Tour of Limburg
The British national amateur team was ready for the Milk Race. That was the obvious conclusion after the 42nd Tour of Limburg, a five-day stage race in the Eastern part of Belgium, the area where Eric Vanderaerden made his first steps in cycling.
"Guido Verdeyen won the race but the British riders dominated from the first day on," said the Belgian press. John Tonks took the first yellow jersey by winning the opening stage and Paul Curran finished second twice. Chris Lillywhite, Ian Smith, Deno Davie and Greg Newton rode a bit more in the shadows, but all showed a lot of potential. Only a marshalling error and an apparent lack of team spirit to support and protect each other's chances kept the overall victory in Belgium.
For the British riders this Belgian rendezvous was just one of many trips abroad this season. Albert Hitchen and the BCF spared no energy to create the best chances for its riders to prepare for the bigger goals. Before this Tour of Limburg, Britain was already represented in the Italian Giro delle Regioni, the Tour de Loire-et-Cher, the Ruban Granitier and the Circuit des Mines in France. Tonks won two stages in the Circuit des Mines, which Curran won overall.
"Only some bad luck [bad knees, a broken arm, a skull fracture] made us change the original six," national coach Albert Hitchen told Winning. "The team proved it's ready for the bigger goals now. That's why Curran, Lillywhite, Tonks and Davie can already be sure of a ticket to the world's in the States. The others will be selected after the Commonwealth Games road race on July 29. Only six riders will make the expensive trip to the U.S."
"Tonks and Curran are the best riders Britain has got," Hitchen assured us. "In my opinion they are even better than Joey McLoughlin. Paul doesn't have the ambition though, he's content in England."
This was a comment that Curran himself wasn't so sure about. "I'm a kind of all-round rider," he said, "but I don't reach perfection in one of the disciplines. Until last year I dreamt of reaching the top on the track. The results weren't there though, so I changed to the road. I did quite well from the first day. I got fourth in the Milk Race, second in the Circuit des Mines, and I won the Tour of Normandy. This season I have had nine wins, but those wins are of no importance.
"I got into cycling because I felt impressed after watching the Milk Race. That's the race where I want to show myself most of all. I worked hard in this Tour of Limburg. In England the racing isn't the same. There is more speed in Belgium. That's why you need to conquer the foreign riders at home. I'm definitely going back to the Limburg area after the Tour of Britain. I want to prove myself to the Belgian pro teams. If I turned pro in England I'd ride all the criteriums. That's something I don't like. I'm a stage-rider in the first place."
In this Tour of Limburg, the first stage between Hasselt, the local capital, and Kortessem proved a good one for Tonks. He went with an early break of 16 and after 60 km the slightly built Wolverhampton boy lost contact because of a broken chain. With him went the impetus behind the break and in no time the bunch closed the one-minute gap. But 100 km later Tonk's material misfortune was just an unpleasant memory, outsprinting three breakaway companions. The first yellow jersey was his.
"My fourth win this season," Tonks laughed afterwards. "Because I'm not a sprinter to the core, I need a hard, speedy race to be fast at the finish. There was hardly any wind here, so I took the lead at about 500 metres from the finish to make it as hard as possible for the others. Nobody got by me. This flat course in Limburg suits me. The riding is completely different to the English style. There are attacks all the time and the speed is much, much higher. This race is a test for me. I want to know my exact possibilities before I turn pro next season."
1. John Tonks (GB)
The next day the team was nowhere, but Tonks' leadership survived thanks to an enormous group effort during the last half an hour. Ronny Van Sweeveit, one of the best Belgian amateurs at the moment, won the stage. "The boys needed some time to adapt to the Belgian style of racing," Hitchen explained later. "In the past I experienced that the race winds up to a climax. The final break certainly goes in the last 60 minutes, and it isn't easy to keep a large bunch of about one hundred riders under control.
Curran is a small rider who doesn't like the echelons. Tonks and Lillywhite are good sprinters and excellent all-rounders but they still lack the experience to handle races like this; the others are basically climbers. Wait till the hills come. So far the course has been as flat as a billiard table. It's important that we made this trip because speed was the only thing the riders were still missing."
1. Ronny Van Sweeveit (Bel)
Those hills came the next morning. Curran obviously felt at home. He attacked at the start and was soon joined by eight others. Their lead went up to two minutes, with Curran making the pace all the time. We couldn't understand why he didn't protect the yellow jersey of Tonks. And, 170 km later, Paul Curran was outsprinted by Ludo Dierckxsens. No victory and Tonks was unhappy because of his lost leadership.
"We didn't come to win this race," Hitchen said. "It would be ridiculous to use all our strength here. If the race comes our way, we will take it. We won't be disappointed if it doesn't. The main goal of this trip is getting fit for the Milk Race. If Paul thinks the best way to achieve that is by attacking, I won't stop him."
1. Ludo Dierckxsens (Bel)
2. Paul Curran (GB)
On the next stage between Vlijtingen and Aa, Curran confirmed this theory. He got away with Verdeyen and Smeyers 35 km from the finish, impressing everybody with his suppleness. Each time Curran took the lead, the speed went up by a couple of kilometres an hour. He didn't win the stage though: Geert Smeyers was a bit faster. The important result was that Guido Verdeyen, a 21-year-old Belgian who prepared for this stage race by riding the German Tour of Lower Saxony took over the leader's jersey from Kurt Onclin, with Curran moving up to second place, 35 seconds down.
1. Geert Smeyers
2. Paul Curran (GB)
3. Guido Verdeyen (Bel)
The individual time trial that evening gave a good indication of the real strength of the British team. Curran was fourth, nine seconds down on winner Wilfried Peeters, Lillywhite fifth, Tonks seventh, Davis 10th and Ian Smith 12th. Curran halved his overall deficit to 18 seconds. Suspense was there.
1. Wilfried Peeters
4. Paul Curran (GB) at 9secs
The last stage saw Tonks at his best. He got in an early break with five other riders that gained about three minutes, with Tonks the virtual race leader. But all his hopes were destroyed when they were directed off-course bringing the lead back to one minute. Van Hes won the stage and Verdeyen the tour. It was perhaps some comfort for Tonks that the organising Belgian paper called him the most aggressive rider of the race: a poor consolation...
1. Van Hes
1. Guido Verdeyen (Bel)
2. Paul Curran (GB) at 18secs