Success is measured in many ways. Whether it’s a brutal win-lose in sport, or a more esoteric yardstick. Chris Froome might win the yellow jersey this year – success. Or he might not – total failure. The host cities are also competing to be the biggest, best, happiest.
Cambridge: the historic university town is often measured against Oxford, whether it’s playing rugby, rowing up the Thames or by how many government ministers the two can cough up.
Today, it’s up against the might of Yorkshire in the hospitality stakes. First off, our hotelier isn’t very happy. One of his girls has texted to say she can’t get to work because the roads are closed. I ask if he’ll be going to see the race. “No. Certainly not.”
I head out to the car thinking that he’s had at least a year to figure this out, so it’s pretty much his own fault. In the town centre, King’s College is picked out by the sunlight and the place looks terrific.
There are Tourmakers in bright blue polo shirts, on hand to answer queries and give directions with thousands of newbies pouring into town. They are all great, matching Yorkshire for local knowledge and enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter what you ask them – they can answer. I reckoned they could have sorted a request for two signed aubergines, a camel and a lock of the Queen’s hair in about three minutes.
The barriers are starting to fill up from about nine in the morning in a bike town. The cycles lanes here are really well used and we see hundreds of regular commuters doing their thing, as well as the fans heading for the town centre.
For a Tour stage start, the names are very grand or quintessentially English: Gonville Place, Regent Street and turning south along Trinity Street, King’s Parade and Trumpington Road before heading out of town.
There were all sorts of numbers flying around in Sheffield after the two Yorkshire stages – 2.5 million fans, 3 million, or more. On TV news tonight, they just mentioned 5 million on the road to and around London. That’s about the entire population of Scotland.
The fans are absolutely ecstatic with the whole experience. There are autographs aplenty, and the riders are right there in front of you. A little girl, with her father encouraging her, has been eagerly snapping anything Tour-related – gendarmes, publicity caravan, press cars – before the riders have even appeared.
I manage to squeeze into a space on the barriers just outside the Fitzwilliam Museum, on Trumpington Street to await the race. There’s a choir of kids on the steps of the Fitzwilliam, giving ‘Allez le Velo’ the full works.
The fans clap and cheer their approval. It sounds amazing – Cambridge in the sun. I get lots of tourist tips from Cat, with the long dark hair, a proud Cambridge girl who recommends Great Saint Mary’s church among other things. Thanks, Cat!
Neil Stephens has been keeping a close eye on his Orica-GreenEdge team’s young protege Simon Yates, but there’s more to it than just worrying about his performance. Yates has been collared by a journalist but there is a group of fans desperately hoping to meet him. Once the journo has his quotes, Stephens gives the Englishman a nod, sends him over to the barriers, and makes some Tour followers very happy.
The riders gradually start to meander to the start line, and the noise around them is phenomenal. Kids are screaming, adults are shouting and cheering. Whistles pierce the air. Jens Voigt appears late and continues his farewell (maybe) Tour by high-fiving the fans at roadside. Sylvain Chavanel is in demand, and signs shirts and pictures.
The popularity of the Tour has skyrocketed in the UK over recent years, and the level of knowledge that the general sports fan has ramped up a lot. Of course, there are always dissenting voices: we heard one woman on Radio Cambridge saying that the Tour shouldn’t be here and that it should only be held in France. I don’t think she was a cycling traditionalist, she just didn’t want the race or the riders or the hoopla.
Sirens skirl and the blue lights flash on the gendarmes’ bikes and the peloton swings into view. It’s bedlam everywhere. The little girl next to me has a huge smile and has swapped taking pictures for getting into the action.
The race is gone, it doesn’t wait around for anyone, and I guess for some the whole experience is just a bit much. The fans stay on in Parker’s Piece though, a large green surrounded by stunning buildings. There are thousands of people in hundreds of groups soaking up the sunshine and the atmosphere. For us, it’s time to turn the car north again.
Our Tour de France experience is over for this year, but the Pez himself is checking the drawer for his passport and raiding the laundry basket to pack his case. Stay tuned as the capo takes the reins later this week!
Thanks for reading.