“I pray you, do not push me…”  ~William Shakespeare (The Winter’s Tale, III, ii)

Welcome to Part 2 of my Tour de England series, accounting my recent three-week trip to the sceptered isle.  This week’s post is a sporting one, describing my time in the Yorkshire region of England to see and be part of the world’s biggest and most beautiful bike race, Le Tour de France.  If you missed Part 1 of the series last week (recounting my time in Windsor, Surrey & Bath), you can read it here.

On my 7th day in England, I boarded a train in Bath and settled in for the 3.5 hour journey north, to Yorkshire county and its biggest city of Leeds.  Home to famous windswept moors and dales, the largest county in England was a magnificent choice to host the first two days – the Grand Départ – of the 2014 Tour de France.  From there the race moved south, starting in Cambridge and finishing in London, before the teams then flew back to mainland France for the duration of the Tour.

Yorkshire county, England

Yorkshire county, England

Many people are surprised to find out that the Tour forays quite frequently into other countries, having started outside the French borders on at least 20 occasions now.  It’s a great opportunity for cycling fans of other lands to participate in the spectacle that is the Tour, and Yorkshire did not disappoint.  I’d seen the Tour in France in 2010, during a fantastic turn around the Alps region, but when I heard the announcement that the 2014 version was starting in England – well, let’s just say I started planning this vacation a long time ago, over a year in advance.  For an admitted Anglophile and a longtime fan of the Tour, this was a kickoff not to be missed.

tour-de-france-yorkshire-tickets

map_home

I arrived in Leeds on a Wednesday afternoon, with the Tour slated to start on  Saturday morning.  I wanted to give myself plenty of time to become familiar with the area and also have time to explore before the big day.  Yorkshire had been planning for this for over a year, and the Tour spirit was in overload from the moment I stepped off the train:  huge banners in the train station welcoming the Tour crowds, visitor centres overrun with Tour merchandise, and the color yellow everywhere you looked.  (For my non-cycling fan readers, yellow is the color of the jersey that the leader wears during the race and is the coveted final prize at the end for the overall winner.)

image_1

image_3

image_4

image_5

Even King Richard got a yellow jersey.

The Tour itself is a virtual traveling city, with 2,500 people moving each day from stage to stage in different cities, including not just the teams and their management (and huge team buses) but all of the hundreds of journalists & media personnel, the staff who set up and take down all of the start and finish sets, course marshals, security & police personnel…it’s really quite amazing to see it all up close.  I’d seen it before in 2010 and I was in awe again this time to see the magnitude of this daily transient grand operation.  But the other thing this means is that any hotel room within several miles of the start/finish points is reserved well over a year in advance, and any that aren’t are accompanied by shockingly high nightly rates.

So I considered myself lucky to find a fairly nice secluded hotel 2.5 miles away from the city centre for not much more than my allotted nightly budget.  This meant however, negotiating the bus system from the train station to the nearest drop-off point and then walking almost another mile (uphill) to get to the hotel.  The outside of the hotel was beautiful, with lovely gardens, but unfortunately came with a bed that was a spring-laden miniature torture chamber (so no they did not get a great TripAdvisor review).  That night I ventured back down the hill for some adventurous Algerian food for dinner, and tried to get some sleep (but without much success).

The next morning I took the bus back into the city centre and examined the square where the race would kickoff on Saturday.  The Town Hall and Library were rolling out the yellow carpet, literally, for that evening’s team parade prior to the opening ceremonies.   I stood on the starting line where the cyclists would roll out on Saturday, and walked the length of the street where they would ride on their way out of town.  Leeds is apparently known for its elaborate shopping “arcades” or covered-lane mall-type areas, so I walked up and down all the pedestrian-only streets, not so much to shop but just to absorb the atmosphere.  Leeds is a big city anyway, but hosting the Tour meant extreme crowds everywhere you turned, so I felt I had to be extra-vigilant at all times.

image_2

I headed back to the city centre to wander through some special cycling exhibits at the Leeds Public Library and then the Leeds Museum before grabbing an afternoon tea.  By this time I’d scoped out a good spot to watch the team parade on a grass planter and went to stake my spot around 4:00.  The parade wasn’t due to start until 6:00 but already a huge crowd was massing.  The English woman sitting next to me was a Tour Maker, one of the tens of thousands of Tour volunteers for the Grand Départ and very visible in her bright blue official shirt, and for the next several hours we formed an impromptu friendship (as one must do, especially for spot-saving when one has to run to the loo).

