Inside the heart of the race
There's a simple rule to watching sport: the closer you can get to the action, the more you'll see. And the more you see, the more you'll understand.
This is why, early on a fresh September morning, I am hammering round the streets of King's Lynn in a car driven by a man I have never met before, a chap on a penny farthing wobbling into the gutter as we career past, and 84 of the world's better bike riders closing in rapidly on our rear bumper.
Stage Six of the Tour of Britain has just got under way. The car belongs to a race official, and will be tracking every move the peloton makes. The riders include Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas and Mark Renshaw. The penny farthing? I'm not quite sure, but if he doesn't get out of the way sharpish, it won't just be his rear tyre that's pancake-flat.
Ahead lie 118.2 miles of rolling Norfolk countryside; behind, the glossy-black Team Sky coach and a town square full of gaping locals.
Horns blare. Headlights flash. The cavalcade forms around the racers and speeds away, the radio in the car crackling with the race director's messages: "I have 84 riders starting the day..."
A strict initial order is rapidly established. Out front, police motorcyclists establish a quick-fire rolling roadblock. The race announcer's car speeds through, blaring updates to the hundreds of people lining the roads, followed by marshals on motorbikes, a commissaire's car, the race director's vehicle and then the main pack of riders. Behind them, another commissaire, a media car and a doctor, with a snarling, revving cavalry charge of team cars fighting for position beyond.
It is carefully-orchestrated mayhem, a brightly coloured express train of action blasting through the countryside. From the first mile, attacks are going off the front, doomed to instant failure, effortlessly reeled in by the shape-shifting pack of lean-legged riders.
"Strong pressure at the front of the peloton..." intones the race radio, as we zip through the Sandringham estate. If there are no obvious Royal spectators, there are plenty of Union flags, all of them waving wildly when news spreads that Wiggins is third in the first sprint of the day.
The pace is unrelenting. As we dip towards the coast at Hunstanton, the riders are averaging between 35 and 40 miles per hour, a brisk tailwind putting a rocket up backsides where a cross-wind was expected to blow the pack apart.
Villages flash by, then trees and hedges and ripe fields. We barrel through junctions without bothering to look, jump traffic lights without worrying about red signals or speed cameras.
"One rider is clear of peloton..." shouts the radio, but there's no time to announce the rider's number and name before they get absorbed back into the amorphous mass.
Fifty kilometres are covered in just over an hour. In Wells-next-the-Sea, the children have been given Honda flags and weird cardboard masks of Ed Clancy by one of the sponsors, giving the disconcerting impression of a town taken over by cycling zombies.
Driver Pete beeps and waves, and the kids wave back. Some have 'Go Bradley!' banners, others home-made flags.
A call comes over the race radio for the Saxo Bank car. One of the team's riders has gestured for assistance to the commissaire, and that's the signal for their support car to race to the front of the pursuing pack, honking wildly, to meet their man dropping back. Should they not make it in time, there are two neutral service cars to step in, driven by grizzled veterans of British road-racing Brian Smith (former national road-race champion) and Dave Rowe, who once raced tandem in the Olympics.
The support by the side of the road is exemplary, the action incessant. At the first King of the Mountains climb the de rigueur Devil is in place, painted head to toe in red and waving his pitchfork as if he were on Ventoux rather than a tiny East Anglian incline.
Television cameramen on motorbikes buzz about the peloton like worker bees, warned over the radio when they hover too close. A helicopter clatters low overhead.
"There are many different attacks at the front," warns the radio, sounding like a wartime broadcast. Numbers are shouted out, start-lists frantically thumbed to see who it is who has made the break. Cervelo's Jeremy Hunt darts away to open up a 20-second lead, but it barely lasts five kilometres. "The peloton is not willing to let them go," comes the confirmation.
Surrounded by it all, craning your neck this way and that to see who's there and who's nowhere, it's a frantic, relentless ride, a wonderful insight into exactly how a top stage race works. "Doctor for number five!" barks the radio, and a flick through the notes clamped to your knees reveals that - whoah - Sky's Thomas is struggling, and those flashing lights are the medics dashing forwards. A few cars further back, principal Dave Brailsford is barking instructions over the team's own radio system.
At 40 seconds clear the radio buzzes with permission for the Saxo Bank and Garmin team cars to come past the main pack to support their men. Another motorbike marshal, this time carrying a pillion passenger holding up a blackboard indicating the size of the break, goes with them.
We settle in behind the break. Meyer, one of the best young riders around, has a silky-smooth pedalling style. His team car ferries forward a musette of food and then drops back as he puts the hammer down. "The peloton has stopped riding," announces the radio, and the gap grows and grows.
Even in a car the pace feels intense. We are cornering at a speed that would normally have your licence taken away, right up on the bumper of the car in front and with other vehicles squeezing past on our outside with windows down, drivers laughing and shouting good-natured abuse.
No other car dare cross our path. The police outriders are ruthless, stopping traffic dead with pointed fingers, the sternest among them nicknamed 'Ming' for the combination of his pointed beard and merciless manner.
As we flash through Aylsham - primary school kids in red jumpers, faces pressed against their playground's mesh fence, teachers cheerleading; amateur cyclists in stretched club jerseys and retro caps; shoppers with bags abandoned at their feet, mobile phones held up - the plot switches again.
"The peloton is racing! It's strung out - Team Sky are leading the chase..."
Belting through Horstead the lead has dropped to five minutes 30. Wiggins, Cummings and Hayman are at the front of pack. The race radio turns lyrical: "There's a long line of riders, stretched now, it's hard and fast..."
Can the two leaders stay away? Calculations are made and thrown about the cavalcade. We honk and flash through Norwich's packed streets, rows of staring faces flickering past, making you feel a little like the Queen on a joyride.
In the streets outside the city we pull to one side and wait for main pack. "They'll never catch them two," advises a bloke on tractor, covered in mud. His explanation is lost in a fizzing whirr of carbon frames and deep-rim wheels. The peloton has passed.
The team cars screech by - jockeying for position, racing past each other on wrong side of road, the drivers juggling team radios, maps, mobile phones, bidons and musettes.
Eleven miles to the finish in Yarmouth. The Norfolk Broads disappear unnoticed under narrow bridges, the speed at the front of the pack climbing to nearly 60 kmph.
The gap is going up in smoke, reduced to 1.46.
For Meyer and Marycz, the feeling must be dreadful - chased down relentlessly by the hungry machine behind, the distance between hunter and prey shrinking with every kilometre.
Ten kilometres out, 51 seconds in front. Marycz is blown, his team car called back. Meyer goes for broke with a final solo bid.
"100m lead!" crackles the radio. "200m lead!"
Will he do it? We sweep onto the Yarmouth seafront. "23 seconds from the peloton..."
With less than two miles of the 118 miles left, Meyer is swallowed up. One moment he is alone, the next gone from view.
Barriers line the roads. Eager punters lean forward and then sway back as the lead-out men draw the bunch into an elongated arrow-head. The trawlers moored on South Quay go by unnoticed, Wiggins and Thomas left behind too by the final showdown.
200m to go. With the finish arch in sight, the cars are diverted left and away. The last thing we see is a sea of muscled rumps disappearing down the final straight.
From being at the beating heart of it all, suddenly we are blind.
Who won? Who won?