Parking up at the Great Yorkshire Showground on the outskirts of Harrogate at 8am, Mark Cavendish’s uncle was on the car radio talking of his nephew’s fond memories of visiting the very same patch of land for the annual county agricultural show held there.
It was not to be the happiest of returns to “God’s own county” for the great pedal-pushing sprinter, whose mother, Adele, happens to hail from Harrogate. Far from it.
It was to be a Dickens of a day as the Tour de France came to Yorkshire. It was the best of times and – for Cavendish, his family, and his legion of devoted followers – the worst too.
Gary Verity, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, described the 2014 Grand Depart as “the biggest ever event in the north of England”. As the man responsible for bringing le Tour to the White Rose County, perhaps he could be excused for overlooking such events as the Roman conquest and the English Civil War.
Still, the genteel Yorkshire spa town had probably not seen a fuss like it since December 1926, when the world’s press descended on the Swan Hydro. The missing Agatha Christie was found staying there under the name of Theresa Neele, her husband’s mistress, after an 11-day hunt for the authoress across Britain.
Eight hours before the 198 riders were due to approach the finish of the opening stage and the mass car park was already filling up. On the mile-and-a-half walk into town, most of the accents were of a Yorkshire derivation, although one of an unmistakably Gallic nature could be heard.
A young Frenchwoman was asking the way to the finish area. She sounded very much like the female chimp that was dressed up as an eyelash-fluttering Frenchwoman in the 1970s PG Tips advert – the one in which a male chimp crashes in the Tour de France and enquires of her in a broad Yorkshire accent: “Avez vous un cuppa?”
“Ooh, j’aime le PG Tips, monsieur,” she says – the chimp in the advert, that is. “Can you ride tandem?” the smitten Tyke chimp asks. Poor Cav was in no mood for flirtation when he came to grief within sight of the finish line later in the day.
As it happened, the fateful crash happened just down the road from the Cavendish and Horses, as the Coach and Horses pub had been temporarily renamed, just 50 metres or so from Bettys Tea Room. Cavendish spoke last week of popping into Bettys for afternoon tea on his annual trips back to his mother’s home town.
Bettys has been a Harrogate institution since 1919 and today it had pride of place on the home straight, 200 metres from the finish line. Afternoon tea costs a cool £18.95. There is no PG on the menu but you can get Ceylon Blue Sapphire, China Yunnan and Jasmine Blossom.
Not that all of the would-be patrons queuing outside considered “the Tour de France Yorkshire” to be their particular cup of tea. “It sounds like an oxymoron to me,” said Gillian Stanbridge. She did not mean a stupid person from Oxford. “It sounds like ‘The Cannes Film Festival Blackpool’,” she added, by way of clarification.
If Blackpool could embrace the spirit of Cannes anything like Yorkshire did of t’Tour, then there could well be a second notable Gallic event imported to the north of England. Out on the course there was a replica Eiffel Tower, sheep died yellow, green and with polka dots, and huge crowds – an estimated two million of them in all.
As the peloton climbed over Buttertubs Pass, the hillside was blanketed with lycra-clad aficionados. It was like Alpe d’Huez or Mont Ventoux with Yorkshire knobs on.
There were three-hour queues to endure for the hordes who were trying to get from the start in Leeds to Harrogate by train. In and around the finishing straight, the crowds were 30-plus deep in places. In the adjacent Fan Park every twist and turn of the peloton up on the giant screen was met with cheers, every shot of Cavendish greeted with a roar.
Until the dramatic denouement. There was a mass gasp when Cav clashed with Simon Gerrans and crashed to the ground, his mother and family looking on from the grandstand.
As a media scrum descended on the Omega-Pharma team bus, some 200 metres beyond the finish, a policeman asked: “Who the hell crashed?”
The answer was not long in coming. An anguished Cavendish was wheeled through the throng, clutching his limp right arm. As the masses departed, the wounded Manx Missile was rushed off to Harrogate District Hospital by ambulance with a suspected broken collarbone. Day two of t’Tour, York to Sheffield, looked a stage too far for Adele Cavendish’s stricken son.
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