The punters are queuing out of the door and into the street at Gary Verity’s favoured London café, a traditional joint in the hinterland behind Victoria station. The tables are plain, the food proper, and the clientele, according to Verity, ranges from sparkies to cabinet ministers.
So far, so Verity. The man who brought the Tour de France to Yorkshire, delivering – and then some – on a bold pledge to stage “the grandest of Grand Départs”, is of many parts, variously farmer, businessman and tourism boss for Britain’s largest county. The last requires something of the social chameleon, one suspects, but on a bright spring morning over eggs and orange juice, we find him if not entirely off-message – he has a race to sell, after all – then at least in a relaxed environment; for once, not on a podium or waving from a publicity caravan.
Full disclosure: after the events of last July, anyone who cares about British cycle sport owes Verity a pint, in my opinion. When David Millar strode on to the stage at the Dave Rayner Fund’s twentieth anniversary dinner and interrupted Verity to demand that the room stand up and applaud his accomplishment with the Grand Départ, he judged the mood perfectly. The merits of an honours system are debatable, but while one exists, why on earth was Verity overlooked at the New Year? Many took to social media to make the point. Verity recalls the period as “slightly awkward”.
That was then. The three-day Tour de Yorkshire is only a fortnight away (May 1) and Verity is again immersed in the myriad duties that make a successful race. He was in Compiègne last weekend, cajoling the Dutch, French and German visitors to Paris-Roubaix to make the trip to Yorkshire, as they had done in their thousands for the Grand Départ. There have been countless meetings with local authorities and training sessions for the Tour Makers – the small army of volunteers who toil often far from the excitement of the race, but whose efforts ensure it is enjoyed by all.
Yorkshire and Verity will again be placed on their mettle. Was it the county and the organization that made the Grand Départ a success, or the Grand Départ? Take the world’s largest annual sporting event out of the equation, and can they still attract the best teams and riders, and thousands of spectators? Will the Tour de Yorkshire represent a difficult second album or continued success?
“We want to establish it as the best three or four-day race on the planet. We won’t do that in the first year. We might not be able to do that in the second year, but we should be able to do it. It would be great if two guys were sat in a cafe in central London discussing it in 50 years time, looking back and saying what have been the highs and the lows.
“We don’t just want to be here for the next five or ten years. We want to be here in perpetuity. So in the same way as we’ve mentioned the Ardennes Classics, which have been going for aeons, we want to do the same. Our stated aim is to make Yorkshire the European capital of cycling. You need to do a number of things in order for that to happen, and one of those is to have a race of this calibre, if not more, every year.”
The route will be critical. The parcours of the Grand Départ was spot on, especially stage two, which delivered on only the second day a denouement as thrilling as any on the cobbles or the high mountains that followed. Vincenzo Nibali’s stage victory in Sheffield brought an often cynical press room to its feet and set the tone for the Astana leader’s race-winning campaign.
Verity credits the ASO’s Thierry Gouvenou (“a genius”) with the success of the Grand Départ parcours and Gouvenou is the man behind the routes to be followed by the Tour de Yorkshire. They are merely scratching the county’s surface, Verity believes. He draws a culinary analogy: his team works with the local authorities to supply Gouvenou with the necessary ingredients, but it is the Frenchman who makes the meal.
The Yorkshire coast was notably absent from the Grand Départ – “too huge” for the opening stage, Verity explains, and the race headed south on stage two – but will be a key feature of stage one of the Tour de Yorkshire, which starts in Bridlington, but ends in Scarborough. “People say it’s a stage for the sprinters, but I’m not so sure that’s right. There’s 2,333m of climbs on day one. There are some lumps in there, but the finish is very flat, so we’ll see.”
Stage two, however, will be very much a sprinter’s benefit. The 174km run from Selby to York is almost entirely flat, with only 500m of climbing on the entire stage, which ends with two-and-a-half laps of a 20km circuit in York, to be used by a women’s race the same day.
Stage three will be the Tour de Yorkshire’s “homage to the Grand Départ”, containing a large chunk of the second stage of the French race, but taken in reverse. The stage begins in Wakefield and heads south through Barnsley before finishing in Leeds. It has hints of an Ardennes Classic, with six classified climbs.
Verity says the Tour de Yorkshire has followed the same modus operandi as the Grand Départ, prioritising route over riders; a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy that, unlike certain fledgling events, does not start with the star name the organisers hope to attract, and work backwards to the topography. To do so would be to risk disappointment and add an unnecessary element of confusion, he believes, offering the second stage of the Grand Départ in support of his argument.
“Christian [Prudhomme] and I were very clear that we wanted a stage that would make the GC contenders commit. So often, early in the Tour, if you’re a GC contender you can hide in the peloton until you get to the high mountains. We didn’t want that to happen. Last year was the first time since 1979 that the winner of the Tour won one of the opening stages, when Bernard Hinault did that in the Pyrenees. We’re not comparing stage two to the Pyrenees, but Nibali obviously went on to win. The winner of the Tour de France was made in Yorkshire.”
He describes Yorkshire’s new race as “a three-day race to rival the Classics”. The ProTeams are interested. BMC Racing and Giant-Alpecin are signed up. Marcel Kittel will seek further success in Yorkshire and Bradley Wiggins is slated to make his first outing in the colours of WIGGINS. The top domestic teams will attend too, including – after a rethink from the organisers – Raleigh and JLT-Condor.
Verity’s is a varied existence. A few days before our meeting, he was entertaining another Gary – Barlow – at the Calendar Girls musical in Burnsall. Cycling is far from the only item in Welcome To Yorkshire’s portfolio of events, but it is among the biggest, and Verity’s personal passion to boot. The sport is likely to remain at the centre of the county’s attractions for some time, if its inaugural tour is able to build on the success of the Grand Départ.