FOR A long time it seemed as though the 101st Tour de France, which starts today, would be rolling out of Edinburgh. Instead it is Leeds, or rather Yorkshire, which has turned itself yellow in anticipation of the grandest of Grands Départs: one that is set to dwarf any of the previous 100, even Paris in 2003, on the occasion of the Tour’s 100th anniversary.
Now that the moment is here, even the proudest Edinburgher could not begrudge Yorkshire their moment. To have spent the past few days in this proud county – God’s own country, as you are frequently reminded – has been to be overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, excitement and generosity of its people and communities.
But mainly enthusiasm. That this will be a Grand Départ like no other was confirmed on Thursday evening in the Leeds Arena. For the first time in the Tour’s history there was a ticketed teams’ presentation, costing up to £85 a head. There was some anger at that, but the price did not put enough people off: the 10,000 seats were all filled.
What might have been: the man behind the Scottish-led bid, Paul Bush of EventScotland, had also planned a Thursday evening teams’ presentation along similar lines, at the Castle Esplanade. In Leeds it wasn’t just the fact that the place was full. It was that the crowd was so knowledgable. You expected big cheers for Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, and they came, with Cavendish and the last team on stage, Sky, led by Froome, raising the roof. More of a surprise was the reaction to riders such as Jens Voigt and Thomas Voeckler, a German and a Frenchman who are cult cycling heroes rather than global names. Both were introduced to rapturous applause and cheers.
It underlined cycling’s new status as a sport that a sizeable number of British sports fans “get” it. Seven years ago, when the Tour started in London, there were enormous crowds, but you had the sense that a large proportion were drawn more by curiosity than by genuine interest in the sport.
The Tour does remain a curiosity for many, but the proportion of passionate and knowledgable fans has grown substantially over the past seven years, coinciding with the rise in British cycling and cyclists, led by Cavendish, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Froome, Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott, et al.
Contrary to popular belief, the fan base is similarly eclectic in France – a real mixture of hardened fans and casual spectators (in the old days the TV audience was mainly “housewives”, which dictated much of the sponsorship and advertising around the Tour).
So to the race. Many expect a close one, with Chris Froome, the defending champion and marginal favourite, arriving without the momentum he had last year, and Alberto Contador, the two-time winner, returning to his best form. Behind them are dark horses: Vincenzo Nibali, the Italian champion who has built his season around the Tour; Alejandro Valverde, another Spaniard enjoying an Indian summer; and Andrew Talansky, the young American who recently upset both Froome and Contador to win the Critérium du Dauphiné. As Talansky was remined on Thursday, the last two winners of the Dauphiné (Wiggins and Froome) have gone on to win the Tour.
The course is an interesting one, too. With this most northerly start in the race’s history there is a change to the usual pattern, in which the Tour will be decided in France’s two biggest mountain ranges, the Alps and the Pyrenees. This year, the Alpine stages could be inconsequential – though that’s a big “could” – with the Vosges, at the end of the first week, expected to be more decisive. And because they are less known, they are more unpredictable.
Before that, however, is an even greater unknown: Yorkshire. Today’s first stage has been billed as a sprinters’ day, presenting Cavendish with the chance to win in his mother’s home town and pull on the first – and his first – yellow jersey. It isn’t quite as straightforward as that, and Cavendish himself stressed that the race is 21 days and finishes in Paris, not Harrogate. Stage three, from Cambridge to London, finishing in front of Buckingham Palace on the Mall, actually suits him better.
Stage two, from York to Sheffield, has been compared to Liège-Bastogne-Liège, arguably the toughest one-day Classic on the calendar. There are nine categorised climbs, including the gloriously re-named Côte d’Oxenhope Moor, Côte de Holme Moss and the lesser known killer, Côte d’Oughtibridge. Thierry Gouvenou, the course director, has said he expects “one hell of a fight”.
One interesting titbit from Contador’s press conference yesterday was his admission that he has not done a recce of this stage. Gouvenou also warned that the favourites “will have to avoid being caught napping”, and it seems a strange oversight on Contador’s part that the roads, many of them narrow and twisting Yorkshire lanes, will be new to him.
As for Froome, he is a more confident team leader than a year ago, but with perhaps less reason to be confident. Whereas in 2013 he arrived surfing the crest of a wave, having won every significant stage race he had ridden, 2014 has been more up-and-down. It began well with him winning the Tour of Oman in February but since then he has struggled with illness and injury. Froome’s other win, at the Tour de Romandie, was achieved despite chest problems that would have ruled him out had he not been allowed to race with medication only permitted with a therapeutic use exemption.
When he faced the press on Thursday, Froome spoke about the challenge of defending his title and admitted it brought “added pressure”. Sir Dave Brailsford, the Team Sky principal sitting beside Froome, preferred to look at it differently: “I don’t agree with the concept of defending in sport,” said Brailsford. “It’s about trying to win things. I’m not sure the idea of defending something is intuitive with the idea of winning, and we are here to win.”
Beside him, Froome nodded. Brailsford’s message was perhaps as much for his ears as for those of the press.