A sprint stage win in Warrington enabled Ethan Hayter to regain the race lead in the Tour of Britain with two of the strongest finishers in the sport – Mark Cavendish and Giacomo Nizzolo – floundering in his wake. It sets up the 22-year-old for a wholehearted tilt at the overall title assuming he can hang on to the blue leader’s jersey on Friday’s run through the Cumbrian hills.
On treacherous roads dampened by afternoon showers after the 152km through Cheshire, Hayter rode his luck, as sprinters always do. On the final acute left-hand turn from Froghall Lane into Liverpool Road with 700 metres remaining, the Londoner’s Ineos teammate Owain Doull lost control and fell, taking down Will Tidball of Great Britain and the Bodmin runner-up Nils Eekhoff, as well as Cavendish’s lead-out man Davide Ballerini.
“It got messy, it was like slow motion,” said Hayter. “I knew it was slippy, that last corner I was a bit backed off [behind Doull] which probably saved me. He started to drift, and I was like: ‘Ooh, not good’. He did crash and his bike was moving right, right, right and I squeezed between it and the barrier. I was so lucky.”
The confusion caused a split at the front of the string, with Hayter among five riders who opened a small gap in the wake of Ineos’s lead-out man Michal Kwiatkowski. Cavendish also avoided the crash, but stalled to avoid Doull and his wayward bike, and had to make two flat-out efforts in less than a minute, the first to bridge the gap to the group including Hayter – a sprint that took him on to the Londoner’s wheel – and the second his usual sprint for the line.
Nizzolo opened up his sprint on the left just as Hayter launched his final effort on the right; briefly there was obvious daylight between the two for Cavendish – who was also baulked slightly by Colin Joyce of Rally Cycling – to drive for the line. But either the Manxman’s legs gave out, or he sensed that both Hayter and Nizzolo were drifting towards each other and closing the gap; he curbed his effort to take fifth.
The Great Orme stage winner and overnight leader Wout van Aert finished 22nd, after also having to brake to avoid the crash, meaning that with the 10sec time bonus for the stage win deducted, Hayter moved 8sec clear of the Belgian national champion in the overall standings. The 2018 winner Julian Alaphilippe of France retained third, 19sec back. Although Mikkel Honoré of Denmark, Michael Woods of Canada and the Australian Rohan Dennis are also within a minute, the race now looks increasingly like a fight between the two in-form sprinters, Hayter and Van Aert.
Friday’s run from Carlisle to Gateshead includes three first-category Cumbrian climbs, Hartside, Killhope and – right on the border with Northumberland – Burtree Fell, but the run-in to the finish is long enough to suggest that the finish at Gateshead will prove decisive. It is slightly uphill, which might favour Van Aert on paper given the form he showed in taking stage one at Bodmin.
“It will be hard to control,” said Hayter, although he does at least have a full team behind him, whereas Van Aert has only three support riders at Jumbo-Visma having lost the German Tony Martin on Thursday and the Australian Chris Harper on Monday. He expects Alaphilippe’s Deceuninck-Quickstep to see opportunities “to blow the race apart”, and added: “Van Aert can take bonus seconds if he sprints for them, so I will have to do the same.” He has, however, put himself in with a chance of becoming the youngest winner of the British Tour since Dylan van Baarle in 2014, and he seems to have the maturity as well as the speed to do it.