Circuit des Mines (France)
LAYING DOWN THE LAW
IF young British cyclists need something more to aspire to after the multiple successes at Olympic and World Championships on the track, the national team racing at the 40th Circuit des Mines could more than fulfil the role. The sixman squad - Chris Newton, Bradley Wiggins, Bryan Steel, Paul Manning, Steve Cummings and Phil West - all track endurance riders, travelled to France and carried off a stage-race victory that elevated their reputation once and for all to the status of a genuinely professional team. The days of going to race on the Continent 'for the experience' are surely behind them now.
Of the six riders, Newton and Wiggins had the best legs, and started the first stage with an equal billing. Newton made the break and won the sprint for second place to take a six-second bonus, staking his claim for the yellow jersey and assuming the role of team leader. Wiggins, who had taken precedence - and the overall victory - at the Cinturon Internacional Mallorca last month, reverted to domestique de luxe mode, and combined with the rest of the team to protect Newton every kilometre of the way to the biggest road victory of his career.
With national track manager Simon Jones keeping a watchful eye on the riders' power outputs and physiological states after each stage, road manager John Herety was in charge of team tactics. A former pro with Co-op Mercier, Herety has an inherent sense of how to go about road racing, and is blessed with the disposition to be able to deal with the inevitable hiccups that stem from officious race personnel and absent-minded riders losing hotel keys. Moreover, he went to France with a dedicated team that were willing to work to exhaustion and follow orders without egos bubbling up in the way.
"It all went exactly according to plan," he said after Newton had collected his final bouquet of flowers and a couple of trophies too large to go as hand luggage on the flight home. "It almost went too smoothly. I wasn't sure he'd got it until he went under the one kilometre to go banner on the last stage."
Newton took over the yellow jersey in unfortunate circumstances. When the incumbent, Sergiy Matveyev (Panaria), suffered the ignoble fate of crashing into the 200 metres to go sign on stage five and retired from the race, Newton was so intent on winning the stage that he initially did not realise what had happened to the Ukrainian.
WORKING FOR THE WIN
His ride the next day confirmed his status and left him a little easier in the maillot jaune. Wiggins took off in the break to police any would-be aggressors, while Steels, Cummings, Manning and West headed the peloton, keeping the move in check. The race came back together on the penultimate climb, leaving Wiggins to protect Newton in the final kilometres.
"Bradley drove to the bottom of the final climb, he sacrificed his place," said Herety after the stage. "They rode like a pro team today."
The finish - an 800-metre, one-in-four stretch to Malbrouck Castle - was Newton's chance to show he deserved the yellow jersey; he flew up on the wheel of French track team rider Jean-Michel Tessier and stage winner Daniel Schnider (FdJ). It wasn't as easy as it looked, though. "It was terrible!" said the Briton. "I went up it two years ago in the back group and it was just as bad then. I just engaged my lowest gear and rode tempo to the finish."
Day seven, the final day of the race, was split into a morning time trial and an afternoon road stage. Concentrating on Newton's position rather than their own, Steel, West, Cummings and Manning were all in the bottom half of the general classification, and had an early start on the 23.5-kilometre course. All rode within themselves, preserving their strength for the final test of the race, but still placed respectably in the field.
"I've saved a bit for the finish," said Cummings. "After 130k on the front yesterday and the day before there's a bit left in the legs, but I'm going to collapse after this afternoon."
As Wiggins - in 11th place overall - completed his warm-up, the wind suddenly picked up, playing havoc with the advertising banners and balloons that decorated the start and finish area. It had a similar effect on the last riders off; aside from the former world junior pursuit champion, only one other of the final dozen riders made it into the top 10.
Nathan O'Neill, third. on GC and riding in the polka dot jersey, stunned the crowd as he stormed into the final straight before the race commentator had finished welcoming in fourth-placed Jean-Michel Tessier.
While O'Neill moved up to within a few seconds of second place, Wiggins edged into the top 10. "'It was a 100 per cent effort," he said. "The conditions really changed for the last 20 riders, and I was second best of that group, just seven seconds off O'Neill. Its just a shame that it doesn't show on paper."
