The first Grand Tour of the cycling season got underway on Saturday as the first time trial of the Giro Italia was held in Bologna, Italy. 2018 was a huge year for British cycling, and we can only hope that this year matches it, as Britain is defending all three of the Grand Titles from last year.
Last year’s winner of the Giro Italia, Chris Froome, has opted to sit out this year’s event in order to focus on reclaiming the Tour de France title, as last year he had to make way for fellow Brit Geraint Thomas. In the Giro this year, Britain’s best bet for success is Simon Yates, from Bury, who led for much of last year’s event before blowing up in the later stages of the race. However, he achieved subsequent success by winning La Vuelta in Spain towards the end of the season. Despite being a British rider, Simon Yates rides for the Australian team Mitchelton-Scott and is joined on the team by his twin brother Adam.
Geraint Thomas is keen to repeat his Tour de France success this year but will naturally have strong competition from his teammate Chris Froome, and it remains to be seen which of the two will lead the team charge. Both men will be riding under the newly formed Team Ineos, who recently bought out Team Sky. The new team have inherited Team Sky’s management structure, led by the now legendary Dave Brailsford, and so it is safe to say that we can expect business as usual.
Nevertheless, this takeover has been labelled as highly controversial as Ineos is a British chemical company who is one of the largest manufacturers of chemicals and oil products in the world, including the production of solvents, biofuels, plastics, synthetic oils and insulation materials. The company is also involved with fracking in the north of England and the East Midlands, so naturally this takeover has caused outcry from many environmental campaigners.
Despite 2019 hopefully being another successful year for British cycling, we cannot discount challenges from other riders in the Grand Tours. The French are improving annually and Romain Bardet will be a strong threat for the British riders if he can remain injury-free. Australia’s Richie Porte will be more than a match as well, whilst other strong riders such as Tom Dumoulin, Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa will also be hoping to find some glory.
Although at the moment British riders seem to be dominating the world of cycling, this certainly has not always been the case. The Tour de France was the first of the Grand Tours, having been established in 1903, and it has certainly cemented its way into the record books, as it is the most widely attended annual sporting event in the world. The Giro Italia was established shortly after in 1909, with La Vuelta finally taking shape in 1935. Britain has had a poor history of having any sort of world class riders, and the greatest success came from Chris Boardman in the 1990s, having won three stages in his Tour de France career.
Before Boardman came Tommy Simpson, who became the first British rider to wear the yellow jersey in the 1962 Tour de France and won two stages of La Vuelta in 1967. Unfortunately, Simpson’s career was cut short as in the thirteenth stage of the 1967 Tour de France, he collapsed and died during the ascent of Mont Ventoux at 29 years old.
Britain’s first real success came in 2012, with former track cyclist Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France in 2012. Since then, the Tour de France has been won by a British rider on six occasions, with the success culminating last year when Chris Froome won the Giro, Geraint Thomas won the Tour and Simon Yates won the Vuelta. Chris Froome stands out as the dominant British rider, having won six Grand Tours so far, while no other has won more than one, and this places him 7th in the all-time rankings.
However, this success has not just sprung from nowhere. At the turn of the century, the UK Sports Council consciously made the decision to pump more money into cycling. Consequently we saw a huge improvement in British cycling, initially on the track, as British riders became a force to be reckoned with. Many of Britain’s track cyclists then began to look for new challenges and turned their attention to road races, and therefore we have also been able to develop a string of world class road riders.
Although the Grand Tours are the highlight of men’s road racing each year, there are still no three week races similar to these on the women’s road cycling circuit. The only comparable race for the women is the Giro Rosa, which is a tenstage Italian road race, and is the only race that is treated as broadly equivalent to the Grand Tour. Britain’s Lizzie Deignan has been a source of success in recent years, becoming the World Road Race Champion in 2015, the 2014 Commonwealth Games Road Race Champion, and picking up silverware at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Despite this, it remains to be seen whether she will be back on top form for this year’s circuit, having recently given birth to a daughter.