Richard Moore: How Britain fell head over wheels in love

Bradley Wiggins retaining the yellow jersey and winning during Stage 19 between Bonneval and Chartres, in 2012
Bradley Wiggins retaining the yellow jersey and winning during Stage 19 between Bonneval and Chartres, in 2012
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SEVEN years ago, when the Tour de France last visited Great Britain, the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, might have been forgiven for feeling apprehensive.

Cometh the day, cometh the people. Almost a million spectators turned out to watch a prologue time trial that took the riders on a quick tour of the capital’s landmarks, including the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park.

Glorious sunshine and an atmosphere of bonhomie foreshadowed that other great occasion, the London Olympics, five years later. Yet perhaps the best endorsement came in a statistic concerning that million-strong crowd: there was not a single arrest.

“No arrests, huh?” said Sam Abt, the veteran and dry-as-dust New York Times reporter as the Tour prepared to roll out of London the next morning. “Jeez, what’s wrong with your police?”

Another million people lined the roads from London to Canterbury for the Tour’s second and final day on these islands, prompting Christian Prudhomme, the race director, to promise a swift return. “One thing is certain: it is not possible for us not to return,” he said.

Looking back, it is possible to identify 2007 as the start of Britain’s love affair with cycling. If London amounted to a first date that wildly exceeded expectations, the relationship was consummated a year later at the Beijing Olympics, where British riders were dominant, winning eight gold medals.

Now that romance was in full bloom there followed an extended and enduring honeymoon: Mark Cavendish won six stages of the Tour in 2009; a year later Dave Brailsford, the mastermind of so much British success, set up Team Sky, with the goal of winning the Tour de France. Bradley Wiggins duly became the first British champion in 2012, and Chris Froome made it a double a year later. In between, there were countless other successes for Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Lizzie Armitstead, Laura Trott, Ben Swift et al, and no fewer than three knighthoods – for Hoy, Brailsford and Wiggins.

And now comes the Yorkshire Grand Départ, where the knot is set to be tied in front of a predicted two million witnesses.

Yorkshire will not know what has hit it. Then again, neither will the Tour. Cycling’s popularity in this country has grown exponentially since 2007, and now there is a loyal and passionate fanbase who turn out in extraordinary numbers each year at the Tour of Britain, and also this year at the inaugural Women’s Tour.

When the Olympic road race was held in Surrey, before finishing in central London, the crowds were so dense that the Swiss star Fabian Cancellara complained afterwards that there was nowhere to stop to answer a call of nature.

This could be a problem in Yorkshire, too. A tip: if you see a rider stopping and he doesn’t appear to have a mechanical problem, put your camera down and look the other way.

It will be the Tour’s fourth visit to Great Britain and is easily the most anticipated. In 1974 the riders raced up and down the Plympton bypass: the venture was instigated by Brittany’s artichoke farmers to publicise a new ferry route, and was recently described by Yorkshire’s Barry Hoban, who rode that Tour, as “a shambles from start to finish” with the single British stage run on “a sterile and unimaginative route devoid of the fans who could at least have made an atmosphere”.

The 1974 visit was best summed up by the Daily Mirror’s headline the following morning: ‘Tour de France: Can 40 million Frenchmen be wrong?’

Little wonder it took two decades to come back. When it did, in 1994, the public response was better, helped by the fact that one member of the peloton, Chris Boardman, was a household name after his Olympic gold medal in 1992. Sticking to the south-east of England, between Dover and Portsmouth, the crowds turned out in force: the British seemed finally to be “getting” Le Tour.

The first British Grand Départ came 13 years later with the two days in London and Canterbury. It was a defining occasion. As well as the large turnout, 2007 witnessed the Tour debut of a young, stocky and mop-haired sprinter, Mark Cavendish, as well as the youngest rider in the field, a callow Welshman by the name of Geraint Thomas.

A few days later, with the Tour back in France, Dave Brailsford confided in some journalists that London had inspired him to try to find the sponsorship to set up a British professional team.

Now comes Yorkshire and the most northerly start in the history of the Tour de France. The opening script appears to be written for Cavendish, with 25 stage wins to his name as he aims for Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34. If Cavendish can win stage one from Leeds to Harrogate he will claim the first yellow jersey of his career. It looks perfect: the stage is flattish, and expected to end in a bunch sprint in the town where Cavendish’s mother, Adele, was born.

But there is no pre-determined script at the Tour, and no certainties; Cavendish had similar hopes last year in Corsica until he was caught behind a crash in the closing kilometres. And as well as the usual dangers a new one has emerged: Marcel Kittel, the giant German who ended Cavendish’s domination at last year’s Tour, winning four stages to the Isle of Man sprinter’s two.

Whether or not Cavendish ends the first day in yellow, there is a bigger picture. London changed the perception of cycling in London and Britain; it was a catalyst for Team Sky, leading indirectly to Wiggins’s and Froome’s victories. In the history of British cycling, the London Grand Départ was enormous. As impossible as it would have seemed seven years ago, Yorkshire will be even bigger, and better.

• Richard Moore is the author of Étape: the untold stories of the Tour de France’s defining stages (HarperCollins, £20). He will be speaking about Étape and the Tour de France’s visit to Yorkshire at Waterstones in York on Tuesday and at Waterstones in Leeds on Wednesday. Both events start at 7pm; tickets £3.