Seventh place on the result sheet may have been unrepresentative of his strength, but it did not go unnoticed. La Franqaise des Jeux's Marc Madiot came over for an informal chat with John Herety in the break between the time trial and the afternoon road stage, making tentative enquiries about both Wiggins and Newton. Herety took the French directeur sportif's approach seriously, but explained that the team had season-long commitments centred around the Track World Championships in October. "All six of them would have had professional contracts if they had been born in Belgium,
or France or a traditional cycling nation. FdJ wanted to take Chris for the end of the season, but its not an option. He's not looking for that at the moment, but if a good contract with a First Division team came along he might."
Newton was concentrating on the job in hand, and even after he had crossed the final line, arms aloft to tremendous cheers from the Hayange crowds, he seemed a little unsure of his victory.
"I'm so relieved, I was getting so nervous before the stage," Newton said. "My legs don't hurt at all. When the sprinters' teams started to string it out with about 10 kilometres to go I just sat in;
FdJ strung it out. Normally I would have had a go, but I just stayed out of the wind."
With prizes for the stage, the final general classification, points, mountains, hot-spot sprints, best young rider and best Lorraine rider it was a drawn-out presentation. As the crowd of riders in their respective jerseys lined up for photos and applause, a small group of riders tailed in across the line in front of them. Daniel Mangeas, ubiquitous master of ceremonies at all French bike races from the Tour downwards, interrupted his speech to congratulate Phil West and Bryan Steel as they finished the race. "There are two of the British team who have ridden so well for Chris Newton," he told the crowds, and an appreciative cheer followed them down the finishing straight. It was a heartfelt sentiment that echoed throughout the British camp.
"The team worked really well," said Newton, "we did in Majorca for Brad too, and he's repaid me tenfold." A gracious team leader with a devoted band of riders to protect him and a proficient back-up team, why shouldn't British bike racing always be like this?
STAGE ONE.- Briey-Plan-D'Eau
1. Sergiy Matveyev (Ukraine) Panaria 151.5km 3-40-22
STAGE TWO.- Jouef- Bouzonville
1. Jean-Michel Tessier (France) French track squad 93.2km in 2-06-37
7. C. Newton at st
STAGE THREE.- Bouzonville-Forbach
1. Jimmy Casper (French) La Francaise des Jeux 107km in 2-54-33
STAGE FOUR.- Rosselange-Guenange
1. Robert Sassone (France) French track squad 157.5 kilometres in 4-16-46
STAGE FIVE.- Ste Marie aux Chenes-Metz
1. Chris Newton 169 kilometres in 4-07-30
STAGE SIX.- Trieux-Chateau de Malbrouck
STAGE SEVEN.- Rombas time trial
1. Eddy Seigneur (France) Jean Delatour 23.5 kilometres in 30-15
17. C. Newton at 1-31
STAGE EIGHT.- Moyeuvre Grande-Hayange
1. Robert Sassone (France) French track squad 111km in 2-38-10
FINAL GENERAL CLASSIFICATION
1. Chris Newton 23-34-23
RULER-WIELDING Union Cycliste Internationale officials caused a last-minute headache for John Herety and the Great Britain squad on the morning of the time trial, when they questioned the legality of Chris Newton's handlebars. The integral handlebar and fork set-up was questioned by the head commissaire when he noticed Newton warming up in the car park.
"They looked through the book, believing that having the bars attached to the forks was illegal," said Herety. He explained that Chris Boardman had taken the bike to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and that he had liaised with Roger Legeay - directeur sportif at Credit Agricole, Boardman's former team - and the UCI when setting up the bike for Newton.
After a hurried phone call back to the their superiors, the commissaires changed tack, checking to see if a different rule - stipulating that the lowest
point of the handlebars must be above the top of the front wheel - had been infringed. Fifteen minutes before Newton was due to start the commissaires gave him the all-clear.
"You have to be careful in these situations," said Herety. "We'd put Bryan Steel's low-pro as low as possible, in case Chris had to ride that, but it wouldn't have been ideal. We tried to keep Chris out of it, but they kept coming over to look while he was warming up. They are only doing their job."
The problems didn't stop once Newton had got under way in the time trial.
Ten kilometres into the 23-kilometre course his right tri-bar moved, forcing
him to rest heavily on his left arm. "He'd been trying to get as
low as possible, moving the bars to get used to it in training,"
said Herety. "It slipped, but Chris knew that nothing was going to
fall off and he was OK with it."