By Owen Morgan
The Principality Stadium, Sophia Gardens, The Racecourse, St Helen’s . . . Wales has a rich mix of modern, atmospheric and historic sporting venues.
But on Sunday, one of the nation’s most unique sporting stages marked a return to the international stage after a decade’s absence.
Some of the world’s top riders experienced the unique challenges and atmosphere generated on arguably our best known cycling route.
It may not have the Principality Stadium’s roof or the Racecourse’s history, but the ascent of Caerphilly Mountain provided the likes of Belgian superstar Wout Van Aert with an experience he’s unlikely to forget in a hurry.
When the Tour of Britain last tackled the infamous climb in 2013, an estimated 10,000 extremely excitable cycling fans lined the mountain road.
Some clad in no more than wrestling masks and ‘budgie smugglers’, others proudly sporting their local cycling club jerseys, spectators cheered, cajoled, clapped and in some cases even pushed their heroes up the mountain.
Club riders had the experience of riding through the huge crowds ahead of the professionals’ arrival. Pic: Owen Morgan
The atmosphere, colour and the characters were all back on Sunday – and then some.
Thousands once again lined the route, including several groups of young men dressed in short cheerleading dresses!
Among them was Welsh rider Luke Rowe’s brother, who even ran alongside to share a beer with the Ineos Grenadiers road captain as completed the second ascent of the mountain.
It may not have the continental flair and scale of some of the legendary Tour De France climbs, but Caerphilly Mountain has an atmosphere all of its own.
Hours before the riders were due to arrive in Caerphilly, a steady stream of spectators armed with cowbells, flags and home-made banners started making their way up the climb on foot and on two wheels.
Club and social riders of all ages, abilities, shapes and sizes tackled the 1.3km climb, with an average gradient of more than 10 per cent, to sample the challenge about to be shared by the professionals and bag the best vantage points.
Eventual overall race winner Wout Van Aert wends his way through the crowds on Caerphilly Mountain. Pic: Owen Morgan
The carnival atmosphere generated was a fitting conclusion to this year’s Tour which had started in Altrincham on the outskirts of Manchester the previous Sunday.
Stage two of the race had also visited Wales, with Wrexham hosting the day’s start and finish last Monday.
Jumbo-Visma’s Olav Kooij took the honours in North Wales – one of a record four consecutive stage wins collected by the Dutchman across the week.
Having already covered more than 1,000kms the tour returned to Wales for its 166km grand finale, which rolled out on Sunday morning from the stunning surroundings of Margam Country Park, near Port Talbot.
Having enjoyed a spin along the prom in Porthcawl, the peloton headed for higher ground where King of the Mountain climbs included Rhigos Mountain and Bryn Du above Aberdare.
Aberystwyth’s Stevie Williams went into the final stage in eighth place in the general classification after a brilliant ride on the previous day’s stage from Tewksbury to Gloucestershire, which had earned him a third place finish.
A young rider from Geraint Thomas’ first club Maindy Flyers makes it to the top of Caerphilly Mountain before the professionals tackled the climb. Pic: Owen Morgan
And the Great Britain team rider advanced his claims for an overall win when he made his move on the climb at Bryn Du alongside Ineos Grenadiers’ Spanish rider Carlos Rodriguez with 50km to the finish.
The break by the Welsh climber and the Spaniard put Williams into the overall lead on the road for a time.
At one point, the pair opened up a gap of 1 minute 25 seconds ahead of the peloton with some 30km to go.
Williams continued to lead the race and indeed the stage as the duo – still 12 seconds ahead of the chasing group – hit the bottom of Caerphilly Mountain and the cacophony of noise and colour that lay ahead.
Having experienced some traditional wet weather earlier on the route, warm sunshine welcomed the riders as they started the climb.
Unfortunately for the vociferous Welsh crowd, Williams was dropped by Rodriguez as the pair approached the summit – the home rider’s challenge beginning to wane irreparably.
One of the younger riders who made it to the top of Caerphilly Mountain. Pic: Owen Morgan
On the second ascent of the mountain Rodriguez continued to lead the day’s stage and the overall classification.
However, Belgian Van Aert, of Jumbo-Visma, who led the general classification at the start of the day, was closing the gap on the leader.
With thousands more people lining the route up to the finish line – situated against the backdrop of the imposing Caerphilly Castle in the town centre – the stage was set for a dramatic finish.
Rodriguez held on to take the stage win by 11 seconds, but Van Aert had done enough to close the gap sufficiently to take the overall Tour of Britain win as he edged a sprint to claim second place on the day.
Overall race winner Wout Van Aert celebrates his victory. Pic: Owen Morgan
Van Aert’s win was his second Tour of Britain success in three years. His Jumbo-Visma team won five out of the eight stages during the week-long tour.
After the race, the three-time World Cyclo Cross Champion and multiple Tour De France stage winner said: “It feels great. We’ve had such an amazing week as a team, starting off with five stage wins in a row, which is pretty incredible.
“From then on there was a lot of pressure on us in this race, but we managed to control every stage basically. So I’m super proud, especially to finish off that teamwork.
“It was a super tough stage and, with the course this year, the weekend was really decisive. We went all in for the GC.
“Today the climbs were a bit longer, which is tricky for me especially compared with riders like [Carlos] Rodriguez and [Stevie] Williams, who are 20kg lighter than me. I had to stay calm and trust my team-mates. I really had to think a lot in that final.”
— The Tour of Britain 🇬🇧 (@TourofBritain) September 10, 2023
There was some consolation for Williams, who eventually finished in 22nd place on the day, as he was awarded the daily combativity prize for the stage’s most aggressive rider.
Meanwhile, across the week, fellow Welsh rider Ethan Vernon put in some strong performances which saw him collect four top-three finishes.
Van Aert’s Jumbo-Visma team-mate Kooij took the cottages.com points jersey thanks to his run of four stage wins at the start of the week, while compatriot Abram Stockman (TDT – Unibet) received the overall Sportsbreaks.com combativity award.
Top Brit was Mark Donovan (Q36.5 Pro Cycling) in fifth place overall, narrowly ahead of Saint Piran’s Zeb Kyffin. Donovan was also on the Caerphilly podium with his team-mates for taking the overall team classification.
Commenting on the Welsh stage of the Tour of Britain, Dawn Bowden, Welsh Government Deputy Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, said: “I’m delighted that we’ve been able to welcome the Tour of Britain back again this year, particularly for a fantastic final stage. Wales’ credentials for hosting cycling events is now well-established.”
Here's the moment @_rccarlos finished off his solo win in Caerphilly as he chased every second 👊
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) September 10, 2023
With each stage having been televised live on ITV4, as well as a daily highlights package, Wales was well and truly put in the spotlight during the stages in the north and south of the country.
“The Tour of Britain and Women’s Tour are the perfect showcase for our landscape as well as the welcome we provide to the competitors and spectators,” added Bowden.
“Congratulations to Wout van Aert and to all involved in organising the event. I hope that seeing some of the world’s best riders over the past week has inspired people to get active and explore Wales on their bikes.”
Thanks to an agreement between the Tour of Britain and Welsh Government the race and its sister event, the Women’s tour, will each visit Wales in alternate years until 2026.
Full results can be found on the Tour of Britain website.