The road markings are strangely familiar, the hedgerows unmistakable, the villages built of local stone in recognisable layouts, the greys, the greens, the red-and-white road signs, the license plates on the parked cars…
Everything in my peripheral vision makes up a perfectly normal view of another day in Britain, apart from the fact I am passing through this land of everyday as part of an international pro peloton. We pass a Budgens and I look about: Basques to my right, Italians in a Russian team to my left, the high-pitch guffawing that can only come from French cyclists echoing in my ears, and a convoy of 30 brightly-coloured estate vehicles jostling all over the road behind us.
I always feel like something is slightly out of place at the Tour of Britain, like someone has photoshopped an image of a bike race on top of a picture of the British countryside. Even though I have ridden the race four times now, I am still a little confused by the feeling of the party being at my house.
Even the lengthy transfers take on a slightly surreal feeling: I am on the M4, where I often am, but what is the Katusha bus doing here? Of course, this feeling comes from an entire youth spent looking at pictures of bike races on foreign shores, foreign roads‚ similar but not the same. It never occurred to me that these places were just places too, and that the roads I dreamt of weren’t there with any magical or express purpose of a bike race passing over them; they were just roads.
I spent my whole youth riding around UK roads thinking only of escaping them and getting to the promised lands of Flanders, the Alps, the Pyrenees. It never really occurred to me that everyone could just come over here and we could race over Bodmin Moor.
It really is the little things that make all the difference here, not just for us British riders having the strange sensation of all these foreign guests in our bike race. I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw Filippo Pozzato so incapable of coming out of his comfort zone that he couldn’t take a feed bag from the left, as is dictated by English road law. He had to stop in the middle of the feed zone and demand that we, the bunch, all waited while he, the White Knight himself, made his visibly petrified soigneur run across the road in front of oncoming riders to hand-deliver the feed bag to him where he stood‚ seemingly cursing our highway code, Queen Elizabeth II and the Madonna in equal measure.
These little things are advantages that add up for UK riders, I’m sure. I remember quite distinctly the first time I rode the race in 2004, while riding for an Italian team. I thought how easy everything was, exactly the same feeling you get when you first walk up to a counter or into a shop the moment you get back from a long overseas trip. In your head, you are still trying to think two or three steps ahead, all senses alert for different languages, transport systems, foreign maps or any kinds of difficulty.
In a split second you realise that you can actually relax – you don’t have to second-guess, you don’t have to be one step ahead. You are home and everything is simple. Everything is how it was, how it should be, and how you expect it to be. That moment of excitement, relief, guilt and pleasure is a strange sensation in a bike race.
There is something quite amazing about playing at home. It is one thing to have a group of family or friends make a trip to Europe to watch you race, but it is another to be able to race in front of everyone all in one go, and then be televised later for good measure.
Racing over a hill near Taunton past a staggering amount of people who knew my name, my nationality instantly raising me above my natural status in the wild of the peloton, is something I’d quite like to mull over when I am a very old man laid up with nothing but my memories to ponder.
Extract from issue 17. Tom Southam is an ex-professional cyclist. He came 34th in the 2009 Tour of Britain.