It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that the Tour de France paid a visit to England earlier this month and yet this blog of all things pedal powered hasn’t so much as mentioned it. I feel I ought to right that particular wrong and so, for the sake of posterity, here are my own memories of the ‘Grandest Grand Départ ever’.
Some time ago one of my fellow SW Rouleur’s suggested that the visit by Le Tour to these shores would be an excellent opportunity to spend some time riding around the dales and taking in the atmosphere of the worlds greatest cycle race. It is, after all, not often that you get a chance to stand within touching distance of your sporting heroes as they race past you and so a plan was hatched.
The weekend started on Friday where an advance bunch of Rouleurs had already made their way up north and set about reconnoitring the opportunities for viewing the race on Saturday. Unfortunately for them this was done in classic Yorkshire weather of howling wind and driving rain and by all accounts it doesn’t sound as though it was a great deal of fun. ‘Challenging’ is probably how you’d describe it if you wanted to put a positive spin on it but they were some tired legs that eventually settled on a plan for the following day. Fortunately for me, at the same time as this was going on I was catching up with old friends at Henley Royal Regatta. The sun was shining, the Pimms was flowing and the tales were getting taller by the minute. Sadly I still had a long drive ahead of me so it was a strange experience of remaining sober while those around me steadily descended into an alcoholic haze. No, I don’t think we did see a race – but I did at least extend my theory about ex-oarsmen which is that when they give up the river, sooner or later they all end up on a bike. Partly because you’ve spent your formative years clad in lycra to the point that it feels like perfectly normal apparel but also because if you’re good at rowing you clearly take some masochistic pleasure in punishing your legs and lungs in whatever weather the gods feel like throwing at you. But I digress ….
After collecting fellow SW Rouleur Conny, from Slough we sallied forth into the M1’s finest rolling road block bound for Yorkshire. The amount of traffic heading north should probably have given us some early indication of what to expect the next day and it was around midnight that we finally stumbled upon the cottage kindly organised by our host Jake Phipps on the banks (literally) of the river Tees.
And so to Saturday morning where we set off after a slap up breakfast and interminable conversation about what kit to wear. The weather was looking ‘cool’ but significantly better than what had been on offer 24 hours earlier. Nobody wants to lug kit around and so in the end it was a case of MTFU and go short sleeved plus gilet whilst stuffing various sandwiches into an assortment of back pockets. The whole ‘getting ready’ thing also highlighted what hadn’t made it into the kit bag – most significantly any bidon’s (that’s water bottles to you if you’re not someone who spends the weekend in lycra), hydration tabs or energy bars/ gels. Energy was provided in the more traditional shape of sandwiches and cash while my thirst issues were covered by the timely offer of a spare from Tom Gilby. So finally, we got going as a gang of 5 – myself, Conny, Will Greig, Tom Gilby and Tom’s son Billy.
I feel that I should introduce Billy at this point because he’s certainly worthy of his own introduction. Billy is 11 years old. Normally I would have reservations about riding with an 11 year old, fearing that they might not have the stamina to stay with the group on a long day in the saddle up hill and down dale. But Billy is not your average 11 year old (I soon found out). He spends every weekend racing bikes around a velodrome or road circuit, weighs less than helium and when he stands up in the pedals wiggles around in a snake like way that is very reminiscent of Alberto Contador … reminiscent because it proceeds a burst of speed up the hill that leaves me open mouthed in amazement! So you can see, it wasn’t me that should have been worried about Billy keeping up but more like the other way around. Tom would often ride behind him offering words of encouragement but mostly words of caution about conserving his energy but I soon came to realise this was just Tom’s way of stopping his son from dropping him on the climbs whilst he struggled manfully to stay on his wheel! We rode 100km on Saturday with about 1800m of vertical and Billy never flagged for a second whilst we literally had to drag him off the front. He also talks the whole way around asking questions and offering up cycling trivia like a rolling Wikipedia.
So off we set in search of our host who was waiting for us in a somewhat dark mood because a) we were by now late on account of dithering over whether or not to take arm warmers etc and b) he’d managed to slam his Garmin satnav in the boot of his car so that the carefully planned route was now hidden behind a black veil of shattered glass. Fortunately we were on our way to meet up with SWR captain Rick Gradidge and his sister Claire who were staying with other friends nearby and who also had a copy of the route after joining the recce ride the day before. It was here that we suffered our first casualty as Claire decided that after the welcome she’d received from the local weather on Friday, an offer of a lie in and 4 wheeled transport was more appealing.
And so off we set in cool and cloudy conditions but thankfully dry and almost immediately you can see why the Tour organisers were persuaded to come to Yorkshire because the first box that any stage of the Tour has to tick (financial inducements aside) is scenery and we had it in spades as we climbed up and over The Stang into the Yorkshire Dales National Park and down the other side towards Grinton. Awesome, big skies, moorland, woods, rivers and dry stone walls and then to cap it all …. the sun came out! As we rolled into Grinton and on to the race route itself so the number of people started to swell, Cars were diverted into fields to park and people took to the lanes on foot to find themselves a vantage point as we rolled past camp site after camp site. By the time we reached Reeth and the base of the climb up over Grinton moor (or Col de Grinton as it was now Christened) we were moving at a pretty sedate pace as the crowds started to line the hillside to view the race make it’s way up the road. The atmosphere was quite something to witness – an uplifting feeling of anticipation, excitement and overwhelmingly happiness that the eyes of the cycling world were on Yorkshire. The local people had embraced the Tour in a way that you could not have imagined would be possible. They can’t all enjoy cycling surely? But almost every house you passed had an old bike painted yellow propped outside – some with a (hopefully fake) sheep wearing a race jersey sitting on top. Polka dot, yellow and green bunting hung over doorways and the whole of the dales had turned out to welcome millions of #bloodycyclists. Riding up Col de Grinton (categorised as a category 3 climb for the day) any child on a bike was cheered on with applause and cow bells and if you were anywhere near Billy at this point it was easy to get a little carried away!
