Red white and blue bunting; yellow, green, white and spotted bunting; multi-coloured bunting: that’s what you’ll see as you pass through the Tour de France communities of West Yorkshire, and Craven and Richmondshire in North Yorkshire. Here in Harrogate District, and in Hambleton too, it’s those jolly little knitted jumpers in all the Tour-jersey colours that are festooned round town.
We know, because yesterday we got up betimes, had a healthy breakfast, packed maps and drinking water and set forth to Ride the Route for Day One of the Tour de France. On our bikes? Not likely, though many people are doing exactly that. We took the car, because the whole circuit is 195 km. long. The Tour riders will get that done in not much more than 5 hours. We were out of the house for 9 hours.
We didn’t quite do the lot. From Leeds, the riders will take it steadily till they get to Harewood House, between Leeds and Harrogate, and that’s where the race will begin in earnest. So that’s where we began too, though unlike the competitors, we couldn’t ride through Harewood’s grounds. So join us as we begin our own Tour, not far from Pool-in-Wharfedale.
The scenery here is the gently rolling countryside of lush fields and woodlands that characterise Lower Wharfedale: it’ll break the riders in gently. Through Otley and Ilkley, our winding road took us through quiet pretty villages on into Skipton. Now we approach the Yorkshire of soaring fells and dramatic limestone scenery whose fields are bounded by dry stone walls. The area round Kettlewell used to be important for lead mining. These days sheep and tourists – walkers and cyclists – provide the village’s income. Unlike the cyclists, we paused for a leisurely lunch at the King’s Head. Fabulous food, with friendly service. Very highly recommended, but perhaps not if you have to ride ever upwards over the fells after you’ve eaten.
As you travel northwards, then westwards from Kettlewell to Hawes, via Buckden, Thoralby, Aysgarth and Bainbridge, you’ll be climbing through increasingly dour and empty hillsides. I love their severe beauty, and relish too the occasional descent into the valleys where once again the road passes through glades of trees leading to picture-postcard villages.
Then Hawes. Hawes has taken its duties as Gatekeeper to Buttertubs pass, where the King of the Mountains will gain his crown, very seriously. The King of the Mountains gains a red-spotted jersey for his efforts, and Hawes has become a red-spotted town for the duration. Bunting, shop fronts and decorations, even whole houses have been painted white with large red spots. The effect is very jolly and festive, and Hawes, it’s clear, plans to have a great Tour.
But then it’s Buttertubs. There are few more dramatic roads in England. It climbs sharply, but there are sudden descents, unlooked-for tight corners and mile after mile of uninterrupted moorland view. If I were a Tour Groupie, this is where I’d want to be to watch on 5th July. At its highest point, the road can be seen as it swings right, left, up and down for many a mile. This is where those riders will be put to the test. But it’s not over at the bottom. Because here, the road chases round unexpected corners, bounces over small ancient bridges, darts in and out of woodland, narrows rapidly as it skirts past hamlets…. they won’t be able to relax for a second.
By the time the riders reach Reeth, they’d feel entitled to a bit of down-time. But no. There’s another long moorland slog before, at Leyburn, civilisation kicks in once more. The villages become more frequent, the countryside softer and sweeter. We trundled in our car back home to North Stainley, having done the home-to-Harrogate stretch first thing in the morning on the way to Harewood.
We were left with an impression of how the Tour has fired the imagination of many communities through which it will pass. Not all of course, but many have seized the opportunity to build on the opportunity the Tour provides. They’ve involved everyone from the youngest to the oldest in generating understanding of aspects of French life, or of sport and cycling, of promoting the Arts in the widest sense, and in bringing the whole community together quite simply to have fun together, both in the period leading up to the Tour and on the day itself. Our own village is a case in point: more of that later. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity the Tour presents means that it’s more eagerly anticipated here even than in France, where for years it’s been an important part of the summer calendar. Those people who’ve shuddered with dislike and arranged to go away for the duration may come to think they’ve missed out on something quite special, and uniquely enjoyable.