The Youth Tour of Scotland (#YTOS2017) provided a sharp early season focus for seven Yorkshire riders. Four stages over three days in the stunning countryside around the city of Perth tested their speed, stamina, skill and team-work and gave them a taste of racing on closed roads with motorcycle escorts and neutral service vehicles. Residential accommodation at a local public school ensured that they sampled the institutionalised lifestyle of stage-race riders as parents were ushered away after Friday afternoon’s drop-off, leaving a dedicated and hardy band of team managers and coaches with the task of guiding their inexperienced charges through the event.
Day one dawned sunny and stayed sunny. A hilly circuit around the tiny village of Forteviot looked like an ideal way to split the fields and establish an early GC pecking order. However, a big crash in the boy’s race effectively ended the GC ambitions of all but a handful of riders. Yorkshire’s Ollie Rees was in the lucky break that stayed clear of the carnage and he was second on the line behind ace Scottish sprinter Alfie George.
Two Yorkshire riders were caught in the crash: although Jonny Gill’s injuries were slight, his new bar tape took a beating; meanwhile Sam Watson’s injuries were more worrying as he rode the last few laps with one arm drawn into his body and his team staff feared the worst. Happily, a sprained wrist was the first aiders’ diagnosis and pain killers and a good night’s sleep were prescribed. The team’s fourth rider, Joe Pidcock, did some impressive work to break up the main pack mid stage and he finished tired but rightly satisfied with his work.
The team’s girls had a mixed stage, with Lucy Naylor showing her strength and experience to finish in the main bunch, just over a minute down from Wales’ Elynor Backstedt, who soloed to the win. Megan Cullen stayed in the main pack almost to the end before losing touch and couple of minutes in the final few miles. Olivia Ingham missed an early break on the first climb and was left to work hard within a small group who came in seven minutes down.
Day two saw the team setting up camp in the village of St Davids, half an hour’s drive from the race HQ at Strathallen School. A two-stage day saw them tackling a short Team Time Trial in the morning, before a fast and flat race on the same 4 mile circuit on local lanes in the afternoon.
In the Time Trial, the girls recorded arguably their best result of the weekend, finishing 8th, only 42 seconds down on the highly impressive Welsh team who rattled round at a rapid 26.6mph. With team captain Lucy Naylor cajoling along her two less experienced team-mates, the Yorkshire trio made light of less than 10 minutes of TT training together to keep a tight formation throughout and average 25mph. Most of the other teams could also draw on four riders, whereas Yorkshire, denied a fourth rider by a late pre-event injury to Laura Ibbotson, had to make do with three and with the third rider’s time setting the team’s time, there was no margin for error
The Yorkshire boys were more familiar with the format and were very frustrated to miss out on the win after a smooth ride that saw them average over 29mph and finish third, just 3 seconds behind winners, Ireland. The bonuses were confirmation that Sam Watson was OK after his wrist injury scare and Ollie Rees closing up to just 2 seconds behind the new leader, Zach Bridges of Wales, on GC.
The afternoon stage saw mixed fortunes for the Yorkshire contingent. Sam Watson rode a very smart and impressive race to first chase down a small break of the front of the boys’ field, before pushing on in the company of the Isle of Man’s Tosh Teare and easily out-sprinting his rival at the finish to claim the win for Yorkshire.
Earlier, Joe Pidcock again showed his attacking approach with some big moves at and off the front of the race, before understandably fading in the final few laps, whilst Ollie Rees kept himself out of trouble and in contention with 6th, second in the main bunch sprint containing all his GC rivals. Jonny Gill’s afternoon was less straightforward with a puncture and another crash, over the bars, but luckily onto grass. Jonny must have thought he was attracting all the team’s bad luck by this stage.
However, even worse luck struck the girls during the stage. Fast and flat, the course suited all three Yorkshire riders, who were well placed throughout as the strong Welsh team controlled any attacks. But control turned to chaos in the final mile as 70 riders wound up a down-wind sprint for the line: a rider switched across the bunch in search of a route to the front and brought down, amongst others, Yorkshire’s Lucy Naylor, who landed awkwardly and hard on her shoulder.
Lucy re-mounted and crossed the line, but was clearly in trouble. She was rapidly moved to the first aid tent along with another rider, also with a shoulder injury. Lucy’s symptoms necessitated an ambulance and several anxious hours before she was given the all clear and was allowed to return to race HQ with a sling and instructions not to race the following day, which was a blow given her strong riding up to that point, that had lifted her to 17th overall. Megan and Olivia both finished the stage safely in the bunch.
The third day dawned cold and the girls warmed up in the midst of a heavy shower. That cleared but the roads were wet as they tackled ten laps of a short but technical course – narrow, twisting and featuring variable surfaces, partially though the school grounds and including a 100 metre climb at about 15%.
Megan and Olivia found themselves at the back of the field at the start and were briefly distanced from the bunch at the front of the race as many tired riders began to drop out of contention. However, they chased hard and soon made contact with a 30 rider group that was soon lapping slower riders. The Yorkshire duo fought hard and well to stay there right up till the last few hundred yards of the last lap, before finishing 25th and 28th respectively on the stage and 26th and 31st overall, solid performances from two riders experiencing their first multi-day event. Both clearly enjoyed themselves, drew inspiration from Lucy Naylor’s leadership and rode better as the event went on and their confidence grew.
For the boys, the final stage had a lot resting on it. Ollie Rees had to try to get a small gap to claim the overall and the rest of the team were primed to try to help him achieve it. Once again Joe Pidcock launched some softening-up attacks and Sam Watson policed much of the significant action at the front. Rees was increasingly active at the front in the closing laps as he tested his main rivals and kept an eye out for any surprise attacks.
In the end, it all came down to a prolonged sprint up the main climb and then onto the 100m finishing straight, with a big crowd of parents and team staff providing loud encouragement. Rees did his best, with Watson providing a surging lead out, but although overnight leader Zach Bridges faded in the final few yards, Alfie George nipped in with a trademark late sprint to nick the stage from Watson and Rees. All three were awarded the same time, but George also took the overall win thanks to a 10 second bonus for coming first on the stage. Rees had to be content with second overall, after a series of smart and controlled rides that came within a whisker of giving him victory.
The boys’ team might have missed the big prize, but they can look back with satisfaction on an event where they were on the podium after every stage. They had more than their fair share of bad luck in the crashes, but rode with sprit, flair and were generally spot-on with their team tactics. Rees was a worthy and tenacious contender for the GC, whilst Watson often looked the strongest rider in the field after shrugging off his first day crash. Joe Pidcock, with his restless, attacking style and Jonny Gill, much more understated but highly capable, when bad luck gave him the chance, can also look back on a job well done.