BY 9am, it was clear this wasn’t going to be a day like any other. In Leeds, thousands of spectators were thronging the Headrow, straining to catch a glimpse of the team trucks spilling out the bikes and their riders that would contest Yorkshire’s Grand Depart.
On the ascent to Buttertubs Pass, a succession of bleary-eyed campers were spilling out from their tents, ready to line the roads and contribute to the remarkable pictures of cyclists squeezing through a human tunnel of colour that has come to characterise this most successful of sporting weekends.
And on the train from York to Harrogate, it was standing room only as North Yorkshire’s exclusive, genteel spa town was transformed into a seething mass of revellers and cycling enthusiasts. Normally, that train stops at Knaresborough for a handful of people to get on. On Saturday, the doors weren’t even opened, such was the impossibility of getting anyone else onboard.
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When Yorkshire was selected as the Grand Depart host four years ago, those involved in organising the opening two stages of the Tour spoke confidently about the anticipated levels of support. Christian Prudhomme, the general director of the race, enthused about Yorkshire’s passion for cycling. No one, though, could have anticipated crowds like the ones that assembled over hill and dale at the weekend.
It was truly remarkable, mirroring the enthusiasm that greeted the London Olympics two years ago and cementing Britain’s reputation as a nation that loves to throw a sporting party. We might not be very successful once the action begins – although hopefully Chris Froome will dispel that grim stereotype over the next three weeks – but we certainly know how to make the rest of the world welcome.
So what compelled so many people to devote their weekend to supporting the Tour, a bike race that, let’s be honest, has enjoyed an exceptionally chequered recent past and that, up until a few years ago, would not have figured highly on most mainstream sporting bulletins?
A straw poll of spectators in Harrogate’s Nuffield Health Fan Park revealed a range of different answers; some sporting, some social, some halfway in between.
“It’s Saturday afternoon, the sun’s shining and I was looking for something to bring the kids to,” said Sue Morley, from Harrogate itself, who freely admitted she had no interest in cycling.
There was certainly an element of that, with sport in this country regularly playing a social role that is not apparent in many other nations. It’s why plenty of people dress up to go Flat racing in the summer, and leave without having seen a horse.
Patriotism was another key factor, whether national, in terms of cheering for British success, or more parochial, in terms of making sure Yorkshire did itself proud in the national limelight.
“Go Cav,” was emblazoned on the back of more than a dozen blokes sitting in front of one of the giant television screens in Harrogate, while Yorkshire’s white rose competed with the Union Jack for prominence as hundreds flew their flags on the roads through the Dales.
“This is never going to happen in Yorkshire again, so we wanted to make the most of it,” said Dan Hardy, who had camped with his family close to Reeth to ensure they could get a prime spot to watch the race on Saturday. “Everyone’s been saying how big this was going to be, so it would have been terrible if nobody had turned up.”
Even so, it’s doubtful that this weekend’s two stages would have been quite so well supported had cycling not enjoyed such a surge in popularity in the last decade.
Yorkshire has been at the vanguard of that explosion, with the clubs in the county buoyant and the local roads packed with cyclists all year round. Even anecdotally, think of how many cyclists you’ve seen out riding in the last few weeks, and compare that with a few years ago.
Whether because of the success of the likes of Sir Chris Hoy on the track and Sir Bradley Wiggins on the road, or the effect of a gradual shift in Government policy to promote cycling in our towns and cities, more than 3m Britons now cycle at least three times a week.
For plenty of those, this weekend was like their birthday and Christmas all rolled into one. So while there were plenty of people in Harrogate not really sure of what was going on, there were thousands more glued to the big screens keen to discuss the minutiae of Chris Froome’s gear selection or the tactical wisdom of Jens Voight’s solo breakaway at such an early stage of the race.
Cycling can no longer be described as a minority pursuit, and the level of interest in this weekend’s action is further proof of the sport’s new position in the nation’s sporting consciousness.
“If I hadn’t been coming here, I would have been out on the bike this morning,” said Jeff Groves, who had travelled north from Nottingham, and was wearing the colours of Team Sky. “I love it, but it’s nice to have the chance to watch people who really know what they’re doing for once.”