On the way home from York I tweeted that the pressure was on Cambridge and London. The North had delivered but would The South? I had a few reservations and I don’t think I was the only one.
So why the doubts? First, when we went on a club trip to ride the Yorkshire Dales a couple of months ago, the county already looked prepared. There were plenty of advance notices, the bunting was on display and yellow bikes were all over the place. Every other farmer was offering their fields for parking or camping. What’s more the county seemed genuinely enthusiastic for the Tour. When we returned for the Grand Depart, it felt like everything I had seen in May had been allowed to ferment into a fevered, excited atmosphere. Driving to Ripon the local radio was all Tour talk. They were most definitely behind it. I hadn’t seen much of that attitude around Cambridge.
What I had seen and heard for Cambridge were dire warnings of traffic Armageddon – warnings I could easily believe. On a good working day, getting into Cambridge by car, from my side of the county, is an ordeal by congestion on overstretched and creaking infrastructure. On the eve of Stage 3, the council website had plenty of information about which transport services would be closed or suspended, but nothing about additional parking or buses laid on. Perhaps they hadn’t seen the weekend’s footage from Yorkshire?
To get a head start we had decided to stay with my in-laws; they’re that little bit closer to Cambridge and had offered a lift to save us the hassle of finding parking. We had BBC Radio Cambridgeshire on in the car. Unlike their Yorkshire cousins, the only Tour-related talk was about how quiet places were, and occasional bad jokes: Why didn’t Team Sky stay in Cambridge? Because there was no Froome at the inn… And how could I forget the advert warning people arriving by bike to use the official racks only or risk having their bikes carted away!
Still, despite the radio reports, you can imagine our surprise when we sailed along the A428, on to a free-flowing Madingley Road, past the Park and Ride and straight on to the Backs where we pulled up and unloaded. We felt a little silly, but clearly the scaremongering had worked. People were staying away from Cambridge.
We walked around to Great St Mary’s church opposite the Senate House. It was quiet, very quiet. There was a slight kink in the barriers there and it seemed like a good place to pitch up.
In Ripon and York people had been handing out maps showing the route and timings. I asked one of the Cambridge Tour Makers if they had anything similar. No, instead they directed me to the tourist office. The Tour Makers were being supported by additional stewards with APS plastered across their hi-vis jackets. While the Tour Makers were chatty and friendly, the APS stewards seemed to be the opposite: sullen and obstructive. I guess that’s the difference between stewards who are employed to be there, and those who have volunteered.
By the time the caravane arrived, the streets were busy. Nearly every passenger in the Tour cavalcade, and many of the drivers too, had mobile phones and tablets in hand, photographing the crowds.
When the riders arrived, the route down to King’s Parade was heaving; spectators were clambering up the walls of Gonville and Caius to get a better view under the gaze of inquisitive dons.
The Cambridge crowd didn’t disappoint. It was as large, loud and boisterous as anything Yorkshire had given. The colleges provided a stunning backdrop to the race start, and yet walking through the town after the race had passed by, I couldn’t help but feel Cambridge the Institution – the University, City council, media and the businesses – hadn’t really engaged with the Tour. In Yorkshire, most shop windows I saw were dressed in vivid yellow Tour-related themes. In Cambridge, these businesses were in the minority. In York, the Minster and Rowntree factory were both draped in great yellow jerseys. Ripon town hall was a mairie for a day, but such frivolities were not for the Cambridge landmarks. Cambridge had at least managed a few lengths of bunting. But at the same time, Cambridge had put on a respectable event on Parker’s Piece. It had a widescreen TV, bar, Go Ride stuff, even a modest French market. Some effort had clearly been put in, it was…satisfactory. Top marks to the spectators, but for me, Cambridge could have tried harder (although I accept any yellow bikes would soon have been pinched!).
What a fantastic and unforgettable three days though. Tuesday evening we were all exhausted. Just three days on the road, how on Earth do the manager cooks, soigneurs, mechanics, press officers and every other Tour follower, let alone the riders, cope for three weeks?