The Italian banter inside the Vittoria neutral service car and the chatter of the commercial radio station is disorienting.
A commercial advertises Simoni bundles for mobile phones. Has Gilberto entered the communications market? Or is race radio announcing the 44-year-old, twice Giro winner as a late entrant? Later, it dawns upon me: SIM only.
Marco Villa is our driver, a veteran of two Giri and coach on the Italian track team to Team Sky's Elia Viviani, who later pulls alongside in his yellow jersey to chat. There is little Villa hasn’t seen in professional cycling. We are in safe hands.
The opening nine kilometres are neutralised. The roads are narrow and the corners tight as we make our way through Pendleton; an apt choice. The scenery is beautiful: bone dry, sun-dappled roads that the home riders are certain to appreciate more than the WorldTour stars, given the recent scarcity of dry days.
An explosive start. The peloton sprints up the Nick O’ Pendle from the gun. Moreno Hofland scored LottoNL-Jumbo’s first win of the season at the Tour de Yorkshire, but Lancashire has his number. Straight out the back. He is not alone.
Off the Nick O’ Pendle at 90kph for the descent into Sabden, chasing the shattered remains of the peloton. The speed limit is 30mph, but even accounting for the change of metric, we are, well, speeding.
Someone has set the peloton’s control to “full gas”. No one is willing to give an inch. Many have to. Madison-Genesis youngster Matt Holmes wears a startled expression as his team change a wheel. Moments later he has passed us, surfing the convoy with aplomb.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. We scream alongside the riders in our hurry to reach our allotted slot on the bumper of the president’s car. Fabian Wegmann turns - furious - and gestures at us. We are hurtling through the traffic, riders on one side, school children sat cross-legged at the side of a road with no curb on the other. We pass them with inches to spare. This is no fun. Later, Wegmann comes to the car to reiterate his point. He is calmer now – just - but Marco is cucumber cool. “I was on the klaxon for 30 seconds. Why he not move?”
After the insanity of the opening 20km, André Greipel is still in the leading group. He is huge, even when viewed from behind and at a distance of 200m. He shimmies around a drain cover as we enter Ribchester with Daniel Teklehaimanot (MTN-Qhubeka) glued to his wheel. Finally, a moment of respite. Greipel’s team-mate Marcel Sieberg sits up like a meercat, tall in the saddle, and scans the remains of the peloton. Lotto-Soudal are here in numbers.
Conor Dunne stoops to protect his modesty. Tricky, when you stand over two metres tall. Even the highest hedgerow offers little in the way of privacy, and the dry stone wall barely clears his knees.
“Madison-Genesis to the front. Number 91. Your rider’s had a lie down in the hedge”. The black Volvo passes in a blur. Manager Roger Hammond knows a little about bike racing. We pass moments later with Hammond out of the car and talking to Mark McNally; moments after that, McNally passes us, chasing back on to the peloton.
Thirty-five kilometres done and Pete Williams (One Pro), winner yesterday of the opening stage Rouleur Combativity Award, shows every sign of wanting more of the glorious Stilton that accompanies it. His lead is already 5’20”. The convoy, by contrast, is sedate; unrecognisable from the carnage at the start of the stage.
A kilometre later and news breaks on the radio that rider 101 has set off alone from the front of the peloton in pursuit of Williams. It is, of course, Movistart's Alex Dowsett. He has his work cut out: Williams has an advantage of 4’45" and the first hour of racing has been completed at an average speed of 41.3km. Dowsett is no stranger to breakaways, however.
A friend in need...
Fifty-eight kilometres done. Beautiful scenery. The village of Whitewell ahead. Kurt Bogaerts is doing his best in the AN Post-CRC team car for a recovering Mark Renshaw (Etixx-QuickStep), without offering an outright tow, such is the “there but for the Grace of God…” mantra by which teams survive in the peloton.
It’s a privilege to watch Renshaw ride in the convoy; a vastly experienced professional showing the full range of his skills. A few miles further and we pass Renshaw’s bike being worked upon, but there is no sign of the rider, who has presumably cleared off on a spare machine. Meanwhile, news arrives that Dowsett has caught Williams. This could be the dream duo for a breakaway.
Down a steep descent into Slaidburn. Very pretty. Hordes of cheering school kids in the churchyard. The exit from the village brings a steep climb with a vicious hairpin that brings the convoy to a halt. The bikes on the roof of the cars ahead are visible above a dry stone wall. Antwan Tolhoek (Tinkoff-Saxo) punctures on the hairpin, but is soon past us and glued to the bumper of the AN Post-CRC team car, which seems to be offering neutral service of its own as a windbreak.
