Brendan Gallagher looks back on the opening day of the Friends Life Women’s Tour in Northamptonshire.

IT says much for the size of the crowds on the inaugural Friends Life Women’s Tour that they caused as experienced a rider such as Olympic silver medallist  Lizzie Armitstead to mistime her sprints on  the opening stage from Oundle to Northampton.

Armitstead finished eighth, two seconds behind winner Emma Johansson and second placed Marianne Vos after, by her own admission, starting her sprint way too early. Usually in a women’s stage race the crowd starts congregating about 100m from the finish, this time it was both sides of the Northampton finish from much further out.

“Normally you see a crowd of people in the distance or on the brow of the hill and you think that must be the line, but this time it wasn’t!” said Armitstead who is still handily placed in sixth in the GC reckoning having picked up two seconds in a YodelDirect Sprint.   “We're going to have to get used to the crowds but it's nice. Coming around that bottom corner there were massive crowds and as a British girl I got over-excited and went for it. I started far too early, Emma Johansson was on my wheel and she won, so I gave her the perfect lead-out basically.

“I'm confident that I'm in sprinting shape. I just wasn't clever enough. I knew that it was uphill with 500m to go. It was just simply a case of getting too excited. It was still really special day though. Something that as a British rider you don't get to experience.  I felt so proud at the start in Oundle to be British and so grateful to people for being there and putting that effort into supporting us.“

One British woman who did keep her cool was is exciting young sprinter Hannah Barnes, who hails from Northamptonshire.  Barnes, making best use of her local knowledge of a harder than expected finish, came third to take the jersey for the best placed British ride. If this is to be a primarily a sprinters Tour she is likely to feature in the reckoning again, along with double junior world champion Lucy Garner who was also well in the hunt with a sixth placed finish that sees her placed a handy ninth overall.

There was no denying the class of world ranked number one Johansson though who timed her challenge perfectly, firstly hitching a ride with Armistead when the British girl took off and then stalking Marianne Vos up quite a testing uphill drag before passing the world champion in style.

Be warned though.  Vos has only just started road racing in earnest this season and today's effort was something of an exercise in blowing out the cobwebs. She will only get stronger from this point onwards.

The Johansson-Vos burn-up was a suitable conclusion to a wonderfully encouraging day for Women's sport with the Great British public again showing their support where others sometimes fear to tread. The Grand Depart in Oundle, blessed with early morning sunshine during a day of squally showers, lost very little in terms of ambience and sense of a town being en fete, to an old style rural stage start on the Tour de France.

Locals, already in the mood after a four day Festival based around the arrival of the Friends Life Women’s Tour, started wandering the streets in anticipation soon after 7am and with the coffee shops, Bakeries and pubs open soon after the atmosphere soon built. The smell of breakfast was everywhere. The Bean coffee Shop, Dexter's, the Rose and Crown, the Talbot and the Ship were possibly the gathering places of choice although Oundle is full of handily placed little watering holes.  The big secret is out – spectating at a major bike races  is, among other things, the perfect excuse for wandering around doing not a lot, passing a few hours with friends and family, enjoying a couple of cheeky drinks and dreaming of what will be once you get your own bike sorted and hit the road.

All the retail shops had also made a massive effort with their floral displays and decorated bikes – a special mention for RC Cotton and Sons – and the signing-in podium was ideally placed in the town centre and a hive of activity as the big names registered for a tough day the office with many of them stopping off to be interviewed.  To a woman they seemed astonished at their welcome. Often they have to start even big races at some remote rural location because the authorities on the Continent will not countenance the disruption a Depart will cause in even small towns. This time they were placed firmly in centre stage.

The racing was full-on and unpredictable, which is one of the appeals of women’s road racing, with the early action centring on Britain's Sharon Laws who is here in search of the Strava Queen of the Mountains jersey. Laws took second place behind Rossella Ratto on the Harrington climb and third beind Vos and Linda Indergand at Spratton.  Thereafter the narrative of the race was determined by a brave break from Elise Delzenne who took off on her own and was only closed down with 2km go when the sprint teams moved into top gear.

By any criteria it was a successful day's bike racing but to attract such significant crowds on a blustery Wednesday lunchtime in early May in a relatively sparsely populated area of eastern England was exceptional.

“We were hopeful before the start but It surpassed all our expectations,” admitted Race Director Mick Bennett afterwards. “My measure of a successful day is first and foremost that all the riders and spectators are safe, that is always the priority, but yes the crowds were amazing as well.  I reckon that today, on the first day of the first international stage event for women in this country, was the equivalent of the men’s Tour of Britain in 2008 and that was the year it really took off for that event.”