British cycling has been celebrating huge success in 2012.
An eventful year has seen Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France and the Olympic Time Trial whilst Mark Cavendish continues his dominance in the sprints.
Now, the duo are whipping up a frenzy on the Tour of Britain which continues to wind its circuitous way around England, Scotland and Wales.
When I discovered the tour was coming through my region I had to be there to cheer on the British stars.
So we grabbed our bikes and headed over to Cumbria for the start of stage four of the big race in Carlisle.
Sea of fans
We cycled the short distance into Carlisle city centre where the atmosphere was already electric.
The Sky team bus had disappeared in a sea of fans craning their necks to get a look at Wiggins and Cavendish.
A huddle of grannies were standing on tip-toes inside a nearby bank where there was a raised vantage point, pressing their faces to the glass like kids in a sweet shop.
An elderly gentlemen, who’d never been to a cycle race before, was hovering with an autograph book near the Sky team bus in the hope of meeting his Olympic hero, Wiggo.
Elsewhere, primary school kids were lined up along the race route waving their Union Jack flags enthusiastically.
This autumn it seems like everyone has become a cycling fan.
There were cyclists everywhere. Team UK Youth’s team of young riders zoomed by, super-smart in white Lycra and dark shades.
Euskaltel’s Samuel Sanchez looked mean and moody in his bright orange kit as he cycled towards the riders’ check-in podium. This was a man who meant business…
Standing by the podium we got incredibly close to the riders, amazing for a modern international sporting event – in many sports the fans are kept at bay.
The King of the Mountains chatted happily with the crowds and signed autographs.
Can you imagine famous Premiership footballers schmoozing with the fans before a football match?
I love the paraphernalia that surrounds cycle races with the team buses, the brightly-coloured cars, and the carefully-stacked racks of expensive bicycles, all ready for action.
As ever, Tammy was on the look-out for the best pre-race action.
It wasn’t long before our group found the team buses. These are great places to hang out because the riders inevitably pop out and get on their bikes right in front of you.
As Italian superstar Ivan Basso emerged from the Liquigas team bus, I was standing too close and almost trod on him.
Many of these riders are very slight – they look like a gust of wind could blow them over, but their lean frames hide their incredible power and athleticism.
Look at the firm, perfectly formed thighs on these guys and you’ll be impressed at how fit they are!
Then came a very British downpour. The sky darkened and the weather turned from cold and grey to windy and wet.
This is exactly what you don’t want when you’re warming up at the start of a five hour long race.
But team Rapha-Condor are no mugs. They had the perfect solution.
Stranded in the storm, they dived inside a local hair and nail salon to keep warm and dry.
The salon staff were thrilled, of course, and when the heavy shower passed, the cycle boys emerged and had their photos taken with the shop owners.
With only minutes to go to the race, cyclists were whizzing around everywhere.
Last to appear were the Team Sky boys who emerged from their bus to huge cheers and a battery of cameras.
We were perfecly placed to see the Brits ride to the race start. I had a great view of Wiggins as he sprinted by, instantly recognisable with his trademark long sideburns.
Mark Cavendish was next out. He’s surprisingly small in height and physique which is probably why he can force his tiny frame over the finish line in the big sprints.
As I was enjoying the moment a huge row blew up between a photographer and a steward, blocking my carefully chosen view of the boy Wiggo. A huge outpouring of bile flowed – in front of an Olympian too!
Race time was manic as huge crowds pressed against the barriers to see the start of the stage.
Cav and Wiggo lined up at the front and were cheered off to rapturous applause.
The colourful cavalcade of riders sped around the city centre and we cycled like sprinters to catch them as they did a circuit of the castle and city centre.
Then it turned into our very own race against time as we set off in the car (OK, it’s cheating!) to beat the professional riders to the next big Tour checkpoint an hour up the road at Shap Fell.
Race shapes up at Shap
Back in the car, there was a small cheer as we overtook the team buses on the motorway heading to Shap, one of the remotest and bleakest locations on the Tour of Britain.
By now the weather had turned really nasty…. the rain was bucketing down and a thick blanket of mist had descended on top of the hills. Not the best cycling weather.
After waiting around with the wet crowds who looked like drowned rats, the excitement began again.
The helicopter overhead signalled that the race leaders were 10 minutes away. A flurry of motorbikes whizzed through to clear the way with police sirens adding to the anticipation.
A group of six riders had broken away from the main peloton. They looked in a dominant position but with the weather worsening, anything could happen.
The main peloton followed and was so quick that it was hard to pick out individual riders although I did spot Wiggo and Cav who were riding just off the front pack.
Bradley must have been rejoicing that he was one of the few riders who’d opted for long cycle leggings in the wet conditions.
As they sped away, the helicopter and cyclists disappeared over the hill with three hours of challenging cycling ahead of them. We headed for the Village Bakery in Melmerby to warm up with hot drinks and food!
As we tucked into our door-step sandwiches, the cyclists were on their way to Blackpool in the torrential rain.
Later we watched the full race and final sprint on TV.
The leading pack had been chased down by the peloton and, as often happens in these races, they were engulfed after making the early push to victory.
Mark Cavendish took to the front – aided and abetted by Wiggins – and sprinted past the opposition like they were rank amateurs.
He raised a victory salute – and took the sprint win and the General Classification gold jersey. It was a memorable celebration of this golden age in British cycling.
There will be harder Tour days ahead but this was the perfect cycling day…
Here’s a photo gallery of images taken by my partner in crime, Tony the Tour of Britain Guide.