I knew there would be massive crowds at the start in Leeds so I got there about 7:30AM to find a spot near the front. I parked my bike, locking it to the fence outside the gallery got a good spot on the Headrow about 100m before the start line. Already there were people lining the barriers on both sides of the course. There was a woman with her teenage son sitting on little stools right near the barrier so I stood behind them and we waited. It was a really good atmosphere with everybody excited about the race. Most of the people around me were locals, just thrilled that the Tour de France had come to their city, but had no idea about cycling. I had fun explaining to them how it all works and what would happen over the next 4 hours. Yes. 4 hours. It sounds like a long time but with the sponsors moving up and down the crowd handing out freebies, the big screen, the music, the building crowds, the banter with one another, the time passed really quickly. It was a bit of a novelty that I had travelled from Australia and the people around me made a bit of a fuss. The TV crews did too. First itv came along and interviewed me. Asking me all the usual questions, “You have come all the way from Australia for the race?”, “Do you like cycling?”, “What do you think of Leeds?”… next it was Sky Sports who wanted an interview… then BFMTV… I felt like a real celebrity but unfortunately, I have scoured the Internet and I don’t think I made the final cut.
The caravan came through at 9:20AM, then the rider sign-on started at 10AM. The atmosphere was building along with the crowds. People filled every space, lining the streets, looking on from balconies, rooftops, office windows. Finally about 11AM the riders came through to their starting position. I spotted Gerrans in the bunch, wearing the colours of the national champion and called out to him. Then came Jens Voigt, pushing his way through the peloton to get to the front. I wonder if he was already planning at that point to go on the attack and lead the race for most of the day. Then the countdown. 3, 2, 1, Go! They were off. The 2014 Tour de France, the 100th edition, had officially begun.
I made my way through the crowds to find my bike. A woman was standing by it, with her young son sitting on the fence using the rack as a foot rest. I was glad to see it was ok, and I thanked them for looking after it for me. There were still people everywhere and a procession of vehicles on the course. I got chatting to some other riders who had ridden from Bolton that morning for the start and were now heading to Harrogate. We waited about 15 minutes for the road to open, but in the end, with all the traffic, decided to find another way around it. The four of us headed off in the general direction of the A61 that would take us from Leeds to Harrogate. We came to the barriers just out out of town, where the road was closed for the course, asked the marshals if were could go through and we were on the course. Riding on closed roads is bliss. Having the streets lined with people having street parties with decorations everywhere just takes the cake. Everyone we passed was cheering, kids were giving us high 5s… The road was full of bikes and riders of every shape and size, young and old, everyone out just to celebrate cycling on the day the world’s biggest cycling race came to town.
There was no need to hurry, we had many hours before the riders were due at the finish, so I rode at a leisurely pace through the undulating hills of the lovely Yorkshire countryside. As I came into Harrogate, there were massive crowds. I found the team buses and went around to take some pictures. Then, leaving my bike locked up outside, I headed into the Stray where a massive fan park was set up. There were food vendors, sponsor tents, live bands, competitions and 3 or 4 big screens showing the race. I joined the long queue for a Scotch Angus Beef burger, but it was worth the 30 minute wait. Then, burger in hand, I found a spot in front of one of the big screens to enjoy the race. I spent the next few hours wandering around the park, finding a spot in the sun to watch the race between naps. For the first time in my life I got to watch the Tour live in the sunshine! Jens put in a very entertaining performance, but he was never going to go all the way. He had done enough to make an impact and stamp his authority. Then came the business end. I started to make my out of the park to go to the finish, but an announcement was made that they were at capacity, so I would have been turned away. Also, the Stray was now also at capacity, with a queue of people waiting to get in, so if I left I wouldn’t get back in. So, for the last few minutes of the race I made sure I had prime position in front of one of the screens and soaked up the atmosphere. Every time the helicopter camera showed the Stray we all gave a massive cheer.
I was there when Spartacus blew the race apart in the last km. I think I was the only one in crowd that cheered. I was there when Gerrans started to wind it up. I was there when the tragedy struck. Cav leaning in just that little bit too hard and bringing Gerrans down. It was awful. The Cav home crowd was shocked and devastated. Kittel went on to a good finish, but it was overshadowed by the crash. Not the ending that anyone had hoped for.
I made my way to the Green Edge team bus afterwards to assess the damage. I asked one of the soigneurs if Simon was ok and they said he was. I could see him through the window of the bus getting changed, but he wasn’t going to come out to face the media or the fans. His bike, still on the roof of the team car was clearly smashed up with the rear derailleur bent upwards into the wheel. At least he would be fit to ride, more than could be said for Cavendish.
The ride back to Leeds was pleasant, even though the roads were open again. There were so many cyclists on the road I would ride with a bunch, then hop to the next, then pass a few on the climb… great fun. I headed straight for Grandma’s place, easier to find this time, then grabbed a bag with a change of clothes, said a quick hello/goodbye, then rode down to the train station and hopped on the train to Hull for the next leg of my journey. The Tour de France had lived up to every expectation: atmosphere, excitement, tragedy and a whole lot of fun!