Tour de France 2014 begins: Thousands gather to watch world's greatest cyclists race through Yorkshire

Up to 3 million people are expected to watch the British stages

Thousands of spectators are lining the route of the Tour de France in Yorkshire as 198 riders start the world’s greatest bike race.

The sun was shining in Leeds for the Grand Départ at 11am, but the teams do not start competing until after the first eight miles.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry were in the grounds of Harewood House, an 18th Century stately home, to see the race start as the Red Arrows flew overhead.

Lead riders, including the reigning champion Chris Froome, chatted to the royals before Kate cut the ribbon to officially start the race.

Yorkshire is hosting the first stage of the 101st Tour de France, which will take in countless towns and villages along the 190km route.

The peloton will wind through the Yorkshire Dales to Harrogate on Saturday, then from York to Sheffield, through the Peak District, on Sunday.

Read more: A guide to the British stages of the Tour de France
The man who brought the Tour to Britain
Farmers paint sheep in jersey colours

A huge welcome was expected for Mark Cavendish in Harrogate, where his mother lives, and he will be aiming to sprint to victory and secure the yellow jersey.

Spain's Alberto Contador, left, Mark Cavendish and Christopher Froome lead the pack during the ceremonial procession ahead of the start He is targeting the 26th Tour stage win of his career but the defending champion, Froome, carries the best hopes.

“It's massive, it really is special,” he said.

“I don't think many Tour champions get to come back as defending champions and can start in front of their home crowd.

"Given the way cycling is growing the past few years and to be in front of that home crowd and have their support is second to none.

“The reception we received from the people here has been just amazing.”

Up to three million people are expected to watch the Tour's two-day visit to Yorkshire.

The county, which is the event’s northern-most starting point, has embraced the race and aims to become a global cycling heartland.

Residents have hung bunting in the race's signature canary yellow in towns and villages and have painted phone boxes to match.

Street parties are being thrown along the route and large banner in the shape of the yellow jersey has been draped over the roof of the historic York Minster.

In Harrogate, strings of tiny knitted racing jerseys lined the streets and even the statue of the Black Prince in Leeds was wearing the famous shirt.

Froome, who had not visited the region until his reconnaissance at the end of May, said he was “blown away” by the scenery.

He added: "There couldn't be many better places to want to ride your bike, given that the weather holds out."

Fortunately, Saturday looks like a dry and warm day but there will be a chance of showers mixed with the sunshine on Sunday afternoon.

On Monday, the race will move south to Cambridge with a stage ending on The Mall, in central London.

This is the Tour’s fourth visit across the Channel and the first since 2007, when the Grand Depart took place in London.

The first British winner, Sir Bradley Wiggins, is absent after failing to earn selection in Team Sky's nine-man squad.

Additional reporting by PA

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