The team parade was great!  All of the 198 cyclists from all 22 teams rode past us at a relaxed, leisurely pace, followed by their team cars, before continuing onto the coliseum up the hill for the evening ceremony events.  I had contemplated going to the opening ceremony but tickets were about $85 for just the cheap seats, and I figured I could see all of them anyway during the two-hour parade.  Some of the cyclists were taking pictures of their teammates with their phones while they rode, others were waving to the fans, and of course the crowd favorites were treated to huge unending cheers all along the parade route.  Marcel Kittel’s hair was in perfect form of course and got its own cheers.

image_12

One of my favorite teams, Orica Greenedge from Australia.

image_15

The crowd favorite Team Sky & defending Tour champion Chris Froome.

image_13

British sprinter & crowd favorite Mark Cavendish

image_14

Team selfies & Marcel Kittel’s perfect hair

image_6

Shut Up Legs

The next morning I decided to take the train for a day trip to Harrogate, the finishing town for the first day of racing the following day.  Even though I would be going back to Harrogate on Saturday to see the finish, I knew it would be extremely crowded and impossible to really move around or see the town like it would be if I went a day ahead.  And I’d heard Harrogate was really lovely so I wanted to take that time to see it.  I’m glad I did!  (If I haven’t mentioned yet how much I love England’s train system, let me do so now – it’s really a marvel and so easy to get around…except when it’s not, which I’ll cover a little later.)

Some of the green Yorkshire hills between Leeds & Harrogate

Some of the green Yorkshire hills between Leeds & Harrogate, as seen from my train window.

IMG_3099

It was a 1.5 mile walk from my hotel to the Burley Park station north of Leeds, but a short 30 minute train ride to Harrogate, (for what would take the cyclists 5 hours the next day to get there on a long roundabout loop) and when I arrived I was even more impressed with the Tour spirit that I saw in this much smaller quaint town (72,000 people compared to Leeds’ 750,000).  There were yellow bikes displayed EVERYWHERE!  Restaurants, hotels, offices, pubs – every single house and place of business had a sign or a bike or something displayed related to the Tour.  And thousands of feet of bunting strung up everywhere, made up of little baby knitted cycling jerseys.  And a huge Fan Park with big screen TVs and cycling history exhibits.  And trees carved into Tour de France works of art.  Fantastic effort by Yorkshire, chapeau!

image_8

image_9

image_10

image_18

Sir Bradley Wiggins, 2012 Tour winner & Olympic champion but not chosen by his team for this year’s race, was missed by his British fans.

After I got a pretty good drenching from a brief British bout of rain (of course this happened right after I lost my umbrella but before I could dart to buy a new one), I met up briefly with a contact who works for French TV and the Tour.  He’s a retired French pro cyclist but now is the one who calls all the TV shots for what is broadcast to the rest of the world covering the Tour.  He also owns the travel company with which I traveled in 2010 to see the Tour then, so I’d met him before and had stayed in touch a little over the past few years.

image_16

FranceTVsport truck with it’s huge telescoping TV screen

He agreed to meet up in Harrogate to say hi and was nice enough to take me behind the crowd barriers to give me a brief tour of the inside of the FranceTV media truck where he works, as well as the other broadcast stations where sports commentators from around the world sit and call the shots for their home telecasts.  He also walked me over to the NBC American broadcast truck; he knows Paul Sherwen and Bob Roll so he introduced me as they walked out and we chatted for a few minutes, which was great!  I was super surprised to see recently-retired American Christian VandeVelde also walk out a minute later (I didn’t know then he’d been hired for the commentating team!) so I met him too.  Actually I’d met Bob Roll once before in 2010 when he was broadcasting then and he signed my Texas flag, which I reminded him of, but it was great to meet and talk with him again.

NBC Sports Network broadcast truck

NBC Sports Network broadcast truck

After another afternoon tea on the sidewalk of a Harrogate cafe and a stroll around the shop-lined streets to scope out where I thought I could watch the finish the next day, I boarded the train back to Leeds.  That evening I ate in a little cafe run by a Romanian couple and had a nice time chatting with the wife about how they found themselves in Leeds, England of all places.  I was continually struck during my entire time in England about the diversity of peoples you find nearly everywhere in the country, from all over the world.

I knew the next morning would be an early one.  Foregoing a free breakfast at the hotel, I was standing outside waiting for a taxi at 6:45 AM to take me to the train station, where I dropped off my luggage at a holding area and then walked the few blocks back up to the city centre where the Tour would start.  By 7:15 AM I had found a spot right against the barrier on the sidewalk of the main street, right at the corner where the riders would turn in to go sign in on the race podium before heading back out to line up for the start, which was about 50 yards up the street.  It was a primo location…but also a receptacle of back-aching pain.  The race wouldn’t start until 11:00 AM, which meant 4 hours of standing in one very crowded, very small spot of concrete.  Many people around me had been there since 6:00 AM or earlier to get a good spot.  It takes a serious fan to queue for a Tour de France viewing location!

image_19

My vantage point of the sign-in podium on a rainy morning.

