I had a sense of déjà vu. The difference was destination. This time we were parking in a race course outside Ripon rather than an almost deserted car park in Canterbury. Canterbury was seven years ago. Seven long years since I had seen the Tour de France and now it was back in Britain, starting in Yorkshire. Whether they liked it or not I was dragging my family on a pilgrimage north.
We’re lucky to have some friends living in York who were kind enough to put us up for the weekend. Saturday dawned. With mouse-like quietness and military discipline we crept out of their house to find le Tour. We drove out along the A59 expecting traffic, but found it remarkably quiet. Good for us and we parked up on Ripon race course at eight on the dot.
We stayed at the race course long enough to see the Grand Départ and the Jensie make his move then, with many others, drifted into Ripon.
Ripon market square was busy with a large crowd gathered before the mairie to watch the race on a big screen. The race wasn’t passing through Ripon, but skirting around on the bypass, so we ate lunch, watched some of the action then walked down to the bypass, with all the urgency young children will allow, ready for the caravane.
The roads from the town radiated out to bypass roundabouts, and like tourists at a beach, most spectators had pitched around them. Further away, along the wide fast stretch of tarmac the spectators thinned and we soon found a good spot. Now we waited. I paced around; the girls industriously made loom bands; my wife applied the suncream.
The caravane was running late, but we didn’t have long to wait for the first police and gendarmes to come through, high fiving spectators, honking their horns and warbling their sirens. Then came some race cars followed by fan pack vans and gyrating girls selling off merchandise to thumping music. So it continued and the thin ranks of spectators started to fill.
More music announced the arrival of the publicity caravane. To the delight of my daughters they were showered with Haribo packets – “One of them hit me!” my eldest boasted. Loom band production was suspended while the sweets were devoured. Wave after wave of bizarrely decorated vans came through sending my youngest daughter into hysterical laughter, but then giant Fruit Shoots and bags of McCain’s chips are not normal sights on British roads. The main event was getting closer.
More official cars, police and gendarmes came speeding through or waving leisurely, alternating with urgent press vehicles and safety cars warning the crowds to keep back off the road.
Looking up and down, the bypass was verged with humanity. Dedicated fans mixed with the bemused and curious.
Four helicopters flew over. A wave of excitement travelled along the bypass.
Race officials and more police motorbikes sped through, and above it all the solitary whump whump of a hovering helicopter. People looked skyward and there it was, a single black dot, framed by a white fluff of cloud drifting across the deep blue Yorkshire sky. The race was close.
The last I had heard of Jens Voight was that he was now solo having dropped the two French kids who’d escaped with him. To see the legend alone, ahead of the peloton, would have made my day.
A flash of yellow – the sunshine Mavic car, loaded with spares, went speeding past. More press and police motorbikes pursued it and then finally, after hours on the roadside a wave of human noise surged along the road; but no lone hard man came powering through, hurting for his sponsors and some air time, just the multicoloured peloton of the Tour de France.
I saw Chris Froome’s back, the only detail my eyes could focus on. Then they were gone, chased by team cars, roof tops crammed with a small mortgage worth of bikes, a few riders weaving between them, and all moving so fast that surely they must pile into the rear of the peloton.
With the road clear, we joined a mass exodus up the hill back into Ripon. The Market Square was packed. 4km to go. We watched and cheered as Cav’s OPQS train took control, followed by a mass intake of concerned breath as another train formed up and seemed to forge past, but they didn’t. Cav’s team still had the advantage and we cheered again. Cancellara had a dig. If anyone had the legs to go against a charging peloton it was him. But no, not even Cancellara could stay away. And then it happened. Two riders wobbled and went down to a groan from the crowd, which only deepened when the camera flicked back to Cav lying on the Tarmac, his team mates around him. Kittel crossed the line then the cameras were back on Cav, riding across to the finish but holding his arm in that familiar, hateful way. I could relate to his pain – I am still not liking my turbo – but I cannot begin to imagine the depth of his disappointment.
We went to an Italian restaurant for tea, then headed for home: tired, elated, excited and disappointed. What a day, what a start to the Tour de France, and chapeau Ripon!