Highs and lows of the Tour de Yorks
The world's most celebrated bike race starts in Yorkshire next summer. Simon Calder pedals off for a preview
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 26 October 2013
The sign at the entrance to Sladen Bridge will be lost on the competitors. As they sweep down the hill, around the curve and reach the notice reading "Local residents welcome slow, careful drivers", I reckon that the riders in the opening stages of the Tour de France will probably be doing around 50mph, and will not, therefore, get to enjoy the tranquil vision of a village in the outer reaches of West Yorkshire.
The Tour de France, as you know, is the world's most celebrated bike race, the two-wheeled tournament that captivates the world. And next summer, as anyone within the ancient county will be pleased to remind you, it begins as the Tour de Yorkshire. The idea of a "cameo" for a foreign nation is nothing new. Last year Le Grand Départ was staged in Belgium, and in 2007 the first two days of the route ran from London through Kent to Canterbury cathedral. Never before, though, has a county as distant as Yorkshire successfully bid to welcome the world's best cyclists – and all the media attention that the honour buys. To get the measure of that, consider Stage One from Leeds to Harrogate: so busy will the skies over Yorkshire be with the squadron of accompanying helicopters that Leeds/Bradford airport will have to close for several hours as the riders pass.
Interest in cycling in the county has stepped up a gear since the route was revealed on Wednesday. Plans have been laid for trips that emulate the ride, down to the final charge of Stage Two into Sheffield and the painful ascent of Jenkin Road, a 1 in 5 climb (some claim 1 in 3) just short of the finish.
During its 242-mile course, the route reveals many lovely aspects of the county from the outer reaches of the Dales to the fragile ruins of Bolton Abbey. Yet sensible cyclists, particularly those of us who like to pedal slowly enough to read the welcome signs, will not want to ride the entire route. The first part of Stage 2 takes the A59 west from York – a fast, unpleasant highway into the teeth of the prevailing wind. Further along, the mini-Tour de Huddersfield is best avoided anywhere near rush hour. But the edited highlights of the route offer a fascinating insight into a land of scenic and human drama.
As the aesthetic overture, York (start for Stage Two) scores well ahead of Leeds (Stage One) – and, as good fortune would have it, a company called Scoot Cycling Holidays is based there. It runs an enticing mix of off-the-peg and bespoke trips – with, at the entry level, a two-hour tour of York. I took the trip last weekend and found it goes well beyond The Shambles. You pass one end of this ancient butchers' row in the city centre, but in the course of an eight-mile circuit you see much more than the average tourist.
Cai, the guide, started the trip down by the Ouse. On a muddy old day it was living up to its homophone as it oozed down to join the Humber. The history of York started here too, as the Romans wanted a camp in the north of Britain that they could reach easily by boat. They built Eboracum on a square grid within the angle formed by the Ouse and the Foss.
Waves of Anglo-Saxons and Vikings washed across from the North Sea, the latter bringing Norse nomenclature that has remained. "A gate is a street, a bar is a gate, and if you need a bar you'll have to find a pub," said Cai. Then she set off upstream along the riverside path, parallel to the great northbound railway, to unlock the city's more recent stories.
York prospered in the 19th century thanks to George Hudson, the "Railway King", who routed the present East Coast main line through the city. Equally important for the civic nutrition was chocolate – a business in which a Quaker family such as the Rowntrees could thrive without compromising their no-alcohol doctrine.
Scoot's ride takes you through the not quite back-to-back homes that have since become gentrified, then beside the wide grounds of St Peter's School, where Guy Fawkes was educated (and where, come 5 November, no guy will be burned on the bonfire).
The spiritual heart of the city will feature heavily next summer on 6 July, when the cyclists stream past the Minster, a 13th-century masterpiece built on the original Roman forum. Outside, a statue of Constantine celebrates his proclamation as Emperor in the year 306 – in a pose that makes him look curiously as though he is out for a Sunday drive.
You may be tempted into a Sunday ride by the Scoot proposition that allows you to take the 11am tour, price £15, and then keep the bike for the remainder of the day for an extra tenner. But it is better to go west by train and pick up the plot where it starts getting really interesting – in Yorkshire's most literary village.
By the time they get to Haworth, the cyclists will be almost halfway through the second day and on the verge of some really challenging stretches. It seems the route through the Brontë sisters' home village will stick to the cobbles (though if a summer shower should intervene their slick tyres may not adhere too well).
The riders will not pause to take tea, browse in the bookshops or imbibe at the Black Bull Inn (which proved the downfall of Emily's and Charlotte's brother Branwell). But the non-competitive cyclist should pause, if only to visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum, where the tragic tales behind the heroic writing are told.
"Wuthering" in my dictionary is defined as a wind blowing strongly with a roaring sound, which is certainly what it sounded like on the descent to Sladen Bridge, passing the Wuthering Heights pub – which, curiously, is in a valley. A sharp left along Reservoir Road takes you past a man-made lake flanked by castellations, with a citadel rising from the steely surface.
At Oxenhope, a tight right pops you on to the A6003, also known as a long, tough slog. "I avoid looking forward or backward, and try to keep looking upward," as Charlotte Brontë once said. Fortunately, Rob Wormald caught up with me on a lovely, expensive bike and kindly slowed down for long enough to tell me that he belonged to a cycling club called Sheffrec, and was cycling the entire two-day journey according to an early release of the map.
At the top, highland England looked at her mightiest, with fells stretching to the north and west beneath a sky full of menace.
Time to seek a cup of tea. Happily, fifteen minutes down the hill and I was in Hebden Bridge, where the Whistlestop Café seemed a good place to stop. Its upstairs Retro Lounge is a shrine to the Sixties, with memorabilia of Jimi Hendrix.
I noted that the next segment, Cragg Vale, is officially the longest continuous ascent in England, and decided to leave it to Rob, despite his assurance that "Cragg Vale is a nice climb – even in the rain".
The ascent south of Holmfirth to Holme Moss will provide Yorkshire's greatest challenge – nothing to match the Alps, of course, but a gruelling grind to the summit – whereupon the northernmost reaches of the Peak District open up.
The Manchester Evening News recently ran a headline entitled: "Tour de France to pass through Rochdale in 2014". "Through" in this context means "spending less than one minute in" at the very end of the climb to Holme Moss, where there is indeed a minuscule stretch of Rochdale, but you are back in Yorkshire before you can say "yellow jersey".
Soon, Derbyshire gets more of a cameo, with some lovely English countryside that gradually softens as you curve down to Sheffield. The valley funnels you down to the home city of the great traveller Michael Palin. An excellent place to end – and to reflect that even in a crowded nation, wilderness is just a bike ride away.
Leeds, York and Sheffield are accessible by rail from across Britain; Harrogate requires a change in York or Leeds. Hebden Bridge is on the Leeds-Manchester Victoria line. For Haworth, the closest main-line station is Keighley.
Scoot (01904 720 003; scootcyclingholidays.co.uk) runs tours of York and has a range of Tour-inspired trips with bikes, luggage transfers and accommodation. It also offers"Bronte by Brompton" and "Haworth by Hybrid" options. Le Tour Weekend is a four-day trip (£575) based in York or the Dales.
Discover Adventure (01722 718444; discoveradventure.com) has a £399, two-night trip covering the first stage the day before the Tour starts.
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