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Caithness News Bulletins September 2004

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Caithness duo excel in Britainıs biggest cycling race
Tour Of Britain 2004

The Tour of Britain, from September 1-5, was the the most exciting and prestigious road race in the UK for a very long time ­ and featured arguably, the best-ever line up of cycling superstars. With 16 teams comprising medal winners from the Athenıs Olympics, Tour de France top performers Kloden, Azevedo, Rubiera, and Boonen plus a host of regular front runners in the professional ranks, the race was set to be a major spectacle.

And so it proved. Literally millions of spectators watched the race unfold, as it worked itıs way from Manchester, to finish on the closed roads of central London. Itıs difficult to describe the enthusiasm which the race engendered and even the race-hardened pros. were astounded at the sheer numbers on the roadsides. The support they received from old and young alike, all along the 500 mile route was boosted In many places by school children who were allowed out to watch the 100 strong procession hurtle past.

Against this backdrop two cyclists from Caithness , Evan Oliphant and, youngest rider in the team, 19 year old David Smith were part of the six man squad representing Scotland. Quite simply ­ this was the stuff of dreams. Neither rider ever expected to be rubbing shoulders with some of the very best professional riders in the world at this stage in their careers. It was the chance of a lifetime. To start was a privilege, just to finish would be a result in itself.

The first stage began and finished in Manchester, the home of British Cycling, under welcoming skies and great expectation from a large crowd.  The route was both testing and scenic and attracted spectators wherever it went.  The early breakaway was a great boost for the Scotland team and featured their oldest rider Duncan Urquhart, who at one time was 18 minutes ahead of the main group. Over the next 129 miles the experienced teams worked together to eat away that advantage and when it came down to a bunch sprint it was the Italian, Stefano Zanini, so often the supporting player to twice Tour de France stage winner Tom Boonen, who took his chance to win the stage.

Scotland had done its job though, much to the surprise of the professional boys, as Duncan pulled on the King of the Mountain's jersey. The ups and downs of racing can be cruel though. David Smith grabbed three points at the top of the first climb and was able to sit in the bunch for all but the last 20km when things got very frantic, and a combination of factors meant he lost contact with the main group. Result ­ he went backwards fast and came in 15 minutes down. This proved to be significant in the final classification. Evan finished safely in the bunch.

One feature marred an otherwise successful event. There were serious problems policing the race because the roads are not allowed to be permanently closed in Britain (unlike across the rest of the cycling world!). Some riders got caught out in no-manıs land between groups and had to negotiate all the hazards of the road, including red lights and reversing cars. This was totally unacceptable in a race of this calibre and consequently the riders stopped racing in protest at one point near Blackpool, until they received assurances from the organisers.

Stage 2 from Leeds to Sheffield attracted even bigger crowds than day one, particularly on the climbs, and the riders remarked on how they enjoyed so much support for their efforts. However, what goes up... eventually goes down, but the Odownsı were even steeper and longer than expected.  With speeds of 65mph being recorded, the smell of frying brake pads was thick in the air.

Fittingly, on such an arduous route, it was the Colombian climber, Mauricio Ardila who took the stage in a packed Sheffield city centre.

Both David and Evan had excellent rides on what was probably the longest, hardest day and finished in the main bunch with some famous names, about 13 minutes behind the leaders.

Stage 3 started in Bakewell in Derbyshire and took in Leicestershire before finishing on the banks of the river Trent in Nottingham. The crowds were just getting bigger by the day. Small towns like Duffield in Derbyshire turned out 3,000 spectators to urge on the riders. Those gathered at the finish were treated to a pulsating finale with sprinter Tom Boonen taking it on the line.   Once again David and Evan mixed it with the some of the best and finished in the pack 5 seconds behind the winner.

Stage 4 ­ Wales Even though there was rain in the air it did not prevent supporters turning out at the start in Newport, and as the day brightened the crowds flocked to witness the climbs in the Celtic Manor Resort. It was Ardila again who just took the stage and it provided him with a useful 17 second time advantage to take with him to London.

The course was difficult and when the pack lined out at 30mph it was very hard to move up through the field. At the finish Evan was 30 seconds down with David a further 39 behind after another gruelling 100 mile race.

Stage 5 ­ London The tour of Britain reached a noisy and thrilling climax on Sunday 5 Sept. on the streets of Westminster in front of a thrilled audience that estimates have put at around 100,000. Many were cheering and banging on the advertising boards in an effort to encourage their rider, Londoner Bradley Wiggins to shake off his pursuers with only three laps to go to clinch the stage win.  The peloton were in no mood to grant favours to the triple medal winner in Athens and the chase was led by none other than Brett Lancaster, the Australian who was in the Team Pursuit squad that deprived Bradley and the British team of gold a few weeks ago. The gap was closing all the time and Wiggins was eventually swept aside to set up a bunch finish which Italian Enrico Degano just took on the line.

While Degano took the final stage it was the Colombian Mauricio Ardila, with two stage wins in Sheffield and Newport, who was presented with the yellow jersey as overall winner.

The Scottish lads performed as well as anyone could possibly have imagined and with the whole team finishing, it was a record some of the bigger amateur teams and professional squads might have liked to emulate.

Evan Oliphant was Mr. Consistency himself and maintained his top 30 finishes throughout for a very creditable 36th overall. David justified his place in the team and proved his potential with 18th in the King of the Mountains competition and, but for his first day problems, would have finished not far behind his Caithness team mate.

If the organisers allow it, the Tour of Britain, which is sponsored for 2 more years, can only go from strength to strength. Letıs hope our local lads get the chance to show us what they can do again.

the race was shown on BBC Grandstand on Saturday 12 September 2004