It’s not every year that the Tour de France begins in your own country. When it last did in 2007 I was only just rekindling my love of professional cycling, though I’d have had no appetite to visit our capital anyway. But as a proud northerner, the short journey over to Yorkshire was inevitable and highly anticipated. And what a weekend it was.
Yes we all know that Cav crashed out in tragic style at the end of stage one, but viewing those last few kilometres in front of a big outdoor screen in Holmefirth was amazing. The audible gasp at the crash was a moment of collective dismay on a scale I’d not experienced before. (Football fans must go through this every Saturday, which might explain their frustration and outbursts of verbal abuse.) It wasn’t an elitist crowd either; lycra-clad cycling geeks mingled with novices who were probably destined ask how Marcel Kittel wouldn’t win the Tour despite winning the first stage. It really didn’t matter though, it was just brilliant to see that level of interest.
The main event for my party though, was being up on the ‘Cote de Holme Moss’ to see the race pass by on the Sunday. Pedalling up in the morning was rather different from any previous visit and certainly not a day for Strava ambitions due to the amount of people heading up on bike and foot. The atmosphere was great though, reminiscent of my years at Glastonbury, but with a lot more bikes. The range of people tackling this category 2 climb was impressive: kids as young as five, pensioners on tandems, a suit wearing man on a Brompton and a surprising amount of mountain bikers.
You could have a hard time justifying watching a bike race to a non-cycling fan. The idea of waiting five hours to watch the fastest cyclists on the planet pass by at high speed doesn’t sound great on paper, but the atmosphere and sense of anticipation creates enough excitement until the riders do eventually arrive. From the first police motorbikes through to the wackiness of the publicity caravan, you’ll be so delirious with excitement that you’ll be cheering and clapping anything on wheels. After that’s all passed, the entertainment comes from latecomers pedalling up the road, who unexpectedly find themselves in a mock Tour de France scenario complete with cheering crowds and crazed fans running alongside them. If the embarrassment gets too much and they decide to dismount then the good natured boo’s from the crowd are equally embarrassing. The young children pedalling up got a genuine and deafening roar from the crowd that they’ll never forget.
Eventually the helicopters arrived and we knew that that riders were approaching. The drama of seeing the first three riders making massive efforts up the steep road whilst all anxiously looking behind them was impressive, but nothing compared to the peloton that was right behind them. I thought I was well out of the way, then in a moment they were upon us and despite a hurried step back they flew past only inches from me. Strangely, they all seemed bigger than expected, though I’m not sure why. I recognised a few riders such as Geraint Thomas and the yellow jersey of Marcel Kittel, who was already slipping off the back but they were so fast it was a blur of lycra and wheels. I honestly didn’t expect it to be as exciting as it was, but the atmosphere, anticipation and crowds made for a kind of temporary sensory overload, leaving a surge of adrenaline in the crowd.
Once back down at the big screen, even a downpour whilst watching the last 12k couldn’t dislodge the field of fans. Unlike a football match, there ware no overall favourites, more that we were just enjoying an exciting race. Niballi got a huge cheer as he crossed the line first, but so would any of them. Just like the rain, it really didn’t matter.
Riding back on the Monday through some other towns that had hosted the race reinforced the scale of the weekend. The Northern weather will soon wash the names from the roads and all the yellow painted bikes will eventually find their way to the rubbish dump, but the memories will live on. Will the British public treat cyclists any differently on the roads? Will more people ride their bikes or follow the sport? I don’t know. I’m not even sure that the new fans will follow the race’s progress to Paris but chapeau to Yorkshire, you did the race proud.
This actually happened in England