The OVO Energy Women’s Tour

The OVO Energy Women’s Tour is organised by the fabulous folks at Sweetspot, the surprisingly compact team behind the Men’s Tour of Britain and the Tour Series. They have a big hand in the Prudential RideLondon too. I have worked with Sweetspot on and off since 2004 when they breathed life into the current incarnation of the Tour of Britain. Notably, we also collaborated on the 2007 Grand Depart of the Tour de France in London where Mick Bennett (Race Director at Sweetspot) was instrumental in delivering the Prologue and Stage 1. Transport for London was the body that bid for and delivered the Grand Depart and I was fortunate enough to be the Finance & Commercial Manager for TfL on what was an epic 3 year project. Undoubtedly a career highlight and deserving of a separate blog post in July given it will be the 10 year anniversary.

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An incongruous image for a post on the Women’s Tour…David Millar launched a doomed but entertaining attack on Stage 1 of the 2007 Tour from London to Canterbury.  It put him in Polka-dots.

Fast forward 10 years from the 2007 Tour and, confident in the knowledge I’d always paid his invoices promptly, I met up with Mick to explore opportunities for working on some of Sweetspot’s events. Within a couple of weeks he’d come up trumps with an offer to work on the Women’s Tour. I was going to get my first experience working on a stage race from start to finish.

I’d told Mick that I’d be happy to do anything, I just wanted to see how his team worked. As it turned out I ended up doing a whole variety of jobs: 8km signage, finish branding, catching riders and as a finale, managing the promotional zone in Trafalgar Square on the spectacular (and scarily fast) final days racing in London.

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The men averaged just 4kph faster in the Tour of Britain

Putting out the 8km signage was a nice job. The term ‘8km signage’ is a misnomer since it actually consists of 15,10,5,4,3 & 2km to go signs which get placed on the roadside so the riders can judge their final lead-outs and positioning for the stage finish. I worked as part of a two man crew to put out the heavy concrete bases and metal posts topped out with big pink correx signs. It was physical but straightforward work and it meant we got to see the often picturesque and technical race routes into each stage finish.

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Kilometre to go signage, as much an art as it is science

We took pride in placing the signs as close to the correct distance from the finish line as practical given the availability of suitable spots. But the truth is these route markers are not always precisely placed, they are a guide. It’s art not science! I did bristle just a little bit though when I watched the ITV highlights and heard the commentator mention that the kilometres seemed a bit long.

‘Catching riders’ sounded like it might offer a bit more glamour than signage, an opportunity to wear sunglasses rather than hi viz. But as it turned out (like most jobs on a stage race or pretty much any event), it actually involved no glamour whatsoever. It was fun though and offered a unique viewpoint on the race. Many sporting competitions have a podium with prizes for the top 3. Cycling is more complicated than that. A stage race like the Women’s Tour might have awards for:

  • Daily Stage Winner
  • Overall Race Leader (on General Classification)
  • Points/Sprints Leader
  • Queen of the Mountains
  • Most combative / attacking rider
  • Best British Rider
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Who needs Champagne? Alice Barnes on the podium this time instead of Hannah.  Adnams have been a good partner for the Women’s Tour

All these award winning cyclists need to step on the podium to rapturous applause immediately after the end of each stage to receive their jerseys/flowers/cuddly toys/huge keg of Adnam’s beer, though apparantley Grandma Barnes prefers Champagne. Some of the riders (about 2%) will head to the podium of their own accord. The remaining 98% either don’t know they have won anything, or feign ignorance and try to escape to the sanctuary of their camper van or team bus in order to get clean and dry. Whilst this is understandable given they’ve probably just raced 140km in the rain, the spectators, TV, media and VIP’s don’t want to wait all afternoon. Hence the need to literally catch the riders as they cross the line and escort them to the podium.

Catchers get a bright orange coat (so they don’t get run over by the riders or convoy), a radio (so they can confess to HQ should their nominated rider give them the swerve), and a lasso rope. I’m hopeless with a lasso, so instead attempted to ingratiate myself with my target riders Soigneur and enlist their help in getting the rider to the podium as quickly as possible. Riders tend to do what their Soigneurs ask, they know their next meal or massage may depend on it.

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The circle was complete – back in Trafalgar Square exactly 10 years after I’d helped deliver the 2007 Tour opening ceremony in the same spot

My role on the final day of racing was to manage Trafalgar Square, temporary home to the Women’s Tour promo zone and also to various activities put on by Transport for London and cycling stakeholders. This involved liaising with the licensing authorities, supervising the build, being on hand during the day in case of problems and then overseeing the breakdown. The biggest challenges came at the end of the day and were related to site access. The nature of a big bike race requires that a lot of road closures go in. The scale and complexity is compounded when the location is Central London and the security threat level is severe. Everybody got out in the end and remained good natured throughout, but it did make for quite a long day.

My takeaways overall from the Women’s Tour…

The organisation, crew (and volunteers) have seemingly boundless reserves of energy. How does breakfast at 4am sound? They were good humoured throughout, took pride in their work and understood the importance of the smallest details.

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Bicycle Ballet, photo credit Experience London Blog

The professionalism and athleticism of pro women bike riders is a match for the men. This wasn’t a surprise and it’s not something I’d really pondered before. It’s simply a fact that became abundantly clear to me having had the privilege to watch and listen to the riders close-up. When you hear teammates robustly ‘de-briefing’ each other immediately after they’ve crossed the finish line (perhaps the sprint lead-out didn’t go as they’d hoped) you are left in no doubt that this is a job and a tough one!

A multi-stage bike race is complicated. Clearly the logistics alone of moving all those people and kit from one place to the next is enough to give most people a headache. But it’s much more than a travelling circus. What you don’t see is the work that’s gone on in the run up to the event itself, perhaps over the preceding year or more – the commercial deals, stage hosting agreements, route planning, licensing, risk assessments, marketing and press, launch events etc etc…

The official OVO Energy Women’s Tour video

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