On the Thursday before the riders of the 101st Tour de France lined up along the Headrow in Leeds city centre for Le Grand Depart, we went for a walk through the market town of Otley, just a short way along the planned first stage route. The last time we had been in this part of West Yorkshire was back in February and it had been clear back then – from the first sightings of yellow bicycles leaning against dry stone walls or the first signs advertising camping the nearby farms – that the region was most definitely looking forward to their two days in the spotlight… but this was something else.
We found ourselves stopping at almost every shop window, whether a butchers, a newsagents, a bakery or an estate agents, to see how they were marking the arrival of the race, and it felt as if there was not a single shop front in the town that was not getting in on the act. The streets were criss-crossed with bunting – most frequently small representations of the three leaders jerseys from the race – and every pub had translated their name into French on banners that hung above the doors. Inside and yellow-jersey’d bar staff offered up a selection of themed real ales – pint of Saddle Sore anyone? – and the conversation in the snugs and lounges revolved around the impending arrival of the race from across the channel.
And this would be the scene throughout the weekend… a positive, excited mood, and a recognition of the fact that although it is easy to be cynical about professional cycling, and that the riders of the peloton would no doubt be passing through the centre of towns like Otley in a matter of seconds, the two days when the Tour de France came to Yorkshire were going to be about something far more than just 190-odd cyclists racing through the countryside.
We returned to Otley for the Saturday, enjoying the build-up procession of cars, motorbikes and sponsors vehicles from a grass verge outside Waitrose, until the cyclists passed in an undoubtedly impressive display of shaven legs and whirring wheels. Once the last support car was through, the road was claimed for the people, who turned the town into a festival site, following the race up the road on a giant screen in the market square, and sampling the wares of the local restaurants, producers and brewers who had set up in the surrounding streets, and the musicians who began to perform on a number of makeshift stages.
I have been to a couple of major sporting events – namely the FIFA World Cups of Germany and South Africa – and know many people who headed to London in 2012 for the Olympic Games. During these events you hear a lot about how much money is made for the host nation/city/community, but once you’ve purchased your ticket via Switzerland, or as you queue for your Danish beer and your American hamburger, only to find you cannot pay the small fortune required because your credit card was issued by the wrong company, you begin to suspect that if anyone is making money out of these things, it is unlikely to be people doing the hosting and bearing much of the cost.
Road cycling, like watching marathons, is something else. Even if they wanted to, the cycling federation could not block off the hundreds of miles of routes and charge admittance, or control the vendors who are keeping the spectators fed and watered. Yes, there are many costs in hosting the tour for the regions and towns through which it passes, there is the publicity caravan that lasts five times the amount of time it takes the riders to pass you by, and indeed the Tour de France owes its existence to a marketing campaign for a struggling French newspaper. But watching the race in Otley felt as un-commercial as professional sport can probably be, and it was simply incredible to see how the people of the town and those who had made their way there from all across the region and country, embraced the event… even if, by their own admittance, quite a good proportion of the thousands that lined the route had very little knowledge of the sport.
That was less true up on the side of the road on the climb at Oxenhope Moor the following day. We had found a parking space about four or five kilometres away, and walked through the bleak-yet-beautiful landscape to find our spec on yet another grass verge, only this time we were being observed by disinterested sheep, rather than Waitrose security guards. If we had the place to ourselves at the beginning of the day, things soon filled up, as all manner of people made the climb up from the town, and the vast majority of them did so by bicycle, sporting the colours of cycling clubs from all around the country.
It was on the climbs that the Tour de Yorkshire most resembled those scenes made famous on the other side of the channel. Watching the television footage of Buttertubs on the Saturday, or Holme Moss on the Sunday, it looked like those epic ascents from the Alps and the Pyrenees that continued to spellbind observers even through the darkest days of the sport’s doping scandals. Oxenhope was pretty busy as well, and somehow the experience was even more impressive, up there on the moor with thousands of others, waiting and waiting in that truly dramatic landscape until, finally, the cyclists arrived, and as they passed they were so close it was possible to feel the heat from their bodies and smell the sweat on their shirts. They were so close you dared not move in case you inadvertently caused a crash beamed around the world.
This time, with the final support car, there was no street festival, no folk music, and no locally brewed beer, just tens of thousands of people standing on a closed A Road, halfway up a hill. And many, those who had not ridden up, were parked on the other side of the moor. The scene as we walked across in a steady line over a kilometre long was incredible, a mass ramble in the finest tradition, although spirits were dampened slightly as the realisation came that the Tour – as it will always, relentlessly do – had moved on, and those wonderful two days, so long anticipated and so much enjoyed, were coming to an end.
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton