Memories to treasure as Grand Depart is celebrated

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Drive up from Lower Bradfield to the north of Sheffield on the route of the second stage of this year’s Tour de France, and the memories come flooding back.

The surge of adrenalin, the clenched teeth, the urging and the straining – and that was just the thousands of spectators.

The peleton on stage two of the Tour de France, climb the steepest part of Jenkin Road in Sheffield. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

The peleton on stage two of the Tour de France, climb the steepest part of Jenkin Road in Sheffield. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

They had it easy. The sporting occasion of a lifetime was right here on our very own country roads and urban streets.

People craning necks to get a view point, enthusiastic punters spilling on to the road to get up close and occasionally too personal with the most famous peloton in the world.

It looked like a scene from Mont Ventoux in the third week of the race, not rural Sheffield on day two of the Tour de France.

Yet it was a picture echoed throughout the county on a never-to-be-forgotten weekend when the sun shone, the riders excelled and Yorkshire dominated the headlines.

And the chalk markings still visible in Bradfield and on Jawbone Hill, on Buttertubs Pass and Holme Moss merely help bring those memories to life.

“Allez Froome” and “Go Cav”; messages of support that take us back to that golden period, when the anticipation crackled and the occasion delivered.

The expectation had grown rapidly in the days and weeks leading up to the Grand Depart.

World Tour teams paid their respect to the two stages in Yorkshire by coming over as early as April to reconnoitre the route.

Giant-Shimano were the first team to visit, with sprint king Marcel Kittel and his shock of blonde hair attracting the most attention.

Team Sky quickly followed; Chris Froome bringing super domestique Richie Porte to scope the best places to attack and defend over the 390 kilometres of uncharted Yorkshire terrain.

Mark Cavendish’s visit was top secret – until he got lost in Leyburn and had to ask a couple of awe-struck schoolboys for directions.

By the start of July, the 22 teams that make up a Tour de France peloton were arriving in Yorkshire. Team Sky bivouaced themselves at Rudding Park and immediately made their presence felt.

As Britain’s leading team, they wholeheartedly embraced their role as ambassadors for their sport.

One story is of a young weekly newspaper reporter turning up to the Sky base to get a quote from a member of the team.

A bald-headed chap came out to meet them and gave them 10 minutes of his time, waxing lyrical about the welcome they had received and Yorkshire’s cycling heritage.

It was Sir Dave Brailsford.

Over in Leeds, the city was gripped by Tour de France fever. The media centre by the train station was a hub for thousands of journalists from across the world, all dispatching to their audience a flavour of the impending Grand Depart in Yorkshire.

Anticipation had reached fever pitch by the morning of the Grand Depart. Leeds was alive with noise and colour. The train station heaved with people spilling into the city.

The crowds that lined The Headrow to see the 198 riders turn their wheels for the first time at the start of the epic three-week journey, were dozens-deep.

If you couldn’t get a view there, a walk around the team buses, where the likes of Froome, Cadel Evans and Alberto Contador happily signed autographs and posed for pictures, gave you an interaction with the leading stars that few sports offer.

After the rollout from Leeds, the peloton beat a path to Harewood House for the official start in front of Princes William and Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge.

With the race underway, it was a question of who would be first up the Frenchified big climbs of Cote de Cray and Cote de Buttertubs. Jens Voigt, at 42 the elder statesmen of the peloton, raced ahead into the polka-dot jersey for the mountains classification and into Yorkshire’s hearts as our King of the Dales.

Stage one, though, would always be decided on the sprint into Harrogate; one destined for Cavendish given it was the home town of his mother Adele.

But as well as colour and glory, Yorkshire’s Tour de France produced high drama as Cavendish crashed to the tarmac of Parliament Street and out of the race.

Kittel rewarded Giant-Shimano for their preparation by sprinting to a memorable victory.

Day two was no less eventful as the peloton breezed past the historic landmarks of York and back into rural Yorkshire.

Cyril Lemoine, an unheralded Frenchman riding for Cofidis, ripped the polka-dot jersey from Voigt’s grasp with thrilling rides up Blubberhouses, Ripponden and Cote de Greetland, but as the afternoon wore on the best was yet to come.

The leading general classification teams had spoken in the build-up of Jenkin Road – that 800-metre climb through the industrial heartland of Sheffield with a mighty 33 per cent gradient – as a sting in the tail five kilometres from home.

Respect was the pre-race rhetoric, but when the moment came, all the big names were there. Froome, Contador, and Vincenzo Nibali took turns attacking and retaliating. It was a classic baring of teeth. At one stage with Contador out of his saddle off the front, it looked as if the leading riders would grind to a halt on the sheer incline.

Froome laid down a marker with a final attack before Nibali swept ahead to claim a stage win that laid the foundations for his 2014 Tour de France victory.

Kittel and Nibali were worthy winners of stages that will live long in Tour de France folklore, and even longer in the rich history of this great county.

The chalk drawings might be fading but the memories will last the test of time.