When Yorkshire’s maverick bid to host cycling’s most famous road race unexpectedly succeeded in Paris, it looked for a few weeks as if civil war might erupt between Whitehall and the White Rose County.
British Cycling and the Government had backed an official scheme for the Grand Départ of the Tour de France to be staged in Scotland. Yorkshire had driven a spoke through the wheel of the establishment’s well-laid plans.
The role of peacemaker in the simmering spat was one that could have been created especially for Sir Rodney Walker. Venerated Yorkshireman and sporting grandee, the septuagenarian was required to use his celebrated powers of persuasion to unruffle feathers and make sure the event – due to be watched by three billion people worldwide – was a success.
Appointed to head the board charged with managing the event, Sir Rodney rapidly had everyone pedalling in the same direction.
Now the biggest problem could be coping with the anticipated demands of five million fans expected to line the route.
Sir Rodney said roads would be impassable up to 10 miles from the course, with hundreds of miles of closures planned for the three-day event. “One of the things we have already begun to talk about but we will ratchet up significantly in the next eight to nine weeks, is to tell people: do not expect to wake up on a nice sunny day in early July and say ‘shall we go and watch…’, because it won’t happen. Unless you have made up your mind and got within the vicinity at least a day before… you won’t get to see it. That’s why there are so many campsites opening up along the route.”
At the beginning of the Grand Départ on 5 July, more than 50,000 fans are expected to wave the riders off from the centre of Leeds. Only 20,000 will be permitted at Buttertubs Pass in North Yorkshire on the first day to witness the peloton grinding up the famous 4.4km, one-in-five hill.
Meanwhile, officials are still calculating a safe number to allow at Holme Moss on the Yorkshire-Lancashire border. It is likely to prove the most popular spot on the route, with the second steepest climb of the Tour outside the Alps.
The Tour de France is the world’s biggest free-to-view sporting event. More than one million fans are expected on each of the three days that it is in England, culminating in a final day from Cambridge to London.
Sir Rodney said the security operation would involve six police forces, including the Metropolitan Police. The race will arrive in the capital on the ninth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings.
The Government has provided no extra funding to help police forces or councils meet the challenge posed by the crowds or the Tour’s vast entourage, beyond the £10m it initially gave to UK Sport to assist in running the event. But Sir Rodney said “initial issues” among chief constables had now been ironed out.
A former chairman of the Rugby Football League, the World Snooker Association and UK Sport, Sir Rodney was brought in amid mounting alarm in Whitehall after the rogue bid put together by the Welcome to Yorkshire tourist board beat off all-comers.
His first job after being appointed by the then Sports Minister Hugh Robertson was to persuade all parties – including 17 local authorities – to work together to make sure the staging of the Tour was a national success and that there was sufficient budget to do so.
He believes the end result represents value for money. “I would defy anyone to find another sporting event that is free – you can’t charge, you are not allowed to have any sponsors because the ASO [Amaury Sport Organisation, the Tour’s organiser] have all the sponsors,” he said. “We might have to manage anything up to four and five million spectators and you are going to get that for £27m. I would defy you to find me anything that is comparable,” he said.
He added: “If you were to ask me the question of how do I feel with 80 days to go I would say I feel to be in control of what we know and what we can control. But I’m not stupid enough not to realise there will be things arise that we don’t yet know about that we will have to deal with.
“The weather is one. If it is like it was in 2012 we will be doing detours because there were floods on the road. You just don’t know. But we are prepared.”