On the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent, Andy Hawes is driving his Tour of Britain-branded Skoda while, in the passenger seat, Steve Baxter is studying his notes, pen in hand, simultaneously consulting the many gadgets and gizmos spread around the dashboard and windscreen. Probably best I stop asking them questions.
“Bus stop at Morcambe Close,” Baxter mutters, as we all scan the upcoming left-hand side of the road. The iPad map provides the answer. “We’ve missed it,” says Baxter, followed by Hawes pulling a U-turn.
“This is what happens when you start talking to people,” Hawes says over his shoulder, with humour, as is his wont. Nevertheless, an apology is still in order.
“Sorry about that, gents,” I offer, but it is dismissed.
“No, no, no, it’s us,” they reply in unison, which is telling. The two men spend days on end together in this car, driving the highways and byways in search of routes for the eight-day Tour of Britain. They have their quiet moments, like every couple of longstanding, which could be misconstrued as them having nothing much to say to each other, when the fact is they are taking in every junction, hazard, road sign and a multitude of other information along the way. It’s a wonder me and the photographer haven’t been slung out of the Skoda yet, but then we are only 10km out of town. It’s still a long way to go.
“We’re like an old married couple,” says Hawes. “We spend an incredible amount of time together. It can be ten or 11 hours in the car each day, so we have our quiet moments.”
“And our grumpy moments,” adds Baxter.
“That’s because he’s old and a Yorkshireman!” Hawes retorts. Former lead motorcyclist with the National Escort Group, Baxter retired, only to find himself touring the country on four wheels, clipboard in hand, exchanging banter with a chirpy southerner. Baxter and Hawes sounds like the perfect name for a comedy double act. They could probably earn a reasonable crust should the route planning work dry up, which shows no signs of happening. There is much work to be done today, for starters.
Bus stop duly located, Baxter sets his distance-recording Garmin to zero and filling in details of stage six from Stoke to Nottingham can begin in earnest. There’s another Garmin displaying the route map, an iPad also showing the route – “Steve can read the road names off it quicker,” says Hawes – and a GoPro camera mounted on the bonnet, filming selected segments (usually climbs) of the day’s drive.
The day had started in the town centre with a brief meeting with start manager Mark Leyland and various council and highways authority representatives. Leyland covers everything until the end of the neutralised sector, where Hawes and Baxter take over until the final kilometre. That’s a lot of ground to cover. And an awful lot of detail for Baxter to log down.
UCI regulations stipulate that the neutralised section should be a maximum of ten kilometres – not usually an issue, but the start town, not exactly brimming with photogenic features, is understandably keen to make a good impression on the TV cameras come race day.
“Stoke-on-Trent is being heavily redeveloped, so the loops around the town are to show that off,” Hawes explains of our circuitous route out of town. “I then get to somewhere that is a nice long, straight piece of road where we can de-neutralise the race. Ideally, you want everybody in your mirror, so that when the flag comes in, you can see the whole peloton there. But the commissaires will be on the radio telling us if there is anyone off the back, punctured or having a mechanical, and they will hold it until everyone is together and it is safe.”
Baxter hands me a thick ring-bound folder that all 30 police and 25 National Escort Group motorcyclists will have strapped to their petrol tanks on race day. It is an extraordinarily detailed piece of work. Traffic lights, street furniture, narrow roads, junctions, even speed limit signs: all are logged and illustrated with precise distance and location.
“The lead bike could be five miles ahead of the race, shutting the next town down, using those flip charts,” Baxter explains. “We will have a briefing with them each morning, telling them where the busy parts are, a turn-by-turn assessment of each junction.”
This is the duo’s second run of the entire route, with a final check of all eight stages to be done in the weeks preceding the race. It’s surprising how much the landscape can change in just a few months. “We’ve had roundabouts pop up that weren’t there before,” Hawes says. “This week, the speed limit had changed on one section from 60 to 30. We have to mark those on the flip charts as reference points.”
Thirty kilometres into the stage and the men sat in the front of the car have suddenly gone quiet. There is serious work going on. A potential King of the Mountains climb spotted on the initial run-through needs confirming. Hawes fires up the GoPro while Baxter logs the climb’s distance. It looks suitable enough to me, but there are considerations other than whether it is a hard enough ascent, Hawes tells me.
“We have to think of the public’s safety. I’d rather not have them standing by the side of a busy 60mph road. They are going to get there well before the road is closed, stood next to live traffic.”
There’s more to this lark than meets the eye. Public safety is, of course, paramount. With the massive crowds the Tour of Britain has been attracting in recent editions, parked cars lining an A-road and spectators spilling into the highway is not an attractive proposition with traffic hammering past. “If we find somewhere a bit quieter, we might go for that,” Hawes concludes at the summit, as we begin our descent from Blackshaw Moor into the heart of the rugged beauty of the Peak District.