The travail of Gabriel
Great Britain's Gabriel Cullaigh, recovering from a puncture, sprints past us uphill, before gaining respite on - you guessed it - the bumper of the An Post-CRC Mercedes. Cullough is just 19, yet already possessed of rippling leg muscles and a piston-like pedal stroke.
As the road drops away and the speed of the car increases, Cullaigh fights the bike, which twists and jinks beneath him. He is travelling at 60kph if the gauge on our dashboard is accurate, and the lactic in his system must now be heavily diluted by adrenalin.
Bogaerts and co. momentarily abandon their mobile windbreak for a comfort break while we drive on through the tunnel of soigneurs. Their cargo has been despatched as we arrive and the faces are turning away as the personnel make their way purposefully towards the waiting vehicles. Chris Lawless (Team Wiggins) cuts a sorry figure, riding alone and slowly.
Eddie Dunbar appears to have some sort of problem and is deep in discussion with the personnel inside the ubiquitous An Post-CRC team car. It’s a heartening sight: the Irish connection, for sure. The NFTO car arrives belatedly, and Bogaerts accelarates clear, but Dunbar appears oblivious to the change. His jaw is still working furiously, as if his conversation has continued uninterrupted.
We make our through the convoy and alongside the peloton as Barnoldswick draws near. Viviani and Cannondale’s Alan Marangoni are in conversation, Stannard is chatting through the window of the Sky car, and Wiggins rides with effortless grace. All very normal. Less typical: news on the radio of thousands lining the streets of Barnoldswick and sightings of UCI president Brian Cookson in Colne.
Malcolm Elliott is driving the race doctor in an open-top Audi, his peroxide barnet obvious from a distance of several miles. It’s hard to imagine a better driver; one who has been there, seen it and done it, both as a rider and a DS. Lawless and Dunbar have formed an effective alliance and steam past Elliott’s convertible, back to the safety of the peloton. Neither was born when Elliott was winning Grand Tour stages.
Past the gates of the Rolls Royce factory in Barnoldswick, and towards a large sign emblazoned with the name Steven Burke, we are witness to the biggest crowds of the day so far in a town that cyclists will recognise as the home of Hope Technology. A group of its employees stand at the foot of Cavendish Street. Apt.
Lawless is dropped again on the climb out of town. This is going to be a long day for the 19-year-old. He gulps down a gel and diligently deposits the wrapper back in his pocket. We pass him and within a minute he passes us again. Gutsy.
The Earby Express
Lawless again. A super tight turn en route to Earby and onto a donwhill section marked by a red sign for danger and labeled – accurately - in the road book as “fast descent”. Lawless, who looked finished a moment ago, now passes the Vittoria car as if we are about to abandon, not him. He is lying prone on the top tube and travelling at nerve-shredding speed.
This has been a tour - already and again - for the underdog. The domestic teams and the chosen few selected to ride the escalator to success that is British Cycling's Olympic Academy are showing themselves in number. One Pro Cycling's Pete Williams was the recipient of the first Rouleur Combativity Award of this year's race yesterday. He and his team are riding hard again on stage two.
Marco the magician
Villa appears to have a sixth sense for the position of the riders. He stops on corners, apparently for no reason, before a rider flashes past. His former calling has taught him that the racers have greater claim to the road than we do. Lawless is the beneficiary on this occassion.
The climb of Bleara Moor is savage and the peloton is again at full gas. Andy Hawes promised an Ardennes Classic. This must be the Cauberg. The car can barely reach speed in double digits. We pass Dunne, hero of yesterday’s opening stage, now barely moving. His breathing is audible through the window of a car now travelling in silence in the absence of any meaningful wind resistance.
We’re summoned again to the bumper of the president’s car, and make our way at high speed along a single track road with horn blaring. Wiggins and Russell Downing are among those we pass with an inch to spare at 70kph. Do these veterans even consider the danger, or how much, nowadays, either of them needs to expose himself to it? There must be easier ways to earn a living.
The peloton has shattered and a large group ahead is already on the descent. Now we’re travelling at speed, horn blaring, past Dunbar, riding alone ahead of Wiggins and co. in pursuit of a group of about 50 riders descending at impossible speed (our gauge shows 90kph and we are in absolutely no danger of catching them).
