On Saturday, the Madison-Genesis team rode their hearts out as they tried to win the Skoda King of the Mountains jersey at the Aviva Tour of Britain – and we were in the car with them as a thrilling but stressful day unfolded.
If you’re of a certain age, you may remember the 1990s TV advert for The Economist where, as a businessman settles into seat 2A ahead of his flight taking off, a voiceover wonders who will be in seat 2B.
As the new arrival is shown to his seat, the voiceover adds, “Hey .... It’s Henry Kissinger; ready for a good chat?” The businessman – clearly not an Economist reader – looks rather daunted at the prospect.
That’s a little how I felt on learning I’d be spending time in the car with Roger Hammond, Madison-Genesis team manager and, for anyone following cycling here before the game-changing Lottery money transformed the sport, a beacon for British fans when we had few riders to cheer for.
Twice national road champion, eight-time national cyclo-cross champion (with a rainbow jersey at junior level to boot), a two-time stage winner at the Tour of Britain, and a regular challenger in the cobbled classics with podium finishes at Paris-Roubaix and Gent-Wevelgem – as a rider, he was among our very best in the 2000s.
Still, unlike the hapless businessman who finds himself sat next to the former US Secretary of State, I’ve met Hammond before and know him to be very friendly and approachable, and so it proves as we meet up at the lead car in Fakenham before Saturday’s penultimate stage to Ipswich.
There’s tension in the air too, however, and not just because of wet roads caused by an overnight downpour and the threat of more rain later; Madison-Genesis have two riders within three points of the leader of the mountains classification, Pete Williams of ONE Pro Cycling.
Today sees the final three categorised climbs of the race, and with the first coming early on, it’s essential the team gets one of those two riders into the break.
Before racing begins though, there’s the first puncture of the day to deal with in the neutralised zone, a consequence of the start line being on the gravelled road at the Norfolk town’s racecourse, race radio calling for Madison-Genesis to service a rider in the peloton.
Scanning either side of the road, lined with crowds, we can’t spot an orange team-issue helmet and soon learn from Brian Holm of Etixx-Quick Step as he drives past that they have lent the rider, Matt Cronshaw, a wheel; mechanic Sam, sitting in the car with us and Madison marketing director Kellie Parsons, will be busy enough later today though.
Once the flag drops, we wait for race radio to relay the news of any break – it soon arrives, and one of the four numbers announced is that of Stewart. ONE Pro Cycling have also managed to get Chris Opie in there. Once the break is established, we draw ahead of the peloton and tuck in behind the escape group.
With a maximum four points on offer at that first KOM point, Opie’s presence is a worry, given the Cornish rider’s sprinting ability.
Hammond pulls alongside Stewart and tells him how he expects the KOM sprint to pan out – there’s no two way radio communication at this level of race, and team orders need to be issued concisely when a rider is nearby, or having a mechanical attended to.
Also in the break are NFTO’s Jonny McEvoy, and Alistair Slater of An Post-Chain Reaction – not riders you’d expect to have a strong interest in the mountains competition as it reaches its climax, though that’s not how it turns out.
Opie goes for and gets the maximum points, while Stewart shuts out a strong challenge from McEvoy to take second place and three points to draw level with Williams. Sam quickly calculates that the ONE Pro Cycling rider still leads the classification on countback.
With guaranteed points for Stewart at the next two KOM sprints if the break stays away, there’s no way ONE Pro Cycling are going to let that happen, and they continue to ride a team time trial at the front of the peloton to reel it back in.
Hammond is frustrated. With the growing status of the race, it’s harder nowadays for a domestic team to win a jersey, yet with Williams also leading the sprints classification by a distance, as things stand the new boys on the domestic scene are poised to win two.
To an outsider that’s perhaps understandable – neither jersey is guaranteed, and winning one or both will boost their hopes of elevation to UCI Professional Continental status.
But it’s also perhaps the case that if it had been one of the longer established British teams, an unspoken agreement would be reached to pursue one goal and let Madison-Genesis pursue theirs.
Sir Bradley Wiggins, after a wheel change, pops alongside for a quick chat. He and Hammond go way back – including riding the 2008 Tour of Britain together for Team Columbia.
Always ready with a quip, British cycling’s biggest star jokingly likens the rival team’s sports director Matt Winston and CEO Matt Prior to “Ray Winstone and Ian Botham playing Procycling Manager,” the computer game. It’s not ‘Game Over’ yet though.
McEvoy attempting to outsprint Stewart still rankles with Hammond, too. The notion he did so to try and keep team mate Ian Bibby, who still has a mathematical chance of the jersey, in the equation doesn’t wash.
Norwich takes our attention away from the KOM competition momentarily. The home of sponsors Aviva, there’s a twisting route through the centre of the city, including cobbles, and it’s raining.
