THOUSANDS of people have gathered tonight for a spectacular ceremony to mark the arrival of the world's greatest bike race in the UK.

Organisers of the Tour de France's visit to Yorkshire say it is the first time the traditional team presentation event has been incorporated into a lavish opening arena ceremony showcasing the county, the sport and the race.

The race kicks off on Saturday morning in the centre of Leeds and tonight the city played host to the 198 riders taking part, including British hopes Mark Cavendish and last year's winner Chris Froome.

The Yorkshire public got their first glimpse of the stars of the Tour in action when all the teams rode through the city centre streets to the new 10,000-seat Leeds Arena.

The opening ceremony began with the band Hope & Social who performed with 100 local people, including a roller-skating choir, to form The Band Anyone Can Join.

Thousands of cycling fans then cheered the first of the 22 teams on to the stage - Team Katusha.

Tonight's curtain-raiser is a prelude to the opening stage of the 101st Tour in Leeds.

Saturday's opening stage will see the 22 teams ride to Harewood House, just north of Leeds, where the ceremonial start will be conducted by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry.

The riders will then tackle the hills and lanes of the Yorkshire Dales before a sprint finish in Harrogate.

British hopes are pinned on Cavendish, and hundreds of thousands of people are expected to line the route to cheer him on to the finish line in his mother's home town.

The royal visitors will also be in Harrogate to welcome the leading riders and the peloton.

On Sunday, stage two will take the Tour from York to Sheffield and feature some of the toughest climbs in British cycling.

Despite the opening two stages being billed as Yorkshire's Grand Depart, the other side of the Pennines has also tapped into the Tour de France excitement with Rochdale making the most of the fact that a 0.6-mile section of stage two passes through the borough.

On Monday, the entourage moves south to Cambridge from where the teams will race in stage three to London and a finish near Buckingham Palace, on The Mall.

The Grand Depart is expected to attract up to three million spectators.