A WING AND A PRAYER
Driving the course ahead of the race is one of the perks of our job. Most journalists would have taken a straight half-hour run up the A61 on the opening stage from Leeds to Harrogate and positioned themselves in the pressroom in good time to catch the action on television from the midday start. Capturing the madness of the Yorkshire Dales was more my bag, and there was plenty of madness to be had.
The entire route was rammed, hours before even the publicity caravan was due to jingle and parp its way past. We reached the finish line relieved not to have taken out any wayward spectators, my head pounding from the intensity of concentrating every step of the way. It was a terrifying 190kms, truth be told.
Small children, backs to the oncoming traffic, crouched in the middle of the road, chalking slogans on the tarmac. A gentle beep or two on the horn: no reaction. A lengthy blast: their heads craned round, parents standing on the pavement suggesting their little darlings might like to move aside, but no panic – the nice man behind the wheel of the car would no doubt slow down and wait.
Well, yes, of course I will slow down. It’s the race traffic behind me that won’t. My surgeon chum in the back seat saw accidents waiting to happen around every bend in the road. He wasn’t wrong, and it didn't take long. First injury of the day was a teenage boy in Ilkley, struck by a vehicle in the convoy and airlifted to Leeds Infirmary with leg injuries.
Cyclists swarmed all over the road, some against the flow of the race. Many seemed to have the impression that the route had been closed for their very own sportive, rather than the approaching Tour de France.
The climbs of Buttertubs and Grinton Moor were throngs of partying humanity. We picked our way up in first gear, weaving through the masses, hoping and praying they would all move in time. For the final ascent of the day, I tucked the Skoda in behind three Tour signage vans, leaving them to clear a path.
The Grand Départ in Yorkshire was a massive, unqualified success, no two ways about it. Bring millions of people onto the streets and there are bound to be injuries, or worse.
But when the Tour returns to these shores, which it surely will before long – Christian Prudhomme positively encouraged bids from Britain this week – a long hard look needs to be taken at safety, for the sake of spectators, race caravan drivers and riders alike.
The police we encountered were delightful, playing the friendly bobby role to the hilt, but a firmer line (like the forbidding Garde Républicaine) is needed. Volunteer “Tour makers” require more clout than an Asda-green fleece to halt errant cyclists. Control is paramount.
But most of all, the British public need educating in how to watch Le Tour without endangering us all. We have embraced bike racing with a passion, it seems. Now we need to embrace the accompanying etiquette. That includes not taking selfies but opening our eyes to the marvellous spectacle passing in front of them. And not thinking that a closed road means it has been closed for us. The race is the thing.
It’s not rocket science. Just common sense.
Reports reached us of a hairy incident for the Garmin-Sharp team car, temporarily halted on one of Saturday’s packed climbs. A bunch of blokes, no doubt fortified by that lethal British combination of booze and sunshine, pounced on the Skoda and rocked it back and forth with gusto.
“Where’s Millar? Where’s Millar?” they demanded aggressively. The ever-cool Andreas Klier merely wound down the window, stared inscrutably from behind mirror shades, and the excitable ruffians melted away suitably abashed.
Had they watched the ITV highlights that night, the meatheads would have got the answer. Millar had announced on Twitter he would “pundit the hell out of the TdF in the UK and then train the shit out of July”. Expect a determined Commonwealth Games ride from the disgruntled Scot. Or a shit one. It could go either way.
The long arm of the law halted our progress at West Tanfield, within spitting distance of the finish in Harrogate. I politely explained to the copper that we needed to get through.
“The thing is, sir, Prince Harry is in the road and I wouldn’t want you to run him over,” he replied. Relieved to have got this far without incident, I agreed that it would, indeed, be poor form to run over royalty, whatever my political leanings.
We pulled over to the barriers along with the French signage crew and were soon engulfed in the midst of a royal walkabout, quite the strangest Tour experience I’ve ever had – much like the height of Armstrong fever, when a pack of press, fans and security swamped his every move, but with a tad less hysterical shouting.
The French crew smoked their Gitanes and looked on, impassive and unimpressed. It was as if Lance himself had graced us with his presence. I think they forgave Harry for the hold-up. Lance may have to wait a while, though.