Flanders. The Pyrenees. The Alps. Northamptonshire.
The county in the centre of England may appear like the odd one out on that list of cycling meccas, but the women's professional peloton arguably has more to thank Northamptonshire for than it does any of the others - and that's because of the Women's Tour of Britain. Since its inception in 2014 the Women's Tour has quickly become one of the most prestigious and best regarded events on the pro calendar and deservedly sits as part of the UCI Women's World Tour - one of only seven multi-day races to be awarded the highest ranking available by the sport's governing body.
The Women's Tour has grown rapidly, attracting the very best riders in the sport to these shores and drawing huge crowds of enthusiastic spectators to the roadside. For 2018, the organiser's upped the ante considerably by more than doubling the prize pot from £31,000 to £80,000 to match the men's Tour of Britain. Combined with a hillier parcours, the 2018 edition is set to be one of the most exciting yet - and we were on hand to see the race up close from the neutral service car.
We joined the race for Stage 2, an undulating 143.9km route starting from Rushden and finishing in Daventry. With a rolling opening 100km, things looked set to spice up towards the finish with a grippy route including three categorised climbs. Newnham Hill, covered twice in the final circuit around Daventry, could prove decisive, with the riders tackling the second ascent and ensuing narrow descent just 2.5km from the finish line. Stage 1 had proven to be a nervy affair with a number of crashes and plenty of riders nursing gravel rash on the start line in Rushden. Jolien D'Hoore - herself racing for the first time since picking up a collar bone fracture just a few weeks ago - avoided any trouble and sprinted to victory, swapping her Mitchelton-Scott jersey for the green OVO Energy leader's jersey on Stage 2.
While the sun had shone in Suffolk the day before, the weather looked decidedly tricky at the start in Rushden. Overcast and with blustery winds, the peloton was in for a tough day. The sky threatened everything from rain to sun within a matter of minutes as gusts rustled through the trees lining the start straight in Rushden Hall Park. Ahead of the official start we had time to meander around the team buses and ogle some of the kit on display with top end race ready bikes from Trek, Specialized, Scott and more, including some yet-to-be-released new gear. The atmosphere was starting to build, accompanied by the hum of turbo trainers and clank of spanners and wrenches as mechanics made last minute adjustments. Before heading to see the teams sign on we had one more thing to do - track down Marianne Vos's cat, Sjekkie, who travels to races with her. Mission accomplished.
Neutral service this year was to be provided by Vittoria Tyres who, with over 60 years' experience of manufacturing, know a thing or two about making a pro-ready bicycle tyre. Three cars are on hand to provide support to the peloton - two ahead of the peloton and one behind. I jump into the second car, stationed at the head of the peloton and ready to dish out wheels and assistance as required by any break that should go clear. Should another group form, we'd then pick up that bunch while the front support car would take the lead, with the final car ready to provide support to any further groups that get away. Atop the car are four bikes, all set up with different pedals, plus a few spare wheels. The back seat is stacked with more wheels while the boot accommodates the disc brake specific wheels - something that has made things a little more complicated for the service team as, from looking around at the start, more and more riders seems to be opting for the extra stopping power of disc brakes. At the start of each day the neutral service cars are handed a list from each team with their equipment for the day so that each car can be stocked accordingly, although there are some consistencies with all the wheels set up with tubular tyres.
After trying to get into the driver's seat (the Vittoria cars are all left-hand drive) I meet the driver, Giovanni, and mechanic, Max - all of the support team are Italian and have driven over from Italy, as they will do again for the men's Tour of Britain in September. As ex-professional riders themselves, the drivers all know their way around a peloton and exude a relaxed vibe despite driving within inches of some of the world's best cyclists. Max takes the back seat, hand resting on a spare wheel and ready to jump into action, giving me a front row seat for the action to come. Both Giovanni and Max speak limited English, albeit better than my Italian, so conversation is limited but Elisa Longo Borghini seems a firm favourite.
The radio crackles into life instructing us to start rolling out and then we're away - Stage 2 of the 2018 Women's Tour is on.
It's a tense start to the day's action with the riders seemingly anxious to put themselves out into the blustering wind as we roll along ahead of the peloton glancing in the mirrors and awaiting news of an attack. The level of organisation is one of the first things to grab you when you're inside the convoy. The roads are closed on a rolling basis and as we head out of Rushden into the Northamptonshire countryside we play a relay race of sorts with the National Escort Group and Police outriders as they shoot ahead to secure safe passage for the riders through each village, only to come back past us shortly after as they head back up the road. The level of support in every town and village we pass through is unbelievable, with school kids turned out cheering every vehicle that passes through. Giovanni is more than happy to acknowledge the excitement, replying with a honk of the horn. Pro tip - the cars have a separate horn that's pedal operated.
Interests are piqued as the radio crackles again, but this time only to tell us that the peloton remains together after 14km of racing.
As we pass through the first sprint point the results are relayed back to us - Coryn Rivera takes first, before being beaten into second at the next sprint by Dani Rowe - then finally, after 20km of racing, Maaike Boogaard of the BTC City Ljubljana team breaks clear from the peloton and quickly establishes a gap. The peloton seems happy to let her go as she sets off into the wind solo and as she slowly stretches her lead upwards of two minutes we slot in behind alongside the Commissaire and camera moto, before handing over to the lead support car as we settle into the gap and await any more attacks from the peloton. As we pass through Silverstone the sun finally breaks through and the wind seems to calm down, but it looks to have already had its impact on Boogaard as her lead, which had got as large as 4 minutes, starts to tumble. By the time we hit 88km the catch is made. Gruppo compatto.
Prior to the catch we shoot up the road to the first QOM at Weedon Hill and resume our waiting game. Things remain quiet with the bunch content to wait for the fireworks to come on the last two ascents of Newnham Hill and, as expected, things come alive. Four riders - Longo Borghini, Vos, Rowe and 2017 winner Katarzyna Niewiadoma - go clear on the climb and stay away to contest the final sprint on the first passage of the finish line in Daventry. A larger group of about 30 riders joins the front four and maintains a narrow lead over the larger peloton. With the gap so small it's too risky for us to drop back and so the final support car, stationed at the back of the convoy, moves forward instead. With the final ascent on the horizon the lead group is active with numerous attacks fired off the front, but none sticking - action for the neutral service as well, as a few riders lose out to mechanicals and punctures.
With no-one able to get away on the final ascent, the reduced bunch battle it out on the streets of Daventry - Marianne Vos takes things up early and looks to have the win tied up only for the diminutive Coryn Rivera to launch late, throwing her bike across the line in a photo finish to grab victory and with it the overall leader's jersey. As the riders wind down post-race, we get a final wander around the buses - no sign of Sjekkie though.
Thank you to Vittoria Tyres and ZyroFisher for inviting us along!