Forty years ago, the Tour de France made its UK debut amid a sorry climate of farce and indifference. Routed along a new bypass outside Plymouth, stage two of the 1974 race was funded by a consortium of Breton artichoke growers, who handed out their spiky wares to a bemused scattering of spectators. “What a non-event,” said British rider Barry Hoban after the peloton had pedalled disconsolately up and down the dual carriageway for six hours. “We just wanted to get it over with and get back across the Channel.” The following morning’s Daily Mirror rhetorically inquired: “Tour de France: can 40 million Frenchmen be wrong?”
Back then France was the two-wheeled superpower. These days, though, the cycling shoe is on the other foot: the average Briton now cycles further in a year than his Gallic counterpart, and buys more bikes. Having never before come close to overall victory, British riders have won the last two Tours, and it is now 29 years since a Frenchman stood atop the podium in Paris. In consequence, the mood as Yorkshire prepares to host the first two stages of this year’s Tour could not be further removed from the apathy of 1974.
Weeks remain before Leeds rolls out the yellow carpet for Le Grand Départ on July 5 but, even on a damp morning, the anticipation is already palpable. The Radisson Blu hotel, where I’ve spent the night, overlooks the start line and has rebranded itself the Radisson Jaune for the event, filling its reception area with bikes for hire and the anthemic strains of the Grand Départ’s official song. Outside, two of the 12,000 volunteer “Tour makers” are lashing a yellow bicycle to crowd-control barriers, ready for the first battalions of a spectator army expected to exceed 2m along the route.
Confidence is never short in the region that styles itself “God’s own county”, and Yorkshire anticipates a handsome return for all this effort: selling itself to a global TV audience as a holiday venue in general, and a cyclo-touring destination in particular. To assess its chances of success, I’m soon astride a very slender saddle on the start line, ready to take on the route of stage one – a dilatory 190km ride across the moors to Harrogate.
After a ceremonial trundle round the ring road, the Tour riders will begin to race in earnest outside Harewood House, a majestic baronial pile. The 20,000 campers expected here will not be left aimless once the riders have swept by: Harewood is hosting a two-day Dare2b Festival of Cycling, with film screenings, live acts and a Red Arrows fly-past. It’s a step up from catch-the-artichoke.
Lined with yellow bikes and countless temporary campsites, the forgivingly flat approach to Ilkley offers the first suggestions that Yorkshire’s motorists are developing bike-friendly road manners – a rare pleasure on British roads. This is confirmed over a bacon sandwich in the café attached to Ilkley Cycles, where I meet Stephanie Millward, who chairs Ilkley Cycling Club. “Attitude and awareness have really come on since we bagged the Grand Départ,” she says. “We’re getting more clearance from cars, less general irritability.” With 1,300 members the ICC is one of the largest clubs in the UK, thanks to an inclusive approach. “Forty per cent of us are women, and we have 300 junior members – the youngest is six.” Adam Evans, manager of Ilkley Cycles, agrees that a boom is in full swing. “We’re holding a big cyclo-sportive here on June 29, and there’s a town centre criterium down the road in Otley on July 2 – all the trappings of continental road-bike culture.” For good measure, his espresso is superior to anything I’ve found in France.
I’m soon glad of the caffeine boost. Just outside Ilkley, the road begins to twist and rise and, after the bow-fronted tea shops of Skipton, I toil up into the moorlands of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The grey-stone villages are few but winsome, their winding lanes freshly resurfaced and pub signs repainted, buffed up for those 15 seconds of fame when the race and its entourage flashes through. When the sun comes out, the bald and rolling scenery suddenly becomes a convincing backdrop for the Tour de France, like the Massif Central with dry stone walls.
I take on more coffee at a pub in Buckden, where the barman tells me his upstairs accommodation was fully booked within 10 minutes of the route being announced. “It’s going to be huge, the biggest day in our history,” he says. “People here have been planting their gardens with yellow flowers and putting old bikes on top of their fences. Do you want one of these?” He jabs a thumb at a rack of energy gels, behind the bar where you’d usually see crisps and peanuts. I take two: up the road lies Kidstones pass, the Tour’s first king-of-the-mountains ascent.
