“I think I will see how the race pans out and not expend too much energy early on. Once it has settled down, I will pick one of those remaining days and try and get in the break.”
So Kristian House told me on the eve of the opening Tour of Britain stage from Anglesey to Wrexham. Never trust a professional cyclist. Especially one who makes it his business to attack every step of the way.
Within a few miles of the stage’s start in Beaumaris, the 35-year-old JLT-Condor rider was up to his usual tricks, placing himself in the day’s break alongside two other home-based Brits and An Post-Chain Reaction’s big Irishman Conor Dunne.
The quartet came painfully close to fighting out a stage win between them, but the all-day pace-setting of Team Sky’s Andy Fenn, followed by a text book lead-out by Mark Cavendish’s Etixx-Quick Step crew, saw them consumed in the finale – hard to swallow following a whole day on the attack, maybe, but mission accomplished in many ways.
Dunne wears the points jersey, Pete Williams of One Pro landed the Rouleur combativity award (a hefty chunk of local cheese), while House dons the mountains jersey – not for the first time at the Tour of Britain.
This is the tenth edition of the race for the man from Kent with the mid-Atlantic accent – he spent a large chuck of his earlier years living in Texas – which makes him an ideal candidate to discuss the Tour of Britain’s inexorable rise in status since its beginning in 2004.
House’s personal debut came the following year, riding for Recycling-MG. A stage finish in his hometown of Canterbury had been earmarked. Unfortunately, the race somehow strayed from the route and ended up in a supermarket car park in Rochester…
“All the ProTour riders were ganging up on the British riders,” House recalls. “We wanted to race, but they wanted to stage a protest. I remember one of the GB lads attacked and Boonen grabbed hold of him. One of the T-Mobile guys did it to me too. And then Boonen’s team won the stage, having called to go-slow! That was not cool. But it got better. It is very well done now.”
As course director Andy Hawes and his co-pilot Steve Baxter explain in the latest issue of Rouleur, each police force would hand over to the neighbouring constabulary at the county border in the early editions of the race. The infamous incident led to the formation of the Centralised Escort Group, police motorcyclists who now accompany the race from start to finish. There will be no repeat of the Rochester fiasco.
The reintroduction of the Tour of Britain in 2004 was a massive boost to the domestic scene and a major target for the year, especially for a rider of House’s capabilities.
“It still is. It has got bigger, better organised, the transfers have got better too,” he says. “It’s still a massive thing for us. And especially for me. I feel I could have ridden at a higher level and this is one of the few chances I get to show what I can do.
“In the ten years, I have sometimes been up the road six out of the eight days, won a mountains jersey, and some years I have gone for the overall. So to be able to show I can hold my own in this company is important – both as an athlete and for your reputation.
“This is now a race that can propel you to the next level, but I don’t think it was looked on that way in the early editions. Riders will now come here rather than the Vuelta as preparation for the World Championships, so that is a big change.
“Last year, you could see the ProTour guys being more active, trying to get into the breaks, making the race tough. Seeing them really racing it, not just making up the numbers, is a good omen for the Tour of Britain.”
The 2014 edition was a particularly tough route that took some of the continental riders by surprise. It’s one thing looking at a seemingly flat stage profile in the road book; quite another racing on grippy roads and rolling country lanes. House knew what to expect and adapted his approach accordingly.
“I changed my tactics a bit last year, from going in the break every day to picking a day and trying to win the stage,” he says. “I can’t stay with some of those guys on the climbs, so I need to target specific stages.”
Hence the all-day break on the opening stage to Wrexham, despite what he’d said the night before about not expending too much energy early on.
“It just kinda happened!” House texted me afterwards, as if he can’t help himself. He is not attacking for attacking’s sake, mind you: getting the sponsors’ jersey on TV because there is little hope of salvaging anything else from the race once the big boys come out to play. House is a clever racer. There is method in his madness, as I am reminded when asking what his favourite moments are from the previous nine Tour of Britain editions he has ridden.
“It’s really tough to pick one. Winning the mountains jersey in 2012 was obviously great – I was very proud of that. And then 2009, when I was national champion, that was pretty incredible. I had a goal of getting top-ten. Boasson-Hagen won that year and I finished tenth, which was the very back-end of my target – those two were probably my favourites.
“But in 2013, when they gave me the combativity award, when I should have got it the year before, that was quite meaningful as well. A bit of recognition for the type of rider I have been. And to get it in London, where all my sponsors were, was pretty amazing.”
Ah, yes, the 2012 combativity award. Our very own Richard Mitchelson was backstage at the end of the race in Guildford with a special one-off print to present to the overall combativity winner. House had spent most of the eight days in breakaways – the obvious recipient, you’d think.
Except the man in black had already sewn up the king of the mountains competition. Race organisers like to see the podium prizes spread around, so the unlikely figure of Mark Cavendish stepped up and, looking slightly bemused, was awarded the combativity prize by an equally bemused Rich Mitch. “The guy who drew the picture was pretty distraught,” House remembers.
Rich very kindly made another copy of the print for the moral victor. “That has pride of place in my living room. I don’t keep trophies on display often, but that means a lot.”
Good to hear. The trophy hunter is at it again this week, with the mountains jersey on his shoulders for starters, but he’s hungry for more.
“If there is an opportunity, you have got to take it when it comes. But a big goal for me is a stage win. We’ll see…”