Leeds hosts the start: a city on the up. Huge student population, one of the largest urban economies in the UK and a powerful legal sector. It’s a cultural and creative hub which is slowly turning Tour de France yellow – but more of that another day.
We head for the accreditation desk and then straight to the Trek Factory Racing team conference, where new partnerships are announced with multinational Samsung Global and the charity PeopleForBikes.
As soon as the floor is opened up for questions, and a surprisingly chipper Andy Schleck makes encouraging noises about his future, someone asks Fabian Cancellara if he is now going to have to put his iPhone on eBay as Samsung are a new partner.
The Fabster gives a long answer about sports sponsorship but smilingly suggests that he’ll be putting his iPhone into his technology gallery once Samsung kit him out.
Next up are BMC Racing team, who show with only Tejay Van Garderen flanked by Jim Ochowicz. The young American said: “I’ve earned the right to be a leader … even if we’re not coming into the race as favorites, it’s a stepping stone for the future. One year I’m hoping to win the Tour de France.
I think a lot of the older generation guys are retiring or on their way out. Except for Horner, who might go another ten years!”
Omega Pharma-QuickStep’s presser in the afternoon has been moved to the bigger conference room, and a good thing, too. The British press numbers are strong as Mark Cavendish strides into view. Tony Martin sits beside him and, with a smile, immediately places the microphone in front of the Manx Missile as if to say: “I won’t be needing this!”
The questions are the obvious ones. Even if he’s heard them a million times already, Cav gives a lot of good answers but one particularly savage – yet professional and polite – response to a brainless TV presenter. It’s sharp, and ascerbic, and I’m glad I’m not on the receiving end. The sprint star’s face lights up as he gives a little wave to someone at the back of the room.
When he blows kisses, all the photographers turn and start firing – Mrs Peta Cavendish and little Delilah have just arrived.
Some don’t like Cav because they base their assumptions on viewing from a distance, but he doesn’t seem to be a complicated guy. He loves his family, he loves winning and he loves his sport. He loves what he does. Once outside the arena after the teams’ presentation, he’s a normal guy – ask him politely for an autograph and he obliges.
It’s about 25 minutes walking from the TDF HQ in Wellington Place up to the First Direct Arena for the presentation. The roads get really busy around the venue, and the ticket holders start to bustle towards the entrance – doors are at 5pm sharp.
We get a pass for the mix zone backstage and troop off with the other journalists to wait. The door cracks open … everyone moves forward. Security consults and sends us all back the way we came. Then back again. And finally into the bowels of the Arena.
It’s not all glamour out here, we’re in with the OB trucks and waiting, waiting for the riders to start to roll through. I shoot the breeze with some of the people I’ve got to know over the years such as Aki from Japan’s Cyclist website, and meet Evelien from Het Laatste Nieuws.
We can hear noise booming through from the packed 12,000-seat Arena, and the riders appear in trickles. The first guy I manage to grab is Canada’s own Svein Tuft. How is he going to back up the maglia rosa at the Giro eight weeks ago?
“It’s really important to have a Grand Tour under your belt before coming to the Tour, and I’m really happy to be here. It’s going to be difficult to match last year’s success … we’d be super-happy with a stage win. We’ll just play it day-by-day.
They’ve definitely picked a hard starting circuit, it’s like a mix of Classics courses!”
The ultra-experienced Matt Hayman stops for a few words:
“We’ve been staying out by Harrogate, so we’ve been a little out of the way but coming to the presentation and seeing the crowds, it’s quite an experience. In terms of racing, it’s a race like any other, but the atmosphere here is incredible.”
When I asked him about the route, Matt said: “The idea is to showcase all aspects of our sport, so we’ve got the stage that looks like Liege-Bastogne-Liege and then we go and ride the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix.”
“The first week is really hard, especially for the sprinters. We’ll just try and strike like we did last year and see what the first week brings.”
While Hayman has seen it all before, it’s still new for Michael Matthews despite his phenomenal Giro this year. But the build-up has been a knockdown for the youngster.
“I’m still not certain to start. We’ll take that decision tomorrow (Christian Meier has flown to the UK on standby).
