Five times Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault says even the French are getting excited about the world’s most famous bike race coming to the UK as organisers prepare to mark 100 days before the riders line up on the start line in Leeds.
The Tour legend, 59, got back on his bike on Wednesday to ride a short stretch of the route through Cragg Vale, near Halifax, West Yorkshire.
Sampling a pint at The Robin Hood Inn in the village, Hinault said it was an exciting moment for British cycling with the race’s Grand Depart coming to Yorkshire just at the time Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome were sparking an explosion of interest in the sport in the UK.
He said there was great interest in the Yorkshire Grand Depart, even back home in France.
“It’s going to be like a big party,” he said. “The county of Yorkshire is going to be fantastic.
“Everybody’s happy. They’re happy that it’s in Yorkshire. We wanted it to be here because we wanted to show some other parts of Britain - a different area of Britain.”
The first two stages of the Tour are expected to attract up to three million spectators when the race arrives in Yorkshire in July. Events are being held tomorrow to mark 100 days to go until stage one starts in Leeds on July 5.
That first stage will take in the Yorkshire Dales before ending in Harrogate. Stage two, the next day, will start in York and finish in Sheffield, and will feature some of the best known hills in British cycling, including Cragg Vale itself, the longest continuous climb in England.
The Tour then moves south for the third stage from Cambridge to London before returning across the Channel.
Hinault, who climbed part of the route with a group of local cyclists, said he remembers the last time the race came to the UK in 2007.
“When we were at the departure in London we never saw as many people as we did in those two days. Here’s going to be exactly the same,” he said.
And he reckons Froome is “number one favourite” to repeat his triumph in last year’s Tour. But he said Froome and 2012 winner Sir Bradley are not the only Brits who should be talked about.
“It’s not just a question of those two people,” said.
“Now in Britain cycling is completely opening out. It’s all over the country. This is going to lead to more success in cycling.”
Hinault said: “It difficult to say because in ‘12 it was Wiggins, in ‘13 it was Froome. It’s difficult to say what’s going to happen this year.
“We mustn’t forget about (Mark) Cavendish, though, because he’s also in the running. We mustn’t forget about him.”
Cavendish is likely to be the main focus of the opening day of the Tour as he is expected to do well in the relatively flat stage and the finish is in Harrogate, where his mother lives.
Yorkshire-based pro-cyclist Dean Downing, who was riding with Hinault today, said: “It would mean everything to Mark Cavendish.
“His sole goal for the start of the year is that stage. That’s his first goal of the year which is 100 days away.
“It would be pretty special for Yorkshire. But when Mark Cavendish puts his mind to something he tells everybody what he’s going to do and he generally gets it done.
“For him, personally, it would be great, for his family, but for Yorkshire as well.”
Downing said some continental Tour contenders will be panicking about stage two, which includes a range of difficult climbs. He said the last 25 miles (40k) into Sheffield was “pretty brutal”.
“In the next 100 days you might see a lots of the pro-teams, the Tour contenders, coming over with their teams to recon (reconnoitre) this stage two route,” he said.
“It’ll be a great finish and a great spectacle for, hopefully, the tens of thousands of people who are going to come out and watch it.”
His brother Russ, also a pro rider, said: “Some guys will know Holme Moss from previous races but the rest of the climbs they won’t know.
“To be honest, myself and Dean did the last 40k the other week and we were surprised how tough it was.”