“it’s cool riding here.”
Dutchman Moreno Hofland will long remember the second stage of the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire after emerging from the pack to win in front of a huge crowd along York’s Knavesmire, where spectators are more used to horsepower than pedal power.
The middle day of the three-stage event, a largely flat 174 kilometre slog from Selby to York, was designed to produce a bunch sprint and it did not disappoint, most of the pack finishing together after a brave 167-km breakaway had been overhauled almost within sight of the line.
Hofland rides for the LottoNL-Jumbo team and they hit the jackpot with their first victory of the season. But once again the big winners were the tour organisers, whose vision was rewarded as an estimated 450,000 spectators braved grey skies and a bitterly cold wind to line the route.
“It’s not normal,” was Hofland’s reaction to the huge crowds, reviving memories of the second stage of the Tour de France, which started at York Racecourse and covered some of the same roads, in the opposite direction, 10 months ago.
“On roads through villages there were people three or four rows deep. It was really cool to ride here.”
For Rotherham’s Russell Downing, racing in front of such a massive audience so close to home was a dream come true.
He wasn’t far off turning it into a fairytale, crossing the line in seventh place after a fine ride by his team Cult Energy Pro Cycling.
“It was good,” he said of the day’s ride.
“The boys did a great job sitting on the front, bringing the breakaway back.
“We knew it was going to be a bunch sprint and I was feeling good.
“I just lost a few places and got pinned on the barriers so I had to come from far back.
“I didn’t quite make top-three, but it wasn’t bad.”
Downing described the crowds on stage two as “just unbelievable”. “Through the towns it was just crazy,” he said.
“Even in the middle of nowhere, where you don’t think there’s going to be anybody, there’s people blocking traffic islands and everything – it’s amazing.”
The Tour de Yorkshire was introduced into the calendar to build on the incredible success of last year’s Tour de France Grand Depart.
And Downing can only see it going from strength to strength. He added: “It’s on par with last year, we are only going to go forward now.”
Continental teams tend to regard British roads as easy.
But according to Downing – whose team is Danish – that perception has already been changed.
A tough opening stage was a shock to the system and robbed the race of several of its favourites, including Marcel Kittel – who won in Harrogate last July – and home star Ben Swift.
“People didn’t know how hard the first day was going to be,” said Downing. “They knew the third day would be. I think they (overseas riders) were surprised on the first day. I had a few messages from people asking ‘what gears do we need’?
“I said ‘I’m not telling you’.”
The most aggressive rider was Mark McNally, who was among an 18-strong group which broke away just five kilometres into the stage. The attack was gradually reduced in number until only McNally and Bert De Backer remained out in front as the race reached York.
McNally eventually cracked on the final circuit and De Backer attempted to time-trial to the finish, only to be overhauled with less than two kilometres remaining.
It wasn’t just the men who wowed the crowds in York. The finale of the Tour de Yorkshire’s second stage was preceded by a women’s race which attracted an 87-strong field, from top club riders to elite professionals.
Among them was Paralympic legend Dame Sarah Storey, who rode strongly in support of Pearl Izumi Sports Tours International teammates Katie Curtis, third overall and sprints winner Katie Archibald.
“It was hard,” said Storey afterwards. “My role was to use my big engine to bring back any breaks and provide a platform for my team-mates who are more suited to this type of circuit.
“It was a good day for our team and having so many riders on the start says everything. The girls really enjoyed racing and to be able to race alongside the men is something that hasn’t really happened before.
“It’s a format that really works. I think Gary (Verity, head of Welcome to Yorkshire) and his team have got plans to make it bigger and better.
“We are really fortunate to be part of the first one and look forward to seeing it grow.”
The race was won, in a bunch sprint, by IKO-Mazda’s Louise Mahe, who just held off Eileen Roe, of Wiggle Honda, after four laps of a 20-kilometre course around the city centre.
“It was amazing,” said Mahe. “In every bit of the course there were people cheering; I was like ‘wow, this is quite cool’!
“It is a legacy of the Tour de France being here last year and I’d love to see it become an annual event. It can only go from strength to strength.”
That was echoed by Verity, who described the women’s race as “spectacular”.
He pledged: “We will grow the women’s Tour de Yorkshire year on year.”
Race director Marc Etches said: “Giving the riders the opportunity to race on this circuit in York, with the crowds and the atmosphere, was brilliant.
“It was a really special race for the women and let’s hope we can build the race in the years to come.”