In front of the Parliament an unmarked black Jaguar has just reversed into a crash barrier. The driver leans out to share a laugh with a nearby race official. It’s no big deal.
Under the start gantry, the neutral service cars are ready to go. Commuters’ heads swivel at the sight of them, spare wheels bristling from their roofs like a pair of rubber porcupines. This is not your ordinary Wednesday morning ride to work. This is the Tour of Britain.
Just round the corner a sizeable crowd has gathered in front of the stage where the riders will sign in. Along Queen’s Drive, all the team cars and buses have lined up under the Salisbury Crags.
At the BMC bus, Taylor Phinney is giving an interview. Another crowd has formed to listen in. In the background Team Sky ride past. Sign in has opened.
A group of school kids have congregated by the Wiggins team trailer, shouting for Sir Bradley. Every time a door opens, an expectant cheer goes up. His Dogma F8, with SRAM eTap and gold decal Zipp 404s, is sat under an awning getting its fair share of attention.
It’s time to go and meet Kellie Parsons, Madison’s Marketing Director. I spot her chatting with Madison Genesis Team Director Roger Hammond. When he disappears off for a moment, I take the opportunity to introduce myself. Kellie tells me we’ll be in a car with Roger and Team Mechanic Sam Hayes.
There are two cars, both with spare bikes and wheels on the roof. One has the new carbon fibre Zero, while the other has the Reynolds 953 Volare. Steel might not be a popular choice for racing, but these bikes are a thing of beauty.
We get in and wait for Roger. It’s not every day you sit in a car with a real champion – in every sense – of the sport. Was I nervous about sharing a car with a living legend? Yes. Should I have been? No. When he joins us we shake hands, and he’s so genuine and amiable that it’s difficult to remain nervous.
We drive off to line up along Queen’s Drive behind the cyclists. Soon we’re off, driving out past waving spectators. The atmosphere in the car is buoyant. The team’s goal for the day is to protect the King of the Mountains jersey worn by Tom Stewart.
It’s not long before the radio announces an early break. At first they’re identified by rider number, but we only hear part of the group. It’s a tense few minutes until we hear the riders named in full. Cheers erupt – Madison Genesis rider Tom Scully is in there.
The break is short lived though. When another goes, there’s a hurried effort to find out if the riders in it are a threat to Tom Stewart’s jersey. Roger and Sam work out that no rider in the break can earn enough points on today’s climbs to take the jersey. This means that the Madison Genesis riders can stay in the peloton and take it easy.
To put taking it easy into context, we spend most of the day driving around 40mph. That is, until the radio calls for the Madison Genesis team car.
Roger pulls out of line and hares towards the peloton. Time is of the essence keeping your rider in the race. Even on a closed road, taking blind bends on the wrong side of the road has you stepping on the imaginary brake.
The radio comes back on to let us know it’s a front wheel that’s needed. We dodge some motorcycles and then Mark McNally comes into view.
Sam jumps out of the car and swaps the wheel in a beat. He gives Mark a push back toward the race and is back in the car in the time it takes to shoot three photographs.
Otherwise, it’s a relaxed day. We pass through Northumberland where Roger used to train, without a power meter. Instead, he always rode the same route, riding for around two and a quarter hours. It might have gotten boring on some days, but the consistency let him keep an eye on his form. If you ever wonder if you need a PowerTap, consider this: Roger Hammond has been on the podium in Roubaix. It reminds me of that Eddy Merckx quote, “Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades.”
There’s also a genuine appreciation of fans. Roger picks out individuals in Madison Genesis kit, waves back, beeps the horn. The enthusiasm and fun is addictive. It takes just over five hours to cover the 217km to Blyth, and the time is gone too soon. When we get out of the car, he heads off to meet the riders, and I say goodbye to Kellie.
Being in the team car made me think of fish shoaling, or of being one small moving part in a complex machine. It felt both chaotic and delicately balanced. In an instant, Roger would switch from joking and laughing to being observant and intent. An intuitive awareness emanates from the driver’s seat, honed through years of racing. It’s as if he’s reading it all. It’s like he can see the Matrix.