Are we on the verge of a golden era of British road cycling? While Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins grab the headlines and the attention of casual fans, it is the strength in depth of British riders which is raising eyebrows among the cognoscenti. While Cavendish was winning a brace of stages at the Tour of Qatar last week, 21-year old Andrew Fenn (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) bagged a double at the Mallorca Challenge, while Endura’s Jonathan Tiernan-Locke won two stages plus the overall classification at the Tour Mediterraneen. It was an unprecedented week of success for British cycling.
The first British invasion
There was a time when Britain was a nation looking in from the outside. Brian Robinson and Tom Simpson were the first riders to truly break into the closed-shop of European cycling. Both won stages in European races in 1954, and Robinson went on to become the first Briton to win at the Tour de France, in 1958 and 1959.
The latter year marked Simpson’s big breakthrough, as he won nine races with the Saint-Raphael-R. Geminiani team. From there he went from strength to strength, winning three of the major one-day Classics – Tour of Flanders (1961), Milan-San Remo (1964) and Giro di Lombardia (1965) – spending one day in the yellow jersey at the 1962 Tour de France before eventually finishing a creditable sixth, and becoming Britain’s first world champion in 1965. Two years later he claimed two stages at the Vuelta a Espana and the overall at Paris-Nice before he died in tragic circumstances on Mont Ventoux in that summer’s Tour.
Barry Hoban won the day after Simpson’s death, his first of eight stage victories at the Tour, a record for a British rider which stood until 2009. But while others tasted success at the Grand Tours during this period – Michael Wright won three Tour stages and Vin Denson took one at the Giro d’Italia – such high-profile victories were sporadic, and no British rider emerged as a serious contender for the major jerseys.
Hitting the plateau
After these early breakthroughs, progress plateaued over the next 30 or so years. Other than one outstanding high point, for a generation Britain endured a largely barren period as far as success at the biggest races was concerned.
The one shining star in the British firmament was Robert Millar. The Scotsman won the mountains classifications at both the 1984 Tour (in which he finished fourth overall) and the 1987 Giro, and was second overall at both the Giro (1987) and the Vuelta (1985 and 1986). He would remain Britain’s most successful Grand Tour rider for more than two decades.
Millar aside, British successes were largely limited to the occasional stage win or a brief appearance in the leader’s jersey. Sean Yates won a stage each at the Tour and Vuelta, and wore the coveted yellow jersey for a day in 1994. Italian-born Max Sciandri won a stage at the 1995 Tour. Malcolm Elliott claimed stage victories at the 1988 and 1989 Vueltas.
But in more than two decades post-Millar, only two British riders enjoyed multiple successes at the Tour. Chris Boardman won three prologues in addition to his 1992 Olympic gold medal and 1994 world championship in the time trial. And David Millar (no relation to Robert) also won three stages between 2000 and 2003, before being thrown out of the sport in disgrace after being caught in possession of doping products by French police. (Now reintegrated into the sport, Millar can boast a total of nine individual Grand Tour stage victories.)
Despite these occasional flashes of success though, the dream of another British rider joining Robert Millar atop a race-ending Grand Tour podium seemed as distant as ever.
The Manx Missile launches a new generation of Brits in a hurry
When the Tour returned to British shores for the 2007 Grand Depart, Mark Cavendish was a largely unknown 22-year old tyro in his first full season with what would eventually become HTC-Highroad. Four years on, he is the undisputed fastest sprinter in the world. The reigning green jersey, he has won 20 Tour stages since 2008, 10 more at the Giro and Vuelta and the 2009 Milan-San Remo, following in the footsteps of Tom Simpson as the only Britons to win this spring Classic. Last September, he again emulated Simpson by winning the World Championship road race supported by the strongest team in the field: Great Britain.
Willingly playing supporting roles that day were Sky teammates Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins, who a month before had finished second and third at the Vuelta.
The 26-year old Froome was the revelation of 2011. Having initially been detailed to support Wiggins in Spain, he seized his chance after his leader faltered in the mountains, winning on the summit of Pena Cabarga and finishing just 13 second behind overall winner Juan Jose Cobo. An attacking climber and an exceptional time-trialist – he finished second only to Tony Martin at the Vuelta – he is arguably Britain’s best current prospect for a Grand Tour win. However, he is yet to prove he can turn one outstanding performance into consistent results.
