The Tour Of Britain: Pt 1 - What's It All About, Alfie?

Sunday sees the fifth edition of the revivified Tour of Britain setting off on its eight-stage 1,150 km odyssey around Britain. Rated a 2.1 on the UCI's calender, the race features sixteen six-man teams - just 96 riders - competing for their share of an €85.5k prize fund. The race is competing for attention on a busy enough September schedule, going head to head with the Tour de Misery and that iddy biddy likkle bike race down in Spain, finishing just a day before the Polish tour rolls off and itself rolling off just a day after the German tour ends. Before looking at the route and riders, I thought it'd be interesting to actually look at the history of Britain's answer to the Tour de France.

Newspapers, Breakfast Cereals and Milk

Historically speaking, the British don't do stage racing. It's not that British cyclists are particularly lazy – the first Six Day track meet is supposed to have taken place in Birmingham in the mid 1870s and certainly by the end of the c19th, Six Day racing was as popular in the UK as it was in France and the US. It's more got to do with who owns the roads and whether British cyclists have a right to ride on them, let alone race on them.

Back in the sport's early days, in the 1870s and 1880s, road racing was quite popular in the UK. But by the 1890s, cyclists were competing with other road users for space. And those other road users - as they still do today - moaned that cyclists were a danger to other road users. And they took their complaints to the police. And the police took those complaints to the National Cyclists' Union. Who responded by rolling over on their back and banning all bike races on public roads forthwith. That - more or less - is how time trialling and track came to rule the roost in the UK.

It wasn't until 1944 that Britain enjoyed its first stage race, the Southern Grand Prix, in Kent. The following year saw a tour of Britain being organised by some disaffected NCU splitters calling themselves the British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC). The purpose of the race was supposed to be to celebrate the end of the war. Though it also served nicely as two-fingers to the NCU. Running from Brighton to Glasgow in five stages and called the Victory Marathon, it was a ramshackle affair won by a French rider, Robert Batot.

A six-stage Brighton-Glasgow race – as subsequent Victory Marathon's were called – ran on to 1952 but by then was facing competition from rival tours of Britain. 1951 saw the Butlins holiday camp people organising a seven-stage race, linking various of their holiday camps together. 1951 also saw a Daily Express-sponsored Tour of Britain taking to the roads, meaning the country had three competing national tours. This latter race ran on to 1955 but having seen off the last Brighton-Glasgow in 1952 - and even a truncated five-stage version of that race in 1953 (which only made it morth as far as Newcastle) - it again faced competition in 1954 when the makers of Quaker Oats stepped in with sponsorship for an eight-day sixteen-hundred km Circuit of Britain to promote their breakfast cereals. But having itself seen off the Tour of Britain in 1955 the Circuit of Britain only survived one more staging before the Quakers lost faith with it and Britain was left Tour-less in 1957.

Then the British Milk Marketing Board (not to be confused with the Toast Marketing Board) stepped into the breech in 1958 with their amateurs-only Milk Race (not that one, this one). You might not have been able to win the Tour de France on mineral water, but you could win the Milk Race on a pinta. Allegedly. Thirty five years later the Milk Marketing Board's sponsorship was still going strong and it was only the intervention of the EU – or EC or EEC or whatever it was called back then – decided that a Milk Board was monopolistic and had to be broken up. But even before the EU brought down the curtain on it, the Milk Race had been somewhat usurped by another rival upstart, the Kellogg's Tour. Such is the history of Britain's national Tour – it's either feast or famine. And usually sponsored by something you'd find at the breakfast table.

First organised in 1987 on the back of the surge in cycling support following the success of Anglosphere riders like Kelly, Roche and LeMond and Channel 4's coverage of cycling in the UK, the Kellogg's Tour was a pro-only affair (it was only two years earlier that the Milk Race had allowed pros ride alongside amateurs in its race). Its roll of honour indicates the calibre of riders it attracted over its eight stagings: Joey McLoughlin (ANC), Malcolm Elliott (twice, for Fagor and Teka), Robert Millar (Z-Peugot), Phil Anderson (twice for Motorola), Max Sciandri (Motorola) and Maurizio Fondriest (Lampre).

When the Milk Race ground to a halt in 1993, the Kellogg's Tour became the de facto Tour of Britain. But – Anglosphere riders not doing so well in the pro peloton – no sponsor could be found for the race in 1995. Or 1996. Or 1997. Then in 1998, Prudential Insurance decided to dip their toe into the muddy waters of cycling sponsorship with the PruTour. I'll bet their actuaries must have been kicking themselves that they hadn't worked out the odds of something like l'Affaire Festina happening. Won by Stuart O'Grady (Crédit Agricole), the PruTour survived just one more staging - won by Marc Wauters (Rabobank) - before disappearing, just halfway through a four-year sponsorship deal. Maybe the Pru's actuaries had looked at the odds of a pre-Dodegball Lance Armstrong bringing millions of viewers back to bike racing and decided they were a little too long to be bothered with.

Four years without a national tour passed and then came 2004 and a resurrected Tour of Britain was rolling its way round the island again, initially sponsored by the folks trying to bring the Olympics to London in 2012. At the end of five stages, Colombia's Mauricio Ardila (Chocolade Jacques) was the winner. 2005 saw an extra stage – a 4km TT toward the end of the race – being added and the overall mileage being dropped (down to 765km from 805km) and Belgium's Nick Nuyens's winning out for Quick Step Innergetic. 2006 saw the TT being dropped and the mileage scaled back up (to 870km) and Denmark's Martin Pedersen winning the race for CSC. Then last year saw the TT return via a (manually timed) prologue – suitably won by Mark Cavendish, for whom it had been designed – and the overall mileage again being kicked upwards (to 955km). The race was won by France's Romain Feillu for AG2R.

Everybody likes to think their national tour is special. And the British are no worse than anyone else when it comes to comparing their race with the likes of the Tour and the Giro. Given that it clashes with the Vuelta, they tend to overlook that one when doing international comparisons. If only the race was as well organised as those races though. In 2007, 30km in the middle of one stage were neutralised simply because the organisers had failed to get permission from the relevant highway authority. The previous year the riders had gone on strike after being directed off course on one stage. And another rider strike over safety concerns marred the 2004 Tour. To be fair to the Tour of Britain though, it's not like a British race official has ever thumped one of the participating teams' doctors. Though their marshals have been known to try and take out spectators.