By ‘eck Bonjour – a Day at Le Tour. When France came to Yorkshire.
We had been appreciating our own little tour of a small corner of France, venturing out “à pied” and “en auto” to nearby towns and villages. As we returned today from a little run up a picturesque valley, we found ourselves driving along a part of the route for the grown-up Le Tour – which will be over-run by muscular men “à bicylette” in a week’s time. Bad timing on our part, because we will have left by then. No matter – there is no real British interest now that Froome and Cavendish have decided that riding Le Tour in England was sufficient excitement and exercise for this year.
Fortunately for us, we did see Le Tour earlier – in that well-known French department of Yorkshire. I am an avid Lancastrian as you may know, but one of my sons has married a Yorkshire lass so we may as well make the most of it. My daughter-in-law has a friend who lived just five minutes off the route through Oxenhope. A perfect base from which to enjoy the second leg last Sunday. We rather invited ourselves to gate-crash, but the friend and her family made us very welcome.
We (my wife and other son and I) stayed at my son and daughter-in-law’s house. No four-wheeled vehicles were allowed in the tour area, so we deposited my car in a big local field and took a courtesy bus up to the village. When we arrived at about 10 and it was already buzzing four hours ahead of the expected arrival.
Crowds were gathering at a strategic position where the cyclists would enter the village and then turn a sharp right up a long hill. One suspected this little sleepy Yorkshire town had never seen so much as half-a-dozen visitors at once. There were so many today they need marshals in high-viz jackets. We were directed through the crowds by a diminutive Yorkshire woman with a fortissimo voice.
Our party had already marked out some territory half-way further up the hill from this corner, carefully positioning some folding chairs along the kerb. Others had done the same, grabbing and reserving their space early. But this was Yorkshire not a Mediterranean deckchair war, and everyone was warm and friendly rather than competitive or pushy.
Our line of chairs had been perfectly positioned for us to see the riders come through. On a hill they ride (a little) more slowly and tend to be a slightly more spread out. Looking down the hill would afford us a better vantage, the equivalent of standing on terraces at a football game. Finally, the bend of the road worked to our advantage, because if we all stood responsibly on the kerb, everyone would be able to see and the riders would still get the wide berth they wanted.
A tennis game can last for hours, a football match 90 minutes, even an 1500 m race lasts for over three minutes. My daughter-in-law had watched day one of Le Tour the day before, on a flat road. It had been was all over in seconds. Whoooosh! – and they were gone. Hours of waiting and anticipation and then all over in a flash. I wondered how much it would be worth the effort – particularly as Bradley Wiggins had been dropped from team Sky, and Mark Cavendish had crashed out Le Tour day before.
Fortunately, there is some stage-managed excitement well ahead of the race coming through, otherwise, even in beautiful Yorkshire, it would have become a little tedious. From about 11am a procession of vehicles started to drive up our hill. First came the local police on their motorcycles. They sounded their horns playfully and waved at the crowds. A rare – possibly unique – outbreak of popularity and friendliness between police and public.
A steady stream of amateur cyclists came past at various speeds. Most were pushing their bikes up the hill, some were risking the ride. There was a vast range of machines from road bikes to trail bikes, from heavy Halfords discounts to feather-weight expensive titanium’s. A bike being a rare example of the more you pay, the less you get.
Some of the riders looked suitably athletic and attired in appropriate lycra. Others looked like they had never placed their ample backsides on a bicycle seat before and were dressed in most inappropriate lycra. One or two who pedalled with more enthusiasm received ironic cheers from the crowd. “Come on Bradley”, somebody ventured. Surely it could not be?
I saw the attraction of bringing my bike and preceding or following le Tour, taking at least part of the same route as the world’s top cyclists – and of course on a day on which the roads are free of those pesky cars. I lamented leaving my bike and lycra at home.
The Yorkshire police conceded the road a few minutes later to the French Gendarmes. I hadn’t realised we had loaned part of our country to the French. What rules would now be enforced under this temporary occupation? Would we have to eat escargot pudding rather than the Yorkshire variety?
The gendarmes were announcing something in French over their megaphones. This was clearly their idea of a joke, as our inability to grasp their language is a constant a source of amusement to the French. Or maybe the strange Yorkshire language was just beyond their grasp.
Next in line came le Tour carnival – a whole procession of floats and vehicles advertising a myriad of disconnected items and organisations. Most of them decided that the best way to do this was to turn their vehicle into a giant version of their product, whilst throwing out miniature versions gifts to the baying crowds. I enjoyed the giant mobile McCains Chips best of all.
The crowd responded with completely disproportionate enthusiasm to the slim chance of catching a tiny packet of Haribos, a Fruit Shoot or a small, collapsible frisbee.
My wife was waving and hooting, trying rather too hard to get noticed by a passing thrower. To her credit she managed to solicit a small blue cloth with which to wipe her glasses. Ironically, I work for an opticians. More spookily, my Sheffield Hallam graduate son caught a Sheffield Hallam wristband. Solid proof that there is no such thing as random movement.
After the excitement of the marketing trailer, there was a lull before the main event, perfectly timed for lunch. We were flattered that le Tour organisers had favoured Oxenhope with such a timely schedule. We took turns to walk the 5 minutes back to the house – walking straight in off the street into the front room and food. It was just like the old days when you would pop into the neighbours’ house for a cup of tea and a chat.