Standing right next to me were a father-son pair from Lincolnshire who’d made the trip to Leeds and who were among the many Team Sky superfans there to support their team.  They were very nice and agreed to save my spot when, around 9:30, I decided I should try to find a bathroom.  A much-scaled-down version of the publicity caravan had already passed by on the route, but the riders weren’t due to show up until 10:00.  Leeds did a great job of organizing the Grand Départ with one notable exception:  NO PUBLIC TOILETS.  Anywhere.  What the heck Leeds???  I was forced to run several blocks over to a mall, then up 4 escalator flights to a pay-toilet, and by the time I sprinted back, it had been about 25 minutes.  By this time the start-line crowds were 10-deep or more on both sides and crammed in like sardines.  I squeezed and pushed my way back through to my spot, which now was half the tiny patch of concrete it was before, and was actually boo’d by those I bypassed…the father-son companions had genuinely-scared looks on their faces as I professed many thank you’s to them, telling me “You almost caused a riot, everyone was yelling at us for not moving your backpack and letting someone else in your spot!”  There was a particularly mean-spirited very short grandmotherly woman standing right behind me who shot dagger looks at me the rest of the morning and kept shoving me into the barrier (which I thought was very un-English of her).  So this begs the question:  how does everyone else do it, how do they stand there for hours upon hours without bathroom breaks, and especially after drinking all that TEA?  Adult diapers?  Severe self-dehydration starting the day before?  I still don’t get it.

My favorite souvenir from the Publicity Caravan's prize buckets.

My favorite souvenir from the Publicity Caravan’s prize buckets.

Well anyway, at 10:00 all the riders started rolling up to sign in and do interviews on the grandstand, still in relaxed and festive moods.  And then they started lining up right in front of me in the Neutral Zone area, awaiting the 11:00 rollout.  The father-son duo went gaga when Team Sky & British defending Tour champion Chris Froome stopped right in front of us to make some bike adjustments, and it was fun to see their pure joy reaction at getting a little smile from him when they shouted “Good luck out there Chris!”  I watched British sprinter-star & stage-winner favorite for that day Mark Cavendish give an interview about two feet in front of me, multiple microphones thrust in his face, none of us knowing that it would be his first and, sadly, last day of this year’s Tour (more on that later).  I could’ve reached out and touched controversial Alberto Contador as he cleaned and twisted his bright yellow sunglasses.  I could hear Fabian Cancellara laughing as he joked (in Fabianese) with the riders sitting next to him. 

The riders start to appear for the sign-in.

The riders start to appear for the sign-in.

Canadian champion Svein Tuft

Canadian champion Svein Tuft

One of my favorite riders, Welshman Geraint Thomas (on R in white sunglasses)

One of my favorite riders, Welshman Geraint Thomas (on R in white sunglasses)

Cavendish rolls up to sign in and talk with fans

Cavendish rolls up to sign in and talk with fans

Chris Froome tweaks his bike computer

Chris Froome tweaks his bike computer

Cavendish conducting some last minute interviews

Cavendish conducting some last minute interviews

Cancellara shoots the breeze with Frank Schleck

Cancellara shoots the breeze with Frank Schleck

The rider on the right just wants to get going already...

The rider on the right just wants to get going already…

Alberto Contador in his unmissable neon yellow-green kit.

Alberto Contador in his unmissable neon yellow-green kit.

Cycling fans love cycling because you can get that close to your favorite riders – at the start, the finish, on the rest days, and on all the roads in-between.  It’s a true fan’s sport, cycling, with so many nations represented and so many different dramas going on within the race.  Yes it’s had its obvious struggles and challenges and it’s been tough to not get disheartened over the years, but cycling is changing, and the fans know this, so they stick with it, even if that means standing in one spot for hours until you can no longer feel your feet or lower spine.

image_11

The official start line for the Grand Départ

I’d never been right on the start line of any Tour stage before, much less the Grand Départ, and the atmosphere was absolutely buzzing.  I’ve heard that there were 280,000 people crammed into that start area with me that morning in Leeds – it seemed like more.  With the last rider signed in, the final countdown started and with a cacophony of pedal clips they were off, slowly making their way through the massive crowds and into the distance to begin their 3-week adventure/sufferfest.  We cheered them off and then cheered some more as each multimillion dollar team bus rolled through the start line after them, those impeccable imposing team refuges that harbor the riders before and after each stage and transport them around the Tour.  The bus that got the biggest cheer though wasn’t Team Sky’s shiny black “Death Star” – nope, it was the tiny little cartoonish camper van bus at the back of the pack, belonging to the wildcard team NetApp-Endura, who had never been to the Tour before and whose entire team budget is a meager one-eighth that of the juggernaut Team Sky.  With barely any windows and no chance of getting stuck under a finish line gantry, they became immediate crowd favorites for their underdog status.

The riders were on their way to Harrogate that day for the finish, and so was I.  But this blog post is already crazy long so I’ll continue the tale in the next entry.  Stay tuned to hear about the world’s longest train lines and glimpses of royalty (specifically, their feet).  More Tour de France up-close-and-personal next time!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Advertisements