Onwards we rode towards Aysgarth via Leyburn where the plan was to watch the peloton come past around a tight corner just before a feed zone (so hopefully not too much of a blur) before getting back on the bikes to ride back to Leyburn while the riders looped around before they came through Leyburn from a different direction. We could then watch the finish on the big screen in the market square and cheer Cav to victory because obviously that was the script right? On reaching our designated vantage point it became apparent that we weren’t the only people to have this cunning plan but a short detour over a fence, across a field and a dry stone wall soon had us just a bit further up the road but instead of being behind several rows of spectators we were now standing in the road… literally! The race was still a good 30 minutes away and so it was a chance to sit down on the verge with my back against a hedge and the sun on my face listening to the sound of distant choppers as the race made its way towards our position. Looking back, I think part of the excitement from being there comes from the fact that nobody around you really has a clue as to what is going on. As the race approaches a seemingly endless stream of outriders, official cars and team cars come hurtling past sounding their oh-so-French claxons that you only ever hear on TV when watching the Tour. Police motorcycle riders come past grinning from ear to ear as they’ve been sent off ‘officially’ to ride fast on closed roads around the Yorkshire moors whilst being cheered and waved at. We weren’t the only ones imagining we were someone else that day! Soigneurs were being dropped off at the feed station around the corner to hand out musettes while the Yorkshire police were by now joined by Gendarmes on French police bikes …. no, I’m not sure why either!
And then as not one but 4 choppers hovered overhead an official car sped through announcing to ‘ze crowd’ in heavily accented ‘Eeengleesh’ who was leading and the gap to the peloton. Most of it was incomprehensible as I had flash backs to those ‘real life conversational’ exercises in the school language lab (“the train is where?!”) but there was no mistaking the name … Jens Voigt! Oh Jens you legend, fighting a rear guard action for over the hill sportsmen everywhere, refusing to bow to the passage of time as you shout “Shut up legs!” one last time and give us all hope for another year that there’s still time, that we could still compete … if we could just somehow do a bit more training! Jens in a breakaway at the Tour de France! Really, this day couldn’t get any better and when Cav wins in Harrowgate it will just be the icing on the cake.
A couple of minutes pass and then we literally have to step back onto the tiny grass verge for fear of being mown down by the peloton which passes in a blur of carbon, lycra, claxons and team cars soaked in sunshine.
With the action over, I put my shoes back on and clamber back over the dry stone wall to get back to the pile of bikes propped up against the fence at our original vantage point. Everyone has the same idea and it’s like some sort of massed Le Mans start as we all set off in the direction of Leyburn on closed roads. It was about 8 miles back to Leyburn and I must admit to childish fantasies having just watched Jens weaving his way down the road. Fantasies there were lent a further whiff of credibility as dozens of team cars took advantage of the closed roads to cut out the loop in the race and sped past us with claxons blaring. I rode back at a frankly absurd pace charging past rider after rider fuelled on adrenaline and excitement and those 8 miles passed in what seemed like moments. Back at Leyburn there was even time for a pint of carbohydrate based rehydration fluids at Le Chien et Canard before we repeated the whole process all over again – although I think Jens was no longer out front on his own by this point. No matter he’d done enough by then to go home with the King of the Mountains jersey at the grand age of 42. The next hour or so was spent sitting on our backsides on the cobbled square (luxury padding in the shorts suddenly feeling like a very wise purchase) watching the closing stages on the big screen whilst emptying the local bakery of sausage rolls and jam tarts.
Having watched the Stage 1 script being well and truely torn up as the Manx Missile ended his tour in spectacular fashion we then set off for the route back via Marske and up and over Helwith Moor. Yet more stunning scenery as we passed sheep, grouse butts and not a lot else before a glorious unending descent into Newsham and onwards to home. An epic day that we had time to reflect on whilst sitting on the banks of the Tees with a cold beer watching the sun slowly set and the trout rise. I’ve long maintained that riding from Lyon to the top of Ventoux was my best ever day on a bike and I think it probably still is for sheer scale, effort and the pleasure of riding through the South of France in summer but this was a very close second.
Many will say that cycling is not a spectator sport and that the idea of driving to Yorkshire to watch a peloton pass you in a blur before driving all the way home again holds no appeal. I can understand that point of view but nobody who has been there would put that view forward because to say that is to miss what the whole experience is about. It’s about the anticipation more than anything else and the sharing of that excitement with others around you in amazing surroundings. It’s about being part of the Tour de France because the crowds and fans are as much part of the Tour as the riders. It’s about riding along the same course as the pro’s and being close enough to touch them when they come past you. But mostly it’s about being on your bike and sharing that experience with your friends and marvelling at the way pro riders cover the same ground you struggled over as if it were a mere pimple on the landscape. It’s like Vietnam really because unless you were there ‘you don’t know man, you don’t know!’