“Tour de France? In Yorkshire? What’s that all about?”
“Errr – good question!” I mused as I left my desk to get a drink.
“Well I suppose we’re quite good at cycling these days aren’t we?” she muttered. “What with that Wiggins chappy winning Sports Personality and all.”
It was at this point that we both realised we would be chatting by the water cooler for some time yet.
We’re more than just a bit good.
We talked about how much UK cycling has grown over the past few years from cycle commuting to club membership, and everything in between. We marvelled at the “not one but two” consecutive British winners of the Tour de France since 2012 – a feat even more remarkable when you consider that it took us 100 years to get our first ‘Maillot Jaune’ (the yellow jersey awarded to the race winner in the French Capital each July) in Paris. These achievements seem to have overshadowed the also truly world class sprinting record of Mark Cavendish aka the ‘Manx Missile’ who, at the age of 29, is already third on the all-time list of Le Tour stage winners with a grand total of 25 stages, and fourth on the all-time overall Grand Tour list with 43 wins, such is his prolific talent.
I explained how I’d now ridden both the Yorkshire stages for fun (she thinks I’m mad). We also talked about the sheer scale of Le Tour and concluded that it’s still a fairly well-kept secret in these isles. To illustrate this we discussed that it’s not that widely known, outside of UK cycling geek circles anyway, that it’s the world’s largest annual sporting event and the largest free-to-spectate sporting event anywhere.
The numbers speak for themselves. The 198 riders who start the race all ride for one of 22 teams. They will be watched by a television audience of 3.5 billion with an expected two million spectators lining the route on the two Yorkshire Stages alone.
So why Yorkshire? Well, it’s not as unusual for Le Tour to come to the UK. This is its fourth visit here and the big three ‘grand tour’ cycling races (France, Italy, Spain) all habitually start in countries other than their own. The most recent example of this is the Giro D’Italia having begun in the Republic of Ireland already this year.
But there is something different about it this time. Is it the scale? The level of public interest? Perhaps it’s the burgeoning ranks of cycling enthusiasts in the UK? The larger than ever number of UK stages? That Reeth in the Yorkshire Dales will be the northern most point the Tour has ever visited in its 101 years history? Or simply that it’s in the North for the first time ever?
The race’s first UK visit was in 1974 when the opening stage, known as the prologue, was a time trial held near Plymouth. The race organisers had planned for a then massive 80,000 spectators but only a few turned up on the day. Since then, interest in cycling in the UK has risen steadily and when the race came to Dover, Brighton and Plymouth in 1994 there were hundreds of thousands in the crowd. By 2007 the opening time trial in the capital – which was followed by a London to Canterbury stage – was more popular still. It is this increase in popularity that has prompted Le Tour’s race organisers to state their intention to bring the race to the UK every five to seven years from now on.
So what’s Le Tour all about? Well it is, quite literally, a tour of France (and Britain this year), but that’s not all. It’s a three-week festival of cycling. All the riders will attempt to ride the 3,656 kilometres to Paris but injury, illness and accident will mean that many won’t make it. Of that total mileage, 546 kilometres are in the UK, 388 kilometres of which are in Yorkshire, with the remaining 159 kilometres covering the final stage from Cambridge to London.
The racing may seem complicated but there are actually only six competitions within the overall event:
- General Classification (GC) – this is where the yellow jersey is awarded to the fastest rider over the entire race.
- King of the Mountains – the best hill climber wins the polka dot jersey for collecting points on hill tops during some designated stages. The number of points depends on the size of the hill. A higher proportion of points are awarded for stage wins with a hill top finish.
- King of the Sprints – the green jersey is won by the best sprinter in a competition organised in the same way as the King of the Mountains but on flat stages. Again more points are awarded for a stage win and fewer for intermediate sprints along the route.
- Most aggressive rider – this is a more subjective competition based largely on the amount of time a rider has spent in a breakaway group. It is ultimately awarded by a panel of eight judges.
- Best young rider – for riders under the age of 25.
