Tour of Britain weekend begins with Barnstaple Criterium twists and turns
THIRTEEN hours before the Tour of Britain set off from Barnstaple, a group of the UK's best emerging cyclists were in town on their own ride for glory.
Under the streetlights and gaze of hundreds of fascinated spectators, they produced an adrenalin-fuelled curtain raiser.
This was a Friday night town-centre tear-up of a different kind.
After an hour dashing down the Strand and along the High Street at upwards of 30mph, it all came down to the final lap.
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In the end, the speed of Exeter's James Williams, representing Primal Europe, gave him the edge by half a bike length over local boy Henry Benning.
It was a brilliant ride from Benning, of Southfork Racing in Braunton, showing the technical skills from his mountain-biking background.
Fellow Southfork rider Blake Pond and Pete Vincent, the Braunton rider representing Mid Devon Cycling, also put themselves in the mix.
James Smith, the race commentator, summed up the effort on show with his humorous observations on the microphone.
"Watching other people suffer, for free, for your entertainment. Life doesn't get much better than this," he said.
"These guys are deep in the hurt locker and somebody has taken the key and thrown it away."
The pain etched on the faces of the small group of elite, category one and category two contenders said it all.
As they set off at a relentless pace, Adam Bright, of Bideford, was the first to put himself at the front, eager to get moving after two weeks helping Primal Europe win the Tour of Trinidad and Tobago.
Pond soon went to the head of the field and, being one of the country's leading time trialists, found rivals reacting to his every move.
Vincent, sixth at the British Time Trial Championships, also showed his pedigree by staying in contention as the pace racked up.
But Williams was always the dangerman, winning the first of four prime laps – a race within the race – to send out a message to the rest.
As they entered the second half of the race, a second cluster of riders led by Bright tried to claw back a 39-second gap.
All the while, Pete 'The Yo-Yo' Haworth was falling down the field and hauling himself back to the leaders, attempting to help his team-mate Williams.
Even racing in front of hundreds of people can be a lonely experience on the bad days.
Just ask Kelvin Price, of I Ride, who became a fans' favourite for his unrelenting effort in no man's land at the back.
"It was a nightmare, mate," he said to Smith in a post-race interview. "I'm looking forward to going home now."
The front end had wound up for a thrilling climax with six still in with a shout as they swooped around the corner into Cross Street for the last-lap dash.
Benning's tactics "initially just to get around" had changed dramatically with a fearless final effort.
"I'm useless at sprinting," he said. "Towards the end I thought I'd try to make a bit of a gap on the corners and use that to get me across the line.
"I used the first few laps to judge the speed you can go into the corners, then on the last lap I just went hell for leather into them – it almost worked."
As they swept around the sharp corner by Lilicos towards the finish on the Strand, Benning held a slender advantage.
"I couldn't see anyone close to me so I just thought I'd give it everything I've got," he said.
"I kind of thought I might have it in the bag."
Williams had other ideas, unleashing a sprint finish to pinch it, while George Pym, the 18-year-old from Exeter Wheelers, grabbed third.
Williams said: "We weren't going to get away from each other, we were all too equal.
"The early pace was incredibly fast.From 20 minutes, I thought, 'I'm going to sit on the wheels as much as I can and use the primes to assert my authority on the race'.
"Blake Pond is very strong and Henry Benning was going around the corners like a lunatic.
"I decided to try and come around the person leading down the finishing straight."
The tactics worked perfectly and the inaugural Barnstaple Criterium champion would love the opportunity to come back and defend his title.
"It was very enjoyable," he said. "We don't get enough proper town-centre crits. You have got the atmosphere, these corners and the fact that it's dark."
The twists, turns, tactics and tempo made Barnstaple town centre the place to be on Friday night.