The Tour de Yorkshire 2014
- Credit: Archant
Yorkshireman Ray Kershaw traces the 2014 Tour de France’s route through the county’s villages and moors
Enfin le Grand Départ! Two hundred super-fit athletes are poised for the planet’s biggest sporting event. Yorkshire beer can be strong, but the pinch-yourself dream is coming awesomely true. The 101st Tour de France extravaganza – armies of photographers, myriad floats and helicopter swarms – is about to colonise the county. This year’s race, from Leeds Town Hall to the Champs-Élysées, has its first two stages in the county that Tour director Christian Prudhomme describes as le Comté de Dieu – surely without prompting by chauvinistic Tykes?
As la belle Yorkshire profonde welcomes la belle France, the switchback moorland climbs and narrow, twisting lanes may astonish many riders. Equally surprising is how much la vie française got here long before the race. All the Tour camera crews, for instance, should pay their respects to Louis Aimé Augustin, Le Prince, the Leeds-adopted Frenchman who, many believe, invented their trade.
Saturday, 5 July, Leeds to Harrogate, 190km
After leaving Leeds, le Tour passes through the grounds of Harewood House, one of England’s stateliest homes. The medieval chapel guards the alabaster tombs of four francophone knights. Some fought at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 – for England, of course – but let bygones be bygones, entente SVP.
Up glorious Wharfedale the cycling peloton hugs the river towards its wild highland source. The proliferating Brits, sprinting past Ilkley’s Cow and Calf Rocks, might spur on their teams with Sur Ilkley Moor sans Chapeau. In anybody’s language, Yorkshire’s national anthem rarely fails to do the trick. The crowds at Skipton Castle may be the town’s biggest since the siege during the English Civil War. The first serious Yorkshire hill immediately awaits. Craggy Rylstone Fell, with its romantic ruined tower, rivalled the Lakes for inspiring William Wordsworth’s verses. His White Doe of Rylstone wandered lonely on the moor. Yet nowhere touched him more sublimely than revolutionary Paris.
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If riders glance up at Kilnsey Crag – Wharfedale’s limestone landmark – they will see rock climbers enjoying bird’s-eye views of the race. The road is now a sinuous roller coaster. Competitors are lean, but they will need to squeeze tightly to get across Kettlewell’s constricted hump-backed bridge. Three ancient inns could distract them. The four-metre-wide Starbotton road, like a drystone-wall tunnel, gives a foretaste of stranger trials ahead.
Buckden Pike and Great Whernside would be mere foothills in the Alps, but they conceal wicked teeth. So far what has been dubbed the Romantic Stage has been a blissful honeymoon – after photogenic Buckden, reality kicks in. Yorkshire hills don’t much bother with namby-pamby zigzags – they would rather go straight up. The road to Kidstones Pass climbs as steep as a gable and then plunges 12 hair-raising kilometres down waterfall-filled Bishopdale. What will the cavalcade make of minuscule Thoralby’s strangulated lanes, blind dog-leg corners and 25 per cent gradients crammed like an adventure course into one insane kilometre? Below is castle-sprinkled Wensleydale. Gaunt Castle Bolton, glowering over Aysgarth’s waterfalls, was once the prison of a French (and Scottish) queen.
Picturesque villages come thick and fast. Quaint Bainbridge; cobbled Hawes – home of Wensleydale cheese – and then Buttertubs Pass, the second big climb, named after limestone potholes alongside the dizzying gorge. On these airy heights most spectators will be ovine, presenting novel woolly hazards on the unfenced moor: sheep won’t budge for 200 bikes. And as the peloton completes another breakneck descent, it smashes three Tour records: farthest north, narrowest roads and sharpest climbs in its history. Even on the infamous Mont Ventoux in Provence, gradients rarely exceed ten per cent – on this stage some surpass 25 per cent.
Rugged Swaledale, a twisting cleft between steep hills, is as far from urban sprawl as is possible in England. The route gyrates crazily through ancient Viking settlements such as Muker and Gunnerside. Maybe only British riders will thank the writer and poet G. K. Chesterton’s ‘Rolling English drunkard who made the rolling English road’. He may have staggered from Reeth, where four-century-old hostelries surround the village green, jammed today with spectators toasting le Tour.
Returning to Wensleydale even cars sometimes stall up Grinton’s calf-busting hill: Yorkshire’s special audition for aspiring Kings of the Mountains among the cycle racers. Squawking grouse and piping curlews will be spurring them on. Back across Wensleydale’s swift River Ure, green-jersey sprinters may feel at home in Middleham, renowned for champion racehorses and proudly twinned with Agincourt. The vast ruined castle, the Windsor of the North, was the boyhood home of Shakespearian villain/Yorkshire hero Richard III – last of the French Angevin monarchs who ruled England for more than three centuries.
Five furious minutes later, riders reach Coverdale Bridge. The screech of frantic braking comes from the shock-and-awe hairpin masked by the old riverside inn. Bijou Coverdale has arguably Yorkshire’s strangest French connection – with the exiled Napoléon.
