Tour of Britain: Wiggins faces road test back on home soil

Trio of medal men look to build on the Beijing effect
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The Independent Online

Less than a month afterthe curtain fell on British cycling's medal-fest in Beijing, the eight-day Tour of Britain race gets underway today in central London.

But while cycling was bathed in gold and silver at the Olympics, back home in the UK road-racing remains very much the sport's poor relation. The Tour of Britain is the country's premier road-racing event, but lacks a title sponsor this year and has a meagre, if high-quality, field of 96 riders – just over half that of the Tour de France.

So who exactly raises his arms the highest on the winner's podium in Liverpool eight days from now is perhaps not the organisers' major concern. Far more important, surely, is that coming so close to the Olympics, the Tour of Britain's slot on the calendar could hardly be bettered in terms of publicity.

After years of chronic financial malnourishment and a lack of general media interest, cycling's profile in the UK has received a unprecedented boost thanks to the 14 medals secured in Beijing. This was in turn preceded by the Manxman Mark Cav-endish's stunning four stage victories in the Tour de France in July.

So the Tour of Britain represents a golden opportunity for British cycling to build on that run of success. "It's a good chance to bridge the gap in the public's mind between track racing, where the bulk of the medals in Beijing were won, and the road," observes the former Tour de France leader and stage winner David Millar, who will be leading the US-backed Garmin-Chipotle squad in the event.

"There's a great field this year, and the race goes all over England and Scotland. After Beijing, it can act as a showcase event for the road-racing side of the sport, and hopefully profit from the massive interest that Olym-pic success has generated."

Assisting that process of cross-fertilisation will be the presence of three Team GB cycling medallists among the 96 riders and 16 teams lining up on Victoria Embankment early this afternoon for the first stage.

The Londoner Bradley Wiggins, who took gold in the team and individual pursuit events, will be racing on home soil for his Columbia squad, alongside Kim Kirchen, the 2008 Tour leader, and the double Tour of Britain stage winner Roger Hammond. The Welshman Geraint Thomas, who earned gold in the team pursuit in Beijing, is part of the South African Barloworld squad, while the Middlesborough veteran Chris Newton, who took bronze in the points race, leads the Rapha outfit.

Other favourites include Russell Downing from Yorkshire, whose second place in the Tour of Ireland in late August showed he can hold his own against the bigger-budget, foreign-based squads.

Ever cautious, Downing's stated pre-race objective is simply stage wins. But as Millar points out, virtually any of the eight days'racing could be decisive overall.

"A break could go on any one of the stages, and the rest of the field maybe won't have the collective strength to pull it back," he says.

The Tour's route director, Graham Jones, says: "It's going to be very unpredictable. We're counting on stage three [from Chard to Burnham-on-Sea], which goes over some tough climbs in the South-west, to start the real whittling-down process overall.

"Stage five [which runs from Kingston upon Hull to Dalby Forest in the North York Moors National Park] could be the most decisive, though."

A former professional with the prestigious Peugeot team, Jones has kept his finger firmly on the pulse of what can keep the event in the public eye for as long as possible.

"Not having a time trial this year will keep the tension going for longer," he says. "We're constantly on the move, covering more scenic spots, as a result of that too.

"And with six-man teams it will be harder for the leader's squad to keep things under control. That should make it moreexciting and maintain the public's interest."

But for the long-term future of the race – and road-racing in Britain – it is maintaining the interest generated by Beijing that truly matters.