It is very rare that I feel pride for anything beyond my own achievements, but this weekend was certainly an exception. I have already detailed my trip to see the Tour de France procession on Thursday, which certainly whetted my appetite for the main event, but this was enhanced significantly by watching the local news on Friday evening which set the scene in my mind for what was going to be one of the most memorable days of my life. Seeing so much excitement over the world's biggest cycle race touring our region was contagious, and by the time Saturday morning came along I was massively stoked about what the weekend might bring. I'll admit I struggled sleeping the night before.
It surpassed all of our expectations. There had been crowds of 45,000 people expected in the centre of Leeds. In the end, that number was 230,000, causing a complete meltdown in public transport (unsurprisingly, although I doubt any network would have been able to cope). Tour fever had gripped the area, so much so that even turning up three hours early, like we did on Saturday morning, didn't guarantee a place right in front of the barrier where the peloton would be. Indeed, the bus got fuller and fuller as we approached the city centre and when we arrived, we were greeted to throngs of people heading up towards the Headrow. The atmosphere was electric and the sun started to break through the thick clouds, which only enhanced the mood. By the time we had reached the track, the crowds were already five or six deep so we headed down The Headrow to try and find a good spot. In the end, we settled for somewhere just behind some phone boxes, it being a little less dense there, and we enjoyed the 'caravan' as it sailed past some two hours before the cyclists were due to set off.
In reality, the caravan was just a giant advertising procession but the floats were all creatively done and they were throwing out free stuff. Wolfie got hit in the face by a packet of Haribo, which I managed to retrieve from between a ginger gentleman's legs, while Alexfox got a silly white hat with red polka dots sponsored by Carrefour. The caravan was quite interesting as we got to see some familiar global brands such as Ibis Budget, some more local names such as Yorkshire Tea and some bizarre French stuff that we don't even get here. I liked the mix really, particularly the Conne Sur wine, a nice pun and some brilliant cars to boot, with huge inflatable bottles sticking out of the top. All of these were interspersed with the Welcome to Yorkshire cars, which were doing a great job of promoting our area (so much so that even Prince William and Kate, who were at Harewood House to start the race officially, asked whether they could wear one of the 'Welcome to Yorkshire' yellow Y lapels). It was also great to see so many Yorkshire flags proudly flying along the route.
With the main event still 90 minutes away, we felt we wanted a better vantage point so I phoned the office to check on the situation there. The Tour was due to go past my place of work some 10 minutes after it started from Leeds Town Hall, and I was informed that there were few people beside the route near work as effectively it's on an industrial estate with very few residents. Feeling we wanted to see the riders as they rode past, we headed down there, where we were eventually joined by Skavi, who made a fivesome with Entei-rah, Wolfie, Alexfox and myself. We were still bowled away by the sheer number of people coming out to witness this, with the local shops doing a roaring trade (including the sandwich shop next to work which had increased their prices by 40% on the day - they still had a long line coming out of the cafe). There was a lot more room around here but as the start of the race drew nearer, it filled up and was again three or four rows deep like The Headrow had been previously. The difference here being that we were at the front and had a perfect vantage point, situating ourselves on the outside of a bend to get a maximum view. The stewards, who were excellent throughout, kept us informed of the situation and they were incredibly friendly.
We waited the best part of two hours to see the cyclists and once they came, it was over in about 30 seconds, even though the race proper didn't start until further up the route at Harewood. Despite this, it was undoubtedly worth it to witness one of the world's biggest sporting events in my home city. The entourage surrounding the riders was interesting to watch in itself, particularly the Gendarmerie escorting the peloton through the streets and the range of colourfully branded cars and buses which followed the cyclists in case they needed anything en route. There was a sea of people as far as the eye could see, which quickly dispersed when it was all over, but there were people clambering on hills, traffic lights and barriers to try and get a good glimpse of the action.
In the end, 2.5 million people turned out to watch the cycling over the course of the two days, which is about two-thirds of the population of the county. The interest was immense. I'm sure part of this was the uniqueness of having a major sporting event take place in the UK outside of London and I'm confident this was a major motivator in terms of getting people out to watch. I also think there was a collective desire to showcase the best Yorkshire has to offer and we were blessed with the weather, which showed off our beautiful countryside splendidly. Indeed, when watching the TV pictures of the Tour at The Pit, where we retired once we had seen the race in the flesh, I had failed to recognise just how stunning this part of the world is, and to think that up to 3.5 billion people will have watched the footage over the weekend is truly staggering. There were some furs on twitter who were bemoaning the closed roads but I will happily take one day of inconvenience to host such an event, and I hope that Yorkshire will get a significant tourism and investment boost off the back of the Tour. I'm sure it will. I loved the French names given to sights I knew well - Cote de Buttertubs and Le chateau de Skipton - and it was very difficult not to be swept away in the excitement of it all. It was the people who made it and the excitement and enthusiasm we had for the Tour was our county's greatest selling point. It surprassed all expectations.
There was a carnival atmosphere in Leeds on Saturday and we stayed behind to soak some of it up. After sinking a few beers at The Pit, we sat on Briggate to watch more of the race on the big screens (when they weren't being tempermental and would let us) before heading down to the Town Hall to the Magic Spanner, a bar opened in the cellars of the building for just one week and run by North Bar. They were serving Magic Spanner from the Magic Rock Brewery, an excellent Huddersfield-based brewer. Sitting in the sunshine on the Town Hall steps drinking this delicious golden ale with some great friends was a truly memorable experience. We also saw two people dressed as anthropomorphic bushes and we watched as they gave people hugs, including myself. The man had a really weird pointy belly and the lady kept wiggling her bum all the time. The man just waved, that's all he did. The suits were interesting, lycra with green plastic leaves stuck all over them. They were very impressively made, you couldn't see the entry zips nor the eye holes, but they were strange to watch. There was also a lot of cycling events going on around and a West Indian carnival with someone dressed as a dove for some reason. The whole show was magnificent and I can't remember smiling so much in one single day.
We missed the end of the race unfortunately, thinking erroneously that it would be shown at Millennium Square, but we then headed to Baa Bar and had a beer before heading our separate ways. We were headed home to see my father and sister, who had brought our Commonwealth Games tickets with us - another massive sporting event that we have the fortune of attending. However, despite how good that is going to be, I doubt anything will top having the Tour de France in Yorkshire. The villages, towns and cities all looked brilliant in the sunlight, the countryside was breathtaking and the sheer crowds of people astonishing. The Royal Family were here, as were the three main political leaders and I feel this weekend was one of the biggest and most important in the history of the county. We impressed the French, impressed the Tour bosses and impressed even ourselves. I feel we have proven that we can host major sporting events in the UK, particularly outside of the capital, and I do hope I will get to see the Tour here again. It was a truly magical and inspiring weekend, and reading about it in the special souvenir edition of the Yorkshire Post on Sunday made me feel those feelings again. Like with the Olympics, sport united us, but in this case on a more local level. If we put our minds to it, there is nothing Yorkshire cannot achieve. Thanks to all those who made it possible and to the Tour organisers for considering us. It was quite a weekend!