- Best team – the times of the fastest three riders in each team each day are added together and the team with the lowest time at the end of the race wins.
And what about the teams? It’s easy to think of cycling as an individual sport until you factor three things into the deal: the vast amount of equipment and support vehicles required, the need for the stars to have ‘domestic’ support from their team mates (known as domestiques, these guys fetch and carry food and water) and the fact that the rider on the front of any group is typically putting in 10 per cent to 20 per cent more effort than the person behind.
How can that last fact be true? Here’s the science bit. It’s due to the role that aerodynamic resistance plays in the power: the drag equation. This equation determines the overall speed of the bike on a flat road. In larger groups this is multiplied further (in rather complex ways) and can save a rider up to 40 per cent of their energy compared to solo riding. Combine all of this and then multiply it by three weeks of suffering on a bike and you can see precisely how cycling is perhaps the ultimate team sport with team mates often making huge sacrifices for the greater good of the team and ultimately for each other’s careers.
So where is all this happening? The routes of the two stages have been well documented but, having ridden both routes personally, I can give you the Riding the North lowdown:
This is a (comparatively) flat stage best suited to the sprinters including Brit Mark Cavendish. He has stated his intention to win this stage. It’s his mother’s home town and also, if he was to win it, he’d be the first proud British holder of the yellow jersey on UK soil. When I rode it I was struck by the amount of climbing on a supposedly flat stage and the uphill finish into Harrogate.
Riding the North says: “Good luck Cav!!”
This is a monster of a stage in every sense. The distance and views are both long but it’s mostly the 11,440 ft of climbing that will determine the outcome of this stage. The first polka dot jersey will be awarded here and following this stage they’re likely to hang on to it for a while as the first few days in France are flat.
Riding the North says: You’re welcome to it lads – as cyclists say “I was totally shelled”.
So the key question this week is whether to go in person or watch it on the telly? With the riders coming through at an average of 25mph, and speeds of up to 60mph on descents, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that it’s one of those sports better viewed on television. But to focus solely on the racing itself is to miss the point. It’s more of an experience than a spectator sport.
Everything about the event is spectacular. Yes, the crowds will be big and the roads congested – that’s why its best to turn up the night before, stake your claim to a piece of verge and chill out for the day. The party atmosphere will begin with the ‘Caravan’, a 20km-25km-long advertising carnival that can take 40 minutes to pass through. Then there will be the police outriders, the riders themselves and the massive team vehicle convoy from the race support vehicles to the mobile workshops and team buses. In short, it can take two hours for the tour to pass through.
You can get very close the the riders. It’s impossible for the whole route to be security controlled but please remember you’re a spectator and are not supposed to affect the outcome of the race. Just enjoy the party and don’t impede the riders. The Dutch have enjoyed a party with real style for many years when the tour goes to France. Corner number seven on Alpe d’Huez gets named Dutch Corner for a few days and tens of thousands of Dutch fans claim the spot as the highest point in The Netherlands and throw a massive orange party. Now that’s the spirit!
If that all sounds a bit over the top for your tastes then why not take a step back and get on your bike? You can ride the actual route up to 30 minutes before the riders themseves but do remember they’ll be going much faster than you so you’ll have to get off the road when the police tell you. You can, however, enjoy the special sculptures and atmosphere along the way. So much has been made of the planned Yorkshire welcome that, even as I type, the BBC’s Countryfile is doing a piece about the 12 giant pieces of land art called Fields of Vision that covers 65 miles of the York to Sheffield second Stage on Sunday.
You must go. Logistics may be complicated so do your homework in advance and you’ll really enjoy this Yorkshire extravaganza. After that you’ll have plenty of time to watch the race on television as it passes through France over the following three weeks until the final placings are decided on the Champs Elysees in Paris, as they are every year, on July 27.
It’s going to be amazing. And who knows, could it be a Brit in yellow for the third consecutive year? I won over my colleague – she is going now too.
By Andy Groves
You can follow Andy via twitter and instagram @riding_north or contact him by email at email@example.com