Two weeks ago I won a competition for me and a guest to join the Tour of Britain for a day as VIP guests, which included a day in convey of vehicles that support the tour. We won the chance to join the stage from Clitheroe to Colne. Our experience began with a free overnight stay at the Stirk House hotel in Gisburn just a few miles away from the start line where we spent the afternoon soaking up some later summer rays over a gin and tonic whilst discussing what we thought might happen the next day. It's quite tricky to imagine where on earth you would fit into a peleton of over 120 riders, team cars, motorbikes and camera cars without causing chaos. This was something we really didn't want to do, so we stopped considering the endless possibilities and in true sports fashion washed down a burger or two and settled down for an exciting day ahead.
Monday came in a flash and before long we were on the road to Clitheroe. Worryingly the weather had closed in over night and the valley was shrouded in a low lying fog that threatened to engulf the days hilltop views. We arrived in Clitheroe really rather early and the organisers were still finishing the bunting for the day as the children scurried back to school. After some brief hunting we found the VIP area and settled in for a coffee and breakfast, only to discover the head of the UCI, Brian Cookson (OBE) was also there. Too much of an opportunity to miss I had a brief chat and got my cap signed.
Time to spare, we had a nosey around the team buses where Team Wiggins and Team Sky were by far the most popular teams on the road before watching the team presentations. Madison Genesis accidentally jumped the queue for the stage which raised a few laughs. Presentations over we had our safety briefing and the real fun began.
Every vehicle in the peleton is given a number for the race with the number one car being the very first police motorbike and every car after this being in a semi-confluent convey. We were in guest car number four for the day. The guest cars ride ahead of the peleton for the day until a break forms that is big enough for us to sneak into the race and join the real action. This is a three minute gap that must form to allow us in. Fingers crossed for the day!
Our driver for the day was Philip Leigh who is the ex Ireland cycling high performance director and ex team director of Recycling.co.uk (now JLT Condor Presented by Mavic) and he informed us of the time gap that we would need to achieve and the likelihood of the break happening during the day and gave a great insight into the day ahead. We also found out that not only is Philip good on a bike, he's also good a driving a car and could probably have a fair shot at some rally stages.
The day started off fairly steadily as we climbed out and away from Nick O'Pendle Hill (Category One) and along the valley with no real breakaway action but plenty of in-race knowledge being shared with me and Sarah inbetween the crackle of the race radio. Race radio gave us another brilliant insight into the day as we were told where the riders were, the time gaps and the breakaways as well as live results of the sprints and king of the mountains. I expected all of the race radio to be full of technical information but there were occasional random facts and brilliant one-liners from the race control which included "We are over the top, they've ALREADY dropped some riders guys" and "We are now in the very middle of Great Britain, right in the middle".
Around about two hours into the day we suddenly got told over race radio we were good to jump in. Pete Williams of One Pro Cycling had opening up a five minute break and was flying down the road. We pulled off immediately and watched him fly past before joining directly behind the team car and race director. Now we were in the mix and watching Pete work hard. However before long Alex Dowsett decided he wanted some of the action and sudden had broken away from the peloton and was catching Pete at a rapid rate. Radio once again told us to get out of the way and before I even had chance to get a picture of Alex he was through and I was left only to admire his bum on my camera - one for Sarah to enjoy I suppose?
Two riders together we once again pulled alongside the One Pro car and soaked in the atmosphere, taking pictures when we could and listening to Philip tell us everything we needed to know about what would happen, what the rider would be thinking and when things would change.
Change happened fast. Suddenly the lead of five minutes disappeared into two minutes and we were told to move and pronto! This meant flashing past the leaders at quite some speed on a country road without knocking them off. This is when we learnt ex cyclists make great rally drivers as we skirted round the countryside at great speed past riders whilst motorbikes swung past our other side with two wheels in the mud - I think Philip misses cyclocross.
Sadly after nearly an hour in the fray we were out the other side and no breaks opened up again during the day. This didn't matter though as throughout the entire day the crowd were waving us through and all the schools en-route had come out to cheer the tour through which made the atmosphere amazing.
We arrived in Colne with minutes to spare and dashed to the finish line with watch everyone cross the line which was fantastic after following everyone throughout the day. It's great to see that when the riders cross the line they really have given it everything for the day and look shattered as they cross the line. Riders really are human.
The overall experience was fantastic and gave us a real insight into the race and how things work but the experience was definitely made all the better when driven around by a driver that's done it all before, even if Sarah was asking some funny questions en-route.
If only I could do it everyday!