Usually, this ceremony is held outdoors in a large public space for free. On the two occasions in my eleven years of following The Tour when it has been a closed event requiring a ticket, it has been shown for free on a large screen somewhere else in the city. Not this time. The masses were only obliged by being able to catch a glimpse of the riders as they made a promenade on their bikes through the city before entering the arena, quite a contrast to the Grand Départ in London in 2007 when the team presentations were conducted in Trafalgar Square and attracted thousands. It was a spectacular, all-inclusive event.
The parade route in Leeds was packed with many fans holding yellow "Go Froomy!" signs. Most were clearly bikies wearing a bike t-shirt of some sort or a cycling jersey. Cofidis was the first team to pass at 6:30, the nine-riders led by a local on a bike and followed by a team car. They were helmet-less and rode at a crawl pace wearing sneakers rather than cycling shoes. The crowd surprisingly did not respond to them with even polite applause, and so it was with each successive team as they passed in five-minute intervals, evidently saving all their enthusiasm for Froome and his Sky team, who would be the last to enter the arena.
If this had been France or Belgium or Holland, other recent Grand Dèparts, every rider would have been greeted with richly deserved applause, not only for achieving the pinnacle in their sport but also in appreciation for the supreme effort each would be giving in the three-week ordeal they were about to embark upon. The riders would have responded to the cheers with smiles and waves, and we would all have felt a warm comraderie. Instead, they rode past the taciturn crowds with blank, if not glum, expressions. Half an hour of this was enough for me. If Christian hadn't retired last year, I would have certainly waited for the Garmin team and been able to get a greeting in, but when Alberto Contador didn't even attract a reaction when he rode by with his Tinkoff-Saxo teammates, I took my leave, eager to start riding the route.
It would have been nice to linger and witness the eruption of cheers for Froome, but that was more than an hour away and I was eager to get riding, hoping to knock off at least twenty miles of the 118 miles of the first stage that evening. I hoped to close within one hundred miles of the finish in Harrogate, so I could reach the city the next day, as I feared the stage route might be closed off to all traffic, even bicyclists, on the day of the race. There were signs everywhere saying the roads the race course would follow would be closed on the day of the race, unlike the French who post signs giving the exact hour, two hours before the peloton is due, when the roads will be closed. I knew from 2007 that the English go overboard in closing down the roads early.
It was nice though to get a close look at Contador, in the middle of his teammates and just behind the helmet of the delighted civilian, who had the honor of riding along with the team. Froome may be the defending champion, but Contador can almost be considered the favorite. He's been riding with a renewed vigor after struggling last year and finishing fourth, losing his podium spot on the penultimate stage in the Alps. He has extra inspiration, as Froome snubbed him on that stage when Contador asked him to not push it on the final climb, so he could keep his third place. Froome needlessly attacted and Contador blew up, a forlorn figure even passed by a charged-up Andrew Talansky of Garmin, just as Contador used to pass up others and is now doing once again this year.
Froome has had only nineteen racing days this year battling illness and injury, while Contador has been dominating and is ranked number one in the world. Still, he is somewhat considered an underdog by the public. I'll be rooting for him, if only as retribution to Sky for not selecting Wiggins. Its a grave injustice that this former Tour champion, and still one of the best riders in the world, is not riding in The Tour. He would a strong asset to Sky, if only on the flats when the team needs to chase down a breakaway. He's as good as any rider in the world for this role, not to mention his climbing prowess. Sky's director doesn't fully trust Wiggins not to sabatoge Froome, plus he knows he would be a media distraction. Those are viable reasons to keep him off the roster, but still the team would be much stronger and more dangerous with him. His absence proves their is little room for sentiment or loyalty in the sport, just as David Millar of Garmin can attest to, being left off his team's roster despite being a founding member of the team and multiple stage winner.
If I had any doubts of this, they were emphatically confirmed an hour after I set out when I was halted on the route and told I couldn't precede. It was shockingly still in the neutral zone of the course, even before the racing would commence. It was a prolonged neutral zone of over ten miles through the city and then out to Harewood House, a historic royal quarters bigger than Buckingham Palace, with vast grounds where tents were being erected for VIPs. I didn't realize this neutral zone was so long. Rarely is it more than two or three miles. I began to be concerned as I proceeded out of Leeds up a long climb when the course markers continued to have the black checkerboard below them indicating neutral zone.
It had been a fabulous surprise to see them already in place. The thrill of spotting a course marker up ahead never wears off. Three weeks of those little perks will keep my spirits in the stratosphere. Usually they aren't erected until the day before the stage. I knew they had just been put up, as they weren't there when I went to the arena at five. Evidently someone wisely realized there would be too much traffic in the morning to safely do it, so got an evening start.