Further on lies Masham, a famous brewery town; Theakston’s Old Peculier, Yorkshire’s elixir, has revived flagging sportsmen for nearly 200 years. Pints for the peloton would break the rules, hélas. Still, when you’re in Masham… À leur bonne santé! Ripon’s horn blower, who has tooted daily since 886AD, heralds le Tour’s arrival into England’s fourth-smallest and second-oldest city. The Saxon crypt in the Norman cathedral dates from 672AD. In 1,300 years Ripon has seen a lot of history, but rarely 200 bikes careering around its lanes. Next, it is pell-mell to Harrogate – the kettle’s on at Bettys tea rooms – but en route Le Tour pays homage to Yorkshire’s vrai village français at Ripley.
It’s six kilometres to Harrogate and the sprint to glory near the pétanque pitch on the grassy West Park Stray. The old floral spa town has turned itself yellow – Yorkshire’s white roses symbolically entwined with blooms of Tour-de-France jaune. The tricolore-draped windows at Bettys tea rooms will seduce spectators with Fat Rascals. These giant scones are so rich in instant calories – a kind of Yorkshire wonder fuel – that cannier riders might grab some for the later stages in the Alps. Le Tour’s first days are usually warm-ups. Many riders may be wondering, as their masseurs get to work, what this surprising place called Yorkshire will throw at them tomorrow.
Sunday, 6 July, York to Sheffield, 200km
Day two begins at York’s great Knavesmire racecourse, where le Tour is encamped like a medieval army. Micklegate Bar, York’s 12th-century gate, still bears the royal arms of England and France. At Eye of York, across the River Ouse, the riders reach the county’s hub. Yorkshire’s Viking-drawn divisions, the East, West and North Ridings, start from Clifford’s Tower, the monumental castle keep built by William the Conqueror in 1068. Roman emperors, Saxon kings, Viking chiefs and Norman monarchs left York’s visible history as international as the teams. The city, twinned with Dijon, has one of the highest proportion of cycling citizens in Britain, so pedestrians shouldn’t expect much space today.
After passing York Minster, Northern Europe’s biggest Gothic cathedral, the magnificent men on their high-tech machines breach the city walls at Bootham Bar Gate. The first 30 kilometres whizz smoothly west to Knaresborough, where another ruined castle perches dramatically above the River Nidd gorge. In a cave dwelled Mother Shipton, a 15th-century seer who predicted horseless carriages, the end of the world and that ‘men one day on wheels will fly’. Maybe now they’ll believe her. You may hear her ghost cackling as they soar by. After a Harrogate reprise (Fat Rascals are addictive), the A59 roller-coasts past the sci-fi-like radomes of the Menwith Hill intelligence monitoring station to rocky Kexgill Gorge. Three zigzagging kilometres climb precipitously to the start of a nerve-racking descent under Beamsley Beacon’s peak to Bolton Abbey in Wharfedale. Yorkshire contends that the riverside ruin is one of the planet’s most beautiful scenes. Three billion television viewers worldwide are invited to decide.
From Addingham the race crosses Ilkley Moor to Airedale. After sprinting through Keighley – the Industrial Revolution’s satanic mills long gone – it’s only minutes to Brontëland. No proper Yorkshire tour – even a Tour de France – could bypass Haworth, the village of those three French-fluent sisters with a penchant for writing books.
Haworth’s bone-rattling cobbles climb like a mountain past the Brontë-shrine parsonage to Emily’s wilder wuthering heights. The high South Pennine moorlands sometimes seem bleak, yet one beam of sunshine can spark the drowsy heather into a sea of purple flame. The 12 kilometres to Calderdale may feel like flying through an Auvergne sky. Calderdale’s small towns, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd, share the poignant story of six young friends who gave their lives for France.
At the foot of Mytholmroyd’s Cragg Vale, giant signs warn that it is England’s longest continuous climb; providentially for riders, the road towards the borough of Kirklees may also be England’s longest descent. In Huddersfield, many buildings were inspired by French châteaux. It’s then a doddle to Holmfirth, setting of the long-running TV comedy series Last of the Summer Wine. But the pain’s not over yet; summer wine for the riders is still a distant dream.
Yorkshire throws its last punches up and over Holme Moss, the South Pennines’ summit at 1,700ft; the route snaking airily, ducking and diving, towards its Sheffield grand finale. Listen for the peloton’s sighs of relief. Then just when it all seems over, picture-pretty Bradfield imparts a nasty parting sting: a viciously twisting 25 per cent gradient so unexpected that it seems to have been put there out of sheer spite.
The bike-mad Sheffield crowds will be dense: rooting for Britain – for Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome or Mark Cavendish – rooting for France, rooting for everyone who spreads wonder through their county. Who would have believed it? Vive le Tour! Vive la France! Vive le Comté de la Rose Blanche!
The third and final British stage speeds from Cambridge to The Mall in London; very fast but very flat and, after the Dales, perhaps a scenic anti-climax. Don’t ask a Yorkshireman’s opinion. Three hours later, everyone departs for France and 18 more race days to the Champs-Élysées, beginning just over the Channel in Le Touquet.
Yorkshire won’t forget le Tour; surely le Tour won’t forget Yorkshire. For a while the county may feel strangely empty, but thousands of Tykes will follow the riders around l’Hexagone on TV, wondering perhaps whether Yorkshire may now qualify as an honorary département. Note for competitors: “Ee by gum!” translates roughly as “C’est merveilleux!”
The 2014 Tour de France runs from 5 July to 27 July.
Limited edition art prints of the Tour de France in Yorkshire 2014 can be ordered at www.buyamag.co.uk/tdf