Chasing the peloton

I arrived into Hull and sent my cousin Joanna a text. She was going to meet me there and drive me back to her place in Rise. I had a few minutes to spare so I went to the ticket office to see if I could organise a ticket for my bike and I from Leeds to London on Monday. Bizarrely the Leeds ticket office could only sell me a ticket on the day for an extortionate amount. As I was in the ticket office, Joanna arrived at the station and made her way over. I hadn’t seen her since her wedding about 18 months ago, apart from a few Skype calls. Her latest news was that she was expecting a baby, due pretty much on my birthday (which is extra special). It was great to see here again, looking great and just starting to show her 6 month baby bump. With my mission accomplished at the ticket office, we loaded my bike into the back of the car and set off for the countryside.

Rise is a lovely little country village where Joanna and her husband Steve make the most of country living. When we arrived, Steve was already cooking dinner and it was great to see him again too. Steve and I met for the first time when I came over for the wedding. We only spent a couple of days together, but we got along like old friends. After a quick (much needed) shower, we sat down outside in the evening sun to enjoy the first course, a rainbow Bruschetta. Steve calls it that because it is full of colour, including edible flowers from the garden. In fact most of the ingredients for dinner either came from the garden or the local village. While we waited for the main course, Steve took me on a tour of the impressive garden. Full of fruit trees, vegetable patches, greenhouses, edible flowers, the chook pen. He is very passionate about it and he certainly has a reason to be proud of it. We went inside for the main course, delicious roast pork from the local farmer served with greens and potatoes from the garden.

After dinner, we watched the World Cup quarter final match between Netherlands and Costa Rica. I was sure Netherlands would win easily, but Costa Rica were putting on such an admirable performance, it wasn’t long before we were all cheering them on. During the game Steve showed me his collectable World Cup sticker book too. He open a few more packs, fist-pumping when he got a player he needed to complete his set. At one point he lamented the fact he had nobody to trade with, which I thought was a little sad (albeit hilariously funny). We laughed at the suggestion of him hanging around school playgrounds looking for 10 year old boys… As the match carried on with a solid defensive display from Costa Rica, I thought Netherlands got a bit narky. Finally with the climax (or anti-climax) of a penalty shoot-out, Netherlands were through and Costa Rica were going home.

In the morning, I woke early to the sound of rain. Knowing it was a big day ahead, I had every intention of an early start, but procrastinated with a leisurely breakfast. The rain had stopped, but the grey skies still appeared gloomy with no sign of improving. It was probably about 8AM by the time I finally said goodbye and set off for York. Despite the wet roads, clouds overhead and drizzle, the ride from Rise to York was quite pleasant. I found my way onto one of the National Cycling Network routes, following it most of the way. I was going to struggle to make the start at the racecourse. I had already missed the caravan too, so I found a spot on the outskirts of the city near Clifford’s tower. I arrived just in time. There was already a huge crowd, so I made my way into the throng, pulled out my GoPro on a stick and watched the peloton whiz past. 10 minutes and it was all over, but I got to see the Tour de France again!

I’ve been to York a few times in the past, but not for at least 10 years. It’s a great old city. After the race had come through, I set off to explore. The city streets were closed to traffic, so riding the bike around once again was bliss. I stopped to ask some of the marshall’s where I could find the best coffee in York, but they were clearly tea drinkers. Eventually I found a little cafe that looked promising, so I sat down for a latte and refuelled with a second breakfast. Not far from the cafe I also found the Stone Roses bar, which probably has no affiliation with the iconic band, but was still pretty cool. I continued rolling around the city streets until I came to cool little bike shop cafe. At this stage by bike was in need of a little TLC. The makeshift repair to my rear brake was ok, but the lever had started sticking and I had pretty much worn through the brake blocks. I left it with them to work on it, while a took a seat in the cafe next door with a good view of the big screen showing the race. I noticed the couple sitting next to me were wearing matching “over 55 riders” jerseys with Aussie flags on the arm. Always glad to see a fellow Aussie I started up a conversation with them. They were from Perth on their annual European cycling holiday. They had been doing it for 10 years now going to different European destinations and cycling touring for 6 weeks at a time. They weren’t just over 55s either – they were actually in their 70s!

After the bike shop cafe, with my brakes now working nicely, I meandered through the streets of York to the racecourse where the race had started earlier that day. After the huge crowds of the day before, I was a little surprised to find the place pretty empty. There were 2 big screens showing the race, a few mercy stands, food vendors, sponsor displays, kids rides, but hardly anyone there. Maybe once the start was over (with the weather looking gloomy) most people decided to move on. I wandered around, watched the race for a bit, then decided to move on too. Finding my way back to Leeds was pretty easy. With a mixture of off-road cycle paths, deviations passing through villages and quiet country roads I followed the general direction of the York Road. Once back in Leeds, I made my way over to Grandma’s house. When I arrived the race was only a few minutes away from the end, so Grandma and I watched the finish together: the moment when Nibali stepped up to stamp his authority on the race with a stage win.

As soon as the race was over, I said goodbye to Grandma and left for my Auntie Val and Uncle Martin’s place in Pudsey, where I was staying for the night. Earlier in the day Joanna contacted me say I’d left my light at her place, so she would come down to her mum’s place and give it back to me. Although it wasn’t a deliberate ploy, it was a nice excuse to see her again. However, she had to leave at 6PM so I couldn’t be late. Despite taking a route through the village which took my up some pretty decent hills, my phone battery dying (along with the directions I was following) and having to stop to ask directions from some girls with horses I made it on time. We had a lovely home cooked meal together and in the end Joanna didn’t leave until 8! Val and Martin had been following the tour around too. Martin showed me some brilliant footage that he got of the riders coming through Addingham along with some of the entertainment that the town had put on for the event. Tomorrow the tour would leave Yorkshire and so would I, but it was great to see everyone get behind it with such enthusiasm and it was amazing to be a part of it.

