Tour de France in Yorkshire Revisited

It’s almost a year since the Tour de France visited Yorkshire and during that time I have often looked at the photos I took and wondered whether any of them were worth publishing. At the recent Tour de Yorkshire as my friend and I were waiting on the Cow and Calf in Ilkley I said that I had two pictures in particular which I really liked but which I have never been able to post-process to my satisfaction. This conversation prompted me to have another look.

The Tour de France coming to Yorkshire was a huge event, not just for cycling and for Yorkshire but for me personally as I have been a cycling fanatic for the last fifteen years or so. So when it was announced that Le Grand Depart would take place in Leeds and that the best riders in the world would spend the next two days racing on the roads I have often pedalled along I was ecstatic. The route didn’t come through my home town of Bingley but on both days it came within five miles of home and so my thoughts immediately turned to where I could go and watch the race.

I had already had the chance to see a few of Team Sky’s riders, including Chris Froome, tackle the route of Stage 2 when they did a reconnaissance back in May (have a look at my previous post to see a few pictures) but this was at short notice whereas for the real thing we would need to make some serious plans.

As the weekend of the race came ever nearer though some doubts began to creep in for a number of reasons. Firstly I knew that hundreds of thousands or even millions of people would be descending on Yorkshire, that each day would involve hours and hours of standing by the roadside, and that because of the road closures and the vast numbers of people there would be travel chaos. My wife and I could cope with all of this but what about our two five year old boys? How on earth could we keep them interested and happy all day long? What if the weather did us no favours?

The second reason I was a bit apprehensive about the whole weekend was that I didn’t want it to be an anti-climax. I had spent the last fifteen July’s avidly watching the Tour on television*. From the comfort of my sofa I always got unrestricted spectacular views of the race, whether the camera shot was from any of the helicopters or from a motorbike a few metres in front of the cyclists I was always able to see exactly what was going on, who was where, who was looking good and who was struggling. As a roadside spectator I knew I would spend hours waiting to see the peleton flash past in a matter of seconds.

My two main interests are cycling and photography so the third reason I had some misgivings about the race is that I knew that it would be very unlikely that I would be able to get any decent photographs. The crowds would just be too big, the riders going too fast, and my attention would also need to be on my kids.

A couple of days before the first stage as the media excitement and publicity really kicked in my wife and I even considered getting away from Yorkshire and missing the event completely. After a lot of thought we decided that we couldn’t turn our backs on a once in a lifetime opportunity – the biggest annual sporting event in the world passing our doorstep. If the weather was crap, if we had to stand for hours, if we saw nothing, if our boys were bored and irritable so be it – the Tour was coming!

So the question was then “Where are we going to go on each day and how are we going to get there and back?”. We quickly came to conclusion that driving anywhere was going to be a non-starter – we could see from the local council’s websites that the roads were going to be closed from 5am and not re-opened until a few hours after the race passed. Parking anywhere within a few miles of the route would be a real headache. That left public transport which restricted our options of where to go and was likely to be a nightmare of queueing and jostling.

Stage 1 – Leeds to Harrogate

For the first day serious consideration was given to going to see the ceremonial send off in Leeds city centre but in the end we decided to go to Skipton as we felt we had a better chance of actually seeing something.

Tour de France 1
Le Tour de France enters Skipton – click to enlarge

So off we went on a bright, warm summer’s morning down to Bingley train station for the short journey to Skipton. Extra trains had been put on so we didn’t have long to wait and, though the train was busy, we all got a seat. On arrival in Skipton mid-morning the party atmosphere was apparent and the crowds were already building. Since the race route went through the town centre all the roads, including those leading to the town centre, were already closed and the thousands of people already there could wander along without worrying about any traffic. The church at the top of the market place was draped in a yellow jersey, barriers lined the roads, and even four hours before the arrival of the race the crowds were three deep. Just around the corner from the market place however the crowds thinned and we were able to lay our picnic blanket on the pavement right next to the barriers and await the coming of the publicity caravan and the race.

The publicity caravan is an event in itself which manages to get the crowd whipped up into a frenzy. Who would have thought that thousands of grown men, women and children would desperately lean over barriers pleading with the passengers of strangely shaped garish vehicles to throw a cheap plastic object in their general direction. Is that a bundle of ten pound notes which people are scrabbling on the ground for? No, it is a packet of Haribo sweets or a cheap pen advertising a French supermarket. Who cares what the object being thrown actually is? It is great fun.

As the race gets nearer the number of official race vehicles and police motorbikes increases – each getting a cheer and a wave from every spectator. The police motorcyclists join in with the party atmosphere by beeping their horns, sounding their sirens, and high-fiving the crowd as they pass by. Then we see the helicopters and the excitement steps up another level.

The helicopters hover overhead and a convoy of police motorbikes and official race vehicles appear then suddenly there they are! Three riders – Nicolas Edet, Benoit Jarrier, and Jens “Shut up legs” Voigt – have escaped the clutches of the peleton and the roar from the crowd follows them along the street. A few minutes later the main bunch turns the corner and flash past in a sea of colour. One of my sons turns to me with a puzzled expression on his face and asks “Is that it?”. Well yes, but even he had to agree it was great.