The route is confusing and at two points, some race vehicles and riders go the wrong way – we find ourselves heading for a 4x4 coming the opposite way on suddenly open roads. Hammond guns the Volvo over the central reservation and turns round, the riders near us bunnyhop.
Worse, on a couple of stretches, the crowds – enthusiasm undampened by the rain – are in the road, and we need to catch up with the race. Hammond leans on the horn, the crowds part, thankfully.
And right at that moment, the car gets another call for service over the radio – a Madison-Genesis rider has crashed. The second car, it turns out, reached him first. We’re out of the Norfolk capital, the weather turns, the race settles down, and the countryside and villages are gorgeous.
At the feed zone in Thetford, I switch to the second team car, with Corinne, the videographer accompanying the team on the race, switching to car one. Before leaving, I’m told to expect a lot of references to Land Rovers.
Joan Horrach, the team’s sports director who hails from Mallorca, turns out to be a huge fan of the quintessentially British off-roaders; he’s in for a treat a bit later as we travel through Suffolk towards the finish.
Winner of a stage in the 2006 Giro d’Italia with Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears, he later rode for Katusha and finished his career at Madison-Genesis.
I’m riding shotgun, with the team’s other mechanic, Chuck, in the back seat. Away from the immediacy of the front of the race, where Hammond is calling the shots, it’s slightly less tense.
A second break has got away – three riders, including Movistar’s Alex Dowsett, who comes from the next-door county of Essex. They build a lead of almost eight minutes before Lotto-Soudal, looking to set up André Greipel for the sprint, start reeling them in.
Meanwhile, a bike change for one of the riders results in the mechanics swapping cars – the bike needed is on the roof of ours, but the lead car had already stopped to try and provide assistance.
With Chuck closer to car one for the bike change, and Hammond desperate to rejoin the fray, Sam, already out of the car, joins us.
The second KOM sprint – in the rolling countryside of East Anglia, ‘climb’ isn’t really the correct word – sees Opie take the final point remaining to the riders behind the escapees, Stewart missing out. He’s still level with Williams, but behind on countback.
Shortly after that, we hit the MOD base at Wattisham Airfield. Horrach is in Landrover heaven – there are dozens here, painted khaki – but the mood turns sombre as we hear of a crash.
It happened on the air base’s taxiway, and the sports director points out the ruts on the surface that while forgiving to an aircraft’s tyres are less so to those of a racing bike.
As we pass the scene of the chute, we see two BMC riders receiving treatment; both will abandon, thankfully without serious injuries.
We also pass Tao Geoghan Hart of the Great Britain team, back on his bike which, like him, is badly smashed up. It’s a Cipollini; that’s a wince on both counts. Opie has also crashed.
To our left, on the runway proper, we count off the Madison-Genesis riders now heading in the opposite direction to us. They’re all still present.
There is one more chance left for Stewart to win the jersey, and Hammond sends the team to the front to try and bring back the break to give the Madison-Genesis rider as much of a chance as possible of taking points.
We’re following the live commentary on ITV4 through the in-car entertainment console. As you’d expect from a Volvo, for safety reasons pictures are blocked unless the vehicle is stationary. The break’s lead is coming down, but is it happening quickly enough?
Frustratingly, the signal keeps dropping. We’re getting updates from race radio too. On ITV4, Hugh Porter and Brian Smith are enthralled by the efforts of the Madison-Genesis riders.
The gap keeps narrowing – not by enough though, it seems – but then Dowsett gives up the ghost and the catch is made at the foot of the climb.
The heroic effort is in vain, though. ONE Pro Cycling are all over the top of the climb, and Williams gets the points to seal the first of the two jerseys he will win.
By this point, we’re following Madison-Genesis rider Tom Scully, spent after playing his part in the chase and off the back of the race.
We follow him over that last climb and through the closing kilometres to Ipswich, a commissaire riding pillion on a moto pulling alongside at one point to tell us – perhaps unnecessarily – that if Scully manages to rejoin the group, he’ll know something underhand has gone on.
He needn’t have worried. The rider had declined any offer of a bottle – sticky or otherwise – and gamely pedalled on to the finish, as the last, lone rider of the race receiving warm applause from the crowd.
We arrive in Ipswich around 12 minutes after Greipel has won the stage. At the bus, there’s disappointment. The riders gave their all, and came so close to pulling it off.
But there’s pride, too, in the way they rode, and the consolation for the sponsors at least of knowing that Madison-Genesis were centre stage for most of the afternoon’s live TV coverage.
The mountains jersey wasn’t to be, but today in this flattest of the UK’s regions, each member of the team rode up one in the figurative sense, and can hold their heads high.
Thanks to Madison-Genesis and their sponsors for the chance to experience first-hand what turned out to be a thrilling day’s racing.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.