I’m 50-50 to start. I was going to try in the first week, but to work so hard and maybe have it taken away from me like this is absolutely heartbreaking. The Giro was great, I had a really good time. Knowing I have that Giro stage win and seven days in pink is a big relief … ”
Then his voice trails off, as he repeats the line about heartbreak. He looks like a mummy as he lists the scars, skin off and stitches he’s received. (Ed: Orica made the decision late on Friday that Christian Meier will indeed replace Matthews in the squad)
Very much in demand is Chris Horner, who is at the other end of the age spectrum entirely from Matthews. I asked Chris how excited he was to be back at the Tour …
“I’m excited … but I’m even more excited just to be racing my bike again!
The thing about the Tour is that you’re always so well taken care of. The organisation is great but also there is double the team staff here as it’s such a big event.
I’ll stay close to Rui Costa and if I’m close to him, the team will be close to me. When you’re at the Tour de France, you’re at the highest level of racing there is. And I made it back here.”
Later he tells another group of journalists about how he thought that his career was over in the immediate aftermath of his last big training crash.
OPQS lead-out man Mark Renshaw has a big day on Saturday, as he pilots Mark Cavendish to Harrogate and a chance to wear yellow.
“It’s a little surprising that with a British rider like Cav they didn’t make the opening stage a bit easier! He’s a little nervous of course, with the expectation of the country and of the media on him, but he’s calm and confident, too.
We’ve got a good lead-out here with Petacchi, Trentin, Tony Martin. And then on stage two, as early as that, Kwiatkowski will get his chance. It’s a well-balanced team, but right now, we’re only focussed on stage one.”
Outside, the fans are getting as close to the barriers and the entry points as possible, and there’s huge excitement as the riders swing out through the aircraft hangar-style loading doors.
I tried to phrase my questions about last year’s disappointment very carefully to a philosophical Ted King, because I didn’t want to jinx him. He looked at me a bit quizzically until he figured I knew what I was talking about.
On how this year’s Tour couldn’t possibly be any worse than … : “Actually, let’s not even go there! Since last year, July 2014 has been a big target on the calendar.
I know anything can happen so I’m considerably more relaxed, but also staying both tremendously focussed and very excited. You can only control what you can control – everything else you just let go of.
Peter Sagan is our captain and who we’re working for. He has all the pressure on his shoulders, but for me it (each stage) will be a day at work.
If the cards fall my way, I’ll try to take my chance, but we’re really focussed on the green jersey.”
Meanwhile, outside, the fans no longer know which way to turn. The stars of the show are Chris Froome and his Team Sky colleagues. For full effect, they’re due on last of all, and the excitement is mounting.
There are identically-dressed twin girls – yellow caps, yellow jerseys. Face-painted kids (and adults). Twitches of excitement. Every time someone turns to look down the road, everyone else spins around in case they’re missing out.
I make a mental note that I should only interview Marcel Kittel when I’m feeling at my very best. The guy is polite, charming, engaging and is (as a dreamy female voice swoons nearby): “A very … beautiful … man. He looks … like … a GOD!”
I got a few quick comments from the chiselled sprinter about this year versus last year:
“I don’t compare 2014 with 2013 at all. Last year was incredible and special. Now I am concentrating on this year only – it is a different race and a different challenge.
There are a lot of guys here who can help me and we’re looking forward to a good Tour.”
One of those guys is Cheng Ji, a history maker at this Tour. The first Chinese rider to take part is no novelty act – Cheng Ji is known as a breakaway killer.
He’s the sort of engine that Giant-Shimano (and all the other sprinters’ teams) can rely on to slowly pull back escapes. He just goes to the front and rides like a force of nature.
“There is a lot of interest back home. Already a lot of people have told me they will be following me and the Tour. This year, it is also live on TV in China. Even with a six-hour time difference, many will be watching.
I hope that for the future I can share this start and encourage more Chinese riders. I want to show them that they can do it, too. My message is: ‘Do not be afraid!’”
As Froome leaves the building, the excitement is dialled down and it’s time to make our way back to Bradford for the night. The show is under way, and Pez will be following from now until Paris, so stay tuned!