Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Tour de France, Harrogate

We made the journey up to Yorkshire on Friday night - the route wasn't too bad in terms of traffic and we were pleasantly surprised that we made it to Harrogate in good time. We were staying 'Le maison Beryl' - a good friend of the blonde and willing to put up with us for the weekend (thanks Beryl). By 9.30pm Gary and I were out on the route, searching out a suitable spot to watch the riders pass by. The Ripon road into Harrogate undulates continually and there were many good vantage points.

We followed the route into Harrogate having walked about two miles, everywhere was decorated with bunting, bikes sprayed yellow, little knitted shirts in the tour leader colours, yellow, green, white and red and white polka dots. Shops had joined in too - most of them exhibiting some sort of Tour flavoured display amongst their wares. A dead elm tree located close to the world famous 'Betty's Tea Rooms' had been carved into a sculpture to mark the occasion. The town was busy as expected, various areas being set up ready for the next morning. We struggled to find a pub, finally we wandered up a street with a series of large, loud bars - people spilled out onto the pavements, music blaring and the world cup on big screens inside. This would have to do, and it was okay - the atmosphere was street-continental - it was warm and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Inside were a group of tough looking men, dressed in black, shaven heads, possibly Vladimir Putin and his entourage over to watch the racing we thought.

Walking back was out of the question after four pints of whatever flavour lager we were drinking - plus we had no idea of the route - thankfully there were plenty of taxis - we chose the one driven by a relative of Lewis Hamilton - we were back at Beryl's almost before we set off.

Saturday morning and the weather was good - we decided not to bother with umbrellas and raincoats - leaving more room for beer and wine. After a hearty breakfast (thanks Beryl) we headed off to claim our spot. When we got to the road there were already people there - Tour fever was beginning to manifest itself. We pushed into a corner on a stretch of road next to the 3km marker - the riders would be moving fast on this slightly downward section. We set up our chairs, positioned our bags, generally got comfortable. There were lots of people out already, gazebos set up, blankets on the grass verges, lots of cyclists riding up and down the course. I went off for a wander towards town to pick up a newspaper, a walk of about three miles there and back. People were arriving in a constant stream now, some carrying nothing at all, others laden with cool boxes, tables, barbecues etc. I heard that the local bus company was 'using every spare bus we have, including school buses'. Walking past a car dealership they had set up a tiered grandstand overlooking the road - and there were a number of houses with scaffolding gantry's built to provide a perfect view over the crowds. There were thousands of cyclists dotted around and many million pounds worth of bikes. I picked up a newspaper and started the journey back, the gaps roadside were filling up, the barbecues were lit the atmosphere was friendly and party-like. I dropped into a roadside pub where there was a big screen showing live coverage of the race progress - the photography looked stunning, the aerial shots of Yorkshire were a massive showcase advertisement for the county, beamed to a global audience of billions - the crowds were consistently big and then there were the yellow sheep! As I left the pub to continue the walk back there was an argument developing on the pub car park - a family had arrived and parked their car, one of the staff from the pub had walked over
"£25 to park here today"
"What? - you're having a laugh"
"Nah, it's £25 - Tour de France and that"
After some shouting, animated arm waving and a nose to nose stand-off the people got back in the car and left.

I walked back up to our spot, no spaces roadside now, just a continual snake of people, families, bikes, chairs, gazebos, barbecues and coolboxes - it was like one massive picnic and everyone was enjoying the atmosphere, just chilling, chatting and making the most of the beautiful weather. I got back to my chair, Gary was drinking a can of beer and chatting with the people around us. There was a steady stream of police motorbikes and various 'official' vehicles. People were waving at everything that went past. "That's the first time I've waved at a policeman using all five fingers" said the guy sitting with us - a wiry scot dressed in a polka dot King of the Mountains shirt.

By now we had established contact with mission control back in the Midlands. Gary had Val on the iPhone, she was relaying news of the race to Gary who then shouted it out for the benefit of those around us.

"Val says 15 kilograms to go....."
"....and the one at the front has lost his mate"
The crowd laughed and cheered. Bless.

The caravan
The Tour caravan had now arrived - a continual procession of around 750 vehicles, lights flashing, horns blaring, music, people throwing samples into the crowd - there were cars that looked like mobile fruit shoot bottles, haribo bags, McCain oven chips..... everyone is whipped up into a frenzy of anticipation, we're all on our feet now

"4 kilograms to go" we hear from Val and then the helicopter comes into view, the advance outriders arrive, more police, cameramen, and then they're here, just in view at the top of the hill, a solid mass of colour moving fast towards us - whoosh - it's all over - they've gone in the blink of an eye, incredibly fast, probably 40-45mph maybe more. I just recognise the colours of Mark Cavendish's team at the front of the peloton, his ride out train to the finish has begun. There are a few stragglers rolling past now to appreciative applause from the crowds - there job is done, they have exhausted themselves pulling the peloton along and now its a steady coast to the finish.

The peloton arrives - Mark Cavendish's team at the front
The blonde calls me - she's watching the race on TV and relays the action - and it's the worst - Cav is down and hurt - the race is over the big German Marcel Kittel has won - no news on Cav but it looks bad she says, maybe a collarbone or broken shoulder.

That's it then, we all start packing up - I sit for a minute trying to pick up news on the iPhone, and reflecting on the day - it has been so good. Much more enjoyable than the experience of watching the final stage last year on the Champs Elysee - that's because we were prepared this time - we knew what to expect and were happy to sit around all day waiting - just like they do in France. We wished we were here for the second day but unfortunately not - its the drive back home now. One thing we noticed as we walked away, the crowds had gone now and there wasn't a scrap of litter to be seen. No mess at all, you'd never know there had been thousands of people along these roads a few minutes ago. We're learning how to present and take part in these large scale events and it's comforting to see.
Our roadside companions

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