Cycling / Tour de France: South coast hosts Tour de France festival: Preparations are well-advanced along the route of the two English stages of the world's most famous cycle race. Martin Whitfield reports

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The Independent Online
THE south of England is preparing this week for a 240-mile street party, dressed up as a cycle race.

More than 1 million people are expected to join in the celebration as the 189 riders of the Tour de France complete two stages of the race in England on Wednesday and Thursday. The sheer scale of the race and its advance cavalcade of 400 advertising and promotion vehicles has necessitated public involvement in a way unique among sporting events.

Months of preparation have warned residents of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire of impending road closures and disruption. A special Act of Parliament was necessary to allow police to close miles of roads for up to three hours.

Brighton, Portsmouth and Dover, the main centres where the tour either starts or finishes have organised week-long celebrations of music, bicycle events and Anglo-French markets. Other towns, such as Canterbury, Tunbridge Wells, Basingstoke and Winchester are also planning special events, while many villages have a carnival atmosphere.

Dover, where the British part of the race begins after the tour comes through the Channel tunnel, expects 50,000 visitors, while Portsmouth, where Thursday's stage begins and ends, believes the race will increase its average number of daily visitors tenfold to more than 100,000.

Schools in many locations will be shut, both because of difficulty of access and to allow children to watch the race after it has been used for months as a basis for geography, language and PE lessons.

'It really is at fever pitch,' Madeline Thomas, a year six form teacher at St Swithuns school, Southsea, said. 'Most of us cannot wait and are looking forward to it very much.'

St Swithuns is one of 74 schools closed in the Portsmouth area as a result of the race. 'We have done map work, languages and sports work. Everything has been fun even before the race has arrived in the city,' Ms Thomas added.

Her class of 11-year-olds is well versed in the different coloured jerseys of the riders, the distances they travel and the speed of the bikes. All the children cycle and half have passed their cycling proficiency test this year. Urban traffic means none cycle to school. David, one of the class, said they would all watch the race, many of them as it passed their front doors.

'I have never seen anything like it before without it being on TV,' he added.

Attracting the tour to Portsmouth and Hampshire is likely to cost the city and county councils more than pounds 500,000 in promotion, a FrF800,000 ( pounds 100,000) fee to the tour organisation and in highway closures and policing. Local authorities in Kent and Sussex face a similar bill for their one day of festivities.

But David Knight, project leader of Portsmouth City Council, said the cost was overwhelmed by the benefits, estimated to be up to pounds 10m of extra spending on the day alone. The volume of free television coverage and promotion associated with the race could not be purchased at any price.

'We have also been trying to say to residents that where else could you go outside your front door and see an event of world stature for free?'

The message seemed to have been getting through. Jeremy Weeks, partnership secretary of Glanvilles, a firm of solicitors which will have access blocked for more than two hours on race day, agreed that the disruption was worthwhile.

'Portsmouth has played second fiddle to Southampton on so many things, but has many, if not more, advantages for business,' he said. 'Something like the Tour de France, is going to get serious coverage.'

James Higgins, 25, owner of Rock and Road, a cycle shop in the city centre open for just five weeks, hoped the race would bring in extra business although he suspected a boom would not last long. 'I don't think I will be inundated with demand for racing bikes,' he said. 'But if the television coverage makes the Government take more notice and really encourages cycling, then it will be good.'

At the Lifeboat Cafe, where the race will pass within yards, the benefits were seen as more direct. 'We took the D-Day celebrations last month as a warm up for this. We had queues out the door and it was like locusts had been through,' Ann Driver, the manager, said. 'And anyway, it's not every day you get all those cyclists in lycra shorts and tight bums.'

(Photograph omitted)

Tour de Kent, page 29

Tour report, page 30