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T'Grandest Tour

Cavendish, Froome and Nibali
Matt Barbet
17 Jul 2015

With the 2015 Tour de France in full swing, Matt reflects on its flying visit to Yorkshire last year.

Emmerdale. Jarvis Cocker. Geoffrey Boycott. I’m afraid to say that Yorkshire had never looked or sounded so good, nor had it hosted a sporting spectacle quite like it. Not only did the Grand Départ of sport’s biggest annual event show off the historic English county’s beautiful true colours, it was among the greatest ever settings in more than a hundred editions of the Tour.

Geographically, it’s highest highs wouldn’t even register in the Alps or Pyrenees, but the pure joy of the hoards of fans on the ‘Côte de Buttertubs’, to use the amusing Franglais version, more than compared to – if not topped –anything on Alpe d’Huez or the Tourmalet. Who’d have guessed?

Of course, the Tour de France is always a carnival, wherever it goes, but before those halcyon days in July last year, nobody could have honestly predicted the scenes over hill and dale. Chief executive of Welcome To Yorkshire Gary Verity’s confidence in bringing it to Yorkshire never wavered, but even he, in the wee hours, must have mused on just how successful the whole shebang would really be.

A couple of days before we found out for ourselves that he was absolutely right, there were already stirrings in Harrogate. I was there in an unusual dual role, filming for both The Cycle Show and 5 News, such was the mainstream interest. As we grabbed a few shots of the first stage finish line, a stony-faced Katusha team came swooping through to have a look at the lie of the land. Then FDJ did the same. You and I know the names, but the tourists peering through the windows of the famous Betty’s Tea Rooms wouldn’t have had a clue who these teams were.

Then Mark Cavendish appeared like a matinée idol on two carbon wheels, surrounded by his formidable lieutenants, and even old ladies out shopping were muttering about the Manx Missile, his mother living nearby, and at exactly what point he would launch his surely victorious sprint – OK, maybe not the last bit, but the buzz among even the blue-rinse brigade was palpable.

I grabbed a quick word, and Cav seemed his usual ebullient and confident self, despite what must have been unprecedented pressure on his already very low shoulders. We all know what happened next.

Back down to earth

From those dizzy heights, the lowest low. The tarmac at the top of Parliament Street, to be precise. Only 48 hours earlier, I’d been talking to him right there as we rolled along on our bikes next to each other. An unremarkable spot, no offence to the Edinburgh Woollen Mill shop outside which our hero skidded to a halt on his back. It was something nobody would have dared even entertain, but it revealed the huge irony of the greatest three days of bike racing in the UK – British involvement was a disappointment.

Cavendish was gone before it barely got going, and the greatest road cyclist we’ve ever produced in Sir Bradley Wiggins was prevented from even turning a pedal in anger. David Millar was denied too, as was Luke Rowe, local lad Ben Swift and Alex Dowsett. Even more galling for him was the race practically going past his front door as it eventually wended its way through Essex on to the capital. Then recently crowned British champion Peter Kennaugh took out his own dissatisfaction at missing out on Austria, destroying the field in that country’s own minor tour.

Back at the Grandest of Grand Tours, the second and final Yorkshire stage provided some fantastic racing, and was perfectly pitched to get the main Yellow Jersey contenders to compete so early in the three-week race. Froome and Contador pushed the peloton to its limits. The residents of Sheffield’s fairly nondescript Jenkin Road must now be used to casual cyclists testing themselves on the same climb the pros duked it out on, before Vincenzo Nibali put down his marker by winning the stage.

Retiring champion

Just three days later, defending champion Chris Froome was gone, as was the sunshine. The wet roads along the border between France and Belgium put paid to his defence, and Team Sky had no real Plan B – that’s B for Brad, Brit, and Best-loved. Shame, but perhaps lessons have been learnt.

We’ve already had a successful Tour de Yorkshire. Tour organisers ASO know a market when they see one. (Good to see Dame Sarah Storey leading the names in the women’s version too.)

They’ve also tweaked the rules for the Tour de France again, with the return of the opening stage time trial in Utrecht in the Netherlands, and more points for winners of sprint stages. Wiggo’s mind may be on different prizes these days, but these tweaks could once again mean Cav and Froome are back in the reckoning for jerseys as a result.

No, it’s not back this side of the Channel. But, we’ll always have Yorkshire, and I’m glad the Brits will be competing at cycling’s biggest event once more.

You can follow Matt Barbet on Twitter @MattBarbet and read his latest column in the new issue of Cyclist.

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