At 31, Wiggins has made a remarkable transition from track pursuiter to genuine GC contender. Fourth in the 2009 Tour, he entered last year’s race in the form of his life, having won the Criterium du Dauphine as his final preparation, only to crash out in the first week when a podium finish was a realistic aim. Instead he entered the Vuelta on his return, only to run out of climbing legs in the high mountains. It is that lack of ability to live with the pure climbers on the steepest slopes which is Wiggins’ Achilles’ heel. He climbs well at his own pace but lacks the acceleration to respond to attacks – or to launch them himself. Is he a realistic prospect for a Tour podium finish? Yes. And if he can progress in the way Cadel Evans has, he still has a chance of even more.
In the trio of Cavendish, Froome and Wiggins, Sky have a Grand Tour team which stacks up favourably against anyone else. That is impressive enough, but it is the next tier of British riders which really whets the appetite.
First of all there are last week’s notable winners, Jonathan Tiernan-Locke and Andrew Fenn. The former is a punchy climber who caught the eye during last year’s Tour of Britain, where he animated the race every time the route turned uphill, collecting the King of the Mountains title and finishing fifth overall. His two wins and overall victory at the Tour Mediterraneen last week were by far the biggest wins of his career, as he finished ahead of Daniel Navarro, reigning Giro King of the Mountains Stefano Garzelli and Rinaldo Nocentini.
At 21, Fenn is a sprinter/rouleur with a bright future. Already the winner of the junior Paris-Roubaix and a world championship bronze medallist in last year’s under-23 road race, in 2012 he has stepped up from the An Post-Sean Kelly squad to Omega Pharma-Quick Step. There he will have the opportunity to learn from some of the finest sprinters and Classics riders in the business: Tom Boonen, Francesco Chicchi and Sylvain Chavanel. His two victories at the Mallorca Challenge underlined his versatility, with one coming on a lumpy Classics-style parcours and the other a pure sprint in which he defeated, among others, Daniele Bennati. It will be some time before we see him butting heads with the elite names in the Classics or the major sprints, but he is definitely one to watch.
Beyond that is a wealth of British talent, all of whom can be major contributors for some years to come.
Understudying Cavendish at Sky is Ben Swift, who we can expect to see as the team’s featured sprinter wherever Cav is absent. Last year the 24-year old built an enviable palmares which included wins at the Tour Down Under (two), Tour of California, Tour de Romandie and Vuelta a Castilla y Leon.
There are several other bright British prospects on Sky’s roster. 23-year old Alex Dowsett is an all-rounder and time-trialist who claimed a stage at last year’s Tour of Britain. Fellow second-year pro Peter Kennaugh (22) completed his first Giro and placed fifth overall at the Tour of Poland. Ian Stannard (24) is perhaps the most versatile of Sky’s British riders, possessing both a powerful engine and a fair turn of speed. He won a stage from a breakaway at last year’s Tour of Austria and finished fourth in the autumn Classic Paris-Tours. Stannard was also a key member of Cavendish’s World Championship-winning team, as was Geraint Thomas (25). The 2011 Bayern-Rundfahrt winner is a good sprinter and rouleur in his own right, but has also developed into one of the best lead-out men in the business. Sadly, he will be missing from the Tour squad as he instead focuses on the Giro and Olympics.
With such a rich vein of both current and future talent, the prospect of Britain becoming one of cycling’s national super-powers is becoming more of a reality than a mere possibility. As recently as 2009, people scoffed when team principal David Brailsford stated that Sky’s aim was to produce a British Tour de France winner within five years. Today the team can boast two riders (Froome and Wiggins) who have finished on the podium at a Grand Tour and the reigning Tour de France green jersey and world champion (Cavendish). And while there is a big difference between finishing on the podium of a Grand Tour and standing on the top step in Paris, Brailsford’s ambition does not seem so far-fetched any more.
At the very least, British riders look set to become a regular feature on race podiums throughout the cycling calendar for the foreseeable future. The British are not so much a coming force as one which has already arrived.