Let’s view Tour of Britain miss as an opportunity for our city

Tour of Britain riders in Hanley.

Tour of Britain riders in Hanley.

I wonder how many taxpayers in Stoke-on-Trent will be genuinely disappointed that the Tour of Britain isn’t coming to the Potteries this year.

The cycle race’s organisers have decided against returning to the city again and instead will host a charity ride for amateurs here in the Six Towns on October 5.

That means we won’t see the likes of Tour de France winner and Olympic gold medalist Sir Bradley Wiggins in Hanley alongside dozens of other pro riders.

To be honest, cycling isn’t my bag. A few of my friends – even some of my colleagues – have taken to two wheels since the London Olympics and I do appreciate the health benefits for them and their kids. All that wind-in-your-hair, outdoors business sounds good.

But as a spectacle, standing for several hours waiting to catch a glimpse of 30-odd blokes who you can’t name whizz past in a nanosecond isn’t my idea of good day out.

I remember being in Hanley on a drizzly afternoon a couple of years ago when The Tour came to town and recall the paved area outside the old Woolies store being cordoned off.

I’m being generous when I say there were perhaps a couple of hundred spectators within sight of Sir Stan’s statue and most people, like me, just seemed frustrated that the crash barriers meant they couldn’t cross the street to get to Marks & Sparks.

I confess I would never consider tuning in to ITV4 or whatever channel The Tour of Britain is broadcast on to catch up with the action – even if for one day you might spot the odd Potteries landmark in the background.

It’s not that I don’t applaud the city council for trying to attract big events to Stoke-on-Trent. I guess cycling as a sport is just a bit niche for me.

Given the viewing figures the Tour of Britain receives, however, I don’t believe I’m alone.

Yes, cycle nerds, cycle shop owners and a few traders in Hanley may have had a good day but I’m not sure hosting the race justified the £820,000 of taxpayers’ money spent since 2008 and all the associated mither of road closures.

Senior councillors have confirmed they did want the Tour of Britain here this year and would like to see it return soon.

This means there must be a pot of money that would have been spent on the race in 2014 – perhaps £120,000 plus – going spare.

That being the case why don’t we look to organise some other events which will help to raise the city’s profile and boost the economy?

For example, given the fact that we are the undisputed darts capital of the world and have been for more than a decade, I’ve always wondered why Stoke-on-Trent doesn’t look to stage a tournament.

If it’s because some people are a bit sniffy about it not being a proper ‘sport’ then I suggest they get over themselves and pop in to a few pubs across the Potteries to see how healthy local leagues are.

Darts is hugely popular – that’s why it’s broadcast on Sky TV – and in Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, Adrian ‘Jackpot’ Lewis and Andy ‘The Hammer’ Hamilton, we have three home-grown ambassadors who would themselves be a big draw. We could stage it at the King’s Hall in Stoke or the Victoria Hall in Hanley over a weekend.

We’ve also got a couple of world class pool players living locally so perhaps that’s another sport we can look to in order to raise our profile.

Of course, events which bring people into the city and get them spending money in shops, pubs and restaurants don’t necessarily have to be sports-related.

Take the recent Robbie Williams fans’ festival, tourist trail and exhibition at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, for example. They cost a few thousand pounds to stage but the benefits were huge in terms of helping local businesses, attracting visitors and boosting the city’s profile.

Let’s not forget that neighbouring towns like Stone and Leek, which have much smaller populations, stage hugely successful food and drink and arts festivals, respectively.

Meanwhile, Newcastle is about to put on its jazz and blues festival.

Here in Stoke-on-Trent we struggled to get a few camels up Hanley for the Christmas lights switch-on. What’s all that about?

We should have more farmers’ markets, continental markets or perhaps stage a huge garden and local produce show which highlights the best our farmers, bakers and brewers have to offer.

Or how about an annual Spitfire Day here in Stoke-on-Trent, based around trying to raise funds to restore our own RW 388 in the Potteries Museum – complete with wartime music, re-enactors in period costume, military vehicles and a fly-past?

