Britons may be dominating the Tour de France but it was a Frenchman who won in the inaugural Prudential RideLondon-Surrey Classic today as Arnaud Demare emerged from the pack to take victory in a bunch sprint in front of huge crowds on The Mall by a clear bike length from Italian Sacha Modolo.
It was not only a shock victory for Demare, who did not figure among the pre-race predictions, but an emotional one too for the FDJ.fr rider lost his long-time coach, Hervé Boussard, who died of an epileptic fit at the age of 47 at the end of June.
Demare was outsprinted in the Olympic road race 12 months ago, finishing 30th on The Mall, but this time he was a clear winner. He threw both arms above his head as he crossed the line and pointed his fingers at the sky.
“One year after the Olympic Games this is a victory that’s a symbol of something for me,” said the 21-year-old. “It’s even more important because I lost my trainer, who died a month ago, so it’s very emotional for me.
“The course was harder than last year at the Olympics but I was feeling great on the way back to London. I was at the centre of the group and I told my two teammates to open the field – I had the legs, I just needed one opportunity.
“In the final stages I thought a lot about my trainer who had been with me since I was a junior, and that carried me to the line.”
Demare was joined on the podium by his countryman Yannick Martinez, from La Pomme Marseille, who followed Modolo, a Bardiani Valvole rider, across the line in third place.
“I had a good feeling in my legs today,” said Martinez. “I was feeling good at the end so I told my teammates to help me to the finish. At the last turn I was about 10th but I managed to make up five or six places to get me in the right spot for the finish.
“It’s a great race. As the Olympics were here too, so to make the podium is even better.”
Sky rider Ben Swift was the first Briton in 10th place, while Garmin-Sharp team leader David Millar was in 100th place. Of the other pre-race favourites, Gerald Ciolek was 11th while double Tour de France green jersey winner Peter Sagan dropped out.
Ramon Sinkeldam of Team Argos-Shimano made the most of his position in a long-time breakaway to win both the King of the Mountains prize and the sprint title.
“Of course if you are in the front group and you know that there is going to be a classification for it, then you go for it,” said the Dutchman.
Sinkeldam was in a group of eight who made the first significant break of the day after 44km as the field sped through the streets of Weybridge.
Surrey County Council Leader David Hodge had sent 150 riders on their way at 12:45 from Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London and the whole field formed a large bunch as they headed past some of the capital’s most famous sights with the narrow roads of the Surrey countryside ahead of them.
Attacks came thick and fast as they flew past large crowds in Westminster and south-west London, each one soon swallowed by the chasing field. A number of riders tried to get away from the peloton as they raced across the lush slopes of Richmond Park towards Hampton Court Palace.
The first significant break came in Weybridge when Sinkeldam and seven others escaped to open up a gap that grew to nearly five minutes by the time they started the first climb of the day at Newlands Corner.
British under-23 champion Mike Cuming of Rapha Condor JLT did much of the work, supported by Demare’s teammate Dominique Rollin, who won the first King of the Mountains points.
Sky’s Norwegian rider Gabriel Rasch initiated the chase at the head of the peloton, the gap eventually closing to four minutes as they attacked the testing slopes of Leith Hill for the first time.
Sinkeldam was first over the category-two climb, but Sky began to organise the chasers as the field tackled the second Leith Hill loop. With the leading group down to seven, Sinkeldam topped Leith Hill first for a third time with Sagan’s Cannondale teammates now pushing hard at the head of the chasers.
The leaders held a 2:30 advantage as they started the short sharp rise up Box Hill while behind them Millar and his Garmin-Sharp teammate Jack Bauer led the peloton charge up the famous climb, reducing the lead to just over a minute as they swept over the top into the fast descent towards Leatherhead.
Bauer led Britain’s Simon Yates and Rollin’s teammate Yoann Offredo in a three-man splinter across the gap, but the peloton were not far behind and the bunch chased hard on the run-in to London through Leatherhead, Cobham and Esher.
The leading group broke up as they sped towards Kingston leaving Offredo and Zico Waeytens of Belgium a minute clear with less than 20km to go. Offredo was doing all the work so the gap came down rapidly and the entire race was back together shortly after they re-crossed the Thames at Putney Bridge for the last dash towards The Mall.
Millar showed briefly at the front as they passed the Houses of Parliament, raising hopes of British fans, but it was the French supporters who had cause to celebrate as the inspired Demare turned off Horse Guards Parade and struck for the line.
“This is one of my top three victories because there were so many good riders in the race,” said Demare, who also won a stage of the Tour of Switzerland earlier this year.
“It was an amazing race. It’s not often you get to ride in a big city on closed roads, so the speed was very high. I think this race will get bigger and bigger, and I want to come back every year with my team to win again.”
Demare was handed his winner’s trophy by Surrey County Council Leader Hodge, who said: “Following the international cast of stars as they gunned for glory through Surrey was a sight to behold and evoked memories of those three unforgettable days of Olympic racing on the county’s roads last summer.”
Prudential RideLondon-Surrey Classic Official Results