An explosive second stage of the Tour de Yorkshire saw Vitus Pro Cycling Team’s young riders push themselves to the limit to remain in a race against world class opposition.
Thirty-year-old Adam Kenway produced a fine ride to finish in the top 50 on a savage day of racing that will live long in the memory of those who witnessed it.
The 149km run from Barnsley to Ilkley - a parcours littered with climbs that ended at the summit of a brutal ramp known locally as the Cow and Calf - inspired a heroic performance from each member of Cherie Pridham’s development squad.
Teenagers Ben Walsh and Liam Davies both made the time cut, and only Grant Martin, who was the first rider home for Vitus Pro Cycling Team a day earlier, succumbed to the intense pace and will not start today’s third stage.
After an opening stage in which the top three places were taken by riders from British teams in professional cycling’s third tier, the heavyweights of the UCI WorldTour, notably Team Sky, attacked from the gun on stage two.
While almost the entire peloton was put into the red zone by attacks from the likes of former British champion Ian Stannard (Team Sky), Vitus Pro Cycling Team hung tough, suffering with their rivals, but giving no quarter.
“I’m just immensely proud of the whole team, from the backroom staff to the lads on the road. I’ve never seen a stage like that; one so brutal from the start. To have six riders cross the finish line is incredible,” Pridham said.
“We will keep growing. We have a lot to offer. The support for the team is growing. We had one of our partners with us, Solace Global, just to share what we do on a day-to-day basis. It’s been a super day.”
The Tour de Yorkshire again attracted enormous crowds. The scenes on the finishing ramp of the Cow and Calf resembled those of the Grand Départ of the 2014 Tour de France, when the world’s most prestigious bike race began in Yorkshire.
Kenway produced a superb ride to finish in the second group to reach the finishing summit, on a day of racing he described as “ballistic”.
The 30-year-old, a former national hill climb champion who had ridden in the breakaway for almost the entire race at the recent UCI Rutland Melton CiCLE Classic, found the combination of hard racing and brutal climbing in Yorkshire to his taste.
“It was a hard day; a really tough day. Today was one of the toughest days of racing I’ve had for a long time. From the gun, it was really fast; even when it was slow, it was fast.
"The first hour-and-a-half was ballistic. The race split to pieces. After that, it calmed down a little bit, regrouped, and then really kicked off at the bottom of Old Pool Bank. After that, coming up here [to the summit of the Cow and Calf], it just split to bits.”
Josh Hunt was the next home for Vitus Pro Cycling Team, crossing the line more than eight minutes after his team-mate; a testimony to the strength of Kenway’s performance, but also to Hunt’s tenacity. His refusal to quit, despite the intensity of the racing and the savagery of the parcours, was replicated by his young team-mates.
Eighteen-year-old Liam Davies, the youngest rider in the race and a late call-up to Pridham’s squad for the Tour de Yorkshire, began the day last overall after producing the ride of his life merely to finish stage one. He repeated the feat on stage two, despite facing a much harder route, and being forced by the pace to fight his way back into the race convoy after being shelled from its safety.
“My legs felt good at the start, but after seven or eight climbs, I started to feel the damage from yesterday. I went easy on one of the climbs, slipped back from the front third of the group, and moved back up again, but a couple of hills later, on the first categorised climb, I think, I just slipped out of the bunch and couldn’t hold the convoy or anything. I just rode along by myself.”
Davies drew deep on his reserves of mental strength to ride his way back into the race, as riders shelled from the peloton by the relentless pace came back towards him. He crossed the finish line plumb last for a second consecutive day, but by doing so at the summit of the brutal Cow and Calf climb, and in front of the thousands of people who had lined its slopes, provided further evidence of an inner defiance that should take him far in this hardest of sporting endeavours.
“I told you they’d have to drag me from my bike to stop me,” he said afterwards, gulping down Coca-Cola and wiping the sweat from his face. Asked if he would attempt to start the following day’s stage, he replied with a broad grin.
Davies was not the only teenager in a Vitus Pro Cycling Team jersey who pushed himself beyond his limits to beat the time cut. The talented Ben Walsh, an 18-year-old who has already represented Ireland at World and European championships as a junior, suffered in the most significant senior race of his young career, but dug deep to finish alone, some 11’25” after stage winner Magnus Cort Nielsen (Astana).
“It was hell,” Walsh said. “A lot harder than yesterday - a lot tougher. We listened to Josh [Hunt], because he has a lot of experience, and he said if the break didn’t go in that first 3km, before we turned left onto a narrow section, the first 20km would be horrendous, and it was horrendous. That just continued for the whole stage. It was very grippy day out!”
Today’s third stage, a 181km run from Richmond to Scarborough, will offer a further test of the camaraderie within Pridham’s young squad. Walsh, however, had few doubts that the team's collective spirit is strong enough to withstand even the most demanding parcours.
“We knew from minute one, at the pre-season training camp in Spain, that we would gel, even if many of us had never met before, and it’s noticeable now, the way we’re all moving around the bunch together as one unit. That really helps.”