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Yorkshire in the spotlight as Tour de France sets off

© Afp

Text by Peter BERLIN

Latest update : 2014-07-06

The Tour de France set off from Yorkshire Saturday as fans took to the streets to cheer. But the UK crowds were disappointed, with local favourite Mark Cavendish crashing 300 metres from the finish line, leaving Marcel Kittel to win the first stage.

The Tour de France hit the roads of Yorkshire on Saturday, with the county – and much of Britain, it seemed – taking to the streets to cheer the cyclists on.

Long before the roll-out in front of Leeds' Town Hall, the streets were packed with fans.

But in the end the local crowds were disappointed, with Mark Cavendish – the great British sprinter and a fan favourite – crashing just 300 metres from the finish line in his mother’s hometown of Harrogate. Instead Marcel Kittel, a German rider who had been critical of the narrow Yorkshire roads, secured a victory in the Tour's first stage.

Clouds hung heavily over Leeds as the race prepared to get under way. But just before the official roll-out Gary Verity, chief executive of the Welcome to Yorkshire tourism agency, looked up at the grey skies and promised FRANCE 24 that the sun would indeed shine on the first day of the 2014 Tour.

Verity turned out to be right. But then, he is a man in the habit of delivering on unlikely promises – it was he who brought the Tour to Yorkshire in the first place. And in the sunshine Yorkshire looked glorious.

Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said that the photogenic qualities of Yorkshire – as he put it, a “très belle région” – had certainly helped attract the Tour. But he added that, after Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win the race in 2012, organisers had been keen to return to the United Kingdom.

Prudhomme said that what had surprised him most so far was not the passion of the fans but the “pride” felt by the people of Yorkshire in hosting the Tour.

That local pride manifested itself in very visible ways as the Tour set off on Saturday. Prudhomme proudly shared a photo he had taken of a phone box painted yellow, in honour of the Tour winner’s iconic yellow jersey.

Verity told those following the Tour that they could expect to see “lots of bunting, yellow jerseys, green jerseys, polka-dot jerseys, yellow bicycles and polka-dot houses”.

Organisers estimated that one million people would line the road for the 190.5-kilometre (118.4-mile) first stage. But for the world’s largest free sporting event, the crowd numbers are impossible to verify.

British police on crowd control duty merely shrugged when asked how they measured attendance. So did Prudhomme. Captain Jean-François Brisse, a gendarme who was part of the French contingent following the Tour, agreed that there was no way of putting a number on how many observers the race attracted.

But the crowds were unquestionably huge and decidedly enthusiastic. The route was lined with flags, banners and brightly painted bikes. Long after the race had passed the roads remained closed, allowing children to ride small bicycles on the empty streets and packs of "MAMILS" – middle-aged men in Lycra – to pedal more or less slowly in the tracks of the pros.

'God’s own county'

Yorkshire’s two-day Tour de France party comes at a price, however. Verity, the bid's impresario, got a little prickly when asked about the cost of hosting the Tour, which most estimates put at somewhere around £27 million ($46 million).

He noted that the Tour is one of the top three globally televised sports events, but is a lot less expensive to host than either the World Cup or the Olympics.

“Today the county is on TV in 190 countries,” he pointed out.

But for locals there is more than money at stake. They may refer to Yorkshire as “God’s Own County”, but they still feel overshadowed by nearby Manchester and what one BBC Leeds presenter on Saturday called the “fancy parts of England”.

They are immensely proud of the fact that Yorkshire beat out the global competition from Florence, Barcelona and Edinburgh to host the Tour.

On the other hand, the Tour’s two-day passage will leave little legacy – apart from a few yellow phone boxes, sunny memories and a sense of pride.

Cycling enthusiast Roop Singh, who is from Leeds, echoed that pride.

“The Tour has come to my hometown. It’s on my doorstep,” he said.

“The city deserves it," he added.

'Allez, Cav!'

“I bloody love the Tour de France,” said Tom from London, who was wrapped in a British flag. “It’s unique. The atmosphere is brilliant. It’s full of characters, in the crowd and among the riders. It’s the most brutal sporting event around.”

“Cavendish is the man,” he said of the British sprinter, echoing the sentiment of almost all the local fans. Many do not seem to have warmed to Chris Froome, the Briton who won the Tour last year.

Peter, a fireman in Rochdale on the outskirts of Manchester, had ridden over the Pennine hills with his colleagues, Kevin and Mark. All three were wearing their fire brigade cycling-club racing shirts and shorts. Peter’s bare legs were spattered with paint.

“I was up on Cragg Vale last night painting ‘Allez, Cav!’ on the road,” he said, referring to one of the hills the Tour will climb on Sunday. “I used undercoat. That’s why I can’t get it off.”

Brothers Matt and Howard were wearing yellow T-shirts, and Matt’s daughter Florrie had painted their faces blotchy yellow. They, in turn, had painted her face white with big red polka dots.

“It’s my single favourite sporting event,” said Howard, while Matt called Cavendish “the greatest athlete on the planet”.

Matt said that when little Florrie sees someone cycling fast she shouts “Go, Cav!” And if she sees someone cycling slowly she shouts, “You’re not Cav!”

Nearby, Singh stood beside his bike – painted yellow – and sported a yellow T-shirt and matching turban for the occasion.

“Yellow is one of my Sikh colours, so I thought I’d wear it, rather than blue or white. I don’t have a polka-dot turban,” he said.

Singh said that he often hops on his bike intending just to go for a spin, only to find later that he has ridden 40 or 50 miles. 

“For me, cycling is freedom,” he said.



Date created : 2014-07-05

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