I KNEW very little about the Tour de France just a couple of years ago. I’m the first to admit that. Now, of course, I like to claim that I’m a world expert. I expect there are quite a few people like me in Yorkshire. The arrival of the biggest annual sporting event in the world has caught people’s imagination here in a very special way.
It all began for me on a summer evening in 2012 when a helicopter carrying Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme and Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive Gary Verity landed in front of Harewood House. They had been touring Yorkshire, looking at potential routes and discussing logistics. It seemed that the Tour bosses were impressed.
A group of carefully selected guests were at Harewood that evening for a dinner cooked by Michelin-starred chef Simon Gueller from the Box Tree in Ilkley, by happy coincidence a big cycling enthusiast himself. The dinner was, if you’ll excuse the gastronomic pun, the icing on the cake.
In the race to stage the Grand Départ, Yorkshire had moved from rank outsider to serious contender and we learned later in the year that we had won. I was also told, unofficially at first, that the Tour organisers were keen that the race should come past Harewood House.
I realised that if I was going to live up to my claims to be an expert, it was probably a good idea to have actually seen the race. So, on a baking hot July day last summer, I caught the train to Montpellier in southern France.
It seemed the town was in a particularly welcoming mood. My taxi driver congratulated me on my schoolboy French, something that had never happened to me before. Who said the French couldn’t be charming about English people trying to speak their language?
Montpellier was a good place to witness the Tour because it had a finish and a start in the same town so the whole Welcome to Yorkshire delegation were able to get a feeling for the race’s unique mixture of supreme sporting endeavour and relaxed and accessible theatricality.
I was a few yards from the finish line for the sprint finish – stunned by the speed and kinetic force of the peleton on the home straight, astonished by the armada of outside broadcast trucks, thrilled by the enthusiasm of the crowds.
The next morning those same super-charged athletes were chatting amiably to their fans as their crews prepared for the next day, before pedalling slowly to the start point in Montpellier’s handsome town square, then cycling through the narrow streets of the town’s old quarter and out into the countryside where the real racing would begin.
Today, I will be outside Harewood House for the official ceremonial start, part of the build up to when things start to get properly competitive out on the Otley Road, the Harewood side of Arthington.
It’s a day we’ll be pulling all the stops out and putting on the best possible show. We’re honoured and delighted that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince Harry, are here to oversee the ceremonial start.
We have The Royal Engineers regimental band playing the English and French national anthems; we have a flypast by the Red Arrows; we have a huge sculpture by one of Yorkshire’s finest artists, Henry Moore, right outside the House.
We’re expecting a huge crowd, both to watch the race and to attend our Dare 2 Be Festival of Cycling, with camping, shopping, entertainment and participatory cycle activities for riders of every level.
The idea is to get people to do what they do in France: make a weekend of it, have a party, enjoy the occasion with friends and family. We’ve put down new Tarmac, mowed the fields and taken down the fences in the Capability Brown landscape.
For us and for the whole of Yorkshire, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to show our county off to its best advantage, to demonstrate our hospitality as well as our spectacular landscapes and rich history, both urban and rural.
We want to make sure that our many thousands of first-time visitors have a weekend they will always remember, and that the many millions watching on TV get an impression they will never forget.
What we’re doing at Harewood is being echoed in different ways throughout the county. Take the Yorkshire Festival for example, a great sprawling celebration of the arts that has been going on across Yorkshire for the last 100 days.
One of its themes is Animating the Route and work has been commissioned that does just that: Thomas Houseago’s dramatic sculpture on the Headrow in Leeds looming over the start line; Fields of Vision’s 10 new pieces of land art on sites from Blubberhouses to Ripponden, where you’ll find two new works by internationally acclaimed artist Imran Qureshi; Hypervelocity giving us a blaze of banners on Holme Moss and a pop-up French farm in the middle of Huddersfield; Cassandra Kilbride and a host of volunteers (I love it that they’ve called themselves The Happy Hookers) crocheting The Woolly Bike Trail, woolly bikes with a Yorkshire theme all on display in Sheffield this weekend.
Many communities along the route are staging their own events, inspired directly or indirectly by the Tour. All these commissions and more will have a life way beyond the race – permanent art works, educational projects, new plays and films – but just as important the festival has both encouraged new partnerships and collaborations, and generated a wonderful sense of inclusiveness at all the events that I’ve attended.
My experience has been that there is a tremendous positive energy about the Grand Départ in Yorkshire. If we can bottle that and take deep, refreshing draughts of it in the years to come – now that really would be a lasting legacy.
• David Lascelles is the Earl of Harewood.