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For anyone who's been paying attention, there's absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Britain is falling back in love with the bicycle. However, there are few - if any - British towns that love the bike, and bike racing, quite so much as does Stoke-on-Trent; which now has more than 124km of National Cycling Network routes reserved solely for cyclists and pedestrians and earned the status of an official Cycling Town under a sustainability, regeneration and development initiative created by Cycling England, a project that achieved real and noticeable results in its efforts to improve cycling's exposure, cyclist's safety and get more people on bikes before the country went temporarily mad and voted in a Conservative government who wasted no time at all in ending the project's funding and thus forcing it to close. In fact, cycling is so popular here that this is the third time it's hosted what has become known as the Stoke-on-Trent Stage; starting and finishing in the city and looking set to become as regular a part of the Tour of Britain as the Alpe d'Huez climb is a part of the Tour de France.
|Ford Green Hall (© Phil Eptlett CC2.0)|
The first half of the race is relatively unchallenging - or will be provided that the battering wind and rain that forced race organisers to cancel Stage 2 have abated, at any rate - with no serious climbs; the parcours consisting chiefly of long straights and easy corners which give it the feel of a long, mass-start time trial rather than a stage of an eight-day race. The second half is completely different with several big climbs, including a steep Category 1 which will really test the rider's strength after 86km, and a series of very tight corners, bends and assorted other technical obstacles.
|Trentham Hall, demolished in 1912.|
Passing north along Park Drive, the peloton reach the B5038 and travel north-west for 1.6km before arriving at the A519 and turning left. The road leads under the M6 motorway, soon reaching 3.9km from Trentham Gardens and the end of the neutral zone next to a lay-by at 52°57'32.14"N 2°13'14.56"W. Moments later, they reach Beech, then the junction with the A51 (according to the roadbook, there's now a roundabout here - there wasn't in the past, but we're going to assume one has been added). The first exit, going left and east, leads towards Stone - however, the race turns a tight 80 degree right corner to head to Swynnerton.
|Swynnerton Hall (© Simon Huguet CC2.0)|
The route passes Eccleshall Castle on the right. Built originally in 1200, then rebuilt as a vast and imposing fortress just over a century later, the Castle was briefly home to Queen Margaret of Anjou in 1459 as she either prepared for or fled from the Battle of Blore Heath (the story varies and both are possibly true). Much of it was destroyed by Cromwell's forces during the Civil War, with those remaining parts passing into the hands of a family named Carter - relatives of the US president of the same name - at the beginning of the 20th Century and it remains in private ownership to this day.
|Eccleshall (© Andy and Hilary CC2.0)|
Having crossed a railway bridge very slightly narrow than the road either side and thus unlikely to cause any issues, the peloton reach Norton Bridge and arrive at a roundabout half a kilometre later. The riders need to take the second exit, but it's rather a technical junction whether they go left or right around the center due to the unusual angles and kinked approaches of two of the exits. Left is the longer route but to us it appears that it might just be possible to take this path at a higher speed than the shorter right path which may require a sharper turn - it's one of those ones where it's not really possible to tell unless you ride it and find out. The roundabout leads directly onto another railway bridge, then along more straight roads.
|Stone Mill. It was here 1887 that Stoney Richard Smith came|
up with an idea to remove wheatgerm from grain, cook it and
then add it to the final dough mixture. He patented the idea
and began selling his new bread, starting the brand we now
know as Hovis. (© Chris Allen CC2.0)
Now a medium-sized market town, Stone has an illustrious past - it was once the capital city of the powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, a kingdom that grew to encompass a vast part of England from Bristol in the south to Blackburn in the north and from the Welsh borders in the west to The Wash, parts of East Anglia and London in the east. Christianity came to the region in 650 with monks invited here by the Mercian King Penda despite the fact that he never converted and retained his pagan beliefs until his death five years later. However, it was not an easy transition: the next king, Wulfhere, was considerably less tolerant than his predecessor and murdered his sons Wulfad and Ruffin after they converted. Surprisingly, he later converted. The princes were buried at a spot now occupied by St. Michael's Church, marked by two piles of stones - this being the reason the town is named Stone.
|Sandon (© Andy and Hilary CC2.0)|
The lane is narrow with thick hedges running along either side, meaning that the peloton will be forced to spread out along the road. It also climbs around 78m before descending again over the 3.3km section to Milwich, reached 32.1km from the start. The race travels straight through the village before following a wide right-hand bend on the other side. Turning slightly left at Coton and taking the right-hand option at a fork 0.96km later, the Tour enters East Staffordshire and comes to Field after another uncategorised climb. Around 0.87km before Bramshall is a crossroads, the route to the right leading to an industrial estate - another potential spot for diesel spills - and, 188m ahead of it, a level crossing. Though of ancient origin, much of Bramshall dates only from the 1990s when several large estates were built to turn it into a dormitory town for Uttoxeter just 3km away. It's not a place to go in search of quintessential rural English charm. The second intermediate sprint begins after 44.8km from the start at 52°53'58.27"N 1°52'35.44"W.