When the course markers directed me through the narrow entrance to the grounds, I feared that maybe the course markers were directing people to a special event there that night after the team presentations. But two guys just leaving confirmed that this was the actual race course. Then a little further I was halted by three burly security guards. This was by far my earliest and most ignominious eviction from the race course. "I've come all the way from America to ride the route. Can't you let me slip through," I pleaded. But there was no reasoning with these guys. I had to backtrack and circle around to regain the route and was denied seeing the Harewood House.
After my wonderful start with the course markers already miraculously in place to guide me, my start was being ruined, first by the neutral zone going on for so long, miles that aren't included in the official distance of the stage, and now suffering what I hate most, being told that I can't continue riding on the course. Every time in the past it had been on race day and I knew that moment of eviction was approaching. This had come out of nowhere. So much for getting within one hundred miles of Harrogate. I still rode twenty miles and had the joy of seeing the pair of course makers one on top of the other that marks the official start of each stage.
Earlier in the day I had seen another marker in the heart of Leeds that also announced the start of The Race, where the peloton will begin its ceremonial ride through the city and then out to where I was unceremoniously halted. There was a continual procession of people having their photograph taken on it.
It was just one of many Tour tributes in the city. The city hall was decked out in banners.
Statues were garbed in yellow.
Behind another was the city's premier hotel adorned with yellow bikes.
The race route almost didn't need course markers, as it was also well marked by yellow bikes, though not always at crucial intersections.
Not far from where I camped was mounted a procession of white bikes, evidently by someone who was unaware of ghost bikes. They were an unsettling sight, knowing that in many places they are a memorial for a cyclist who had died at the spot.
Businesses along the way erected bikes relating to their business including an osteopath putting a skeleton on a bike
and a golf course transforming a golf bag into a bike rider.
This was day one of full Tour mode, riding until after nine pm and then being back at it nearly ten hours later. After an hour or so on the road the next morning I began to be joined by other cyclists. It wasn't long before they began coming in surges with mini-pelotons of twenty or more, many with matching uniforms. It didn't compare to the huge tide on L'Alpe d'Huez on race day, but it was a flood of hundreds and hundreds giving the first stage a ride the day before the pros had at it. No one I asked knew for sure whether cyclists would be able to ride the course the day of the race. They definitely knew cars would be prohibited. Some thought cyclists might be allowed, but also knew it would only be a short spell.
The route headed north into sheep country. Their pastures were bounded by rock fences. For some stretches the road was barely wide enough for cars to pass, and only if they came to a near halt. The rock piled walls would be most treacherous for the peloton.
In France such objects would be protected by bales of hay. There wasn't room enough or hay for that. It was beautiful cycling, so much so that the Yorkshire officials behind bringing The Tour to the area had mounted permanent official signs designating the route for all time as a Tour stage for cyclists to come ride.
It was virtually an all male contingency riding the course. They were all riding hard as if in training, a distinct contrast to their French counterparts, who don't push it and are more interested in comraderie and an enjoyable ride. It was easily 99% guys and of those 99.9% had nothing more on their bikes than a water bottle or maybe two. I was the lone touring cyclist, and elicited quite an array of English-oriented comments such as I've never heard before--"You're doing some work there," "Do you have any more bags?," "You've got a big load there. You're a brave man," "Good effort," "Cheers," "Hi there." There were a few with a French flavor--"Chapeau, my friend," "Domestique." But not a single one slowed for a chat. The only person I passed all day was a woman on the steep descent of the first of the three categorized climbs on the stage. It was drizzling and it was dangerous.
I too was braking, while others flew by. I commented to her as I slowly went by her, "I agree. This isn't a place to go fast."
"I don't like this at all," she replied with a strong quiver in her voice. And later, back on the flats when she overtook me, she commented, "You and I were the only sane ones on that descent."
It was still raining and looked like it could for the rest of the day when I came to an intersection where I could turn right rather than left and lop off a loop saving me twenty-seven miles. Those could be crucial in my making it to the ferry in Dover by Monday night. It also altered my plans of watching the stage on the big screen. Instead of hanging out in Harrogate all day waiting for the peloton to arrive while watching all the action on the big screen, I could head sixteen miles south to the stage start in Leeds and watch all the action there. From Leeds it is some 250 miles to the ferry in Dover. If I'm to keep up with the peloton I'll have to cover that distance by Monday night in a little over forty-eight hours. I'll knock off some of those miles Saturday evening after the stage finish. And I will enjoy every one of them.