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Comment: Britain's Grand Tour golden era is over, for now

William Fotheringham
24 Aug 2020

Without a British rider targeting the overall for the first time in a decade, the Tour will be much different to what we've become used to

A golden era can meet its end with disturbing suddenness. That’s what happened last week, when none of Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Mark Cavendish was selected for the 2020 Tour de France. This will be the first time since 2008 that a Tour has started without a British leader targeting the overall standings. That closes 10 years of dominance of the race by the British.

Let’s remind ourselves of the trio’s considerable impact. Between 2008 and 2016 Cavendish has won 30 stages. Since 2012 Froome has won the race four times and finished second and third overall, taking seven stages along the way. Thomas, meanwhile, has ridden the Tour 10 times since 2007, won three stages and finished first and second overall.

Only four British cyclists are expected to start the 2020 Tour. Adam Yates will lead Mitchelton-Scott in search of stage wins – although if he ends up in line for a high overall placing you can’t see him spurning it, while Hugh Carthy rides for Education First, Luke Rowe captains Team Ineos and Conor Swift makes his debut for Arkéa-Samsic.

That’s perfectly respectable, far from a return to the days before Cavendish found his sprinting legs in 2008 and before Bradley Wiggins leaned up to target the overall win in 2009.

Back then, mostly, there weren’t many British cyclists in the Tour and the UK media didn’t expect a great deal. If a stage win happened from the likes of David Millar it was a bonus; in 2005, with Millar banned for doping, not one Briton started in La Grande Boucle.

As I wrote that year in the first edition of Roule Britannia, Great Britain and the Tour de France, the UK’s fortunes in the Tour have waxed and waned over the years. Until the 1950s, only two Britons had even started the race.

Since then the picture has either been relative famine, with a couple of competitors punching above the nation’s collective weight – think Barry Hoban in the 1970s, Chris Boardman in the 1990s – or one of plenty: the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Tom Simpson years, or the 1980s, or the last 12 editions, thanks to Cavendish, Froome, Wiggins, the Yates brothers, Thomas, and Steve Cummings.

Since first writing, Roule Britannia has been through four editions, and its current incarnation is much fatter than the first, reflecting the UK’s dominance of the Tour de France since 2012.

Where are we headed now? It’s certainly not going to be the relative famine of the late 1990s and early noughties. The Yates twins are only 28 and are entering their prime.

Simon has won seven Grand Tour stages since starting the Tour in 2014, and has the overall title in the Vuelta to his name. Few would bet against him adding at least one more Grand Tour – why not the Giro d’Italia later this year?

Adam isn’t as prolific but has a more than solid list of wins to his name, most recently the curtailed UAE Tour earlier this year. He has finished fourth overall in the Tour; his move to Team Ineos, announced on Friday, should enable him to progress with a stronger team around him, as long as he avoids the temptation to reinvent himself as a team rider.

If you are looking for winners, Londoner Tao Geoghegan-Hart notched up two stage wins in the Tour of the Alps last year, and finished 20th in the Tour of Spain.

Chris Lawless landed last year’s Tour de Yorkshire. Meanwhile, Carthy is a world class climber who finished 11th in last year’s Giro; also bubbling under is James Knox, who finished 11th in the 2019 Vuelta.

So there are your flagbearers for the next few years. Additionally, the WorldTour is currently well stocked with UK cyclists, 24 of them to be exact, which is actually not far behind Germany (32) and Spain (31).

There are another nine bubbling under at ProContinental level. That’s healthy enough. Indeed, only last week another WorldTour rider was added to the list with Solihull’s Jake Stewart moving up to the Groupama-FDJ WorldTour team for 2021.

Run your eye down the lists and there are plenty of riders with potential and time in hand. Mark Donovan, in his first year with Team Sunweb is a talented climber; Charlie Quarterman is an all-rounder currently with Trek; Ethan Hayter, now at Team Ineos, managed two stage wins at the Under-23 Giro last year; Gabriel Cullaigh at Movistar and Steve Williams and Fred Wright at Bahrain-MacLaren.

Argubly the most talented of the lot, Tom Pidcock, isn’t listed anywhere but is rumoured to be moving to Team Ineos next year.

This doesn’t mean we are in for a straightforward continuation of the Wiggins-Froome-Cavendish-Thomas years. Far from it. What has been persistently overlooked during the last 10 years is just how unique the era of British domination was.

Looking at the history of the Tour, only the greatest cycling nations have won the Tour with three different riders in a relatively short spell of time: France, Italy and Spain.

For one country to come up with the greatest sprinter the Tour has ever seen at the same time in Cavendish was unlikely, but it did happen.

The problem, if there is one, is just how seamless such success appears unless you stop and put it into perspective. Getting an initial WorldTour contract is difficult enough in itself; getting a second deal is tougher still; winning a WorldTour race is even harder… and so on.

What’s certain is that there are enough British cyclists currently in the WorldTour and just below to ensure we don’t slip back into the doldrums.

We have to have realistic expectations. What is coming now is probably a period of relative normality: British riders win stages, make it into the top 10 overall and just race like a normal cycling nation.

There’s nothing wrong with that. France has been waiting 35 years for a Tour winner to succeed Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon and Bernard Thévenet, the stars of their last golden era. With any luck, we won’t be biting our nails for quite so long.

William Fotheringham is the author of Roule Britannia: Great Britain and the Tour de France, available here: williamfotheringham.com/roule-britannia-a-history-of-britons-in-the-tour-de-france