Q. What do Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome Bradley Wiggins and I have in common?
A. We have all cycled up the Champs Elysees, unbothered by traffic.
As this year’s COVID-19 delayed Tour de France came to an end, I was tempted to reminisce of my experiences of watching the world's most watched sporting event and my own journey into cycling.
Back in 2013 when ‘Welcome To Yorkshire’ excitedly announced that it was hosting the following year’s Grand Départ, it coincided perfectly with my then recent return to cycling. I say return, I had in fact started cycling again regularly some thirty-five years or so after last doing it as a schoolboy.
As mentioned in a previous post, one of our favourite holiday destinations is the Allgäu region of Germany. In this area everyone cycles, and I mean everyone. Be it our retired 86 year old friend who will cycle into the local village to pick up bread for the morning’s breakfast, or people cycling to work. Together with a wide range of keen amateur long distance riders, the area is awash with cyclists. The area is ideal for this. They are blessed with a number of excellent quiet roads, together with a range of cycle routes in most amazing scenery. Flat rides alongside wonderful rivers or testing hills and indeed mountains within the Alps to give even the most serious cyclists a good workout. Over the previous years I had been something of a keen runner but after one marathon and a few 'half's', I had become disillusioned and bored with pounding the streets. A few friends had suggested that cycling would be a good alternative for me. However it was only in Germany when some of our friends were good enough to lend us their bikes, did I actually discover the beauty of cycling. The bikes we borrowed were amazing, twenty-one gears! Definitely not the type I remembered riding as a school boy. As I cycled along cycle paths with sunshine, lakes and mountains I thought 'I could get used to this.'
Once back in England I did a little research, and within a week I had bought my first bike. This was a hybrid, a cross between a mountain bike and road bike. I loved it, and I was more than happy cycling by the local canal and roads in the vicinity, gradually building up my mileage. I then learned of a group of work colleagues who were entering The Great Yorkshire Bike Ride, a 70 mile charity event from Wetherby to Filey. Normally up for a challenge, I duly signed up. After Initially being told my hybrid would be fine for this event, repeated subsequent advice was 'it will be fine, but a road bike would be much better.' A little more research followed and bike number two was acquired courtesy of a well-known online auction website. My first road bike, a Boardman.
A Proper Yorkshire Welcome
Meanwhile the people of Yorkshire had bought into the spectacle of the Grand Départ. Regular cycling fans could not believe their luck as the world's biggest cycling stars prepared to take on the hills of the Yorkshire Dales in the world's biggest cycling event. But cycle fans or not, the Yorkshire people were delighted to be able to show off the fantastic Yorkshire Dales. Houses, pubs and hotels were decorated in bunting and flags, decorative cycles in Tour de France yellow were everywhere, some buildings were even painted in magnificent eye catching polka dot red on white King of the Mountain colours.
After some detailed research, for the first of the two days we plumped to view the action from the top of Buttertubs Pass. This necessitated a rather early start to catch the car park in Hawes before this and surrounding roads were closed to all traffic. We then took a leisurely stroll up the pass itself allowing us to fully appreciate in detail the 4.4km of climbing that the cyclist's would be aiming to cover in less than twelve minutes! Then followed several hours wait, before first the Tour publicity caravan entertained us with its procession of various cars and decorative floats distributing advertising free gifts and sweets. The caravan takes approximately forty minutes to pass and helps build the carnival atmosphere superbly. Over the next ninety minutes increasing numbers of motor cyclists, checking the roads were clear, increased our sense of anticipation. Eventually the sound of approaching helicopters really stoked up the atmosphere as we knew the cyclists were at last approaching. Jens Voight led the way in his 17th and final tour with a ride that would provide him with the Polka Dot King of the Mountains jersey for a day. Minutes later I experienced for the first time the wonder of the peloton, as almost two hundred cyclists battled past to the top of the pass and ultimately on to the finish in Harrogate. Three weeks and two thousand two hundred miles later, one hundred and sixty four cyclists would ride into Paris.
The following day for Stage 2 we opted for a more reasonably timed start and jumped on the train to Hebden Bridge. The later start meant crowded streets and few view points. Luckily I spotted a good vantage point by a high wall on the main street providing a superb view of the flight of the cyclists this time speeding downhill into the centre of Hebden Bridge. The atmosphere the whole weekend was brilliant. An estimated two and a half million people lined the streets of Yorkshire providing a welcome that helped tour director Christian Prudhomme describe the 'grandest' of Grand Departs. So successful in fact, that the tour’s organisers, Amaury Sport, subsequently introduced the Tour de Yorkshire. A three day race later expanded to four, raced by the biggest names in cycling.
Together with my satisfaction of successfully completing the Great Yorkshire Bike Ride, my introduction to Le Tour most definitely confirmed me as a cycling fan.
This is Getting Serious
The GYBR was a superb event for me. At seventy miles it was an event long enough to be taken seriously. The training had to be done, but not crazily long or mountainous (this would come later.) I had gradually built up my mileage and was relatively confident on the day. The route is a superb scenic affair with a couple of hills to keep it interesting. The event is a friendly ride with great feed stops, lunch provided and over the thirty-six years it has been run, it has raised over £2.6 million for charity.
Now seriously bitten by the biking bug, I entered my first sportives and increased my mileage further. At this stage I was reading a great deal and this paid dividends handsomely. First off I came across the 2014 Cycle to Work day, a challenge to do exactly what it says on the tin, in my case, sixteen miles each way. Preparing for this I discovered the Spen Valley Greenway. Following the Beeching cuts in the 1960's, thousands of miles of former railway lines were left to waste. Since 1977 the superb Sustrans Organisation have taken on the task of converting many of these former rail lines to tarmacked cycle paths. In 1995 they received National Lottery funding to provide the National Cycle Network. The Spen Valley Greenway provides seven miles of tarmac cycle paths through wonderful countryside, a big part of a my now largely traffic-free commute. Thirty-two miles to work and back, two or three times a week (with a longer weekend ride,) provided great training and a great start to the workday.
Further reading pointed towards the benefits of carbon road bikes. Whereas this was no small investment, I was confident that the cycling bug had bitten deep and I thought 'if I'm going to get one, I'm not getting any younger, so it needs to be now.' Justification complete! At the time Planet X Bikes had three stores locally and after a couple of trips to their Rotherham store, just thirteen months into my cycling, I acquired bike number three. This cycling lark was getting serious, and expensive.
That's What Friends Are For
Those of you who are ex-forces will know, the friends you serve with are friends for life. Following a recent regimental reunion I had re-established contact with several old mates. One of these was also a newish cyclist and we watched each other’s progress with interest and encouragement via Facebook and the de facto standard of cycling, Strava. Then one day this friend rings me. He tells me how last year he cycled from London to Paris –
'Yes it's a fund raising ride for the British Legion. It's really well organised. There's different groups for different speed riders, the support before and during the ride is brilliant.'
'Anyway I'm getting a few of the lads together, a regimental team, what do you think?' 'Sounds interesting, keep me informed' I say, thinking I can look into this a bit more, and I can see who else, if anyone, he can persuade for this hair-brained idea.
The next day this 'friend' posts on Facebook. He announces said plan for a 'Regimental London to Paris Cycling Team.' Whose up for it? I then read the immortal words, 'me and Tony are in.' HANG ON A MINUTE, THAT'S NOT WHAT I, ohhhhhhhhhh.
Little did I know, this would be a true life highlight.