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Could the World Championships be the last hurrah for Yorkshire?

24 Sep 2019

The UCI World Championships are well underway and so far appear to have been a success. The Tour de Yorkshire saw the usual exciting racing in the women's and men's races back in May. All should be right with the world of cycling in Yorkshire. However, we've looked at why the Gary Verity expenses scandal could threaten Yorkshire’s place at the heart of cycling in the UK. This article is in the current issue of Cyclist magazine, which is on sale now

Words Richard Moore Photos Chris Auld; Offside/L'Equipe; Scenic View Gallery; Alex Wright;

On the evening of Friday 22nd March a proverbial bombshell went off in the relatively small world of British cycling. Sir Gary Verity, the man responsible for bringing the Grand Départ of the Tour de France to Yorkshire in 2014, who established the Tour de Yorkshire as a legacy event and played a major role in attracting the UCI World Championships to Yorkshire this year, was stepping down with immediate effect.

The timing of Verity’s sudden departure was explained a couple of days later by The Sunday Times, which had been preparing to run a story with allegations over Verity’s conduct at Welcome to Yorkshire, the tourism organisation where he was chief executive. The newspaper had put some questions to him on the Friday afternoon, and within a couple of hours he had gone.

Verity said he was quitting on health grounds – he had recently lost his sister, which had clearly been a stressful time.

Yet Welcome to Yorkshire said in the same statement that ‘concerns have been raised in relation to his behaviour towards staff and his expenses’, before adding, ‘The Board has investigated these and has concluded that Sir Gary made errors of judgement regarding his expenses at a very difficult time for him and his family. Sir Gary has agreed to voluntarily reimburse Welcome to Yorkshire for monies owed.’

Over the days and weeks that followed, further allegations emerged about Verity’s 11 years at Welcome to Yorkshire, many of them published by ‘Yorkshire’s National Newspaper’ (as its masthead boasts), The Yorkshire Post, which had previously – like so many others in the region and beyond – championed Verity for helping establish the area as a hotbed of cycle racing.

Crowds at the 2014 Tour de France in Yorkshire

Pride of the UK

It wasn’t just the calibre of the races themselves, but also the roadside support they attracted. Entire villages and towns lined the course for the Grand Départ, then also for the Tour de Yorkshire. Images beamed across the world showed a beautiful corner of the world completely smitten by the sport of cycling.

Those images, and Yorkshire’s burgeoning reputation as a British version of Flanders, went a long way to securing the World Championships’ return to the UK for the first time in 37 years.

Verity was at the centre of it all. A story in the Post in 2016, headlined ‘How Yorkshire took its place among cycling’s Premier League’, mentioned a £100 million boost to the local economy from the Tour and described him as ‘the man who put God’s Own Country firmly on the map as a world-class tourist destination.’

Since the Grand Départ in 2014, the Tour de Yorkshire has been run in tandem with ASO, the Tour de France organisers, while Verity’s role in attracting the World Championships was underlined in his speech during a presentation at the 2018 Worlds in Innsbruck.

He also attended the Vuelta a Espana and Javier Guillén, the race director, subsequently confirmed that a Yorkshire start for the Spanish tour was in the works, probably in 2021.

It now seems unlikely to happen at all and there must also be questions over the long-term future of the Tour de Yorkshire, an event whose existence appeared to have been built around Verity’s relationship with ASO and his personal friendship with Tour director Christian Prudhomme, as well as on funding from local authorities.

Many have been burned by the allegations of Verity’s misspending and largesse, and may now be reluctant to go on supporting it.

Some will wonder whether the World Championships, far from providing further proof of Yorkshire’s status as a cycling mecca, might prove to be the high water mark or even the last hurrah.

‘There’s been an emperor’s new clothes effect,’ says Susan Briggs, director of the Tourism Network, who has been vocal in her criticism since Verity stepped down.

She says she was never convinced that major cycle races brought the financial benefits that were claimed. ‘A huge number of businesses were told that the Tour de France and Tour de Yorkshire were good, and any dissenters were made to feel stupid.

‘I always questioned the figures and questioned the value. I think now a bit of the myth has been debunked.’

