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BRITS IN FORM

The Tour of Britain burst into life with a superb stage over Exmoor in grotty conditions.

I was at the top of Cothelstone Hill to see an impressive-looking Steve Cummings take the king of the mountains points. He looked so strong I wondered if it was his bid to take the stage victory.

A couple of other British riders, Ian Stannard and Dan Fleeman, also looked good, as did the Irish champion Dan Martin, crossing the summit just after Cummings.

I won?t pretend I was slightly disappointed to hear later that the French rider, Emilien Berges of Agritubel, had taken the honours.

The Tour of Britain has not had a British overall winner since its revival in 2004. So far Mauricio Ardila, Nick Nuyens, Martin Pedersen and Romain Feillu have won the race.

In fact, you have to go back to 1989 and Robert Millar?s victory in the old Kellogg?s Tour of Britain for the last British winner. Max Sciandri won the Kellogg?s in 1992, but he was still riding as an Italian then. He didn?t change his nationality to British until a couple of years later in the run-up to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

It?s incredible to think that Malcolm Elliott, winner of the 1988 Kellogg?s Tour 20 years ago, is still able to hold his own in the Tour of Britain.

But since the race returned to the calendar, riders from overseas have dominated. The best overall finish by a British rider since 2004 is ninth. Yanto Barker was ninth in 2005 and Russell Downing took the same position in 2006. This year, there is a very good chance of a top five finish for a couple of Brits ? but overall victory may again elude the home nation.

British fans have had stage winners to cheer every year since 2005. Roger Hammond won in Blackpool that year, as Julian Winn took the king of the mountains crown. In 2006, Hammond won again, this time in Liverpool, as Mark Cavendish won the points jersey.

Last year was Britain?s most successful edition of the race, with Mark Cavendish winning two stages and the green jersey, Paul Manning taking the final stage in Glasgow and Ben Swift crowned the king of the mountains.

There are still four stages to go and the British riders have already got well stuck in but it would give the race a big boost if there?s a home win to celebrate. Cummings, Stannard and Fleeman are all in the top five and could make a move.

ON HOME SOIL

I have watched bike races all over the world, but there is something extra special about seeing a top race on roads you know very well.

Monday?s stage from Milton Keynes to Newbury, used some of the roads I have ridden since my childhood. We stood on the hill at Oving and watched as the race came over.

When I was 13 or 14, Oving represented the furthest point from home that my friends and I would reach on our epic day-long bike rides, and the hill itself was the turning point for home.

It was an odd start to the day, loitering in the car park outside the national hockey stadium, formerly home to the MK Dons football team until they relocated to a new ground. The race left Milton Keynes via its many roundabouts and we drove directly to Oving where a healthy crowd had gathered.

Watching the Tour of Britain is sometimes a nerve-wracking experience. I appreciate the difficulty of holding a bike race on Britain?s already congested roads with only the narrow window of a rolling road closure to keep the traffic at bay.

Seeing cars driving the ?wrong? way down the route just minutes before the race?s scheduled arrival always makes me nervous, but that is the way it is.

We heard the race finish in Newbury was dangerous and riders did tell us that the road narrowed a little too much for comfort on the run-in. Odd, though, that ITV4?s television coverage did not show the ensuing crash.

The weather in Somerset for stage three may have been miserable. Cold, misty and wet, but the racing was hot. Cothelstone Hill was a superb vantage point and the crowds were big and noisy. The shouts and cheers as the riders passed were amplified by the canopy of tree cover to create a real stadium atmosphere.

MORE GOLDEN DAYS

It is truly staggering to see that the country?s Paralympic cyclists have utterly dominated in Beijing.

On two days Britain?s athletes cleaned up in the velodrome ? winning every gold medal on offer.

It is a testimony to not only the financial investment but also the coaching commitment, that Britain?s Paralymic cyclists have performed so well.

And it?s remarkable to note that Sarah Storey?s time in the individual pursuit ? 3-36 ? would have got her eighth place in the Olympic final a few weeks ago.

Talking about the Paralympics without being in any way patronising can be tricky. As can the debate over whether Paralympic achievements merit the same scale of media coverage as the Olympic athletes.

But the British media has been doing a good job. Aileen McGlynn was on the front page of the Guardian this week and the BBC?s coverage is excellent, although it?s on BBC2 not BBC1.

One thing the Paralympics has done, is to force people to focus on the ability, not the disability, and that has to be a great thing.

YET MORE GOLDEN DAYS

There were more medals at the European Track Championships for under-23 and junior riders last week, proving that the development of world-class youngsters is not a short-term thing.

They just keep on coming, both in the endurance and sprint events for the men and the women.

Jason Kenny and Steven Burke rode the Beijing Games at the age of just 20, to prove that if you are good enough, you are old enough, so there is every chance that some of the gold medal-winners in Poland last week will be part of the British team at the London Olympics in four years? time.

STAR STATUS

While on holiday a couple of weeks ago, it seemed that on the rare occasions I actually switched the television on, a British cyclist was on the screen.

Bradley Wiggins was on This Morning and Victoria Pendleton was on The One Show.

The Olympians have been in demand since returning from Beijing, and have been invited to do all sorts of incredible things. Wiggins, we understand, has been offered behind-the-scenes tickets to see Oasis and the chance to lead a team in the Race Across America with James Cracknell, as well as the opportunity to take part in a television show to train obese people for a cycling-related challenge.

Obviously, he?s not going to take up all those offers.

Last weekend, many of the British medal winners were all on Jonathan Ross?s chat show on BBC 1, during which Wiggins recounted his near-miss with the Beijing police when his celebrations threatened to get a little out of hand.

Pendleton was there one minute but not the next. Apparently filming dragged on and she had a prior arrangement to give out some awards at another function.

There will be a parade to celebrate the success of the Olympic and Paralympic athletes later in the autumn and then there?ll be the annual arguments over the BBC?s Sports Personality of the Year award and how scandalous it is that the cyclists were overlooked in favour of Andy Murray and Lewis Hamilton.

Then things will return to normal. None of the cyclists will be stalked by paparazzi or hassled in the street. They are actually in an incredibly fortunate position. They rise to prominence and enjoy their time in the public eye at certain key times, but can then slip back into the shadows a bit in a way that Premiership footballers, Murray and Hamilton can not.

PREVIOUS WEDNESDAY COMMENTS

Bonus comment: Why Sevilla, Botero and Hamilton must not start Tour of Britain

September 3 ? Want to be national TT champ and ride the Tour of Britain? Tough, you can?t

August 27 ? Defending Great Britain

August 20 – Gold, gold, glorious gold

August 13 ? Gold rush starts

August 6 ? Team LPR in the Tour of Britain

July 30 ? Assessing the Tour

The Tuesday Comment – January to July 2008