

Barnes in third place collected a couple of jerseys, as the leading young rider and the leading Briton. The 21-year-old leads the next generation of British road racers, along with the former junior world champion Lucy Garner, who came home ninth at the head of a young Great Britain team.

While the likes of the flu-ridden Laura Trott and Dani King, placed 39th and 30th respectively in support of their Wiggle Honda team leader, Italy’s Giorgia Bronzini, prioritise the track, Barnes remains on the road even if  British Cycling, driven by Olympic medals, do not have a dedicated road programme for women.

The other Briton to feature on the podium was Sharon Laws, a rider at the other end of her career. A former mountain biker – a sport she took up while working in Africa – she switched to road racing six years ago at the age  of 33. Laws took the first Queen of the Mountains polka-dot jersey.

“It was fantastic,” she said. “I didn’t think we would see women’s cycling like this in Britain. It’s been amazing, all the people that were on the road supporting us, it is bigger than any race that I’ve been at including the Giro in Italy.”