Yet not even Verity’s fiercest critics can deny the role he played in putting the county on the cycling map. David Behrens, a columnist at The Yorkshire Post, argued that ‘Verity’s faults do not cancel out his achievements’ in elevating his organisation and his region.

‘Yorkshire was placed on a world stage. Its wonderful landscape was exposed to the gaze of the airborne cameras that covered the cycle races as they threaded through its country roads.’

The issue is not what Verity did but how he did it. I got a sense of his modus operandi when I visited him at the Welcome to Yorkshire headquarters in Leeds in 2014, on the eve of the Grand Départ.

I was familiar with Edinburgh’s rival British bid to host the Tour de France, which was driven by Event Scotland, a government agency, and backed by British Cycling, UK Sport and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Welcome to Yorkshire – not a public body, importantly, but a private limited company – had no such support and beat the Edinburgh bid by overwhelming Prudhomme and ASO with charm and five-star hospitality. ‘We flew them by helicopter from London to my farm,’ said Verity. How did he pay for that, I asked. ‘I didn’t,’ he said.

The helicopter was loaned by a city friend. It landed on a giant yellow ‘Y’ mown in a field beside Verity’s farmhouse in Coverdale. He welcomed Prudhomme and colleagues with Yorkshire lager and Yorkshire pudding canapés, ‘then I got one of our Michelin-star chefs, Frances Atkins, to pop round and cook lunch.’

Then, in two stretch limos, the party was driven around the Dales. They stayed at Harewood House, where another Michelin-star chef, Simon Gueller, cooked dinner.

The charm offensive continued the next day with a stroll through Leeds city centre. As they crossed Millennium Square a big screen, which usually shows BBC News, went blank, then burst into life, showing a promotional film for Yorkshire’s bid. It ended with a personal plea from Mark Cavendish.

Later, as Verity walked Prudhomme through St Pancras to the Eurostar, the Tour director told him, ‘You have all the ingredients for a Grand Départ. We just need to learn how to make it a meal.’

‘I knew then,’ Verity told me in 2014, ‘that we’d nailed it.’

Tour de France chief Christian Prudhomme

Playing politics

But Verity’s bid involved a major gamble. He believed that if he ‘won’ the Grand Départ the public money allocated to the Edinburgh bid would be switched to Yorkshire. He had Yorkshire’s MPs on his side – or most of them – and eventually, with their support, was given the £10 million that was needed.

But for some it left a sour taste. Hugh Robertson, the sports minister, remarked that it had been ‘pretty extraordinary to have bid for an event without working out how the security is going to be paid for’.

‘We can’t argue that Yorkshire has become known as a cycling destination,’ says Briggs, ‘but we need to consider whether the public investment in big events is worthwhile.’

She makes a distinction between the Tour de Yorkshire – ‘a Gary Verity project’ – and the Tour de France or World Championships, which attract an audience ‘beyond the cycling crowd’.

Briggs isn’t opposed to such events, noting that as well as the marketing opportunities for tourism, they help galvanise communities and give people a sense of local pride.

‘It’s a small thing, but the bunting we see in Yorkshire for cycle races, a lot of it is knitted – people have given their time and their wool and small things like that have brought communities together.’

Welcome to Yorkshire isn’t involved in actually running the World Championships, which at least has helped keep the event itself out of the spotlight. The chief executive of Yorkshire 2019 is Andy Hindley, whose background is in sailing – he was chief operating officer at Ben Ainslie Racing and before that at the America’s Cup.

Hindley’s biggest headache in the run-up to the Worlds has been the collapse of Grinton Moor Bridge, which formed part of the men’s road race course, due to flooding. ‘We have a diversion in our back pocket,’ says Hindley of this hiccup, ‘But we hope we won’t need it.’

As we spoke the council was constructing a temporary bridge, which the UCI will have to approve before agreeing to include it on the route. But Hindley said he was confident that Plan A would – in contrast to Grinton Moor Bridge – remain in place.

