By Tim Groves
The Tour de France will never be matched for its history, prestige and popularity, but Britain’s own annual multistage cycling road race, which was dead in the water just over a decade ago, has made quite a comeback and its burgeoning reputation is being enhanced with each passing year.
The Tour of Britain is not without its history, having first been staged just after the end of the Second World War in 1945 under the title of the Victory Cycling Marathon after a rebel organisation plotted to create a British version of the Tour de France in spite of fears surrounding safety from the National Cyclists’ Union.
The British League of Racing Cyclists put on the first event from Brighton to Glasgow to celebrate the end of the war and, although not recognised by the International Cycling Union and run on a paltry budget, it gained enough traction to become an annual event.
Tens of thousands of people watched the start of the race and the News of the World, Sporting Record, Daily Express and the makers of Quaker Oats all sponsored it in the early years, before the Milk Marketing Board’s involvement led to it being named the Milk Race for several decades.
It was an entirely amateur affair until 1985 though and, after just 14 years as a professional or pro-am race (known as the Kellogg’s Tour and PruTour, as well as the Milk Race), it came to a grinding halt just before the turn of the millennium.
So far not exactly rivalling the rich history and unbridled success of cycling’s grand tours, but the Tour of Britain’s renaissance since its five-year hiatus between 1999 and 2004 has been remarkable.
Less than 10 years after sports events and marketing company SweetSpot revived the event, it drew over three million television viewers on ITV4 across eight days in 2009 and attracted as many as a million spectators on roadsides up and down the country.
To say the Tour of Britain has risen like a phoenix from the ashes wouldn’t be overstating things and British Cycling chief executive Ian Drake says its success lies in its inclusivity and believes it has already effected change in the country.
“The Tour of Britain is everyone’s tour,” he says. “Everyone has got the potential to go out there and see the world’s best athletes competing on Britain’s roads. It’s something everyone should feel really proud of.
“The anticipation of the world’s best bike riders coming through your town or city is something I’d urge everyone to experience and it provides that inspiration to get hundreds of thousands more people on a bike.
“The tour is helping to transform communities and helping to transform Britain into a cycling nation. We know that nearly 80 per cent of people who watched the Tour of Britain last year were then inspired to go out and ride their bike.”
Timing is crucial in sport, whether it’s deciding when to make your attempted breakaway from the peloton or, in this case, when to resurrect a race that had died a death.
The return of the Tour of Britain in 2004 took place on September 1, less than two weeks after Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins had won gold at the Athens Olympics. It’s ridden the crest of the wave that is the British cycling revolution ever since.
It’s now the largest free-to-spectate sporting event in the country and attracts a bigger live attendance than any other sporting spectacle in the UK, as well as reportedly bringing with it an economic benefit to the host areas of as much as £3 million per stage.
Its success led to Tour de France organiser Amaury Sport Organisation bidding to take over the running of the tour in 2013, but SweetSpot won the contract to deliver it for another five years from 2014 and that news was followed swiftly by the award of 2.HC status by the UCI.
That makes it one of the most highly rated races on the Europe Tour and puts it on a par with the likes of the Tour of California on the global stage. Drake thinks it will continue to go from strength to strength and propel the sport in the UK to even greater heights.
“Major events like the Tour of Britain are absolutely critical to our plans to grow the sport even further,” he says.
“We’ve already influenced 1.7 million people to ride a bike since 2008 and we want to be in the ballpark of influencing over half a million people a year to start riding their bike regularly.
“By doing that, we start looking at cycling as a higher purpose - it can change the lives of individuals, it can change the lives of communities, the economic impact will be massive and we can have a whole nation of happy people who are going to be enjoying the sport and hopefully some will go on to continue to fuel our international success.”
The Women’s Tour was introduced for the first time last year, broadening the event’s reach, and there may come a time in the not so distant future when cycling overtakes swimming as officially the nation’s most popular participation sport.
The number of people swimming once a week in the UK has fallen from 3.3 million in 2005 to 2.5 million in 2015, while participation in cycling during the same period has increased to almost 2.1 million from less than 1.7 million.
Add to that the appeal of cycling to middle (£25,000-£50,000 per annum) to high (over £50,000) income earners - a recent survey ranked it as second only to cricket among the country’s top 10 sports - and you can see why the Tour of Britain is proving popular with sponsors.
Sir Bradley Wiggins’ participation and victory in 2013 helped to take the event up another notch, which is now broadcast by 16 different companies to a worldwide audience of 206 million people.
The history of cycling’s grand tours - not just the Tour de France, which dates back to 1903, but the Giro d’Italia and its 106-year history and the Vuelta a Espana, which was first staged in 1935 - as well as their length and the gruelling challenge they pose set them apart, but the Tour of Britain is breaking away from the peloton and coming up on their inside.