Yorkshire awaits Tour de France

Preparations are underway for start of the event in July while cyclists await a stern test against a stunning backdrop.

It’s not every day that one of the world’s biggest sporting events sweeps majestically past your front door. But this unlikeliest of thoughts has become reality for people of Yorkshire.

The first two stages of the Tour de France take place here in July after the organisers fell in love with the scenery, the cycling and the people.

“I’m too old to get excited but plenty of people around here can’t wait,” Wood told Al Jazeera as he leaned on the beer pumps of the Robin Hood Inn. “It’ll be a great day.”Roger Wood runs a pub in Cragg Vale, a West Yorkshire village. Cragg Vale is Britain’s largest continuous ascent (almost nine kilometres), making this territory popular with cyclists wanting to challenge themselves. Its role will be to provide a stiff early test to the world’s best cyclists. 

The English still rely on the 1966 football for sporting glory but this will be fresh sporting history for a new generation to tell their grandchildren about.

The Tour de France will culminate in Paris, its 21st stage [GALLO/GETTY]

In the back room of the pub, the rat-a-tat of a sewing machine can be heard. There’s bunting to be made, the small decorative flags that mark big English occasions. Local communities want to make their mark and are attempting a world record by completely lining their part of the route. No small task, and with less than 100 days to go, it’s taking up a lot of their time.

Yorkshire’s preparations

The tour is taking over the place and but Yorkshire is fully embracing it. The bidding to host the stages in the world’s biggest annual sporting event is very competitive. Despite being the underdogs, there needed to be a great sense of belief in the Yorkshire team. They beat cities like Edinburgh, Florence, Berlin and Barcelona and the relationship between the Yorkshire team and the French organisers has become something of a love affair.

I think the landscape is magnificent, it's hilly, it looks beautiful, it’s like a mural. It’s going to be a great Tour

by Bernard Hinault, Five-time winner

Tour Director Christian Prod’homme was among key figures seduced by aerial footage of Yorkshire’s dramatic scenery, from green rolling dales to stark, barren moorland and picturesque villages. Stage one will run from Leeds to Harrogate, while stage two connects York and Sheffield. Both weave through parts of Yorkshire that are unfamiliar to many outside the county.

“I think the landscape is magnificent, it’s hilly, it looks beautiful, it’s like a mural,” said five-time tour winner Bernard Hinault as he stopped to take a view across the Pennines. “It’s going to be a great Tour.“

‘Brutal’ course

This is far more familiar territory for brothers Dean and Ross Downing, professional cyclists from Yorkshire who were part of the team that tried and tested the route before the bid.

“Part of this course will be brutal, it’s our training route and there are some nasty surprises,” said Dean, reminding us of the technical reasons Yorkshire was chosen and why this is being regarded as the hardest start in the Tour’s history.

“But we’ve see how the Tour looks on TV and with the helicopter shots, Yorkshire is going to look stunning.”

There is a history and tradition of elite cycling in Yorkshire that is perhaps surprising. Brian Robinson, the first British rider to finish the Tour de France, is from the ‘white rose’ county. As is the first mountain stage winner from the UK Barry Hoban. And Lizzie Armitstead, Britain’s first medallist in the London Olympics.

Sporting tradition

And there’s a proud sporting tradition. The county is famous for cricket, picking players only from within its own borders until 1992. The world’s oldest football club – Sheffield FC – is one of many football clubs the county. The world snooker championship is held in Sheffield every spring and there are nine race courses.

Now cycling will have its time in the spotlight.

The tour is touching most part and most people of Yorkshire. The financial benefit to the UK has been estimated by PWC to be in excess of $150m. The third stage runs from Cambridge to London before crossing the Channel.

You could look for a negative with the Tour de France heading to Yorkshire for the first time but don’t expect to find one. What could’ve been a clash of cultures has become an embracing of cultures – two proud traditions in tandem.

It will be two wonderful days for this part of England. But will there be a legacy? There already is – an annual three-day elite cycle race will take place in Yorkshire from next year.