Cycling heroes gear up for Tour stage
THE BEST of world and local cycling will be racing on the streets of North Devon this weekend.
Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish are the star attractions on Saturday when Stage Seven of the Tour of Britain begins in Barnstaple and goes through Bideford, Torrington and Hatherleigh on the way to the finish in Dartmouth.
Before that, top North Devon riders, including Blake Pond and Pete Vincent are set to compete in the Barnstaple Criterium tomorrow evening.
In the exciting floodlit event, they will ride for an hour at speeds of 30mph and more through the twists and turns of the town centre, starting and finishing on the Strand.
Twelve hours later, thousands of spectators are expected to line the route for Saturday's Tour of Britain stage.
At the start line in Barnstaple's Square, all eyes will be on Team Sky's leading pair.
Wiggins, 32, is the Tour de France and Olympic time-trial champion, while Cavendish, 27, is the reigning road-race world champion.
The field includes two other Tour de France jersey winners in Ivan Basso and Samuel Sanchez.
And there will be the chance to spot future Wigginses after a Great Britain team featuring under-23 riders George Atkins, Owain Doull, Josh Edmondson, Tom Moses, Alastair Slater and Simon Yates was added to the field last week.
After leaving Barnstaple at 10.15am, the riders follow the coast to Instow and head south through Bideford to Great Torrington where bonus points will be awarded to the sprinter at the head of the field.
Having left North Devon, the peloton faces one of the most gruelling sections of the entire Tour with a 454-metre King of the Mountains climb at Merrivale on Dartmoor.
The stage winner is due to reach the finish line in Dartmouth at about 2.30pm.
The final stage of the Tour will take place on Sunday, finishing in Guildford, Surrey.
Cavendish recovered from a disappointing start to the Tour by winning Stage Three with a sprint finish in Dumfries on Tuesday.
The world champion moved up to second in the overall standings behind Leigh Howard, the Australian representing Orica GreenEDGE, who outsprinted him on Mersyside in Stage Two the previous day.
Boy van Poppel, of the Netherlands, was also challenging for the overall title ahead of yesterday's Stage Four from Carlisle to Blackpool.
Huge crowds watched the riders when the Tour last came to North Devon in 2009 at a time when cycling's popularity was on the rise but nowhere near the fever pitch created by the London 2012 and Wiggins's Tour de France triumph.
Thousands lined Bideford Quay three years ago to see Edvald Boasson Hagen, of Norway, win Stage Six with a thrilling sprint finish.
Boasson Hagen, who went on to win the whole Tour, has since joined Team Sky and was part of the group who helped Wiggins to Tour de France glory this summer.
Tomorrow's Criterium starts at 7pm with a 15-minute race for under-12s, followed by the under-16s' 30-minute race at 7.20pm.
Two 45-minute races for men and women will start at 7.55pm.
The main event, for elite riders like Pond and Vincent, starts at 9pm.