Le Grand return for Yorkshire’s man of the moment

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It was the scene of one of the Grand Départ’s greatest images. Now the man who brought the Tour to Yorkshire returns to Buttertubs Pass to reflect on two incredible days in the county’s history. Sarah Freeman reports.

We’re standing on Buttertubs Pass and Gary Verity can’t resist indulging in his new favourite pastime. Spotting car registration plates.

It’s not quite as banal as it sounds. The chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire is not bothered about the model and he’s unconcerned by the year. In fact the only thing he’s interested in is the country.

“Did you see that one, where was that one from?” he says, stood on a rocky outcrop with views over the valley to Hawes. On hearing it belonged to a Dutch vehicle he allows himself a wry smile.

It was Verity who persuaded the Tour de France directors to reject the Government-backed bid to take the Grand Départ to Scotland in favour of Yorkshire and the result was a two-day long advertisement for the county, which is hoped will lure more international visitors to the north.

It’s the first time he’s been back up to Buttertubs Pass – a half hour or so drive from his sheep farm in Coverdale – since the race. As the riders squeezed through the thousands gathered on the hillside since dawn, this normally deserted stretch of the Dales was among the highlights of stage one. Verity viewed it all through a car window. Motoring along ahead of the peloton there wasn’t time to take in the man who’d come dressed as a piece of brie or another dressed less obviously as a cow.

“I wonder how long that will be there for?” he asks, pointing to one of the many messages daubed across the freshly tarmaced road. It reads: ‘Ou est Wiggo?’. “It feels a little surreal standing here now. The landscape was totally transformed that day. Take away those huge crowds of people and it somehow becomes impossible to spot any of the usual landmarks. I haven’t had time to watch the television footage yet, but I will. People tell me that Yorkshire looked beautiful and hopefully we have uncovered a hidden gem for people abroad.”

Perhaps it’s something to do with Verity being that combination of North Yorkshire farmer and steely businessman, but he is not prone to public displays of emotion. Or at least he wasn’t until he was introduced on stage at the First Direct Arena in Leeds to a standing ovation as part of the team presentation. That was on the Thursday evening and he admits now that throughout the weekend there were a number of lump in the throat moments.

“I’m used to giving speeches and it’s nice to get some applause at the end which thankfully happens quite often. But I wasn’t expecting that and if I’m honest I wasn’t sure quite how to respond. I knew I had to give a good speech. The cameras were there for ITV and we only had one hour and 40 minutes. There was no second chances, but what do you do? Tell people to be quiet?”

Verity says he always knew that Yorkshire would back the Grand Départ, but then he’s not given much to self-doubt. In the run up to the event he refused to lose sleep over those who dared to moan about the pressure on council budgets or who complained about closures and diversions along the route as potholes were filled and roads resurfaced. Having been to various stages in France, he knew just how big the event could be for Yorkshire.

“In the past we have lacked belief. I hope the Tour changed that. I hope it showed us that when we unite we can be the best in the world. That kind of attitudinal shift doesn’t happen overnight, but it was about showing people the art of the possible. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that someone, somewhere in Yorkshire is now setting up a world class business and when they’re asked why they started it they’ll say they were inspired by the Tour de France.”

As well as being the public face of the Grand Départ, bringing the world’s greatest cycle race to Yorkshire has also been something of a personal journey for Verity. Before bidding for the Tour the last time he’d been on a bike was as a child. Now he’s a seasoned cyclist. A few weeks before the race he rode the first stage and the day before we meet he’d joined the likes of Froome of Cavendish by crashing out at the end of one of his now regular 30-odd mile rides around the Dales.

“We’d just got back into the village and decided to call into see one of our neighbours. Unfortunately I stopped without unclipping, hit the pavement and this is the result,” he says, turning over his hand to show a palm which has turned a shade of deep purple. “When we got the Grand Départ I said to myself that I would ride stage one and I knew that I couldn’t do it without a bit of training. That’s how it started. It was a challenge, but now I do it for fun. Cycling gets you like that.”

Five million people lined the roads to see the Tour pass through Yorkshire. There were no arrests, no major incidents and when the sun broke through the clouds on Saturday after the previous day’s rain, some suspected that Verity might have a hotline to some higher power.

“The weather was never in doubt,” he says with absolute certainty. “You know in the last 12 months the Met Office forecasts were 48 per cent accurate, which means they got more wrong than they got right. I’m a farmer and you get to know more than looking at the clouds than you ever do consulting an official forecast. In the week before everyone was saying it was going to be a bit of mixed bag, but I reckon it’s better to have a poor forecast and it gets better than being told it’s going to be gloriously sunny and then it tips it down.

“However, it was quite extraordinary that for those two days the race seemed to exist under a beam of sunlight. I saw Marcel Kittel after he won the third stage from Cambridge to London. I asked him how he was and he said, ‘Well, I’m OK, but Gary, today it rained’. I told him it showed God has a sense of humour.”

On the way back from Buttertubs we take a quick diversion through Hawes. As the highest market town in England, it embraced the red polka dots of the Tour’s King of the Mountain jersey. Shops and business are still covered in them and just down the road yellow bikes, which became one of the Grand Départ’s most famous images, are still hanging from dry stone walls, next to the hay bales which were turned into giant Wensleydale cheeses.

“Someone asked me if we had a team of people going out placing yellow bicycles and bunting around the county. There wasn’t anything like that, it just happened. Eighteen months before we ran a series of roadshows to tell people how they could be a part of the event. We might have sowed the seeds, but the response from towns and villages was authentic and genuine and I think it actually shamed some councils into getting their act together.

“That, I think, was the difference. As we moved down to Cambridge the crowds were still good, but up here there were more people dressed in yellow, more people kitted out in polka dots. Basically we went more bonkers. Down south the crowd didn’t roar, instead it clapped politely.”

Verity has lived and breathed the Tour de France for the last four years. In fact so all consuming was it that he barely took a break even when he had to undergo heart surgery last September. At the time he tweeted, ‘Minor op needed 2 get ticker back on track...normal service will be resumed shortly (I’m assured) !’ and while his doctors might have advised complete bed rest, switching off is not something which comes easily.

“I did email Christian,” he says, referring to Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme. “I told him that I was having surgery and might have to cancel a meeting, but if we did I wasn’t sure when we would be able to reschedule. Instead of me going to Paris, they came to Yorkshire. In fact the only thing I missed because of the op was one board meeting.”

He admits getting the various local authorities to work together “had its moments” and securing the services of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as well as Prince Harry was similarly fraught. He won’t say what it took to get the trio to Yorkshire, but the look in his eye suggests that along with his soul, the Royal household may now also own a chunk of Swaledale.

“It was all worth it. The Mayor of Utrecht was at Harewood House on day one. The Grand Départ goes there next year and at one point he turned to me to say, ‘So not only do we have to stage an opening ceremony and organise an arts festival, but we’ve got to get some members of the Royal Family to the start’. Just as he said that, the Red Arrows flew over head. With his head not quite in his hands, he said ‘and now we’ve got to find an aerobatic display team...’.” The official plaudits, which came thick and fast that weekend, were gratefully received, as too have the sacks of fan mail.

Back at his farmhouse Gary finds another one in the pile of that day’s post. “I think I’ve probably shaken more hands in the last couple of weeks than I have the rest of my life,” he says. “I’ve had emails and texts and thank you letters, most from people I’ve never met telling me how good the Tour was for them. What can I say, except it’s been pretty humbling.”

• Keep an eye out for The Yorkshire Post’s 64-page souvenir magazine, featuring images from the Grand Départ, which is due out later this month.