The farming village of Bancyfelin in the heart of Wales, with one pub, a post office and a tiny primary school, will be almost emptied tomorrow as cycling’s Tour of Britain rolls through the larger town of Carmarthen, five miles away.
The biggest draw in the peloton is the homecoming hero Geraint Thomas, whose dad Howell is from Bancyfelin, a community of just 300 people in the south-west of the country and where the family still has strong ties. The 32-year-old is back in the saddle in a meaningful race for the first time since breezing triumphantly down Paris’s Champs-Élysées, arms held aloft as the first Welsh winner of the Tour de France.
Thousands of people, many of them wearing yellow T-shirts in a nod to the yellow leader’s jersey that Thomas donned for most of the Tour de France, will line narrow streets for the opening stage of the eight-day race. The route begins in Pembrey country park in Carmarthenshire and winds 109 miles through Wales, including some stern climbs in the Brecon Beacons, before finishing in Newport.
It was a huge coup for organisers to secure Thomas’s participation, just five weeks after the conclusion of the Tour de France, arguably the most gruelling event in all sport. Also in the 120-strong peloton is Chris Froome, a four-time Tour de France winner, and the Dutchman Wout Poels, a Team Sky colleague.
The trio are among the world’s top 10 riders and their presence possibly reflects the improving standing of the Tour of Britain among the world cycling elite.
“We think of ourselves as the fourth classic, after the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España,” said Heath Harvey, chief executive of the race organisers SweetSpot. “Some people might say we’re not quite there yet but at least we have that vision.” The race, now sponsored by Ovo Energy, dates back to 1945 and has taken various names over the years, including the Milk Race, the Kellogg’s Tour of Britain and the Pru Tour. It has existed in its current incarnation since 2004 and spectator numbers have steadily crept up. About one and a half million people are expected to witness this year’s race, which will end in London a week tomorrow.
A significant number of those, particularly in Thomas’s home country, are expected to be first-time spectators of the race, inspired by his exploits over the Channel.
“New spectators of cycling are always blown away by the speed and scale, and how close you get to the riders,” Harvey said. “The wind will move your hair and shake you in your boots; it really is a spectacle.”
It is also free, apart from the cost of travel to the roadside. “The lovely thing about cycling is that you can still see the best athletes in the world and appreciate the art and be inspired by their performance without putting your hand in your pocket,” Harvey added. “It makes cycling very democratic.”
For those not able to get to the race it will also be shown live for five hours a day on the BBC and in more than 120 countries worldwide.
Harvey would not be drawn on how much it had cost to lure Thomas away from the hefty round of TV and personal appearances that have dominated his time since winning in France. But any race in the world, outside the big three, would envy such an illustrious rostrum of riders.
“The sporting gods were clearly listening to our prayers. It makes our workload twice as large, having a field of this calibre,” he said. “But it’s a good problem to have.”