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!

Le Tour de Yorkshire

After breakfast I said farewell to the Beggs and made my way to the station. It had been a flying visit but I would see them again at England camp in a few weeks time. The night before I had used Google Maps and my own (very limited) navigational skills to make my way from the station to the village, mostly on the off-road cycle paths. This time, however I followed the directions along the roads through Marholm, a nearby village, and found my way to the station much easier. I arrived comfortably before the train was due. Unable to get a direct train to Leeds with a cycle reservation, I had to first go to York, make a platform change, then continue to Leeds. Unfortunately, the train was running late so I missed the connection at York but I was still able to jump onto the next Leeds train without a reservation.

When I arrived into Leeds station my Grandma was there waiting for me. She was confident she would spot me with the bike, but with the Tour de France in town, there were people with bikes everywhere! I spotted her first as I came through the turnstiles so waved to get her attention. It was great to see my Grandma again and she was really happy to see me too. We caught a maxi taxi back to her place, which is very close to the city centre. As we drove out from the city it was clear to see Leeds was in the grip of tour fever. There were decorations everywhere, yellow bikes, posters, yellow jerseys on statues, painted phone boxes. It was clear that everyone was getting behind it.

When we got to my Grandma’s place, my cousin Matthew was there. I had seen him briefly on my last visit, but it was really good to catch up again. We had a cup of tea together and Grandma made us some sandwiches. We hadn’t been there long before my Auntie Linda also dropped in, so I had the chance to see her too. It was a real Bickerdike family reunion! Once Matthew left, I unpacked a few things, then grabbed my bike and cycled back into the city centre to get involved with the festivities. Grandma’s place was a short pedal into the city, mostly on bike paths. I found my way to the City Square where I got a photo with the iconic inflated yellow bike. Then going down the Headrow I saw the ceremonial start line for the big race. It was a real festival atmosphere of street stalls, music, street performers with people (and bikes) everywhere. The sun was shining and everyone was making the most of it.

I headed into the town hall to check out the Yorkshire Bike Show. There were lots of cool exhibitions from local artists, tool makers, clothes designers, bike companies and brilliant custom made bikes. One of my favourites (who actually won best in show) was Field bikes from Sheffield who make steel frames (of course). Not only were the bikes beautiful, but the guy I spoke to showed me a frame badge that, in co-operation with Sheffield University, had been 3D printed in steel. So cool. There was another frame that had been painted with a camouflage pattern using a process that some how prints the pattern onto a film into which the frame is then dipped. Totally crazy stuff. Another guy had custom built a 36er. Yes. Forget 29ers, a 36 inch wheel bike! There was also an impressive display of over 20 vintage bicycles, all owned by the same guy.

After a bite to eat, I made my way over to the Leeds City Museum where there was a photo exhibition of cycling culture in Leeds called Bicyclism. It was really well done showing a great diversity of bikes, riders and riding. Underpinning that cycling is not just about the lycra-clad bunch, not that there is anything wrong with that, but it so much more. After the museum I checked out the gallery, then some of the street performers. One bloke, an Aussie actually, calling his act Pucture Kit was playing a drum kit made out of a bike. It sounded brilliant and looked awesome. Then there was a group of crazy frenchies performing bike ballet. It was hilarious to watch and very impressive to see what they were able to do on a fixie.

You can’t count on the weather in England. Inevitably as the afternoon wore on it took a turn for the worse. I headed back into the town hall for more bike show goodness and take shelter. I sat down to hear a talk from a guy who has followed the tour for years riding every major climb and now written a book about them all rating them out of 10. He had some great tips about being a spectator at the Tour like how to get the free stuff from the caravan or how to get on TV. It was a fun and entertaining talk. Somehow, during questions from the audience we got on to discussing the Chris Froome/Bradley Wiggins controversy. I asked him whether he thought Wiggo would ride for Green Edge next season, as I certainly hope he will. He agreed that there was a strong possibility and would be great for both parties. Later on I found a competition was running with track bikes on rollers. A 500m sprint head-to-head. When a girl with a clipboard approached me about, it looked like a bit of fun, so I signed up. I actually ended up the 3rd fastest time of the day! Maybe all this riding around is doing me some good after all 😉 However, more impressive than that was the 84 year old bloke that stepped up to give it a crack. I hope I’m still riding everyday when I get to his age.

As the afternoon wore on I kept sticking my head out the door to check on the weather. The rain was still coming down and I had (quite optimistically) left without a jacket. Hoping it would eventually improve I procrastinated by watching a mountain bike video on the big screen called Life Cycles. I don’t know who made it, how old it is or where you can get it, but it is one of the best bike films I have seen. Really beautiful cinematography, a good narrative and some really cool riding of course. After the movie, it was after 5PM so I sent my Grandma a message and decided to brave the weather back to her house. Unfortunately, when my phone battery died, my lack of navigation came out to bite me on the bum again. The trip into the city had seemed so easy, but I ended up going in circles around the city until I found my way back to Grandma’s. By that time I was drenched from head to toe. I was very glad to have a shower and put on some dry clothes. My Grandma even went out (in the rain) to get me a Chinese takeaway for dinner. I felt totally spoilt. Grandma and I watched the Brazil v Colombia World Cup match for a while, but at 2-0 I was nearly falling asleep, so decided it was time for bed. Ironically it seems just after I made that decision Colombia scored and Neymar got injured! Just goes to show you should never leave the game early, but I needed my rest. Tomorrow was the first day of the Tour de France, the start of the Tour de Yorkshire and I was here to see it. Ey up! In’t it grand?