We made sure we always left one or two of our party behind at kerbside to defend our position up the hill. Although this hardly seemed necessary given the good-natured spirit of the crowd. As we grazed the buffet in rotation, we watched Le Tour live on the television, calculating how far away they were from us. There was already a breakaway group of half-a-dozen riders, three minutes ahead of the peloton.
We wandered back up the road. Crowds were lining both sides of the hill now. Just up from us a group of school children were sat obediently in the grounds of the church, elevated above the road. Behind them the tall gravestones had an better view. The guard of honour continued up the zig-zag road out of the town, all the way up to the top of the hill. Hundreds of excited and joyful spectators waiting for their cameo participation in le Tour’s endless Mexican wave.
Round the corner the pub was regaled in bunting. An old bike was decorated in flags. Other houses had made bicycles out of flowers or whatever else they could find. A new definition of a daisy chain.
It would be an unusual spectator experience to say the least. We would all stand in position and the riders would speed through. The only equivalent I could think of was the marathon, but the runners are so strung out that you can watch them pass by for hours. With le Tour, blink and you could miss it. At least with the breakaway group we would get two bites of the cycling cherry.
We walked back to our chosen spot – everyone had returned from lunch to our chairs. Although there was no phone signal, someone had some reliable intelligence, probably from some old-fashioned radio technology. The leaders were a 10 minutes away. Up in the skies above Haworth we saw and heard the circling of four or five helicopters – the first physical sign that le Tour was finally approaching. The anticipation was building. Mrs B stood on a chair. I stood with my toes on the very edge of the kerb, hoping nobody would break rank and lean, jump or wobble in front of my view.
I had decided to video the riders, rather than photograph them or to simply watch and cheer. A tricky dilemma. I talk a good game about experiencing reality rather than recording. But my recording gene is too strong. My father was an inveterate photographer, sound recordist and diarist, and I have inherited or learned his insecurity with my own memory or ability to recall. Hence also, I guess, this blog.
I pressed record on my camera and pointed it down the hill. Suddenly they were here. A string of ride swaying from side to side as they pumped hard on their pedals. And just as suddenly they were gone. They were simply the out riders, the forerunners of the main group.
Two minutes later and the second, much bigger wave – the tsunami of the peloton. Here they came up the hill – like a swarm of bees, a heard of bison, a flock of Canadian geese, a shoal of salmon. Each one Indistinguishable from the other in the intimacy of the group. A seemingly perfect tessellation of men and machines, moving faster than the eye can perceive in perfect unison. The red arrows of the road – multiplied a hundred times and packed together, just centimeters apart.
Now they were passing me. If I had leaned out six inches I would have touched them and they would have all fallen over like a pack of dominoes. I am not sure if I heard the swoosh or felt it – maybe both. The sound crescendoed in my ears – that gorgeous whir of rubber on road and chain on sprocket, created by hundreds of feet pushing hundreds of pedals, winding hundreds of chains, propelling hundreds of wheels. An instant orchestra of sound. And then the feeling – the air sliced and diverted either side of them, breezing past my skin.
This is the most efficient way a person man can travel under his own energy. On a bicycle and within a peloton. But this was as much artistry as technology, as much grace as strength, ballet as much as sport. It was simply and momentarily exhilarating.
And just as suddenly they were leaving us – looking up the hill we saw only their backs and bottoms and rear wheels as the sound faded away. They were gone without so much as an adieu. We waited in vain for any stragglers – there were none. This is not a sport for stragglers.
The peloton glided further up the hill. Now the school children in the graveyard were cheering, and round the corner the people outside the pub would be waving ready for their turn to be exhilarated. And so it would continue for mile after mile, hour after hour until the race was run and the day was done. And then the next day and the next day for 20 more days. Exhilaration being handed on from person to person like a never ending game of pass the parcel, until the music would finally stop.
For them of course the experience is completely different. They ride resolutely through millions of our exhilarations and emotions. They must become immune to them – used to the constant cheers, the endless waves, the persistent colour and the never-ending bunting. They are focussing on their position, their speed, their legs, their energy levels, their machines, their goal. The crowd – like the rolling hills behind them – are a mere landscape, noise and potential distraction. If they think about us at all, their appreciation is, I suspect, mixed with frustration when we narrow their road and anxiety that we will step out in front of them or thrust a camera in their face.
In danger of a severe bout of anti-climax, after-the-Lord-majors-show feeling we quickly picked up our chairs and returned them to the house, In an attempt to maintain the mood, we parked ourselves on the same chairs in front of the TV. We wanted to see them again – our riders, our peloton. Where had they got to now? We watched for an hour – long enough to see the absolute zenith and apex of the whole Tour – the brief passage through a corner of Lancashire. Not all of the party seemed to appreciate this as much as I did.
We left in good time to get home by the way we had come and still catch the end of the day on the TV. As we left Oxenhope, Crowds were still milling around the streets, inevitably now gravitating to the pub, or starting the walk home.
It was a memorable and probably unique day. We enjoyed the excitement and beauty of the race. We had barely missed Cavendish or Wiggins, and the fact that we hadn’t picked out Frome in the peloton and that he had finally rode in fifth seemed almost incidental.
We loved the colour and enthusiasm of the crowd and warmed to the friendly community which adopted us for a day. Pretty good for Yorkshire. And well done them for having the vision and tenacity to win the Grand Depart and two days of le Tour for 2014. Time to start the bidding process for a bit more of Lancashire next time. And for us to plan our French holiday a little more carefully next time.
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