Now I understand. I really understand.
Beforehand, I’d been a little sceptical about the why Le Tour’s organisers move the start of the event around Europe. I’d wondered whether it was a blatant promotion of the commercial brand? Perhaps it’s a sign of an event that has lost its soul to the corporate sponsors and doping scandals? But now, having seen it first hand, it has all slotted into place.
This weekend the 2.5 million people who lined the route of the Tour De France in Yorkshire had an experience they will remember forever. Let’s put the crowds in perspective. The staggering statistics mean that Yorkshire had on average one person per foot of road verge for all 242 miles of the two-day route…on both sides of the road! Or six times the collective crowds of the entire Premiership programme for any given week during the football season. The numbers are truly mindboggling.
I was one of those people and it was my first Le Tour trip – but it won’t be the last. I’d chosen to spectate from the top of Holme Moss. At 561 metres, it is the highest point the Tour has ever been to in the UK and, according to race rules, is a category two climb. As soon as the route was published I knew I had to be there. And I wasn’t the only one. An estimated 80,000 others had travelled far and wide and made this spot the most surreal hill top I’d ever visited.
When I set off on my bike from Manchester on a rainy Friday night my mind began to wander. It wandered in a way that only ever really happens to me when riding. Everything from the very iffy weather and the route to the campsite and the friends I was meeting, as well as the whole experience. I wondered where I would see the first sign of this massive event.
I’d briefly had to join the A57, a main road coming into Mottram in Longdendale, and there it was, the first sign of the mammoth road closures required to stage Le Tour. The sign read ‘delays possible’ but of course I just sailed through on two wheels. I progressed up the Woodhead Pass and saw the turn that took me onto the A624. The road was closed to vehicles and from this point I knew I was on the parcours (the race route), albeit backwards so the hill I was climbing was one the peloton would descend in two days’ time. As the road reared up in front of me I could almost hear the nearly 200 riders who would soon be flying down at speeds of over 60mph.
On reaching the top an eerie silence struck me. The road had been prepared with barriers to stop illegal parking and was strewn with scaffolding steps to help spectators off the road side and onto the moors. The gathering gloom added to the sensation of being alone in an empty theatre or the host of a party before the first guest arrives.
I had to hurry. I was running out of daylight and still had a few miles before the campsite. As I descended into the Holme Valley I began to hear the sound of bands playing in marquees. First at Holmbridge, then another and another. Soon enough I’d arrived in Holmfirth and the atmosphere had intensified in a strangely old fashioned way thanks to the lack of traffic noise (extensive road closures were already in place). It lent an almost ‘day of the triffids’ silence to the place. I pressed onto the campsite where I met my fellow spectators and exchanged stories over a few beers.
On waking the next day it was hard to believe that the race wasn’t coming through until Sunday. The daylight revealed that the campsite was pretty full already. People had settled. Flags, inflatable bananas, giant onsies of all descriptions and an eclectic array of other items festooned the campsite a bit like a cyclists’ Glastonbury – a Velobury?
That day we just wandered around, taking it all in. Holmfirth itself was buzzing. Riding around the village a couple of times we quickly got our bearings and then decided we’d ride out to Holme Moss, climb it and take in that day’s racing on the big screen.
I took a friend who is new to cycling out to the hill. She’d ridden a fair bit but had, thus far, suffered from a Manchester problem. She didn’t know how to get to any hills so had stuck to the local roads in south and west Manchester, almost all of which are pan flat. This was her first hill and what an attempt she made! You could see the satisfaction on her face while we discussed it over a pub lunch.
Of course we weren’t the only people on the hill. Plenty of others were out for the day. Some were pretty serious, some not at all, some were old and some were young, very young.
As my pub lunch arrived a young lad we’d seen came and sat next to us with his dad. We enquired how old he was and how he’d found the hill?
“I’m 11 and it’s not that hard,” he replied with all the confidence of youth. “I climbed Alpe d’Huez when I was nine.”
Lost for words we finished our lunch and went for a pint in the Holmfirth Fan Hub.
At this point we were rudely reminded that the race had already started. We watched the closing stages in an old cinema that had been converted into a gig venue and boasted a cycling big screen. Some 45 minutes of exhilarating racing and a couple of pints later we headed back to base camp disappointed that Cav hadn’t won. He was later confirmed to have dropped out of the whole event following a crash a stone’s throw from the line.
The same food, drink, sleep routine followed and then it was here – race day!
I took the chance to get out on the course early, sampling Le Parcours and being cheered by fans who’d set up ridiculously early, riding over the paint and chalk on the road. As I got nearer the top it had already become difficult to ride due to the crowds. I descended the route down to Woodhead Pass gripping my brakes with all my might lest I go too quick and crash in the melee. The crowds at the sharp left hand turn at the bottom were deep again. Hay bales were being placed in front of the barriers just in case. The banter was everywhere.
“I wanna see Froome’s teeth on this railing!” shouted a guy who was clearly not in the ‘Va Va Froome’ camp.
Climbing the route back up was becoming even more impossible as the now sheer weight of numbers was such that it made any sort of movement hard. At the top it was walking speed only. I met up with my group, we found our spot and stood, waiting. We stood there for hours. Two hours went by and the big screen nearby and the banter from the crowd were our only sources of entertainment. Then the Caravan came through. Free gifts thrown into the crowd at a ratio of one gift per 1,000 people. Then silence, apart from what seemed like thousands of police cars and miscellaneous vans. Then silence again.
There was a buzz in the crowd. They’re in Huddersfield, now Holmfirth, and so on as the moment edged nearer. We could see the helicopter filming the race and the crowds. Then, there it was, the distant flicker of a bunch of bikes in the crowd at the bottom of the climb. The noise got louder and louder over the next five mins and to a point where the sound of cow bells, horns and cheers was right upon us. First one bike shot passed, then another and then the peloton. Nearly 200 bikes make an amazing spectacle en masse. The noise was immense. Then nothing. The team cars came through followed by more police, then the broom wagon that sweeps up any riders in trouble. Then more nothing.
On my way home I reflected – who had won? Hope the rain stays off. Lovely countryside this, I really should come this way more often on my weekend rides.
The world had returned to its normal state very quickly. Roads were open again, if a little busy, and the bunting was coming down all over Yorkshire.
So what has this all achieved? Well, an injection of cash into Yorkshire, of that there is no doubt. The brand of the area has grown no end. Two stages of the world’s biggest bike race have been completed and the respective jerseys have been dished out. Three things struck me:
- Yorkshire had experienced something the like of which may never come its way again
- The county’s rugged beauty is now firmly established the world over
- There are now (at least) 2.5 million more people who will follow the Tour De France each year with far greater interest than ever before
I want to visit France to see Le Tour on its home soil. And I will never forget this weekend. Oh and I’m sure somebody, somewhere, won a race too.
Images and YouTube video by Andy Groves