The crowd were gathering around Parliament Square even before the peloton had set off from Cambridge 97 miles and a three-and-a-half-hour cycle ride away. The pink signs that directed visitors to Olympic sites two years ago were back and so was the London 2012 spirit.
Britain likes to regard itself as a great sporting nation, but more than that it is a nation of great sports watchers. On Monday, as in Yorkshire at the weekend, the men of the Tour de France found themselves cycling between two walls of humanity.
After the rugged terrain of Yorkshire, Le Tour was on smoother ground wending its way from Cambridge through Essex on a route carefully chosen to show a county of thatched-roof villages and yellow fields of rape, rather than the one of fake tans and nightclubs usually portrayed on television. In towns like Saffron Walden there were spectators on church roofs, hanging off lamposts and six-deep on tight pavements. In the countryside every verge seemed to be occupied by flag-waving children, grandparents in garden chairs, and a forest of tripod-mounted cameras. It is obviously not just Yorkshire folk who like to watch summat for nowt.
Some of those on the streets had barely unpacked from an afternoon on Henman Hill, others were “just popping out” from the office. Most, in truth, will have spent a long time waiting to see not very much. There is diverting entertainment to be had from waving at motorcycle outriders and cheering the sponsors’ floats of the Tour caravan, but the actual racers are come and gone in seconds with those at the back of the crowd seeing little more than a flash of helmets.
While all eyes searched for a glimpse of Chris Froome as the peloton whizzed past, it was France’s Jean-Marc Bideau and Czech Jan Barta who attracted most of the cheers by dint of leading a breakaway from Cambridge to central London. Only the most devoted cyclophile would have recognised them but no one minded, for the spectator this event is all about being there.
There was a time when cyclists who dared race on English roads did it in disguise, not lycra. The winner of the first point-to-point race on public roads, from Paris to Rouen in 1869, was an Englishman, James Moore. The first three placed in the inaugural Paris-Bordeaux race were English. But in 1883 the British police defined a bicycle as “a carriage” forcing cyclists to obey the same 12mph speed limit as cars. A series of subsequent prosecutions for “furious riding” killed road racing here. While most cyclists restricted themselves to the track, a hardy few kept road racing alive by time-trialling, doing so in “inconspicuous clothing” (usually, as Geoffrey Nicholson relates in Le Tour, a dark jacket and tights).
Now the countryside is ablaze on weekend mornings with the florid faces and day-glo colouring of Mamils (middle-aged men in Lycra) and London, despite the occasionally lethal road architecture which even fooled a couple of Monday’s riders, is in thrall to Boris Bikes.
Pubs showed hours of live cycling on big screens, roads around the nation’s financial centre and seat of government were closed down, and notorious Westminster Council even waived parking restrictions for Tour personnel.
This enthusiasm, combined with the successes in the Tour and the Olympics that inspired it, persuaded Dave Brailsford, godfather of the sport on these isles, to declare this week that “by anybody’s assessment I would say we are the number one cycling nation in the world”.
A pity, then, that the Tour started with only four native riders and one of them, Manxman Mark Cavendish, lasted one day. With Froome born and raised in Kenya, and team-mate Geraint Thomas from Wales, Bury’s Simon Yates is the only rider flying the flag of St George. This is partly circumstances – but for injury Alex Dowsett and Ian Stannard would have been riding past their Essex hometowns on Monday, yet while cycling has taken off in Britain to declare it “a cycling nation” remains a stretch. Cyclists are not sufficiently protected by road design, nor treated with due care by motorists – in part because too many cyclists abuse traffic regulations. It may take a generation, much education, and some smart town planning for all road users to co-exist peacefully.
Days like these will accelerate the process. The finish, said winner Marcel Kittel, “was awesome”. The Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace was a heaving mass of bodies unconcerned by the sudden arrival of rain. They roared the German on to victory, then they checked their smartphones to find out who he was.
With Cavendish absent anyone who had even vaguely followed the Tour knew he would not be a Briton, but that did not matter because this is more than a sports event. It is a spectating phenomenon and a global TV advertisement. Essex has never looked lovelier. A tourism boom can be expected for places like Finchingfield, where the sight of the riders snaking through a tiered thicket of fans packed on to the village green with the duckpond in the foreground was the image of the day. The more prosaic parts of the route received less attention. As the race moved into Walthamstow and Leyton, French TV switched to aerial pictures of Westminster’s sights soundtracked by The Clash’s “London Calling”.
The one shame with this year’s Grand Depart is, Sheffield’s Cote de Jenkin Road notwithstanding, the lack of major climbs. Monday’s highest elevation was the Cote de Epping Forest at 113m. This year’s crowds mean Le Tour will be back soon, and Wales and the Lake District could bid to host, but the part of Britain with the seriously hilly bits is one that could soon be looking to underline its own identity to a worldwide television audience. Le Tour has never been north of Hadrian’s Wall, but should Scotland gain independence later this year, the first thing Alex Salmond ought to do is seek to rekindle the auld alliance and stage a McGrand Depart.
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