“We’ve all helped at our local fish’n’chipper on a Sunday morning,” says Hawes – a lifelong club cyclist with the varicose veins to prove it – “waving a red flag furiously to warn the traffic, with no authority whatsoever, but this is something else.” I’m beginning to see what he means.
As we hit the busy spa town of Buxton, Baxter clocks and notes a new traffic island that has sprung up since their last recce – another amendment for the handbook. They’re looking for an intermediate sprint point in the town. Outside The Eagle pub looks promising.
“You want a one-kilometre unobstructed run in,” Hawes says, “which these days is getting harder and harder because of the amount of road furniture: speed humps, pedestrian crossings, bollards. Monday to Friday, we try to put it outside a school, then you’ve got an instant crowd. At weekends, outside pubs. It’s a focal point: gives the spectators a reason to go there.
“We always try and get a sprint in with about 30km to go, because that leaves the race open until the very end of the stage and also guarantees it will be on live TV.
“Other than that, it doesn’t matter where the sprints are positioned on the stage. I’ve had them as early as nine kilometres from the start. If there’s an ideal location, it can be as early as that.”
Many a points jersey contender has, no doubt, cursed the fiendish mind of Andy Hawes over the years, having warmed-up insufficiently and found themselves sprinting hell-for-leather on the outskirts of an unfamiliar British town within minutes of the flag dropping.
He’s thick-skinned, though, and needs to be. “People will always moan. One of my biggest haters on Twitter has finally come round because we’re going further north this year, into Scotland. But it’s an eight-day stage race. We can’t cover the whole country.”
That said, organisers Sweetspot have put together a coherent national tour including some of the finest cycling areas the UK has to offer: North Wales, Lancashire, Cumbria to Scotland (where our photographer Joel shot most of this feature), the Peak District – it’s a tourism director’s dream route.
We are now climbing on a main road away from Buxton. The rolling Derbyshire scenery is grand, but the workers up front are preoccupied. HGVs headed for Manchester and beyond use this route, so Hawes tells me he contacts the Freight Transport Association well in advance to warn of the 45-minute rolling road closure on race day, suggesting their members seek alternatives. Baxter, meanwhile, looks for lay-bys where any lorries that fail to heed the warning can be parked up as the peloton passes.
“Another 26km then we can stop for coffee and cake,” says Hawes. “That’s the first thing I mark down!” Baxter adds, the cyclists’ haunt of Colemans Deli in Hathersage our targeted rest stop.
Before that, there’s the glorious descent of Winnats Pass to enjoy. Hawes anticipates some flak from the Twitterati for going down, not up, one of the best climbs in the area. Bearing in mind the regions sign up to host the race for two or three years at a time, and suitable start and finish towns are not easily found, he has little alternative: it’s down to the Hope Valley and on to Hathersage we go.
We rattle across a cattle grid, another hazard to be added to Baxter’s road book, and past skittish sheep, one of a number of animals presenting potential dangers on the eight-day tour starting in Anglesey and ending in London. “Deer, sheep, cattle, ducks, even toads,” says Hawes. “We had some deer last week,” adds Baxter. “We mark down where they are.”
I raise the subject of level crossings, every race organiser’s worst nightmare, I’d imagine. This year’s hairy moment at Paris-Roubaix springs to mind, riders weaving around a closed barrier seconds before a TGV thundered through. “I try and avoid them,” Hawes confirms. “We actually have quite a few this year. Stage seven has three within ten kilometres. But I work with the head of level crossings at Network Rail. They have held trains at the crossings for us in the past.”
And there’ll be no Roubaix-style train dodging on the Tour of Britain, Hawes says: “That sparked some debate this year because the incident was brought to [National Rail’s] attention. Within a matter of weeks, they were on our case, saying this cannot be allowed to happen in your race. It’s another layer of red tape and people that you need to have communication with.”
Coffee break over, we head for Bakewell, then Matlock. By the end of the day, we’ll have “been through every other town in Derbyshire,” says Hawes with pride. “It really is a tour of the county.” And a handsome county it is, too.
I wondered if they always conducted these run-throughs on the same days of the week that the stages would be raced. Boot sales, church services, school runs: any number of regular traffic hotspots could be waiting to trip them up. “We keep an eye out for bin wagons,” says Baxter, confirming that our Friday recce meant Friday race day for stage six to Nottingham. “People put their bins out on the road on collection day.”
We reach a right turn just before a railway bridge, with restricted sightlines for oncoming traffic. Baxter temporarily halts the distance-measuring Garmin while we check out the approach. There’ll be warning signs and a police motorbike in place on race day well ahead of the bridge. “Every bit of signage gets picked up and collected again by four two-man crews after the race has passed,” says Hawes. “We just have plain arrows now, no branding, because people like to nick them as souvenirs. I’m sure you’ve got a Tour de France arrow?”