|Here Be Monsters: JCBs at Uttoxeter (© David Lally CC2.0)|
|Uttoxeter High Street|
(© Humphrey Bolton CC2.0)
The drinks station is located in a lay-by 50.3km from the start of the race at 52°56'4.10"N 1°51'26.08"W - this has the potential to cause crashes as the available space is quite limited. 4.55km later, the race reaches Rocester on the right of the road and, on the left, an enormous industrial complex set in extensive landscaped gardens - the world headquarters of JCB. Bamford developed a safety feature for his diggers to prevent the shovels falling to the ground and smashing anything underneath them should the hydraulic pressure be lost early on during his company's history, demonstrating his faith in the system by having a digger lift itself off the ground on its front shovel and back-hoe before driving his car underneath the machine. This trick not only proved an extremely successful way of demonstrating the failsafe mechanism, the diggers' ability to raise its own weight and perform various manoeuvres when controlled by a skilled operator made them hugely popular with the general public. This led to the formation of a display team which became the JCB Dancing Diggers, seen at various shows and events around Britain each year. Large cycling events, as we know from the displays put on by companies along the Tour de France route each year, are an excellent opportunity for a bit of free publicity; so expect JCB to be doing something spectacular as the Tour goes by.
|Wootton Lodge, near Ellastone, is owned by the Bamforth|
family - heirs to the JCB fortune (© John Poyser CC2.0)
Soon, the race reaches Ellastone, Hayslope in Eliot's Adam Bede - it's a pity that the race turns left at the junction in the village rather than right as this means the riders don't pass across the beautiful bridge guarded by two Second World War pillboxes, one of which is remarkably well-preserved and still bears traces of its camouflage paint. The stage's first categorised climb - Cat 2 Ramshorn - begins right at the junction.
The first section of the climb isn't too testing, though there are a couple of steep ramps. It begins to get steeper as the riders pass Parkgate Lane on the left, rapidly hitting 200m a short way before Wootton. The peloton follow the road as it veers left and away from the village, descending slightly past a long, thin woodland before the final part. Having followed the road as it turns right into Ramshorn village (pronounced Ramsor by locals and spelled that way by the Quaker movement, in whose early history it played an important part). The road reaches the end of the climb by a house on the right, 63.2km from the start (53° 0'51.54"N 1°53'19.41"W) - according to our data, the road continues to climb from this point but we're not as confident in it as the NASA data we used during the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana, so assume the race information is correct.
|"Road" near Blackbrook. Since is the Tour of Britain and|
not Paris-Roubaix, the riders don't have to go up here!
(© Ian Calderwood CC2.0)
Having traveled 70.2km from the start, the peloton reach the superbly-named Bottomhouse before turning right at the next crossroads to take the B5053 and left at a staggered crossroads 0.89km later. This carries the race onto Blakelow Road. The feeding zone begins just after the turning, with team stations spread along the left of the road (so as the provide a clear passage through the zone, team feed stations are always located on the left in the Tour of Britain except for in some rare and exceptional circumstances) all the way up to a waterworks (also on the left) 1.7km away. As ever, the feeding zone is potentially hazardous due to the sheer number of riders ferrying bidons and musettes back and forth.
After turning a very tight 90 degree left at a junction 89m further ahead, the race approaches Meerbrook - there's a potentially slippery section after 1.06km near Tittesworth Visitor's Centre under overhanging trees. From the left-hand bend just past the Centre, there are excellent views to The Roaches (a high rocky ridge, the name coming from the French les roches) and Hen Cloud. A small colony of wallabies, descendants of those that escaped from a private zoo in the 1930s, are occasionally sighted in the area; despite failed attempts to prove beyond doubt that they're there. After another 0.47km, the riders cross the Tittesworth Reservoir Causeway, no narrower than the road and an excellent place for panoramic views. They continue left at the junction 0.25km after the causeway.
