It's the Tour - but not as we know it

TWO gnarled old Yorkshireman are sitting on a dry stone wall in Healaugh. They've got green beer bottles in their hands. Behind them on their honey-coloured stone house flutter flags and little cyclists' jerseys, and a sprayed yellow bike hangs over their heads.

"Go on, lad," they shout, waving their bottles at every cyclist who passes.

Nearly all the houses on the B6270 around Reeth are similarly dressed up to welcome the Tour de France - clinging to the hillside at Low Row are three alpacas, one is spray-painted so that it wears a green jersey, another is wearing the leader's yellow, and the third is resplendent as the King of the Mountains with red polka dots on its white fleece.

The two Yorkshiremen are not the only ones who've already bagged their vantage points - the word is that two Americans have offered to pay a nearby roadside pub £1,000 each for a chair overlooking the road on the day of the race.

The cyclists passing the two Yorkshiremen are trying out the route of Stage One of the Tour 24 hours before the real riders pass through. The real riders will have dropped down from the 526 metre peak of Buttertubs, sped along the B6270 through Muker, Healaugh and Reeth as it flows beside the Swale, before climbing up to 402 metres on Grinton moor before dropping into Wensleydale and away. To the real riders, this is officially a "flat" stage; to anyone else, it is daunting.

Urged on by the Yorkshiremen, I join the steady train of cyclists tackling the Grinton climb. It must be many thousands long. Most are Lycra-clad middle aged men. Some are so large that, on their pencil thin machines, they look like they need stabilisers. In the teeth of a gale so strong that it is lifting the splatted rabbit carcasses off the Tarmac, one chap wobbles on a sharp incline and slowly overbalances, landing with a dull thud on graffiti on the road. It says "Go, Cav, go", and hopefully Mark Cavendish will not suffer such an indignity on this stretch.

At the other end of the spectrum to the tumbler, many of those trying the Grinton climb are teak-tanned and superfit. The effortlessly overtake, swishing silently and sweatlessly past, man and extremely expensive machine working in perfect harmony.

For me, Grinton is gruelling. As this is the route of the Tour de France, I take it in stages, pausing occasionally to catch my breath.

Gruelling, and galling. At the top is a sixty-something lady, elegant in purple, grey hair tucked beneath helmet, and riding a thick-tyred silver and red sit-up-and-beg boneshaker. She looks utterly untroubled by the lung-busting, heart-bursting climb - until she goes over a cattle grid which threatens to bounce the sandwiches and thermos flask out of the basket strapped on her handlebars.

I drink in the view, sun chasing showers across the dramatic backdrop of Fremington Edge, and a snake of lurid-coloured Lycra winding its way to the top. everyone, it seems, is taking this once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of the Tour de France.

Even with jelly legs, dropping down 700ft is easy and, although the wind is against me, I fly through Reeth and speed back through Healaugh to my campsite. The two Yorkshiremen are still on their drystone wall, waving their green bottles at me - although this time, a couple of hours after our first encounter, it is difficult to distinguish what encouragement they are shouting. Cav and co will, though, undoubtedly appreciate it.

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