Not guilty. And there’s no Tour of Britain signage on my wall either, before you ask. That spectators even consider pilfering branded cardboard Tour of Britain arrows says much about the race’s current standing.
Looking back to the race’s resurrection in 2004, following a five-year hiatus since the PruTour folded and Britain was without a national stage race, the beginnings were inauspicious. The route was disjointed for the early five-stage versions, lengthy transfers drawing criticism from riders, team staff and journalists alike. The opening race saw not one single stage win, jersey or even GC top-ten from a home rider. Top-level British professionals were few and far between back then; Team Sky a distant pipe dream for Dave Brailsford and co.
It was all a long way from the much-loved Milk Race, supported by its unlikely sponsors for a record-breaking 35-year run before becoming the PruTour, which ceased in 1999.
But slowly the Tour of Britain clawed its way back into the hearts of cycling fans and, more importantly, the general public. In 2012, Bradley Wiggins, racing on home roads following his Tour de France win, was a massive coup for the race, plus Mark Cavendish in his sprinting prime – he took three stages that year, his final appearance in the rainbow jersey.
The following year, Wiggins returned to win the overall title, another milestone for the tour. And in 2014, pressure from organisers Sweetspot paid off, with the Tour of Britain awarded HC status by the UCI, putting it on an equal footing with the likes of the Tour of California and Critérium International.
Cycling’s governing body has guidelines in place to achieve that sought-after HC categorisation, Hawes tells me, long stages being a prerequisite. “When I started looking at the routes from 2011 onwards, there were hardly any that went over 190km, and certainly none of 200-plus.
“I think the race was in need of a shake up. In 2012, the opening stage was 210km, from Ipswich to Norfolk showground, the first time we’d had a stage that long since the tour’s reincarnation in 2004. To get the status of the race pushed up to HC, every year we have had to look at new and innovative things. You have got to have a summit finish, and a time-trial, where possible.”
There’s no time-trial this year, but if you don’t tell the UCI, we won’t either. Hawes has turned up another cracking summit finish, though, following the Tumble in Abergavenny last year and Simon Yates’ memorable win on Haytor in 2013.
“They have been a massive hit for us. This is the toughest yet, on Hartside Fell. We drove up there yesterday, at 35-40mph, and it took us eight minutes at that speed. And there’s a tasty hairpin with 400 metres to go.”
With the current race having eight stages to the original five back in 2004, joining up the dots has become easier for our route planners. “All transfers on an HC race have to be less than 90 minutes. The chief commissaire reports back to the UCI after the race and can remove our HC status if there is anything he doesn’t like.”
But even if the commissaire likes it, what of the riders? Some complained that last year’s route was too tough – not race winner Dylan van Baarle of Garmin-Sharp, obviously. Alex Dowsett told me he had warned his Movistar team-mates how hard it would be: that the roads were grippy and rarely flat, no matter what the day’s profile might say, but they were to a man taken aback by the severity of the parcours.
“I don’t think this is as hard as last year. The hardest stage is probably today,” says Hawes in mitigation. “But no matter what you do it will be wrong in someone’s eyes.”
Part of the reasoning behind the toughening-up process, apart from reaching HC status, was for the Tour of Britain to become a decent build-up race – thereby attracting a stronger field – for those preparing for the World Championships held two weeks later.
In that respect, it has been very successful, as Hawes points out: “We have nine WorldTour teams contracted. And it has changed from a contracted race to a race they really want to do. But we come very late in the calendar, so obviously a lot of the guys are knackered from riding all year.”
No more partying in the bar till the early hours with journalists, then, as may (or may not) have happened a few years back… The Tour of Britain is a serious race now. It needs to be treated with respect.
We are now on the flat run-in to Nottingham. Dramatic scenery has given way to red brick terraces, corner shops and university campus buildings. Another new mini roundabout goes into Baxter’s file.
I’ve been meaning to ask this question for a while now, and I’m running out of road. “So, in 2006, when the race got lost and ended up in a dead-end trading estate in Chatham…”
Straight back from Hawes: “Nothing to do with me. Must have been the lead moto…”
Over to you, Steve: “Nope, I wasn’t there that day. At that time, every time the race crossed to another county, another police force would take over. That’s why the Centralised Escort Group was formed, so that the same motorbike riders are on the race from beginning to end.”
“They missed a right turn arrow,” Hawes adds in defence of the Kent Constabulary. “You could see why. It was very confusing.”
And with that, we have reached the final kilometre of the route. Baxter can stop measuring the distances and put down his trusty pad. Hawes can relax briefly before driving on to their next hotel. He turns the Skoda into the park in Nottingham where, in the mid-afternoon of a Friday in September, a hurtling mass of riders will career towards the line in front of thousands of people, exhausted and dreaming of getting to London two days later.
Should they not make it, it won’t be because of anything Baxter and Hawes have done. They’re no comedians, you know.
Originally published in 1 issue 57