The Category 1 climb of Gun Hill begins at 84.2km, at the village hall on the right of the road - and it's a steep one, rising 135m in 2.1km. The climb ends at a lay-by on the left after 86.3km. A short while after the top of the climb, the race reaches two crossroads, turning left at both; having descended almost 50m by this point, entry speeds will be high and thus the first turn will need to be approached with caution. The second, 100m ahead, will be approached at a much slower speed (especially by anyone who's left meat on the road at the first). They turn left again at a T-junction 1.4km later, then join the A523 0.9km ahead and reach Leek 92.7km from the start.
|Greystones, Leek - and behind it, Larner Sugden's|
Nicholson Institute (© David Stowell, CC2.0)
Leek is also famous as one of the very few places on Earth that experiences a double sunset. It takes place once each year three or four days before Summer solstice when the setting sun dips behind Borsley Cloud - part of a nearby ridge - then reappears briefly in a hollow on the hill's near-vertical north face prior to dipping below the horizon.
|Cheddleton Station is on the Churnet Valley Railway - not|
connected to the national network and still running several
steam engines. This is a popular way for locals to get
around, not merely a tourist attraction. (© Roger Kidd CC2.0)
Having reached Wetley Rocks - also with potential for diesel spills, since it's home to a large animal rendering plant - the peloton turn left at a junction with the A522, following the road for 2.4km until another junction and a tight right turn onto the A52, then a tight left 0.39km further along onto an unclassified route known as Bank Top Road. There are some trees just around the corner on the left, meaning the exit could be slippery, and more at the next bend - a gentle left - 0.54km ahead. The riders remain left at the fork 0.4km ahead, encountering a tree-lined medium left 0.72km later then turn a very tight 90 degree left onto Godley Barn Lane 1.3km later.
Once past the point where a road joins from the right, the route becomes known as Birchenfields Lane and, 0.31km later, turns a tight right by a farm and becomes known as Trimpos. On the western outskirts of Cheadle, it changes once again to Brookhouse Lane, then again as the race passes through the croassroads onto what it now Draycott Cross Road. The final categorised climb of the stage, Cat 2 Commonside, begins 300m later at 52°58'50.52" 2° 0'33.09"W, 111.6km from the start, by the national speed limit signs (diagonal black stripe on a white background). It ends almost exactly 1km later by a gate on the right at 52°58'21.27"N 2° 1'4.58"W.
|The Draycott Arms, listed in the Good Pub Guide and thus|
an ideal place for a pint if watching the race makes you
thirsty. (© Ian Calderwood, CC2.0)
At the next junction, around 0.95km ahead, the riders turn a tight right and arrive almost immediately at Saverley Green. Following the bend to the left as the road travels past the village, they should arrive at Fulford minutes later. The route continues through the town, coming to a crossroads with the B5066 1.7km later and turning right to head towards Meir Heath, passing through another crossroads after 1.6km and reaching the town with 122.7km covered since the beginning of the race - reaching around 254m above sea level, Meir Heath claims to be the highest town in Staffordshire. Reaching the roundabouts in the centre, the race takes the first exit (tight left) onto the A520 towards Rough Close, taking the second exit at the next roundabout onto what the roadbook called Hartwell Road but we think is Hartwell Lane.
With 129.7km ridden so far, the peloton reaches another T-junction and turns left for Blurton Road. This leads into a tight 90 degree right bend 0.96km later, followed immediately by a T-junction where the riders will once again turn left. At the traffic lights 0.8km ahead, they turn right onto the A5035 and arrive at Dresden another 0.8km later - we've been trying to find out if Dresden is named after the German Dresden, also famous for fine ceramics, vice versa or if it's a coincidence, but thus far have no been able to discover any information one way or the other. Anyone know?
|Many have been demolished, but|
a few bottle kilns - named for their
distinctive shape - can be found
tucked away around Stoke-on-Trent
(© Chris Allen CC2.0)
The second exit leads onto Broad Street and, 0.22km later, a junction where the riders will take the road to the right - it's a forked junction and can be taken at speed, leading straight onto the final sprint along Albion Street. However, this is not a normal, straight sprint - the entrance to the last section is narrow, with an extended kerbs projecting a pedestrianised area out into the road to slow traffic and then, after straight of approximately 160m, the road follows a semi-circle around the front of the Staffordshire Stoke-on-Trent Conference Bureau - it's also uphill, rising quite steeply to the end. This leads immediately to the finish line, 140km from the start at 53° 1'26.47"N 2°10'29.93"W.
|Albion Street, looking west away from the finish line to the|
entrance where the white car is turning right in the bottom
left. It can clearly be seen that this final section rises quite
steeply, making things difficult in the sprint to the end
(© Ian Brereton CC2.0)
Weather: At present, Tuesday around Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire is looking set to be a lot better than Monday between Kendal and Blackpool. The main difference is the wind, which should gust no stronger than around 30kph - that's still powerful enough to blow a rider off course (meaning no deep-section rims and increasing the likelihood of those echelons that many fans seem to like so much), but it's not enough to blow them right off the road and into the fields like the 90kph blasts on Monday could have done. It should also remain dry for the first part of the stage, though there's a strong possibility of light rain in the later afternoon - the stage should have finished by that time, but even a few drops will make some of the later corners distinctly hairy. Temperatures will vary between lows of 14C and highs of 16C.
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