We are a big enough city to be staging a major public event once a month and they could be shared around our Six Towns so that each one enjoys the economic boost – rather than just Hanley being the beneficiary.

When you think about it, we are only limited by our imaginations.

I’m pretty sure all of the above could be staged for less than the £120,000 or more it cost us to host the Tour of Britain each year – and certainly a lot less than the minimum £250,000 of taxpayers’ money we are spending on a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show.

There is simply no need to put all our eggs into a couple of baskets.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Cycle pioneer Brian is still making tracks at 73

It’s Christmas Day in the early Eighties and the boys of Stoke-on-Trent are heading downstairs hoping that Santa Claus has done the business.

I’m one of them and sure enough, next to my Santa sack filled with presents, stands a gleaming new, light blue Raleigh Grifter.

Back then it was a fairly straight choice for boys of a certain age: Grifter or Chopper.

One of Santa’s little helpers who made dreams come true for generations of Potteries children was making that choice was Brian Rourke.

The 73-year-old’s name is synonymous with cycling in the city and remembers only too well the days when Raleigh’s bikes were household names.

He said: “Those were the bikes that started me off, really. The Choppers, Grifters, Tomahawks and Budgies.

“We sold a hell of a lot of them back when it was manic in the run up to Christmas and then fairly quiet for the rest of the year.”

Brian borrowed £200 from a friendly bank manager to start his business in Waterloo Road, Burslem, in 1972.

By then he was a 33-year-old veteran cyclist, a winner of numerous races and someone with enough experience and expertise to turn his passion into a business.

Brian actually came to cycling quite late.

He explained: “I never owned a bike until after I left school. It would have been the mid-1950s and my dad had refused to buy me one because he thought there was too much traffic on the roads. I suppose it’s a good job he’s not around now!

“I think perhaps because I’d been denied cycling when I was younger I wanted it all the more when I finally got my own bike.”

Brian added: “My love of cycling was actually fuelled by the fact that I wasn’t able to follow my dream to become a professional footballer. I played for Stoke-on-Trent schoolboys twice but that came to an end because they wouldn’t let me play wearing my thick glasses. There was, of course, no such thing as contact lenses in those days. I was devastated and so turned my attenton to cycling.

“At first it was just about me and my mates riding to see other friends up Packmoor way. Then we would cycle a bit further to places likes Congleton.

“Over time we would go further and further to places like Macclesfield. Looking back it’s amazing how far we travelled on the bikes we had.”

In the early Sixties, after he had completed his National Service, Brian began to race competitively.

He went on to ride all over the UK and abroad – taking part in three Tour of Britain rides with his close friend Les West, another Potteries cycling legend.

Brian said: “Back then the tour was about 1,600 miles – not the 900-or-so it is today and we did it with our feet strapped on to the pedals. I remember the straps used to leave marks.

“Everything has changed so much over the years. Bike technology has advanced incredibly. These days and all the gear is made for speed and comfort and is so much lighter.”

Brian is thrilled that cycling is enjoying such a renaissance – thanks in no small part to British riders such as Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish enjoying success at the Tour De France and London 2012.

Stoke-on-Trent has been quick to seize the initiative – cultivating a reputation as a ‘cycling city’.

On September 13 the fifth stage of this year’s Tour of Britain comes to the Potteries – followed 10 days later by the Tour Ride where ordinary people and charity fund-raisers can follow in the tracks of the world’s top riders.

Brian said: “It’s great for the city. Cycling tends to go through phases – with different types of cycling enjoying popularity.

“At the moment it’s the road racers who are riding high – which is good for my business – but BMX and mountain bikes have had their moments too.”

Brian recently drew on his five decades of experience to coach celebrity riders including Stoke City manager Tony Pulis and comedian Nick Hancock who took part in a charity cycle ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End in aid of the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice.

He said: “None of them were really riders but they showed what anyone can do with proper advice, preparation and the right gear. At the end of the day, when you boil it down, it’s just one person and the bike they are riding.”

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia