Cycling’s coming home to Yorkshire welcome

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The famous race may be synonymous with France, but cycling will be coming home when the world’s best riders battle for the fabled yellow jersey in Yorkshire in 2014.

Brian Robinson, the first Briton to win a stage of the Tour de France in 1958, hails from Mirfield – while super sprinter Mark Cavendish’s maternal family are steeped in Yorkshire life.

It is the recent success of Cavendish, a winner of 23 Tour stages, that has helped Britain to become a cycling powerhouse – and enabled tourism agency Welcome to Yorkshire boss Gary Verity to present an irresistible case to the race organisers.

“I was with Christian Prudhomme, the Tour organiser, who said it was between Yorkshire and Scotland,” revealed Cavendish’s uncle Russell Davidson, a director of Leeds law firm Lupton Fawcett.

“He said he noted that my nephew was supporting Yorkshire and that he’d better phone Gary with the good news. I can think of no better compliment to God’s own county.”

Cavendish, who will ride for Omega Pharma-Quick Step after a frustrating 2012 season with Team Sky that saw its efforts revolve around Bradley Wiggins’s successful quest to become Britain’s first Tour winner, will have no shortage of white rose support.

His mother Adele – Mr Davidson’s sister – was brought up in Harrogate and the siblings had relatives who ran The Bridal Shop in The Headrow, Leeds, in the 1960s, the street where the 2014 Tour is likely to begin.

They then left for the Isle of Man – Mr Davidson said they “wanted to escape Harold Wilson’s taxes” – and it is there that Adele met her future husband, David Cavendish.

There is no cycling heritage in the Davidson and Cavendish families – and general bemusement when a young, and rebellious, Mark announced that he was giving up his day job as a bank clerk to become a full-time cyclist in Manchester with, amongst others, Yorkshire’s Ed Clancy, a double Olympic champion.

His great, great aunt Ruth Coombes was among those to have their doubts. “She said to him ‘what a way for a Yorkshire lad to earn a living. Can’t you do something normal – like work in a bank?’ said Mr Davidson, who is also chairman of the Royal Hall Restoration Trust in the spa town that will be expecting to feature in the 2014 Tour itinerary.

“I remember Mark saying to me ‘Uncle Russ, all the guys I race against are bigger than me.

“The two things I have going for me is that I can spot a gap between the wheels faster than anyone and I am absolutely determined to win’.

“Mark gets a bit frustrated – I remember him saying to me that everything to do with sport in this country revolves around football and cricket to a lesser extent. Players often generate bad headlines and yet receive loads of adulation.

“As cycling has got more and more popular, it is probably the fourth biggest sport now behind football, rugby and cricket.

“I said to him ‘You’ve largely done that. And Bradley. And Dave Brailsford, the man behind Team Sky’. And they have. It is absolutely marvellous.

“Mark only left Sky because they wanted to win the yellow jersey for Bradley, and you had the situation where the world’s fastest sprinter was a water carrier because you can’t go for both the overall Tour and the sprints. He has said you have no idea how challenging the mountain climbs are for fast people and that they just go on and on and on.”

The ambition of Cavendish, and all those behind Britain’s cycling revolution, is matched by the vision which underpinned the Welcome to Yorkshire-led bid.

Its chief executive, Gary Verity, believes Manchester developed “a swagger” – economically and socially – once it was awarded the 2002 Commonwealth Games after its failed bid to host the 
Olympics. New facilities included a world-class velodrome where Cavendish trained before his road career took off.

“That was the tipping point, but the question was what we could do for Yorkshire. It was a process of elimination. We’re not going to get the Olympics, we’re not going to get the Fifa World Cup so that left the Tour de France – the world’s third biggest sporting event,” he said.

“It was then a case of would it work from a tourism point of view? Yes, because of the publicity. And cycling? Yes, because we have such a rich heritage from Brian Robinson to Mark Cavendish. The characteristics of the Tour – determination, perseverance, competitiveness and a sense of pride – are also the core values of Yorkshire.”

Mr Verity admits that winning the Tour was “the easy bit”, even if it was done on a shoestring and involved “borrowing planes” for trips to Paris to meet cycling’s top brass.

The greater challenge, he said, is the logistical one in working with the police, local authorities and hotels to ensure that the 2014 Grand Départ is an unrivalled success.

Yet those steeped in cycling folklore have no doubts. Sheffield road racer Malcolm Elliott, a double gold medallist at the 1982 Commonwealth Games, said: “This is going to be an unforgettable experience for Yorkshire – the sheer scale of the Tour de France cannot be overestimated. During my career the concept of the Tour coming to Yorkshire seemed so impossibly unlikely.”

It is a view shared by Robinson, the 82-year-old Tour veteran who still cycles up to 50 miles every Wednesday and Saturday. He has been among those showing organisers possible climbs and is convinced that locations like Tan Hill on the peak of the Pennine Way in North Yorkshire will be a gruelling test, even if it does not compare with the traditional mountain stages in the Alps.

Other hill climbs could include Holme Moss – Robinson’s home patch – and Blackstone Edge which straddles West Yorkshire’s border with Lancashire. Both are amongst the 10 favourite descents listed by Sir Chris Hoy, the six-time Olympic track gold medallist.

The popular Sutton Bank, the 978 foot high point of the Hambleton hills, could also feature if one of the stages takes in York and Scarborough.

“It is the biggest and greatest sporting event in the world because of its duration – three weeks – and the number of spectators,” said Robinson.

“Cycling, all you need is a bicycle and some energy. To think I was there when it started, the first Briton to win a stage. I don’t think Yorkshire realises how big this will be.”