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Mixed feelings in Harrogate following the World Championships

Myles Warwood
7 Oct 2019

Many people & businesses embraced the Worlds, but others are grumbling about the impact

After the World Championships in Harrogate, has Yorkshire's love affair with cycling come to an end? After the circus has rolled through town, what is left to show for it?

These may seem like outlandish questions to ask if you watched the coverage of the women’s and men’s road races on the BBC. The fans came out to each corner of Yorkshire in their droves, despite the near-biblical rain, which made it one of the wettest World Championships in recent memory.

 

Two Harrogates

Harrogate itself had fans lining the streets of the route all afternoon waiting to catch a glimpse of some of the finest cyclists in the world.

However, if you look past the crowds along the route and were to go in to the town then you would see a different outcome, a divide between these two Harrogates. Many people there for the races walked past the shops and straight to the roadside where they stayed for the duration of their time in Harrogate.

 

If you were in hospitality or were lucky enough to have your shop converted in to a pop-up then business was booming. This wasn’t the case for the smaller independent stores which were hoping to cash in on the gold rush. Although some didn't help themselves by simply shutting for the duration of the Worlds, not giving people the chance to visit and spend money.

Local businesses were told figures of one million people would be coming to Harrogate over the nine days of competition, but many of those businesses feel that they were misled on this figure. With a lot of the visitors not actually coming to the town centre but instead heading to the side of the road elsewhere on the route and home again.

There were cheers and even a chorus of ‘hear hears’ at a recent meeting which was organised by the Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce and Harrogate’s Business Improvement District team when the owner of a shop on Commercial Street said that they and other businesses 'do not want any more cycling events.'

She went on to say: 'There are some positives, there are people who enjoyed it, and I do think we have to acknowledge that for balance, but I do feel that what we are as businesses is collateral damage, no one gives a monkey’s. There have been far more people who have lost than have won from this,' she claimed.

Another business owner said: 'It’s all very well saying that the promotional opportunities and publicity for the town will make it all worthwhile and bring in tourism, but if there are loads of empty shops, because we have all gone under as a result of the UCI [World Championships], then there will be nothing for visitors to come here for.'

 

I spoke to restaurants who had ordered extra stock and made sure they had extra staff, expecting the crowds to materialise, the truth being that they didn't arrive in numbers until the Saturday and Sunday, in what many of them called 'the final'.

It’s important to remember that Harrogate is a small town, punching well above its weight to get the opportunity to host the UCI World Championships, only attracting the nine days of events due to the success of the 2014 Tour de France.

The town needed an event like this to bring an influx of people and money, the local shops are struggling enough as it is as they try to pursuade folk to buy local rather than get on a train to Leeds to go shopping for a day.

False rumours are easily believed

Northerners talk though, and I spoke to a shop owner who said that people didn’t come in to the town because 'the word had been spread that all of Harrogate would be shut, you wouldn’t be able to get in or out and it was best to stay away.'

This falsehood was spread despite the fact the roads in town were kept open as much as possible and the closures on surrounding routes were kept to a minimum to allow people to get in to town.

Those who embraced the Worlds reaped the rewards

Positioning, it seems, was key. Unless you were on the finishing straight, it seemed to some that they might as well have shut up shop, as many business owners did. They feared, perhaps without foundation, that staff wouldn’t be able to get in or didn’t expect the mushroom cloud of the World Championships to reach as far as them.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, the group managing director of the HRH Group, the Harrogate and York based hospitality group which owns the likes of the White Hart Hotel, the Fat Badger and the Yorkshire Hotel, said: 'Our businesses did extremely well out of the UCI [World Championships] and the staff at our hotels loved coming to work and the whole buzz around the event.

'The disruption the cycling events caused was not anywhere near as bad as feared in my opinion. Without question, our businesses have done very well from this and so have many others I’ve spoken to. We’re looking at an increase of over 100% on our usual trading figures and have in turn had to spend more money on staff wages which will then in turn be spent in the local economy.

'This has been the greatest marketing campaign we could have ever had to promote our beautiful town to the world and I have had guests saying they will come back again after the World Championships as they’ve loved it. We should reap the financial rewards for many years to come.'

 

Well established shops like Betty’s drew in the crowds whereas companies who embraced the World Championships and were lucky enough to be taken over by brands did extremely well. The Starling Cafe which became a Rapha and Canyon pop-up was constantly busy, staff were asked to stay later on shift to keep customers happy.

Obviously, it helps when Mathieu van der Poel's there to host an evening as he did on Friday 27th September.

The Cold Bath Brewing Company had a Zwift pop-up next door which also drew the crowds. The Zwift Draft House constantly had rainbow jerseys in and the likes of Geraint Thomas and Luke Rowe hosting a podcast from there, too. With e-racing happening almost every night at the Draft House the queue for a beer could be out the door at times.

 

Hopes for a future tourism boom once the short term upheaval passes

Many of the shop owners and staff I spoke to agreed that it would likely bring tourism to the town in the future but many now fear for their own future as some claim to have lost thousands of pounds in trade and are wondering if they would still be there when the tourism returns.

Some have demanded immediate action and compensation after reporting a significant loss of earnings - a claimed 98 percent in one case - as a result of the town hosting the UCI Road World Championships.

 

Then there is the Fan Zone, located on The Stray, which had to be closed almost as much as it was open as the rain flooded the grass. It was simply unable to cope with the level of footfall on the sodden ground which turned it in to a mud bath, painting a dreary picture of how beautiful Harrogate can be.

Figures are being thrown around about the cost of repair, as diggers and heavy-duty machinery roll their big tyres over the muddy ground, churning it up further, to move the tents and hoardings which were put up for the event. Some people are saying it could cost tens of thousands of pounds to cover the repairs and it’s the locals who could have to stump the bill in their council tax.

The Stray Defence Association, which was first formed in 1933 to safeguard Harrogate's Stray against building and encroachment from all quarters and uphold the Act granting freedom of the Stray to all people for all time, said that they were 'deeply distressed by what had occurred.'

They went on to say that, 'No one looking at it could doubt the atrocious damage suffered by Harrogate’s Stray during the past weeks, particularly West Park Stray. Damage which is so appalling it is hard to quantify. It is our view that, despite the assurances we sought, and were given, from every public body that any damage would be minimised, far too little appropriate and adequate protection was provided for the Stray.'

International eyes on Yorkshire

The council counters with the 250 million televisions which the World Championships reached, but unless you knew where you were looking, the events were hard to find on British television.

If you didn’t have Eurosport, then many of the events were on the BBC Website or Red Button. Only the Mixed Team Time Trial, Women’s and Men’s Elite road races were on BBC television.

Harrogate and North Yorkshire still remains to be a fantastic place to ride a bike on the country lanes, with stunning scenery and beautiful countryside. Whether there will be another professional race come through in the future remains to be seen.

Photos: Leon van Bon, Devin Ainslie, Myles Warwood, Stephen Ward

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