Tour de Yorkshire helps to put a smile back onto cycling’s face

Skipton's Pete Williams, winner of the King of the Mountains and the Most Aggressive rider awards, receives the pink jersey from Tour de France legend Bernard Hinault (Picture: Bruce Rollinson).
Skipton's Pete Williams, winner of the King of the Mountains and the Most Aggressive rider awards, receives the pink jersey from Tour de France legend Bernard Hinault (Picture: Bruce Rollinson).

As well as a requirement to enrich and entertain, the Tour de Yorkshire had a responsibility yesterday to restore a little faith in cycling.

The sport has suffered one of its most chastening weeks since its elevation to the mainstream in this country.

Allegations of sexist and discriminatory bullying by Shane Sutton, the top coach at British Cycling, was merely the tip of the iceberg.

On the eve of the second annual jaunt through the White Rose county came news of a British rider, Simon Yates, failing a drugs test.

Suddenly a sport that had enjoyed an uplifting renaissance was being dragged back into the dark old days of the not-so distant past.

Orica GreenEdge, Yates’s Australian team, have accepted responsibility for the 23-year-old’s positive test for terbutaline, which is used to relieve asthma symptoms. The team admitted an administrative error led to the medicine being given without the required therapeutic use exemption certificate.

Yates has not been suspended, but however far-reaching the ramifications, there was a greater sense of duty on the shoulders of cyclists and organisers on the start line in Beverley yesterday morning.

An obligation, almost, to prove that the sport can continue its crusade against drugs while retaining a brave face.

And for the thousands who lined the route, their faces chapped by the blast of unseasonably wintry showers, there seemed an extra determination to embrace the more positive elements of cycling.

For if nothing else, the Tour de Yorkshire is a tour de force for cycling, and so it proved once again, on a day of great cheer and, as ever, thrilling racing.

For the hundreds who lined the finish line in Settle, who saw the riders pass twice in a final lap of the market town, thoughts of failed drugs tests and bullying were likely the furthest thing from their minds.

This was a day to cherish, and how they did as spectators along Church Street smacked the hoardings with gusto to greet the bunch sprint, and a victory for Dylan Groenewegen as the sun finally emerged from behind leaden clouds.

The 22-year-old Dutchman, riding for Lotto NL-Jumbo, made his move 50m from the line, grabbing the inside barrier and holding off the challenge of Caleb Ewan, the rising star of world sprinting, and an Australian much fancied to take a stage here in Yorkshire.

“It was very good lead-out from my team,” said Groenewegen. “It was perfect; the last corner I took the lead and I could hold it to the finish. I’m very happy with this win, it’s very good for me and the team.”

Earlier the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales had taken their toll on Sir Bradley Wiggins, the headline act, whose race was run some 50km from home.

Wiggins remains a box office draw, but the Tour will not suffer for his absence, not when his focus is clearly on the track and an Olympic swansong in the Rio velodrome. Wiggins posted an apology to fans via social media later in the evening, confirming where his priorities lie.

Local acclaim from a field of 10 Yorkshire riders that ranged from evergreen Rotherham racer Russ Downing to Danby’s Frazer Clacherty – who at 18 was the youngest rider in the field – went to Pete Williams.

The 29-year-old, who was born in Southport but moved to Skipton to be closer to the cycling-friendly roads of north and west Yorkshire, put local knowledge to good use by taking the King of the Mountains classification.

He formed part of the early six-man break alongside Doncaster’s Graham Briggs of JLT Condor.

That sextet were able to make greater headway out of Beverley due to a crash in the pack within the first kilometre, which saw tyres screech to a halt on a cattle grid, Katusha’s Sven Erik Bystrom the biggest casualty as he was forced to withdraw.

By the time they had come to the 60km marker and the race for the King of the Mountains jersey, the break that had led the way through Market Weighton, Bubwith, Tadcaster and Wetherby had been reduced to three.

And it was Yorkshire’s Williams, the King of the Mountains at last year’s Tour of Britain, who raced through the funnel of fans to the top of Cote de Greenhow Hill, despite nearly falling off the bike when he missed his pedal.

“You’ve just got to get on with it and recover,” said Williams, who was also named the day’s most aggressive rider. “It was a bit of a cat and mouse up there, but it worked out all right.

“It was a tough day, it was cold and there was a headwind all day.

“But we’ve trained all winter around these parts so (yesterday) wasn’t actually that bad.”

Williams ploughed on alone through the idyllic villages of Grassington and Threshfield until he was caught by three further cyclists, one of whom was another Yorkshire rider in Josh Edmondson of Leeds, the one-time Sky rider rebuilding his career with NFTO ProCycling.

Eventually, they were swallowed up by the peloton near Gargrave, some 20km shy of the first loop of Settle.

Sky and Orica GreenEdge then began to flex their muscles on the front, and by the time the finish line honed into view up a narrow shoot through Settle, the men of the seven world tour teams in the race had taken charge.

“It was a fast old run-in,” lamented Downing, 37, the former British champion whose attempts to get JLT Condor team-mate Chris Lawless into the sprint finish evaporated in a splintered bunch.

“The job was to try and look after Chris for the sprint, but we got a bit boxed in and lost each other so he had to start his sprint alone.

“I was just behind him. If I’d got in front of him maybe we could have got a top-five, who knows. We had Graham in the break early and we all rode well as a team.”

Tom Stewart was Yorkshire’s first home in 14th. The 26-year-old, of Madison Genesis, gets the chance to improve on that today on the second stage from Otley to his home town of Doncaster.