This past weekend we enjoyed a ‘staycation’ here as the 2014 Tour de France began in Yorkshire, with police estimating some 2.5 million people lining the course. This start has been heralded as one of the best openings EVER, by the race director, who believes the attendance numbers to be more around 5 million.
What made for such a great beginning? There was years of planning by race organizers. A royal visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry to start the race AND award jerseys at the end of Stage 1 in Harrogate. And me cheering along the course! Yup, that’s the probably it 🙂
I will admit, going into this weekend I was a little bit apprehensive of how things would go. Over the past year, there has been tremendous build up to this event. The media focused a lot on how many visitors would come to the race and if they could all be accommodated. The town was covered in bunting. I even painted my nails.
A parking crisis was predicted, and signs went up prohibiting camping in the parks. To be honest, having not attended anything like this before I was expecting some sort of World War Z scenario of people cascading over our gates and into the courtyard.
In the end, it was not nearly as bad as I expected. In fact, on Friday evening before the race I started to think that turnout would be poor since town seemed dead. It was raining but when the Fan Park next to our house opened for the weekend it was pretty quite, and heading back to our house in the evening was no busier than any other Friday.
There were road closures, but all were announced ahead of time. Driving through the center of town was reported to be difficult (a friend that came from the States said that it took an hour and a half to get from one side of town to the other when he arrived on Thursday morning). And we did avoid eating in town, but otherwise not too many other inconveniences. But no zombies 😦
Friends of ours live on a road that intersects with the course, 1km from the finish line in Harrogate. So on Saturday July 5th they were kind enough to host a cookout for a bunch of us before we headed down to watch the race. Because Harrogate hadn’t seemed that busy on Thursday and Friday; Hubs and I decided to walk to our friends’ house the long way (around the Fan Park and through the finishing line). That is when we started to see the enormity of the event. Right in the center of town they weren’t letting people walk in the roads, which squeezed everyone on to the sidewalks, which also contained grandstands, merchandise kiosks, and the Cono Sur Vineyards wine tasting tent. What is normally a 20 minute walk took us a little over and hour.
There is a parade of the Tour de France sponsors that goes along the course in advance of the riders throwing out merchandise. Our whole group got ‘King of the Mountain’ hats (white with red polka dots) from the French supermarket Carrefour. Other items caught were a British cycling slap bracelet and an Ibis hotels inflatable pillow.
We had front row seats thanks to a friend who set up chairs for us at 9:30am, while we ferried food from the cookout down to him. Spectators started to arrive in larger numbers around 1pm, and by 1:30 we got the call saying we needed to come down in order to keep our spots.
The peloton raced by us around 3:20, with the stragglers finishing up by 3:45. So it isn’t a lengthy spectator event. Most of the sprinting started after our position. And sadly, British rider Mark Cavendish (whose mother is from Harrogate, and grandparents and uncle still live here) had a nasty fall in that last kilometer, and is out for the entire Tour de France.
After the last chase car went by the spectators scattered pretty quickly and we headed back to continue the cookout. We had recorded the TV coverage of the race, and when got back to the house cued that up. Seeing the coverage on TV made me glad we didn’t try to watch from the finish line. It was incredibly packed, and I doubt we would have been able to see anything unless we had gotten there before 10am. The Fan Park, which showed the race on two jumbo trons, was packed. I was glad to be at my cookout.
The ‘Tour’ passed back through Harrogate the next day on Sunday July 6th, around noon. And our plans for watching the race were a little less formal. Again, being worried about parking, we made a 2 mile hike to a roundabout outside of town. At the roundabout is a restaurant that our friends were able to park at since they needed to catch a plane in Manchester later in the day. Being a little bit out of town definitely eased the congestion along the course. And again the crowd cleared out very quickly after the racers came through. We only had about a 20 minute wait at the restaurant for lunch afterwards.
That afternoon I swung back by the Fan Park, which was set up for the whole weekend and when the race wasn’t going on featured Wimbeldon matches, had bands, and showed films. By Sunday afternoon it was mostly empty, and some of the vendors had gone. But it was a relaxing time and the sun was shining. Plus, they were giving away free samples of Foster’s Radler!
The Tour coming to town made for a great weekend, but I still don’t think it is an event I’d travel to see. The part you actually see is fairly short; and while there is a certain ‘tailgating’ aspect in waiting for the race to arrive that I can appreciate, it is still pretty crowded. Large numbers of people competing for a limited amount of space doesn’t always bring out the best in humanity.