Work to repair Grinton Moor Bridge back in August

Out in the open

When the Verity allegations became public and an investigation into the financial affairs of Welcome to Yorkshire was launched, Hindley expected questions. ‘But there haven’t been any,’ he says. ‘We prepared statements and I went back and checked all our financial records in case we were asked. But I’m not concerned if we’re asked questions. We have no worries on that side.

‘We’re wholly owned by UK Sport but funded by multiple sources,’ he says. ‘The Lottery, DCMS, British Cycling – they’re our main stakeholders, then we’ve also got the local authorities in Yorkshire.

‘We do work with Welcome to Yorkshire because they have a lot of expertise in the county and in running bike races. They’re one of our delivery partners.’

Asked whether the allegations surrounding Verity’s conduct and his extravagant spending, including of public money, had done damage locally to the perception of the sport, Hindley says, ‘I’d say no. You’ve got to remember Gary did some amazing things in getting the Tour here, then the Tour de Yorkshire subsequently.

‘He was on our board. He was a nominated director, one of 12. He wasn’t front and centre as he was with the Grand Départ and Tour de Yorkshire, though. We’ve had to go back and do some checking and reporting but beyond that it’s all had very little effect on us. I think there’s still a lot of positivity and support in Yorkshire.’

Hindley’s organisation will cease to exist after the World Championships: ‘We’ve been given one job,’ he says. ‘After that it will be wound up and anything left over will be handed back and we’ll all be looking for new jobs.'

For her part, Briggs would prefer Yorkshire 2019, or an organisation like it, to replace Welcome to Yorkshire as the organising body of bike races in the county. She says that unless that happens the public money will drain away from cycling events.

‘I spoke to a chief executive of a council in Yorkshire who put in a lot of money in the past. She said she’d be considering any further support in the future much more carefully,’ says Briggs.

On the possibility of Yorkshire 2019 existing beyond September to organise races, Hindley is open-minded. ‘No one has spoken to me directly about it. We’re wholly owned by UK Sport so you’d have to speak to them.

‘But there is an opportunity here – the company is already set up and it’s completely transparent in terms of its finances. Could it be taken on by someone else? Absolutely, and if anyone wants to speak to us about that they’re more than welcome to get in touch.’

Yorkshire 2019 boss Andy Hindley

Uncertain future

If the affair has cast a shadow over cycling in Yorkshire, it will likely clear while the Worlds are on. But beyond that, who knows what effect it will have?

Briggs says there is dwindling interest in the Tour de Yorkshire, while Welcome to Yorkshire claimed a global TV audience for this year’s race of 28 million – the highest yet. But in atrocious weather, the estimated 1.96 million roadside spectators was down from the claimed 2.6 million who turned out in 2018.

Even if races do disappear, Yorkshire might open up to others, such as the Tour of Britain, which has been discouraged, to put it mildly, from visiting the region. With Verity gone, that could change.

But the Vuelta? A return for the Tour? A year ago both seemed probable. Now, neither seems likely. But perhaps the biggest mystery of all surrounds the man who made so much of it happen in the first place.

When Verity strode on to the stage in Innsbruck a year ago to tell the world that the Yorkshire Worlds would be ‘the greatest ever’, who could have predicted he would be persona non grata when they actually got underway?

Worlds trump Le Tour

The Tour de France might loom bigger in the public consciousness, but the Worlds wins on numbers

It might be tempting to regard the Grand Départ of the Tour de France and the UCI World Championships as similar in terms of size and scale, with the Tour de France ahead on public awareness and global impact.

In terms of pure numbers, though, the Worlds dwarf the Tour. When the Tour came to Yorkshire in 2014, it stayed for two days. There were 22 teams and 198 riders. The duration of the World Championships is nine days.

There will be around 80 countries taking part – that’s 80 teams – and approximately 1,400 riders.

And whereas the entourage of a Tour de France team might be around 25-30, national teams can have many times that number of staff. ‘The Italian team is renowned for bringing a big entourage,’ says Hindley. ‘They had 150 people last year in Innsbruck.’

Then there are the spectators, of course. The target is 3.2 million over the nine days. ‘We’d be very pleased with that,’ says Hindley, adding that hotels in Harrogate and further afield have been booked up for months.