FRANCE’S TOUR DE FRANCE CYCLE RACE:

(Here follows a Guest Post by Chris Aspinall) AMERICANS, it is said, cannot cope with the concept of cricket being a game that can last for five days. This week here in France, a single sporting event starts that lasts a month – and those competing don’t just appear for short periods, they’re putting their […]

(Here follows a Guest Post by Chris Aspinall)

Tour de France 2021 Route

AMERICANS, it is said, cannot cope with the concept of cricket being a game that can last for five days.

This week here in France, a single sporting event starts that lasts a month – and those competing don’t just appear for short periods, they’re putting their bodies almost every day, for several hours and in intense summer heat.

That event is the Tour de France, much-hyped as the world’s greatest cycle race.

This year, the first day – le Grand Départ – is in the Brittany city of Brest, close to Cape Finisterre.

The excitement and huge activity of this is familiar to Les Brestois – they have hosted le Grand Départ three times before – in 1952, 1974 and, most recently, in 2008.

From personal experience, it takes being close to Le Tour – and especially being near where le Grand Départ is being held for the first time – to appreciate the immensity of the event and its economic significance.

In July 2104, Le Grand Départ took place in Leeds.

Press Centre for Leeds Tour de France cc Chris Aspinall

The race had been attracted to Yorkshire by then tourism supreme Gary – later Sir Gary – Verity. He had apparently had the gall to invite Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme to make a visit.

Adopting the adage that the route to a Frenchman’s heart is through his stomach, Mr Verity arranged for Monsieur Prudhomme to flown by helicopter low over some of Yorkshire’s steepest country lanes, dramatic Dales, melodramatic moors and picturesque villages to his home.

There, dinner had been cooked by the county’s finest chefs, accompanied by good wine and what quickly became a successful sales pitch. Yes, Le Tour would come to Yorkshire – for two days. In July 2014.

Gary Verity had done his research. He knew what Le Tour could do for Yorkshire and Yorkshire tourism. Leeds would benefit hugely – as the Tour requires at least 1,200 hotel rooms a night – and people would be arriving well before the start.

Indeed, most of the teams – accompanied by cycling journalists and television crews from around the world – made research visits to the region in the months before the start, some expressing concerns about the potential dangers of the narrow country lanes.

Estimates at the time suggested that getting Le Tour to Yorkshire had cost between £6.5 million and £10 million – but would bring about £100 million into the region’s economy – and attract a worldwide television audience reckoned to be about 3.5 billion.

Being among the huge crowd in Leeds City Centre on Saturday July 5, 2014, was quite an experience.

I normally stay well clear of crowds but I walked the mile or so from home to the Headrow at about 7am and allowed the numbers to increase around me, a far less unsettling experiencing than confronting tens of thousands who have already congregated.

Every vantage point was taken. Radio and television crews were everywhere. An area set aside for the broadcasters was full of motorbikes, camera operators checking communications links with relay aircraft overhead and positioning themselves precariously on pillions.
The emotion of “the big day” – as it had finally arrived – was of immense joy. Shops closed to allow staff in the empty premises to join the throngs of spectators. As the peloton appeared from a holding area behind the Town Hall, one of four women standing on a raised bank a couple of metres away from me bent down and pulled a bottle of champagne and plastic flutes from her capacious handbag. She popped the cork as the first riders crossed the starting line, she and her friends toasting the cyclists on their way.
This year, I hope to see Le Tour for real for the first time since that glorious, joyous Saturday in July 2014, when stage 13, on Friday July 10, travels from Nîmes to Carcassonne.
This week, and probably several more times between now and then, I will indulge myself by sharing some memories and images of that summer of 2014.
Vivre Le Tour!

Chris Aspinall is a career journalist who moved from the U.K. to France’s Languedoc region in 2020. You can read his blog on https://indeepschiste.substack. com

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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