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The Grandest of Grand Departs - Yorkshire-style
Updated 10:18pm Thursday 3rd July 2014 in News
TEAM SKY: Chris Froome (right) leads Team Sky past during the team presentation at The Leeds Arena. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
EXCITEMENT over Yorkshire's staging of the Tour de France Grand Depart hit fever pitch at the opening ceremony this evening - with the 10,000-strong audience breaking into a spontaneous round of chanting the county's name.
Alongside whistle-stop introductions of the 20 teams who will ride the 3,656km race, which fans were breathlessly told was the equivalent of riding from Leeds to Cyprus, the evening delivered an event reflecting Yorkshire's eccentricities and pride, with the odd Gallic twist.
The team presentation ceremony choreographed by Martin Green, head of ceremonies for the London 2012 Olympics, featured performances by Yorkshire pop group Embrace, Opera North, French opera singer Pauline Vassuer as well as a performance of the Grand Depart anthem by Middlesbrough's Alistair Griffin and Girl's Aloud star Kimberley Walsh from Bradford.
The curtain raiser started with an eclectic mix of roller skaters, schoolchildren and a ukulele band ahead of the teams riding onto the stage for brief interviews.
Ahead of the ceremony at Leeds Arena, the riders had paraded through Leeds City centre to a rapturous welcome from the huge crowds.
While the atmosphere for the foreign teams was far from partisan, with the likes of Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish's main rivals for the sprint title receiving ovations, it was no surprise the biggest cheers of the night were for the four British riders - Cavendish, Simon Yates, Geraint Thomas and last year's winner, Chris Froome.
German rider Jens Voight, who is taking party in his 17th and final Tour, said he had been astonished at how every village had been decorated for the race but added that the British riders would be under a lot of pressure.
Chris Froome said: "In cycling the Tour is the biggest event for us and I can't say how special it is to come back here to defend it."
Asked about the reception he has received, he said: "It's been unreal, absolutely unreal.
"We really couldn't ask for much more. This is going to be such an amazing experience."
Pressed on whether he will be wearing the yellow jersey in Paris in three weeks' time, he said: "I'm certainly going to give it my all.
"And it's absolutely guaranteed that these eight guys are going to do the same."
The other big star of the night was Mark Cavendish, who will be the focus of attention on Saturday when millions will watch to see if he can sprint to the yellow jersey in his mother's home town of Harrogate.
Lining up with his Omega Pharma-Quickstep team-mates, Cavendish said he believes it will be the best ever Grand Depart.
He said: "It's been incredible.
"I came here a few weeks ago to recce the course and the support for the Tour was absolutely phenomenal."
Cavendish said his first Tour experience was in 2007 when it started in London.
"That was the best Grand Depart I've been in but I'm so confident it will be overshadowed by this weekend in Yorkshire."
Presenter Jill Douglas asked him about the nation's hope that he triumphs in Harrogate on Saturday.
He said: "The Tour de France is not as simple as that. There are 200 other guys who want that yellow jersey as well."
Marcel Kittel, from Germany, charmed the arena when he talked about the "awesome" welcome he has received in Yorkshire.
The Giant-Shimano rider said: "I'm feeling good, really good. My knees are feeling a bit soft now and shaking but thanks for the warm welcome here, it's awesome."
In the front row at the ceromony were Adam and Jo Riddle, of Leyburn, who said they were thrilled to be seeing Cavendish in person.
Mr Riddle said: "We thought that we would only see the riders for a few seconds on Saturday, so this is a great way to see the teams properly.
"We have watched the Tour for nine years and are greatly looking forward to it coming through Leyburn."
As the event reached its climax, director of the race, Christian Prudhomme and Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive Gary Verity took to the stage.
Monsieur Prudhomme said: "It is more than just a great bike race, it brings out the best in people. Yorkshire is gorgeous."
Mr Verity added: "The dream we had four years ago of bringing the Tour de France to Yorkshire has turned to reality."
"When people look back at this time July 2014, it will be seen as a defining moment for the people of Yorkshire and beyond."
Mr Verity said he had promised the grandest of Grand Departs and over the coming days that pledge would be fulfilled.
He told the cheering crowd: "This is our destiny. You are part of history. Vive la Yorkshire. Vive le Tour de France."