Harry Dowdell remembers the thrill of the seeing the Grand Départ take place on home turf in 2014 – something that Yorkshire, and the wider UK cycling scene, will never forget.
The air was damp and chill. Low clouds held dominion over the sky. The eerie quiet was not only due to the early hour. Our tyres rolled on roads which were damp, but not enough to cause spray. It was the kind of day for spinning along dales and bagging some big hills, a day for solitude with the plaintive call of the curlew for company. But it wasn’t to be. Bigger things were afoot so this was an out-and-back ride with a mere half hill to climb. We joined the Tour route near Jervaulx as a family was setting up camp for the day – chairs, table, blankets, food and barbeque – a scene we saw repeated wherever the verges were wide enough.
That Yorkshire would host the Grand Départ of the 101st Tour de France came as a surprise to many – it was up against the likes of Barcelona and Edinburgh – and it broke from tradition in many ways. One of those departures was to start with two days of challenging racing. The Tour de France is defined by heroic performances in the mountains. Armchair fans seek them out and keen cyclists follow in the racers’ tyre tracks. Who remembers those sun-kissed stages through endless corn or sunflower fields? But Ventoux, L’Alpe-d’Huez, Tourmalet or Col d’Aspin are a different matter. It is here that winners emerge and wannabees are found out.
Today’s race included three categorised climbs: Cray (or Kidstones), Buttertubs and Grinton Moor. For mere mortals they are challenging but the pure sprinters would expect to be in with a chance at the finish. Alpine climbs tend to be long, evenly graded well-engineered roads – not so in the Dales. Roads are draped like ribbons over the land and gradients vary as nature intended.
Buttertubs was where we were heading to watch the race. Road closures were now in place but didn’t apply to the self-propelled. What a treat. Roads had just been swept, patching and re-surfacing had been going on for months, bunting had been knitted and everything else given that bit of an extra polish.
After Middleham we nipped off route and stopped at Berry’s Farm Shop and Café in Swinithwaite for breakfast. In the shop there were three cycling books in a line; the first one has a mugshot of Sir Bradley, the second one of Chris Froome and the third shows one of our gang, Liz, toiling uphill on the cover of Cycling in the Yorkshire Dales. She was made up by being in such company as no doubt they are.
Race marshalls were by now controlling access to the race route but we were allowed to pass to get back onto it. In Aysgarth and Bainbridge people busied themselves with party preparations. So far so quiet. Where was everyone? Above Hawes a huge white bicycle marked the hillside. It was in Hawes that we met the crowds. The pavements had given up and the road was full of cyclists and pedestrians doing the same as us. We were not to be alone on Buttertubs. Cycling was possible but slow.
At its steepest the road passes through an amphitheatre created by grassed-over quarry waste. This was the place for us and we stopped and stacked our bikes with the others. None were locked.
We found our viewing spot for the day and for the next few hours watched as the crowd grew. A good-natured atmosphere prevailed. Strugglers were getting a cheer and a push – the smaller the rider, and there were lots of tots, the bigger the cheer.
Meanwhile in Leeds, some 75km away as the crow flies, 198 riders along with team cars, sponsors and support staff had set off from the city centre. After a neutralised ride to Harewood House and a brief ceremony the race was started by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge assisted by Prince Harry. From Harewood the race climbed along Wharfedale through Otley and Ilkley before stepping left and through Skipton. Wharfedale was re-joined at Threshfield and followed to Buckden. So far mostly rolling roads that wouldn’t trouble the sprinters.
Kidstones is the least well known of the day’s three climbs. The gradient is reasonably constant and the road is wide. I’ve ridden it many times, in all weathers, from both directions. Following the race route a fit cyclist should do it seated. Not easy but doable. The descent of Bishopdale is an all-out treat. Coming the other way is far more challenging as there is lot more climb and the gradient keeps kicking upwards as height is gained. I’m invariably out of the saddle near the top.
On that day the climb from Buckden over the Cote du Cray or Kidstones (at 416m after 68km of racing) carried King of the Mountain points. At this stage a breakaway trio of Jens Voight, Nicolas Edet and Benoit Jarrier held a 3min 8sec lead over the main field. There was no chance of the peloton closing the gap on the descent of Bishopdale. A sharp left turn marks the junction with Wensleydale. The road is wide and rolling but with distance the rolls start to swell.
At the Aysgarth Sprint Voigt made a break for it and was to continue alone over the remaining two categorised climbs of the day to take the King of the Mountain jersey.
As we waited at Buttertubs, the new arrivals thinned out as the cavalcade of sponsors came through, many vehicles struggling on the steeper sections. Anticipation built. We all heard that that Jens Voight had established a clear lead.
Buttertubs was the big climb of the day. Taken from the side that the Tour riders had to do it, its difficulty depends largely on the wind direction. Wind funnelling down Fossdale combines with the steeper ramps to make the climb a genuine challenge of strength, bike handling skills and grit. Needless to say no one ever notices a tailwind.
Most of the climb is between Simonstone and the open moor which is marked by a cattle grid. This comprises numerous steep ramps with the worst ending just on the moor. The climb continues but is gentle. From the top there is a steep drop into and climb out of the hollow containing the actual Buttertubs. The remaining descent is steep but constant with straight stretches of road and some tight bends. Either direction is a challenge.
Down below in Hawes the race had now turned right and started the climb of Buttertubs. Voight came into sight, alone on his bike but in a bubble of motorbikes, helicopters, cars, spectators and television viewers. The crowds parted and he was cheered through. Voight held on and at the top (532m at the 103km mark) the German had increased his lead to 4min 47sec lead over the peloton.
Edet then Jarrier followed and, a few minutes later, the peloton. The crowds couldn’t part widely enough and there was some bunching but soon they were all through and for us the live spectating was over.
The road through Swaledale is generally narrow with few level or straight sections. Its purpose is to link villages and hamlets rather than get anywhere fast. Trees often block sightlines and it’s not a time to relax. After a final crossing if the River Swale the final climb starts at Grinton.
The challenge of Grinton Moor is mostly in the first part as it rises alongside Grinton Gill. The road is steep and narrow but straight and shaded by trees. Once the open moor is reached the road twists, turns and climbs like a ribbon in the breeze. Again it is a climb you could do seated.
On that day, spectators were kept away from the start of the climb but beyond the cattle grid where the road widens a little the crowds were back. Voight held on and completed the Grinton Moor climb (383m at the 129km mark) just 50 seconds ahead of the peloton. His work done he eased back into the main field.
The race continued to Harrogate via Leyburn, Masham and Ripon. As the finish nears the roads straighten and level off. It was a perfect set up for a sprint finish. German powerhouse Marcus Kittel finally took the day after 4 hours 44 minutes and 7 seconds of racing. Peter Sagan was second and Ramunas Navardaushas third. Home favourite Mark Cavendish sadly fell, broke a collarbone and was out of the race.
The Grand Départ cost a lot to stage so what remains of it all one year on?
Economically: the millions of spectators and those who came especially to ride the route spent a lot of money in the area. On the other hand, cycling has always been a significant contributor to the Dales economy and numbers have been increasing year on year without the race. It is too early to tell if all the publicity from the race has boosted those numbers further.
Cycling: the resurfaced roads will remain good for a long time yet and there are more bike shops in the area today. The brand new Tour de Yorkshire this year had a very successful first outing. Public funding has helped recruit more club cycling coaches.
Socially: across Yorkshire there was a genuine pride in being trusted with such an important event. It was a chance to show the Yorkshire people, history and landscapes to the world. It was ours, and we made it special because sport is an important part of Yorkshire life.