Bottle for Stannard
The moment of the day. Ian Stannard punctures, our mechanic Paolo changes his wheel, and Marco accelerates before his colleague is fully in the car. Cue Italian expletives. Marco, however, is already thinking of the rider. He has grabbed a Vittoria bottle and as we pass Stannard, hands it to him.
When Stannard releases his grip, he is immediately catapulted into a roundabout with impossible force. He flik-flaks left and right at incredible speed, narrowly avoids two idiots crossing the road ahead, and is half-way up the following climb before we catch him again.
There is a desperate hunt in the car for another bidon, but we have none. Instead, Marco offers him a shop-bought bottle of mineral water. Stannard, phlegmatic to the last, spots the obvious faux pas, and declines the offer with a smile and a shake of his head. “We don’t want a ‘Nibali',” he chuckles.
Roughlee does it
Another harum scarum descent on rough roads into tight corners as we enter Roughlee, a pretty village that might have been named for its road surface. The scenery round about is stunning. Yorkshire had the Tour de France, but the pictures of Lancashire from today’s stage are likely to be equally inspiring.
Describe Hugh Carthy numerically and he is 90 per cent legs. His card has been marked for me by no less an authority than Cannondale-Garmin DS Charly Wegelius. Carthy is a rider making it by his own efforts, Wegelius says, and Charly, better than any, knows how hard that is. Carthy, by day a member of the Caja Rural Pro Continental squad, today rides in Great Britain colours. Bravely.
The big end: Pendle, Chatburn, Clitheroe (revisited), and Higham
Pendle Big End has blown the leading group to pieces. McNally is cooked. Carthy’s long levers are failing him. Even Clément Chevrier, IAM Cycling’s rising star, is fading fast. By any standard, this is hard.
It’s a motor race through Chatburn and we drop back through the convoy. The Tinkoff-Saxo Citreon clearly has the brakes of a Formula One car. A forest of hands is visible in the peloton ahead but they are not our concern: every team represented has a vehicle present, and every vehicle sounds its horn to warn the others of the rapid approach of the recovering McNally and Chevrier. Pass it on.
Thousands of spectators, many of them in the road and a high-speed peloton still travelling at pace after the final intermediate sprint does not bode well, but everyone survives unscathed. Clitheroe is postcard pretty, and our return visit, getting on for four hours after our departure, is welcome.
Another nerve-shredding chase through the convoy and we’re back on the bumper of the president’s car in time to see Peter Kennaugh drop back to his team car for advice. What are Sky planning? The 10km to go sign looms large, with Etixx-Quick Step’s Czech national champion, Petr Vakoc, 30 seconds up the road.
A descent and then another brutal climb, before turning hard right past Brierfield station. Just 5km to go, and the peloton is strung out in pursuit of Vakoc, whose advantage now stands at just 25 seconds. Bottles fly from the bunch like shrapnel as it speeds past the Nelson Cycling Club (long defunct, if the boarded windows are a guide).
Through a barriered section with 4km to go, a narrow tunnel of humanity, across a roundabout and onto a suddenly broadened road, in time to see Sondre Holst Enger (IAM Cycling) throw down his bike in disgust, beset by a mechanical in the finale.
Riders are being shelled from the peloton, which flicks wildly from left to right. Vakoc remains ahead, oblivious to the indecision among his pursuers.
A final assault begun beneath the flamme rouge sees Greipel and Marangoni dispatched; Johnny McEvoy (NFTO) lasts a few pedal strokes longer. The climb is long and hard, with Cannondale visible ahead, leading a writhing peloton that jinks left and right across the road ahead of us.
Cannondale’s Alberto Bettiol is the next we pass as the crowd bang the boards in approval. With 100m to go, we reach the deviation, and find ourselves suddenly in the distinctly unexciting environs of a municipal car park in Colne. It is like coming up for air.
Surreal moments #257. I climb from the car and begin my search for the podium in a town I’ve never visited in my life. Conveniently, a gap in the barriers occurs, and I am there, in time to be ushered on to the stage, cheese in hand, by SweetSpot’s commercial director, Alistair Grant. The recipient is none other than Pete Williams. The man’s taste for Cropwell Bishop’s cheesy comestibles is boundless. Fermented curd despatched, it is back in the Vittoria car, bound for Manchester Airport and a flight home. Breathe.
Grazie mille, Vittoria