Monday, 7 July 2014

Le Tour de France

Well it's finally come and gone. Wow!

I'd never spectated at a Grand Tour before so didn't really know what to expect. The forecasted number of spectators was 2 million over the two opening days (the initial estimate of actual figures as I write this was 2.5 million).

Certainly for the first day's route this was going to be mostly in rural areas so the potential disruption to the normally sleepy Yorkshire Dales was going to be immense. The route itself would be shut to motor traffic from 6am on the day of the race with cyclists being stopped half an hour prior to the publicity caravan coming through a couple of hours prior to the riders. However there were also restrictions on many of the roads leading to the route. If you weren't on a bike then basically the Dales were shut.

For the Saturday, we figured that we'd try to ride as far up Wharfedale as we could, hopefully we'd get close to the summit of Kidstones (or Cote de Cray as the official site has it) which was the first categorised climb of the Tour. Originally the first day was categorised as "flat" which for those of us who ride regularly in the area was a joke. Fortunately the organisers saw sense and categorised three climbs.

Some ten thousand mad Kilnsey their temporary home.

It was a truly weird experience riding up the road from Skipton towards Grassington. Lots of small groups of spectators were already (9am) sat at the side of the road but the truly weird part was the number of cyclists all heading up the Dale like moths being drawn to a flame. At a truly random guess there were about 50 riders a minute going past any particular point. It took until we were nearly at Kettlewell before I realised just how quiet it was. We've become so accustomed to the noise of traffic that it feels truly odd for there not to be any in situations where you'd normally expect it.

Some of the early crowds on Kidstones.

We managed to get up to Kidstones and decided not to head round the last bend but found a place on the bank above the road as it crossed the slope. We could see down the road as far as the pub at Cray so would get a bit of advance warning of what was coming.

The publicity caravan on its way past.

Even after we'd arrived there was a steady stream of cyclists arriving for the next hour to ninety minutes. Every child on a bike coming up the hill received a massive roar, the atmosphere was one of genial expectation. A few Mexican waves and the publicity caravan could be seen coming up the road. This is something that you rarely see on TV coverage but is best described as an bizarre mix of super sized versions of whatever the particular franchise is selling, so you'll get a ten metre bottle of fruit juice or a massive bag of oven chips. Each vehicle has someone throwing out some relevant trinket. I picked up a key fob but there were also cycling caps, inflatable cushions, herb seeds(?) - NO! not that kind of herb!

The king of the mountains needs to go on a diet!

The breakaway going past.

Just a quiet bike ride in the countryside.

The first sign that the cyclists were on their way was a group of five helicopters coming up the Dale. About ten minutes later the breakaway came through to huge roars. Finally the TV helicopter that accompanies the peloton throughout the race could be seen some way below us. In just a couple of minutes the lead car and TV motorbike were attempting to push their way through the crowds and the peloton followed looking remarkably unruffled, none of them were even out of the saddle!
The peloton making the first climb of the tour look very easy.

And that was it. As the hubbub died down the crowd got on their bikes and attempted to ride back down the hill. Eventually we got moving, heading for one of the big screens that were laid on for people to watch the rest of the race.

And so to Sunday. Cath was a Tour Maker so I headed over to Stanbury with the Wiggans clan. After a bit of fuss getting past a rather over-eager policewoman who had decided to shut the road 2 hours early we got ourselves a roadside spot about halfway up the hill - going much further looked as if it was just going to be a big crush.
Look! This is important, you'll just have to wait.
Much of the waiting time was spent chatting to the Police officers "on duty" - "We're only here in case there's a riot" - definitely an easy shift. Lots of the Police motorcyclists were high-fiving the crowd to cheers as they went past. Perhaps one of the only times that a crowd is likely to cheer them.
You mean I've got to ride through that lot?

Once again lots of noise and pzazz as the publicity caravan went through. We could see about a kilometre of the route leading to our position so we'd get plenty of warning of the riders approaching even if we missed the helicopters. This time the lead group of five could be seen circling over Haworth before swooping overhead.

The breakaway passing through some field art.
It wasn't long before the lead riders could be seen across the way, a quick swoop across the dam and then they were steadily climbing past us. Again they looked remarkably nonchalant  on a slope I'd been straining to get up.

The breakaway coming up 

 It wasn't long before the peloton arrived, a lot slower than Saturday so you could make out individuals: Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas of Team Sky passed right by us.

Again, that was it. Once the team cars had passed by there was just the broom wagon and a few Police outriders and the road was clear.

Riding back through Haworth, Crossroads and down to Keighley was bizarre: what would normally be a fraught dance with impatient motorists was now a closed road bike fest. By chance I caught up with Cath as we were riding through the village. Finally home we watched the rest of the stage as it headed to Sheffield.

So was it worth it? Too right! To have one of the biggest sporting event pass within a couple of miles of your house doesn't happen every day. The Tour is an event as much as a bike race and even as a Lancastrian I have to say that Yorkshire got it right. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.