So now the vast crowd begins to move off to try and get home. We anticipate huge queues and travel chaos but no, we get to the train station and there are three orderly queues – one for trains to Leeds, one for trains to Bradford, and one for trains further into the Dales. The organisers are giving out free bottles of water to anyone with kids and because extra trains have been put on we wait for five minutes and then get straight onto the next train. Within the hour we are back home!

I turn on the TV just in time to see the riders climb Buttertubs Pass (or the Cote de Buttertubs as it has been named by the race). I was looking forward to seeing this as we had driven up there a few months before and thought that it would come as a big shock to the riders on this supposedly “flat” stage. The real shock though was number of people who had somehow made it to this remote part of Yorkshire. When the Tour de France in Yorkshire is mentioned by anyone the image that springs to mind is of the crowded roadside on Buttertubs Pass, the TV camera pulls back to reveal the whole hillside jam packed with spectators. Unbelievable! Of course it was a shame that Mark Cavendish crashed in the sprint to the line in Harrogate but Marcel Kittel was a worthy winner on a great day for Yorkshire.

Stage 2 – York to Sheffield

As soon as the route for Stage 2 was announced I had an exact spot in mind which would let us see the peleton coming for more than just a few seconds and at which point they would be going relatively slowly. Bridgehouse Lane in Haworth is a really steep and fairly straight road at the top of which the riders would take a sharp right turn onto the famous cobbled hill of Haworth Main Street. The problem was that Haworth is a well known tourist attraction which attracts crowds of people throughout the year anyway – how busy would it be for the Tour de France and if I thought that particular spot would be good how many other people would have the same idea?

We were joined by our good friends and their son (who is best mates with our sons) and the first obstacle to overcome was how to get to Haworth and back. The public transport on the previous day had been fantastic and today turned out to be just as well organised. A half-hourly shuttle bus had been put on from Bingley train station to Oxenhope which only left us with a short walk at either end. You could tell this was going to be a good day from the attitude of the bus driver. “How old are are the kids?” he asked. “Two of them are five and one of them is four” we replied. “Four years old and under are free. Are you sure they are not all four years old?”. “Errr yes, my mistake they are all four”. “In which case they all travel for free!”. That was nice.

Tour de France 2
Bored of Le Tour de France in Haworth – click to enlarge

One short bus ride and a short walk later and we were in place at the top of Bridgehouse Lane. The day was still early and even though it was busy we were able to lay our picnic blanket out on the grass verge and take our positions with a clear view all the way down the hill. Beer, bacon butties, snacks and toilets were all a short walk away. The perfect spot!

The party atmosphere was building – policemen jokingly handcuffed our kids, spectators dressed as stereotypical Frenchmen with onions round their necks, and every cyclist coming up the hill (especially the youngsters) were loudly cheered by the thousands lining the pavement. As per the previous day the publicity caravan preceded the riders but today we were far more successful. Because we were just before the sharp turn onto the narrow cobbles all the cars had to slow to a crawl right in front of us meaning we were in range of many more fantastically crap promotional items. Stickers, pens, drinks containing lethal doses of artificial colourings, they all came our way. The real prize though amongst the advertising projectiles were polka dot caps and we managed to score a hat-trick to cover the heads of our three lads.

Tour de France 3
Tour de France 3 – click to enlarge

As with the previous day an early break has succeeded in getting away from the peleton and the riders seemingly glided up the hill which would have had me gasping for breath. The main bunch were only a few minutes behind and looked to be finding the steep hill equally unchallenging though they were going slow enough to let us get a good look as they passed by and turned onto the cobbles.

After a beer or glass of wine in the park to give the crowd a chance dissipate we caught the bus back to Bingley and were kindly invited into our friend’s parent’s house to watch the main contenders fight it out on Sheffield’s Jenkin Road. Contador and Froome matched each other’s attacks but let Vicenzo Nibali go to take a lead he would never relinquish.

And so the Tour de France gave us (and Yorkshire) a couple of days that we will never forget. Equally I am really proud that Yorkshire provided the Tour de France with a couple of days it will never forget. Vive le Tour!

* Actually that is not true, when the Tour visited London in 2007 was I there? No. Was I watching it on telly? No. I was getting married that day in Yorkshire and missed it all but what better reason could I have?

A few notes about the photographs in this post

I mentioned at the start of this post that I have been mulling over these pictures for a while. The first picture of the peleton entering Skipton is the only sharp shot over the riders I was able to get all weekend. Holding a SLR at arms length and pointing it in the general direction of the subject is not the most reliable of methods. However just because a shot is sharp does not make it particularly interesting and so I wanted to somehow make it more striking, hopefully you will agree that I have achieved that.

I love the photos of my boys and their best friend taken on the second day but since they were taken I have tried to post-process them a few times but never to my satisfaction. I don’t remember taking the first shot but we must have suggested it to the boys because at no point were they bored! The second photo to me is timeless – three boys at the roadside wearing 70’s style polka dot caps – and so I “Instagrammed” the shot by desaturating it and adding a vignette. I think it works well.

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