A tour de force from the cycling carnival

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THE organisers of the Tour de France feared the British would show little interest if they brought the most famous cycle race in the world across the Channel.

They need not have worried. More than a million people turned out to watch the spectacle, double the predicted number.

A delighted Jean-Marie Le Blanc, director general of the Societe du Tour de France, said the crowds were bigger than many of those in France.

'I am very, very happy,' he said. 'The people were brilliant today, they were so friendly.'

An experiment 20 years ago, when the Tour arrived and did a quick circuit of the Plymouth by-pass before diving back to France, attracted only 20,000 spectators.

Yesterday was in a different league as families lined the 128-mile route from Dover to Brighton to celebrate a distinctly French institution. People of all ages packed village streets, waving to the Tour's cavalcade, its officials and anything else that moved in a car or on a bike.

'It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience,' said Stephen Rado, 53, who set up a picnic table and chairs complete with lunch and wine (French) in Horsmonden, Kent, to watch the race.

'I have always wanted to see it. People in this country didn't realise what the Tour de France really is.'

Gathering up carrier-bags full of small tins of Coca-Cola that had been handed out from one of the sponsors' vans in the huge advertising caravan that preceded the race, Edward, eight, from Horsmonden Junior School, was enthusiastic. 'There are all these cars coming past,' he said, watching a van with a huge plastic apple perched on its roof. 'And they give out things. It's really good.'

Local people sat at the ends of their drives, lounged on their lawns and even perched on improvised scaffolds to view the race.

For cycling fans the experience was different. Chris Maker, Alan Hutchinson, Peter Cobley and Kevin Petts, four friends from Brentwood and surrounding towns in Essex, cycled 50 miles in the morning to their spot outside the the Gun and Spit Roast in Horsmonden (champagne breakfasts from 10am and roast beef sandwiches all day).

'The atmosphere is superb,' said Mr Maker, 36, who had taken the day off from his job with Barclays Bank. 'We did not know what to expect. It's a brilliant experience,' he said as a giant mobile telephone and an enormous box of cornflakes rolled by.

As the festival warmed up, clowns, pom-pom girls, penny-farthing cycles and imitation French waiters and onion-sellers cheered on the action. Schoolchildren in uniform stood in orderly rows behind yards of barriers while every vantage point from bridges to tight bends was thick with people.

Cycling devotees sported the tight lycra shorts and brightly coloured shirts of their heroes, even if their more portly figures often did not quite match up to the lithe shape of the professional cyclist.

Eight hundred feet up, at Ditchling Beacon, near Brighton, spectators were 10 deep along the hillside. They had painted, in true Continental style, the names of their favourites on the road.

Chris Boardman, Britain's best-known cyclist for decades, came fourth after being greeted with banners bearing his name all along the route.

In Brighton, end of the first day's racing, the streets were full for the two circuits around the town. The Tour's cavalcade filled Marine Parade as Francisco Cabello, the stage winner, raised his arms in celebration.

People living along the Tour's route had never seen anything like it. Today is Hampshire's turn.

Race report, page 40

Hamish McRae, page 18

(Photograph omitted)

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