Saddle Up For The Battle Of Britain

It may lack punishing Alpine climbs, but when the UK's top bike race starts next week some of the world's best riders will be flashing past a town near you. Robin Barton heads north for a preview of Stage One
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

For the second time in its three-year-old revival, the six-day, six-stage Tour of Britain starts in Scotland, where 16 teams of six riders will line up in Glasgow Green on 29 August and pedal 115 miles south to the town of Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway.

Looking at the map the night before, the route did not appear especially arduous: the Tour of Britain cannot match the Tours of Spain, France or Italy for mountain climbs or heart-stopping distances in withering heat. So I wasn't worried about previewing the stage by bicycle, until I discovered my companions would include Tony Doyle, the event's organiser and twice world pursuit champion; and the Scottish track star Chris Hoy, a five-time world champion, Olympic champion and twice Com-monwealth champion. Pass the EPO, waiter!

Although the racers setting off from Glasgow Green may not appreciate it, they will be riding through a landscape rich in cycling history. A few miles from the finish line in Castle Douglas, Drumlanrig Castle's Museum of Cycling exhibits the world's first pedal-powered bicycle. It was designed by Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a blacksmith at the castle, in 1840, and he used the wooden contraption to travel the 15 miles - over unpaved tracks - to Dumfries. Once, so the story goes, he pedalled it all the way to Glasgow, where he was fined for colliding with a pedestrian.

Like Macmillan, the 96 racers this year will be glad to get out of Glasgow. The city has some stunning new buildings, such as the Glasgow Science Centre and the SECC (Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, better known as "The Armadillo"), but the route the race takes through the outskirts of southern Glasgow holds few charms.

Despite the less-than-scenic start, Doyle is bullish about the Tour. "The UK's largest spectator event [close to one million are expected] comes to your doorstep, passing houses, schools and workplaces," says the event director. "It's an inspiration for those involved in all sports." Hoy also believes the Tour will encourage children to take up the sport, despite the recent drug scandals. "The Tour of Britain is great for the sport," he says, "because it brings people out on the route who may never have seen a bike race, either on television or first hand.

"You don't appreciate the event until you see it live. Seeing the cavalcade can capture the imagination of kids and inspire them to ride competitively."

As our four-strong peloton rides out of Glasgow, Doyle reminds me that the build-up to this Tour includes a mini-festival of cycling in Glasgow during the preceding days. Next Sunday the Pedal for Scotland charity ride starts from Glasgow and finishes in Edinburgh, 47 miles away; family entries are welcome. The following day, it is serious cyclists only for the Glasgow Grand Prix, a city-centre criterium (a race held over a short course, usually on closed-off city streets).

There are some big names in this year's Tour of Britain. "The Quickstep-Innergetic team dominated the race last year and will bring a strong team again this year, led by the [road- race] world champion, Tom Boonen," Doyle says. Look out also for the Tour de France top-five finisher Cadel Evans and Michael Rogers, the Australian world time-trial champion.

Sadly, Floyd Landis, who finished first in this year's Tour de France, will not be competing; before we leave Glasgow, mobile phones start bleeping out the news that the American rider has tested positive for testosterone doping.

It is grim news for Doyle, who was counting on the 30-year-old to add more glitter to the race. Both Hoy and Doyle feel angry and betrayed by Landis's failure, but they point out that other sports are not immune from the problem.

Spectator interest in the Tour of Britain is unlikely to be affected; after all, how often is it that you see almost 100 professional cyclists whir past at 30 miles an hour in a blur of bright team strips and shaved legs?

Thirty miles into our ride, on a winding rural road beyond Strathaven lined with pink rosebay willow-herb and heather, Hoy pulls over and gets off his bike; as the pros say, he's packing. Unsurprisingly, it is not because he can't handle the languid pace Doyle and I are setting, but because his training regime forbids him from riding for more than two hours at a time.

"Once the body has used up the glycogen energy supply in its muscles," he explains, "it starts converting fast-twitch muscle fibres to slow-twitch muscle for endurance." As a track sprinter, Hoy's body, from his muscular upper torso to his ham-like thighs, is tuned for explosive speed over a kilometre or less, not 100-mile road rides.

It's a convincing excuse, and one that I feel no shame in also adopting; I'll finish the route the next day and take the opportunity to explore possible vantage points from which to watch the Tour cyclists as they pass through Galloway Forest Park, the most scenic part of the day's stage.

From Strathaven, the route takes the riders into the Scottish Borders. Hundreds of years ago, this was the domain of the reivers - cattle-rustling bandits - and these twisting, undulating roads are the perfect terrain for an escape to steal away from the peloton.

From New Galloway, the riders take the A762 to the arty town of Kirkcudbright. Drivers, however, might like to follow the A713 down the other side of Loch Ken, where watersports include wakeboarding and water-skiing, straight to the finish in Castle Douglas. With 50 local businesses dedicated to wholesome local produce, it earns its moniker of "Food Town". Just outside Castle Douglas, the Plumed Horse restaurant has a Michelin star. Chef Tony Borthwick is relocating the Plumed Horse to Edinburgh in September but there are several standout restaurants on the town's King Street.

But if you've been explor-ing the local mountain biking centres at Kirroughtree, Dalbeattie and Mabie, or just enjoying the cycle-friendly roads, a pint of the award-winning Criffel beer at Castle Douglas's micro-brewery, Sulwath Brewers, has properties so refreshing they might just arouse the interest of the drug regulators.

Join the chain gang

The first leg of the Tour of Britain (as ridden by Robin Barton, above, left) starts in Glasgow on 29 August. The race ends in London on 3 September. More information: tourofbritain. co.uk. For cycling holidays in Scotland: visitscotland. com/ cycling/. To register for the Pedal for Scotland charity ride: pedalforscotland.org. For accommodation and restaurants in Castle Douglas: cd-foodtown.org

Comments