EARLIER this week, Hannah, one of our news editors, was asked what she thought of her home county, Yorkshire, hosting the opening two stages of the Tour de France. “Well, it’s obviously going to be great,” she said. “But there’s one problem. Once everyone gets to see how great Yorkshire is, they’ll all want to come.”
The Yorkshire mentality, summed up in one line. A fierce sense of regional pride, combined with a huge dollop of cynicism, if not outright disdain, for anyone unfortunate enough to have been born outside the confines of ‘God’s own county’.
That cynicism was apparent both inside and outside Yorkshire when the plan to bid for the Grand Depart was first mooted in 2010. In the rest of the country, people wondered how on earth the Yorkshire bidding team thought they could win a contest that was also going to feature Barcelona, Florence, Venice, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Vienna and Edinburgh. Closer to home, Yorkshire folk questioned why they would want a whole host of visitors trampling over hill and dale.
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Four years on, and the accusation of unrealistic ambition has been put to bed. Led by the drive and vision of Gary Verity, the chief executive of tourism body Welcome to Yorkshire, those behind ‘Le Tour Yorkshire’ assembled a formidable pitch.
They garnered the support of local politicians and business leaders, harnessed the power of grassroots cycling enthusiasts by promoting a petition that eventually amassed more than 170,000 names and spoke of the legacy of bringing one of the world’s great sporting events to a part of the country that is all too often overlooked in favour of London, the Midlands or the North-West.
Crucially, they also identified their key asset, the beauty and scale of the Yorkshire countryside. The Tour de France is unique in that a great deal of its media and television coverage comes from the air. Verity arranged for Christian Prudhomme, the general director of the Tour, and his visiting delegation to fly over the proposed route of the race in a helicopter. Suddenly, it became clear what a Yorkshire Grand Depart might look like to the millions who would be watching on TV.
“I was struck by the beauty of Yorkshire, and the difference between it in summer and winter,” explained Prudhomme. “Also, the contrast between what a great city Leeds is and the beautiful countryside which is only a few kilometres away. It’s really fascinating.”
Two years ago, Yorkshire was confirmed as the host for the opening two stages of the 2014 Tour. The external doubters had been silenced; now it was about persuading Yorkshire’s citizens to take the race to their heart.
The proof of whether that has been successful will be apparent this weekend, but the initial signs could hardly be more positive. This being Yorkshire, there’s bound to be a few grumbles – the weather maybe, or the preponderance of London accents lining Harrogate’s Stray – yet from Sheffield to Skipton and Ripponden to Ripon, the excitement ahead of the next two days is palpable.
Much of that is down to the inclusiveness of the Tour, and the fact that it embraces so many parts of the county that are usually hidden away.
Tomorrow, much of the focus will inevitably centre on Leeds, which marks the starting point for this year’s race, or Harrogate, which stages the finish of the opening day’s action in what is likely to be a thrilling bunch sprint. On Sunday, York and Sheffield are the cities at either end of stage two.
Yet the route of the two stages will take the riders through a host of towns and villages that are all doing what they can to celebrate their moment in the limelight.
Muker is playing host to a King of the Mountains music and arts festival, which offers views of the riders ascending the challenging Buttertubs Pass. Leyburn is ready to welcome crowds of up to 18,000, all wanting to catch sight of the peloton sweeping down Whippendale Bank. Masham is effectively becoming one giant open-air bar, with a host of family activities making up ‘Le Grand Party’.
Hotels and guest houses have been booked for more than a year, campsites are reporting bumper trade and a range of North Yorkshire leisure businesses are on course for their biggest weekend ever.
It is estimated that it cost £4m to bring the Grand Depart to Yorkshire. Anecdotal evidence suggests that is already money well spent.
As always with these things, the residual benefits should also be substantial. Tourism chiefs could hardly have wished for a better platform on which to promote North Yorkshire’s beauty to the rest of the world, while the route of tomorrow’s stage through the Dales has already become something of a Mecca for cycling clubs from throughout Europe.
For years to come, cyclists will flock to ride a real-life stage of the Tour de France, while the Amaury Sport Organisation, who organise the Tour, have developed advanced plans for a three-day ‘Tour of Yorkshire’ to be staged in each of the next five years, with the first race provisionally scheduled for the first weekend of next May. This is not a one-off thing.
In terms of the actual Tour de France, however, this weekend genuinely represents a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The atmosphere will be carnivalesque, the action on the road unrelenting. The emotion, especially if Britain’s Mark Cavendish can claim a stage win in Harrogate, his mother’s hometown, will leave a lump in the throat.
On Monday, Hannah can close her front door and return to glorious Yorkshire-style isolation. Whether she likes it or not, though, the next two days will see her sharing her home county with an expectant sporting world.