In hurtful reality, stage one is officially classified as flat. The peloton will barely notice a climb that reduces me to a pallid wreck, forcing my lowest gear around with quivering thighs as the sky once more darkens and leaks. By the time I wobble into Bainbridge – my overnight stop and the halfway point – I’m a spent force. One of the golden truths of any cycling tour is that hard miles make for a sweeter end-of-day reward. Yorebridge House, with its plump four-poster beds and a menu stuffed with quail and sea bass, is the lavish embodiment of this reward. But, in the state I’m in, a shoebox full of chips and a park bench would have done the job.
Morning brings clearer sky, fresh legs and a full English breakfast. All play an important role in my conquest of Buttertubs pass, which has the cosy ring of a Hobbits’ playground but is, in fact, a fierce ascent of the bleak Pennine Hills, hitting a 17 per cent gradient in parts. At 4km from bottom to top it’s hardly Mont Ventoux, but Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson described this as “England’s only truly spectacular road”.
Battling up to the head of the pass through a brutal headwind, it strikes me that the bluff, hardy spirit of Yorkshire captured by this environment is also the essence of road cycling. Barry Hoban, who won a stage in that 1974 Tour, was a Yorkshireman. Lizzie Armitstead, currently the dominant force in women’s road racing, hails from Otley, just outside Leeds. And Bernard Hinault, the last Frenchman to win the Tour, was a Yorkshireman manqué: a plain speaking hard man who learnt his trade by racing lorries up the windy, wet hills of Britanny.
The Tour’s director Christian Prudhomme has rather improbably described the Grand Départ’s home county as “very sexy – it’s cool”. He’s half right – plunging down from Buttertubs into a valley full of mist, my fingers chill into a numbness so severe that for a memorable few corners I struggle to pull the brake levers. Circulation is restored beside a coal fire in Muker, drinking sweet strong tea before a rack of tourism leaflets. Among them lie suggestions that Le Tour is fostering a more continental Yorkshire of the sort hinted at by Prudhomme. I read of the Dales village that has just paid a surreal tribute to the event by decorating fields with giant cycling sheep. Even more high-concept was a symbolic homage to the struggle against gravity – a team of cyclists pulled a grand piano six miles up Cragg Vale, the longest continuous ascent in England, as a relay of local pianists played.
“We’ve got some proper climbs here,” says Stuart Price, owner of Dales Bike Centre outside Reeth.“And there’s just a unique feel to the scenery. Sometimes the light is so amazing that you just have to get off the bike and admire it.”
Resisting this temptation I put Grinton Moor’s heathery tussocks behind me, and with the wind now at my back speed through a series of pretty market towns. Middleham is the pick, with its cobbles and rectories fit for a costume drama. Sarah Mears, owner of the town’s Priory guesthouse – another of the handsome boutique establishments that have sprung up around Yorkshire of late – is looking forward to the world’s largest annual sporting event with a blend of glee and dread. “We’ve been told to expect 15,000 people here,” she says with a nervous laugh, gazing at the compact square outside. The Tour’s legacy is already up and running here: Mears has just bid farewell to a party of Belgian cyclists. “They loved it: friendly people, some decent uphill challenges, and huge portions at the end of the day.”
I pedal off into an iron-skied evening with a slice of Priory fruitcake in my pocket, the clouds so dark I almost miss Jervaulx Abbey. Tour commentators pad out those long hours at the microphone with fancy-that snippets plucked from the official route guide. Passing the abbey’s ruins, I can almost hear them: “Today we think of Wensleydale as a very British cheese but, in fact, it was first produced by Cistercian monks from Roquefort, who settled here in 1145.”
After Ripon, my race to beat the rain is fought out on arterial roads against rush-hour traffic. I just about make it, catching the first fat drops halfway up the cruel hill that will deliver the peloton to Harrogate’s finish line. My prize is a pot of Yorkshire’s finest and a chocolate teddy wearing the maillot jaune, consumed with unsightly haste amid the hallowed gentility of Bettys tea rooms. Emblazoned across the menu, the establishment’s age-old motto draws a tired but happy smile, a tribute to its Swiss founder given new significance: “Where the Dales meet the Alps.”
Tim Moore is the author of ‘French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France’ and ‘Gironimo! Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy’ (both Yellow Jersey)