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Vive Le Tour! Soak up the greatest free sporting show on earth
9:03am Saturday 5th July 2014 in Sport
THE 198 members of the peloton roll out of Leeds this morning to signal the Grand Depart of the 101st Tour de France.
Yorkshire’s long wait is over as the Broadacres go “en fete” for the weekend to host the opening two stages.
Fingers are firmly crossed that by tea-time Mark Cavendish will hold off his great sprint rival Marcel Kittel to take the win in Harrogate, his mum’s home town.
But then a Brit wearing the maillot jaune has become the norm of late – on the podium in Paris certainly.
British cycling has been catapulted to the forefront of cycling’s showcase event on the back of the phenomenal success of Chris Froome and Sir Bradley Wiggins.
Froome is the favourite again to retain his crown and maintain Team Sky’s stranglehold on Le Tour. Don’t expect to see too much of him in the next couple of days – although he will aim to stay near the front of the bunch to avoid the risk of any hold-ups – but the champion has been in awesome form in the build-up.
That weight of expectation is a far cry from when the race made its first proper visit to these shores 20 years ago.
Le Tour had popped over in 1974 for a brief time trial in an unopened section of the M5 outside Plymouth. But it was a complete non-event hated by the riders and organised and watched by a sparse disinterested public.
Two decades on and the race returned for two stages along the south coast – Dover to Brighton and then a lap of Hampshire beginning and finishing in Portsmouth.
The public interest was huge, around 2,000,000 people turned out to support, but knowledge of the race itself remained strictly limited to the aficianados.
Chris Boardman was our great hope on his Tour debut after winning gold at the Barcelona Olympics two summers earlier. The only other local representation came from stalwart Sean Yates – the race actually pedalled past his Sussex home, where he was allowed to step off his bike for the traditional embrace with his family.
Boardman had worn yellow in the opening days across northern France after a stunning prologue win – the short sprint against the clock. But he blew it in a terrible team time trial at the gates of the Channel Tunnel.
Ironically, once the race returned to the French mainland, the leader’s jersey briefly passed to Yates. But no Brit had worn it on home soil.
That Tour still remains fresh in my memory because I had the privilege of being there through the whole of the first week.
It was a special opportunity and opened up my eyes to the sheer size and pizzazz of the world’s largest free sporting event.
There were three reporters invited to follow the race through northern France, Belgium and into England. Our job was to try to educate the readers about something that was “strictly for those foreign types”.
For me, that meant a crash course in learning the sport itself. Given three months’ notice, I crammed like a student ahead of their final exams.
I couldn’t even ride a bike – imagine Bambi after a heavy session in the beer garden – let alone separate a grimpeur from a bidon. But somehow I drummed enough in to manage stilted conversations with the likes of Boardman, Hinault, Lemond and Fignon without sounding trop stupide.
Boardman’s debut Tour ride in Lille set a race record for its pace and he still looked fresher over the finish line than the hack stumbling in his slipstream to grab a few words.
Not that our photographer captured much of his historic ride – he was too busy snapping the “colour” and “atmosphere” around the day; in other words, the models who hand over the various jerseys at the winners’ ceremony.
There was no Holme Moss-style climb to punish the legs in the days that followed, the route towards Boulogne and the French coast stayed flat throughout.
We whizzed around the stages in front of the peloton in one of the spare team cars, standing out of the sun roof to catch the action through binoculars. That was hairy enough on the windy bends.
A local radio guy, now well-established on the Beeb’s breakfast TV show, spent one day on the back of a photographer’s motorbike. They had to pull over halfway through for said reporter to say au revoir to his breakfast...
In Armentieres, we witnessed one of the most spectacular crashes in the Tour’s long history.
As the sprinters poured round the final bend, a gendarme leaned out to take a picture. His arm clipped the outside rider and sparked a domino-effect collapse through the bunch.
French favourite Laurent Jalabert was knocked unconscious and had to be stretchered away with a broken jaw. His race was definitely over – and I suspect the copper in question is still on traffic duty in the town to this day.
That’s the unpredictability of the Tour. It can end in a flash from loose grit on a descent, a dog suddenly breaking out of the crowd or from the point of a policeman’s elbow.
This is no sanitised race; there will always be elements that nobody can control. And that’s what makes it so special.
So get up early, grab your vantage point and soak up the sights and sounds of this unique occasion chez Yorkshire.