Tour of Britain; Devon district

Huge crowds gathered for the 2013 Haytor summit finish

Huge crowds gathered for the 2013 Haytor summit finish - Credit: Archant

Sharon Goble caught up with the organiser of the Devon leg of the Tour of Britain, which this year finishes high on a Dartmoor tor

Huge crowds gathered for the 2013 Haytor summit finish

Huge crowds gathered for the 2013 Haytor summit finish - Credit: Archant

I’d intended to cycle to my interview with local Tour of Britain organiser Zsolt Schuller, but the heavy rain put me off. I was glad to discover that he’d left all four of his bikes at home too.

Fingers crossed the weather will be set fair when the world’s top cycling teams and riders race from Sidmouth to the summit of Haytor later this summer. The Devon stage takes place on Friday 9 September, a fitting date as it will be the ninth time in ten years the Tour has visited the county, with Devon County Council hosting starts and finishes annually between 2009 and 2014.

Zsolt Schuller is the man with the daunting task of making sure everything is in place in Devon for Britain’s premier road cycling event, and that the county is shown off to best advantage when the hordes descend. “I compare it to a travelling circus - we’re the lawnmower preparing the circus ground, then the Tour of Britain rolls in for a day, puts on the show, and vanishes again. Our role at Devon County Council is to make sure the event goes off well, and work with the districts to help them make the most of it.”

Zsolt’s job covers the whole gamut: working with a small committed team across a number of local partners to come up with a route suggestion, helping organise road closures, parking suspensions, the temporary closure of motorway slip roads, liaising with schools and communities, ensuring first aid cover and marshals are booked, all the way through to making sure flowers are organised for the podium.

“Devon is one of the few authorities to provide the Tour of Britain with a recommended route,” he says. “We recognise that it’s a great opportunity for tourism promotion because there’s live three hour television coverage and a highlights programme. In the past, we’ve gone along the South Hams coast to Dartmouth, thinking what a helicopter shot would look like. This year we’re once again starting in Sidmouth.”

A professional transport planner, Zsolt has helped with funding bids and managing Devon County Council’s investment in Exeter’s cycle network and wider networks across Devon. Recent projects influence the choice of route for the Tour of Britain. Two years ago, when the Exe Estuary Trail had been completed, the Devon stage started in Exmouth and finished in Exeter to give people the opportunity to watch the start and then cycle to see the finish. This year, the route ties in with the completion of a large project improving links to and on Dartmoor called ‘Granite and Gears’ and the creation of the Stover Trail, Devon’s newest cycle path from Newton Abbot to Bovey Tracey.

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Although there’s a capital cost in hosting the event, it more than pays for itself. An Economic Impact Report showed 2013 helped to boost the local economy by £5.9 million.

Coming through on a Friday is ideal, Zsolt says, giving visitors the chance to stay for a long weekend, bring their bikes, and cycle one of Devon’s many family-friendly trails: “On a bike, the landscape hits all your senses - you can take it all in.”

Huge crowds gathered for the 2013 Haytor summit finish

Huge crowds gathered for the 2013 Haytor summit finish - Credit: Archant

Last summer, Zsolt did just that, taking two months off to cycle 3,500 miles to Hungary. The ride was in memory of his father who left Hungary on foot as a refugee. He’d often talked to Zsolt about one day walking back to his homeland.

When he died, Zsolt decided to cycle instead, raising money for the Motor Neurone Disease Association. He says: “You don’t have to ride a marathon. Getting into cycling, even in a small way, can have a huge impact. A few years ago, a guy wrote to us after the Tour of Britain, saying ‘Thank you Devon for changing my life’. He’d been involved in a serious motorbike accident, suffered some limb damage, but - having watched the Tour of Britain twice - he got himself an adapted bike and got back into cycling.”

For a generation of young people used to spending hours on the end on smartphones and laptops, the phrase “get on your bike” couldn’t be more apt. In 2014, a cycle relay was held between schools in Exmouth, passing on the yellow jersey. One of the kids arrived at the next school to find all the children lining the hill on his approach. Overwhelmed, he was overheard saying “This is the best day of my life!”

Stories like that are what the Tour of Britain is really all about for Zsolt and his team: “When he grows up, that child will say “Did we really see Sir Bradley Wiggins standing around on The Strand in Exmouth?’ It’s a huge opportunity.”

Ten tidbits about the Tour

It’s the biggest free to watch sporting event in the UK.

There are twenty teams each with six riders.

This year’s route is 152.7 km long

The route climbs 3,101 metres.

Devon will provide the only summit finish of the 2016 Tour.

Over eight years, around 1.25 million people have watched the race in Devon.

To date, the Tour has boosted Devon’s economy by around £33 million.

For the fifth successive year, fans can see daily live coverage of all eight stages.

Starts in Glasgow on Sunday 4 September.

Ends in the heart of London on Sunday 11 September.