There was a sign of things to come for the English legs of this year’s Tour de France last night as Leeds put on a show for 10,000 cycling fanatics at the opening ceremony – the biggest ever crowd to attend.
Thousands will also flock to the roadsides in Rochdale and across Yorkshire this weekend as northern England hosts the Grand Départ of the world’s biggest sporting event, featuring 198 riders, 22 teams, plenty of gritted teeth and 3,664 kilometres of racing.
QUEUING IN DROVES: Expectant fans await the big presentation ceremony
As expected, the buzzing yet friendly and knowledgeable crowd inside the First Direct Arena were in high-spirits as the minor teams lined the stage to a warm reception.
Then came the first big roar of the night as 21-year-old Bury boy Simon Yates – the only English-born rider in this year’s event – rolled onto the stage with the rest of his Orica-GreenEdge team.
Yates is taking part in his first Tour after a late call-up and was clearly taken aback by the amount of support he received.
ON YOUR OWN: Simon Yates, the Tour’s sole English-born rider
Up until a few years ago, the 111-year-old Tour de France received no more British media attention than a handful of other sports in newspapers and on the TV.
In 2007 London hosted the prestigious Grand Départ for the first time but the sport has only recently gained mass popularity due to back-to-back wins for Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome in 2012 and 2013.
The enthusiasm from the crowd was clear to see as general classification contenders such as twice champion Alberto Contador, Frank Schleck and 2013 Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali, fresh from clinching the Italian national road race championship, made their way on and off the stage to cheers and applause.
It wasn’t all cheering and clapping however, as Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tony Martin left the crowd in stitches when he was asked whether team leader Mark Cavendish ‘cracked the whip when sorting out the sprint train’?
“I think he race good,” replied the German three-times world time trial champion, only serving to increase the already jovial atmosphere.
Cavendish himself will be looking to claim the yellow jersey on the opening stage, which finishes in the village where his mother lives.
RECORD CHASER: Mark Cavendish primed for a home win as he closes on Tour record
The 29-year-old was glad of the support, jokingly suggesting he “hoped everyone would support him” before taking to Twitter to praise the electric vibe.
— Mark Cavendish (@MarkCavendish) July 3, 2014
Then came the moment everyone had been waiting for: Union Jacks and Yorkshire flags at the ready, the crowd went wild and gave a standing ovation as defending champion Froome and his Sky team surfaced.
Already touted as the favourite for this year’s race, the Namibian-born Brit took it all in his stride as he coolly dealt with questions surrounding his chances.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the longest ovation of the night was for Gary Verity, chief executive for Welcome to Yorkshire and the driving force behind getting the Tour to northern England.
It was clear it meant a lot and there were many a people with teary eyes at the enormity of what has been achieved.
As Yorkshire band Embrace ended the night’s entertainment with their vocals blaring, the only sound echoing through the throngs of spectators leaving were the last words uttered by Verity.
“Vive le Yorkshire. Vive le Tour de France.”