When the 2007 Tour de France rolls out in London, not only will the race start in the British capital for the first time ever, but it will contain the largest British contingent for 20 years and perhaps hint at a renaissance of top-level British road cycling.
Five British riders will start in London on Saturday: Bradley Wiggins (Cofidis), Charles Wegelius (Liquigas), David Millar (Saunier Duval Prodir), Mark Cavendish (T-Mobile) and Geraint Thomas (Barloworld).
That’s a dramatic turn-around from the last few years; a total of just five British riders have started the Tour in the last decade – Bradley Wiggins, David Millar, Chris Boardman, Max Sciandri and Sean Yates – and you have to go back to 1987 to find a British contingent that’s as large or larger than this year’s.
Back then six Britons – Sean Yates, Robert Millar, Malcolm Elliot, Graham Jones, Adrian Timmis, and Paul Watson – lined up for a Tour that was eventually won by Irish legend Stephen Roche. All except Yates and Millar were members of the ill-fated ANC Halfords team, which collapsed during the Tour. Of its four British riders, only Timmis and Elliott finished.
What linked some of that 1987 contingent was the experience and inspiration of the early ’80s Kellogg’s City Centre Criterium Series, made-for-TV races that briefly shot cycling into the UK’s top five most-watched TV sports. Elliott in particular was a superstar of the Kellogg’s series, a handsome and flamboyant sprinter who was the British Mario Cipollini of his day.
What connects three of this year’s British contingent is track racing. Wiggins is famously a world and Olympic champion in the 4000m pursuit, Cavendish was Madison world champion in 2005 with Rob Hayles and gold medallist in the scratch race in the 2006 Commonwealth Games, while the youngest of the five, Geraint Thomas, was a member of the world champion team pursuit squad earlier this year in Mallorca.
Millar and Wegelius, on the other hand, represent the old school path to the Tour for Brits: go to Europe and work your butt off.
Britain’s not the first nation to discover that track racing is an excellent nursery for road talent. In recent years, many of the Australian riders at the Tour have been graduates of that country’s track program, as Stuart O’Grady spectacularly reminded everyone when he returned to the track for the 2004 Olympic Madison and with Graeme Brown ripped legs off the field.
Australia’s track program has been going a few years longer than Britain’s, and has already partially accounted for the large number of Australians in the European pro ranks and in Tour de France start lists. The three alumni of the British track program who start this year’s Tour on Saturday could just be the first of many.