THIS has been Yorkshire’s big sporting weekend since 1977, when the World Snooker Championships shook off their spit and sawdust past and immersed themselves in the studied calm of Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.
But the county never gained much exposure from the annual showdown on the green baize. It existed in its own bubble and, save for the opening shot of the marquee on Norfolk Street, it could have been played out anywhere.
Four years ago, the decision to stage the Tour de Yorkshire on the same holiday weekend changed all that. Suddenly, sport was in the streets, where people could watch it for free – even if the thrill was over in 30 seconds. The TV cameras were focused now not on the micro-drama of players blowing the chalk off their cues, but on the magnificent scenery that had been their backdrop all along.
The race enters its penultimate stage today, up the coast from Bridlington to Whitby and back down to the finish line at Scarborough. Can there be a better place to spend a Bank Holiday?
Yet there is a different feel to it this time. The wheels came off the tourism bandwagon in March when Welcome to Yorkshire’s charismatic impresario, Sir Gary Verity, left under a cloud, and the upheaval left some wondering if his creation was the unmitigated triumph they had supposed.
That part of the storm will soon blow over. The Tour de Yorkshire is a free show on a grand scale, and there is little not to like about that. It is also an unprecedented shop window for our holidaymaking real estate.
But the cyclists themselves are riding into a bigger windstorm. We learned just before Christmas that the broadcaster Sky was dropping its sponsorship of the British team, leaving it in search of a new investor.
Team Sky had achieved unparalleled success but it had also ridden a rollercoaster of scandal. MPs had declared it had unethically justified the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
However, the arrival of its new sponsor has taken it to another level of controversy. Team Ineos, as it is now known, stands accused of letting down supporters by taking money from a company that wants to frack for shale gas across swathes of Yorkshire.
Ineos is owned by the industrialist Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who is Britain’s richest man and a hate figure among environmentalists opposed to fracking. The opening stages of the race saw protestors along the route brandishing his name on placards, and officials had to keep the location of Wednesday’s team launch a secret, in case they turned up there, too.
At the root of the anger is the issue of whether fracking – drilling down into the earth to recover gas and oil from shale rock – is potentially harmful. Reserves of shale gas have been identified across large parts of the North, including the North York Moors, and those behind the applications say the process could contribute significantly to the UK’s future energy needs and create thousands of jobs.
But the environmental and geological cost of this is unclear, and the fact that it is done at scale in America impresses no-one. The US, especially under its current leadership, has ceased to be an exemplar for anything.
The scene for this year’s race was set last weekend when the Government’s shale gas commissioner, Natascha Engel, resigned after only six months in the job. Policy, she complained, was being driven by lobbyists and not science.
She lit a fire that is burning around the Tour de Yorkshire this weekend. It has become a lightning rod for protests, and will continue to be for as long as the Ineos name appears on the cyclists’ jerseys.
Yorkshire’s reputation as a home for international cycling has been built on the enthusiastic and genuine welcome it has given its visiting competitors. The spectators whom the cameras have picked out along the route have been ambassadors for the county.
But those lines of flag-wavers are now politically charged, and it will be an own goal for the protestors if their presence appears to dilute their essential good nature.
As for Ineos, a crass PR attempt to buy itself a new image may succeed only in making it less welcome in Yorkshire than it was already.
It might, as the commentator at the Crucible might say, have snookered itself.