Eight of us, four adults and four children, rose early for a walk / ride over to York race course, for the start of stage 2 of the Tour de France. I’m not sure what Vicky and Jono, our hosts for the weekend, were expecting, but a gang of tour motorbikes, speeding alongside us on the closed roads, certainly got the children excited. A squadron of helicopters thundering in to land, like a scene from a Vietnam war film, ramped the thrill levels higher. But the excitement looked like it might be short-lived. We had arrived moments after a service road entrance into the stands was closed to allow the caravane through. Our way forward was temporarily blocked.
The caravane came through, but it was a bit of a disappointment – no freebies and no Haribo raining on to us, although the clouds were threatening the wet stuff. But the caravane is never a complete disappointment and a Miffy traffic jam followed by giant wine bottles and McCain chips averted any sulks.
Chatting to the Tour Makers we learned the riders would also be coming along the service road. We filed the nugget of information away.
We did eventually get through to the stands but they were packed. We would be able to see little more than the odd flash of bright lycra, so we conferred and came up with a plan. We retreated back to the entry road, looking for coffee on the way. It proved to be a good plan, a very good plan…
Running alongside the service road was a scrappy overflow car park. Nothing was mentioned about it on the site map the Tour Makers were handing out, but it did have a small merchandise gazebo, an underemployed coffee vendor and a row of portaloos. Further on was a temporary metal stockade. Inside it were a handful of team buses and more were arriving. Bingo.
Jono and I strolled over to the travelling barista and gave him something to do, then went for a gander. We could glimpse riders preparing through open coach doors. Race-numbered bikes were being lined up and given final checks by team mechanics, otherwise the area was quiet, save for the regular hiss of a track pump being pulled off a valve. A Sky staffer was handing out freebies including lollies which turned the children’s tongues blue – it was some compensation for the lack of Haribo. I found myself walking alongside David Millar and said hello! Wish I’d had the nerve to ask for a photo.
The press were gathering around the OPQS bus. Booms and cameras were waved about. We couldn’t hear the statement being made, but we could guess the sad content.
Then the riders started to emerge. Cofidis and Europcar were first and I saw Tommy Voeckler, Hero of France! Garmin’s Andrew Talansky was chatting with a small group of fans, but otherwise it was still amazingly quiet. No one in the stands seemed to know what was out here! Other riders, elite professionals, lifted their bikes over the railings then rode along a gravel track, weaving through the fans; skinny athletes on thousand pound bikes rode alongside tubby men in hi-vis jackets on battered machines with squeaking chains.
I went back down to the service road, leading into the race course, to watch the riders make their way down to the start line. They rode by in ones and twos at a leisurely pace. I saw big names like Rodriguez and Nibali, but the biggest shouts went to the Sky riders. Geraint Thomas pootled along and chatted with fans. Then Froome went by, shielded by a minder, to an even greater cheer. I got a quick “Allez Tommy!” off as Voeckler again went by and then we shot across to Campleshon Road to see the peloton pass.
After we had cheered on the race we crossed Bishopthorpe road, temporarily reclaimed by the people, and walked to Rowntree Park to watch the race on a large screen TV. For the first and only time Yorkshire let us down. The screen hadn’t arrived yet and the only food outlet was selling greasy burgers. We hung around for a bit then returned to the race course.
The race course was a lot quieter now. We stayed for a while but with relatively few people the atmosphere was a bit flat, so we watched the recorded end of the race back in the comfort of our friends’ house.
The race course, like the one in Ripon, had been designated as a spectator hub. It was a nice idea, but with hindsight, perhaps misjudged. I think a lot of people turned out for the spectacle of the Tour without having much interest in the race – I can understand that. Watching several hours of bike racing, especially if you haven’t really got a clue what’s going on, isn’t for the majority. True, the race course did have plenty of other activities laid on, but I think the free party on Bishopthorpe road was a bigger, more atmospheric draw for many, and a couple of streets further on, the big screen at Rowntree Park did arrive in time for the finish.
We left Yorkshire in the early evening. The North had delivered, and we’d had a truly great and memorable weekend. Listening to local BBC radio, even a self-confessed skeptic admitted he had been wrong about the Tour; but what really summed up Yorkshire for me was the overheard phone conversation of a middle-aged woman. We were walking back to Ripon town centre after the race had passed and I heard her say, “bah gum (no, she really did!), it were reet great!”. She was right, and thanks to the Tour, the next time we holiday up that way, we’ll make a point of properly visiting Ripon.