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Tour of Britain: selection matters

Why we should congratulate Sweetspot for their selection of all five British UCI Continental teams for this year's Tour of Britain

It’s been a long and painful period for elite road racing in the UK. The last elite national road race – the Bourne CiCLE Classic – took place on 1st September 2019. Since then, we’ve watched enviously whilst racing has continued – albeit in a stop-start and reduced fashion – over in mainland Europe.

For Sweetspot to invite all five UCI Continental teams this year – as well as the Great Britain squad – is just the kind of fillip the domestic scene needs after such a tough period

Even before the Covid pandemic put paid to British road racing in 2020, the outlook was less than favourable. The last of the UK’s big-budget UCI Continental teams, Madison Genesis, had pulled out from the sport. Landmark races like the Lincoln Grand Prix and the Eddie Soens Memorial had teetered on the edge before being saved at the last. British Cycling had decided to stop funding TV coverage of the National Road Series. The number of women’s National Road Series races had dwindled.

Then the pandemic hit, road racing shut down and there has been little in the way of good news since. The Tour of Scotland folded in financial ignominy, the RideLondon-Surrey Classic was axed, Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother UK shut down, the Tour de Yorkshire was postponed (twice), and at least half of the 2021 National Road Series races were cancelled.

2019 OVO Energy Tour of Britain – Stage 5: Birkenhead Park to Birkenhead Park, England – Erick Rowsell of Madison Genesis. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

British Cycling’s new elite road racing manager Erick Rowsell had ambitions to turn the ship around. He announced the introduction of Elite Development Team status and a new U23 competition for the National Road Series in what he hoped would be the first small steps towards reviving the domestic road racing scene. But Erick has since left British Cycling, a little over a year after being appointed, there has been no news about which teams have been designated EDT status yet, despite the application process closing in January, and teams tell us behind the scenes that communications from British Cycling about road racing plans this year have gone pretty quiet.

In short, the prospects for elite road racing in the UK have not been looking good. And that’s probably an understatement.

Within this rather gloomy context, Britain’s five men’s UCI Continental teams must have been waiting nervously to find out whether they would be selected to ride the Tour of Britain this year. As the only major road race on UK soil for men in 2021, it would be their one shot at maximising their exposure to the UK road racing fanbase and beyond. The Tour of Britain traditionally only selects four British UCI Continental teams, meaning one team looked set to miss out. It certainly left us wondering which team that might be.

So for Sweetspot to invite all five teams this year – as well as the Great Britain squad – is just the kind of fillip the domestic scene needs after such a tough period. Sweetspot say the decision was taken “in recognition of the challenges posed and the lack of racing opportunities since last March owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a desire to assist them with current and future commercial partnerships in a challenging economic climate.”

And to announce the decision so early, months ahead of the race, provides the teams some certainty and stability at a time when they likely need it most.

Trinity Racing’s new DS Ian Stannard, himself a Tour of Britain veteran, summed it up well, saying in Sweetspot’s press release, “I can see the struggle every Conti team has just to keep moving forward, so competing in marquee events like this with the support of SweetSpot really makes a big difference.”

Amongst the doom and gloom, Sweetspot is proving to be an important good news source this season for UK racing. They rearranged the Women’s Tour to a new October date to ensure the UK’s only remaining WorldTour race returned in 2021. And what’s more, they then announced that the race would have live coverage for the first time. They were also swift to rearrange the Tour Series, moving it from May to August. And not only that, they added an injection of spice and intrigue to the crit series by partnering with USA CRITS to give the men’s and women’s series champions the opportunity to compete in the American criterium series’ finals weekend at the Winston-Salem Cycling Classic in North Carolina in September.

So, chapeau to Sweetspot. Without them the UK’s racing scene would be looking threadbare. Instead, after a long, long wait, we now finally have top-class racing to look forward to this year. It will be interesting to see now whether their good news trend and invite all three British women’s UCI Continental teams to the Women’s Tour in October.

2019 OVO Energy Women’s Tour of Britain – Stage 6 The Velodrome Carmarthen to Pembrey Country Park. Photo: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com

For next year’s edition of the Tour of Britain, selection criteria for British UCI Continental teams will be re-introduced, and SweetSpot and British Cycling have said they will work with teams to confirm the process in Autumn 2021. The competition will bound to be tough. We’ve already had one elite team tell us they are hoping to step up to UCI Continental level for 2022, and the new Spectra Wiggle team has also declared its ambition to be a UCI Continental team by 2024. But letting teams know early how the selection will be made – and how many teams will be selected – will again provide certainty ahead of what we all hope will be the start of a revival of British road racing in 2022.

Featured photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com. 2019 OVO Energy Tour of Britain – Stage 5: Birkenhead Park to Birkenhead Park, England – Rory Townsend of Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes on the podium in the Eisberg sprints jersey.