The Yorkshire Post was given exclusive access to the Grand Départ. Jonathan Brown reports on riding pillion through Yorkshire with Le Tour’s peloton.
It’s the world’s most watched annual sporting event, but on the Headrow startline for stage one of the 2014 Tour de France I had no idea what to expect.
Blessed with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend one of Yorkshire’s defining weekends at the very heart of the action, I felt honoured but utterly unprepared.
Le Tour’s media men swiftly handed me over to Gaetan Prime, a Toulouse motorcyclist riding English roads for the first time dubbed one of the great race’s ‘pilots’ and within minutes I am speeding up Scott Hall.
Thousands of gleeful and uncontainably excited fans line Leeds’ streets, some jumping, most cheering and more waving with a smile plastered on their face – not for the peloton of global stars kilometres behind, but for a pair of anonymous blokes on a motorbike. Now that’s a pure Yorkshire welcome, unadulterated neighbourliness.
Racing ahead of the 198 Tour riders from the start, Gaetan and his colleagues whip up the crowd pipping their horns and gesturing at fans like warm-up acts for the main event.
We wave back at the swarms of roadside residents, high-five people, stop for pictures, share our packed lunches and chat with residents – every single face smiling back and up for a natter.
We spend as much time high-fiving excited kids on their dads’ shoulders as we do grandmas.
And it’s not just us media folk. The French Gendarmerie, race officials and even Yorkshire police play for the crowd.
Once the competitive element of the race has started and we’re given the greenlight by race officials, Gaetan stops and waits for the peloton and then snaps back into action.
Only three media motorbikes are allowed to get up close to the riders at a time. For the first time we’re waved back and slow to meet a small breakaway of riders outside Kettlewell, you can literally see every bead of sweat.
During stage two we got even closer, and more often. Following an early seven-rider break from the pack Gaetan tucked between the riders and the mass peloton with yellow jersey-clad Marcel Kittel up front near Starbeck.
I’m looking over my shoulder straight into Kittel’s reflective glasses and then we reach a wide roundabout. The peloton splits either side of it before merging as if swallowing it whole.
Mesmerised, I was desperate to see more, so we again tucked in front of the peloton as they completed Cragg Vale’s ascent.
Suddenly I’m thrust back and holding on for dear life. The stern race official shouts us on, and I turn to see a wave of Tour elite chasing us at over 40mph, snaking through Huddersfield’s streets lined 10-deep with fans. I’ve seldom been so scared, leaning tight into corners, my helmet whistling past the crowd. Gaetan has it under control.
Gaetan even seems unphased at the immense crowds zig zagging up Holme Moss and forming a metre-wide path for us. He’s tucking in his wing mirrors shouting ‘bonjour ca va’, while I tense up fearing the worst. It’s all part of the race.
All anyone wants to do is have a good time and get the best view they can – some are even looking down from cherrypickers or the raised scoops of diggers.
From the accordion music and Napoleon impersonator in Threshfield to the man with an inflatable mackerel he’s called ‘Malcolm’ atop of Buttertubs, the festival mood is infectious.
We’re offered a glass of Pimms, given a sombrero and serenaded, all in the name of Le Tour. What a race, what an experience, what a county.