The grandest Départ
by Lionel Birnie in Harrogate
The A61 from Leeds to Harrogate was a long line of cyclists making their way to see the finish of the opening stage of the Tour de France. There were fast ones and slow ones, men, women and children all enjoying the experience of cycling on a road that was mostly closed to traffic. One man had a bottle of red wine strapped into a bottle cage wedged behind his saddle, suggesting that he intended to get into the party spirit as soon as he reached his destination.
The crowds on the Côte de Buttertubs, as the French have named it, were huge, with so many people perched on the hillside it gave the impression the Tour had arrived in the Alps rather than northern England.
In Leeds, people began streaming into town in the middle of the night. One Tour Maker, a member of the army of volunteers who had offered their services to help make sure the event went without a hitch, told me that when he started duty at 4am people were already sitting on the pavements waiting.
Depending on who you listened to, the crowds were four deep, six deep or 10 deep. Exaggeration always gets in the way of the facts on such occasions. By Monday the estimated crowd will no doubt be in the millions.
There were people in Sky jerseys and Omega Pharma-Quick Step hats supporting Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish, of course, but the Tour is an international affair wherever it goes. I bumped into an Estonian man and his young daughter as they were looking for the team buses. He said they lived in the UK now and were big cycling fans. He had a large blue, white and black Estonian flag and spoke fondly of their great sprinter Jaan Kirsipuu. She had drawn pictures of Tanel Kangert and Rein Taaramäe and hoped to get them signed. ‘I did it last year,’ she said.
Yorkshire has embraced the Tour de France so firmly it is hard to imagine she’ll have to let go on Sunday evening. With its steep hills, white knuckle descents and stunning green-brown countryside, the county looks almost as if it was designed with bike racing in mind. As the Grand Départ goes, Yorkshire has already raised the bar. Sunday’s stage, which promises to combine the one-off thrill of a spring Classic with the over-arcing tension of a Grand Tour’s narrative, could be spectacular.
The Tour got the royal seal of approval at Harewood House when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, known by the tabloids as Wills and Kate, posed with Mark Renshaw (or was it Prince Harry?) on the ‘official’ start line before getting the race formally underway.
On the face of it, cycling could not be in ruder health but not everything is shiny.
With so many people watching the race on the roadside and on television, cycling should be an easy sell but several teams are only a phone call away from potential disaster. For example, Belkin are withdrawing their sponsorship of the top Dutch team, although there does appear to be more positive news on the horizon for Giant-Shimano.
We spoke to Brian Cookson, the president of the UCI, about a number of issues for an episode of the podcast you can listen to next week. He said that work had been done to repair the relationship between professional cycling and German television. The Tour has not been on free-to-air television in Germany for a number of years, a result of the widespread doping at the country’s flagship T-Mobile and Gerolsteiner teams, as well as Jan Ullrich’s downfall.
Cookson was concerned about the damage caused by positive dope tests and biological passport irregularities, as we have seen in the run-up to the Tour with Lampre’s Diego Ulissi, Tinkoff-Saxo’s Roman Kreuziger and Orica-GreenEdge’s Daryl Impey, who wore the yellow jersey in last year’s Tour. But he said that the fact the news came out when it did showed that the UCI could not and would not suppress bad news to spare the sport’s reputation. And he spoke about the issue of riders applying for therapeutic use exemptions to permit them to take medicines that would ordinarily be banned. The previous evening we spoke to Team Sky’s boss Dave Brailsford about Froome’s TUE, in another interview you can hear in a forthcoming podcast.
Without making light of the recent positive tests or the controversy over TUEs, and without suggesting that the peloton has been cleansed of each and every rider who might be tempted to cheat either blatantly or by abusing the TUE system, it is hard to come to any other conclusion than that cycling is at least out of the neutralised zone when it comes to the journey along the road towards redemption.
That’s not to say the sport is healed or that we should take our collective eye off the ball but it’s impossible not to think back to the Grand Depart in Strasbourg just eight years ago when the Operacion Puerto storm broke on the eve of the race and threatened to wash the sport into the gutter, or the following year when the triumphant London start was replaced in our memories by more police raids and positive tests.
But one thing is certain, Yorkshire has provided the platform for cycling to showcase its best side.