“Were worth the wait, weren’t it? Absolutely brilliant!” The alpha male daddy of the family on the side of the Côte d’Oxenhope Moor had a smile as wide as his belly. Everywhere you turned, just happy people on a beautiful day. This is what bike racing is all about.
Oxenhope, morning: it’s like a counter-cultural happening in the late ’60s. People are just appearing from everywhere, from every conceivable corner. There are so many footpaths and bridleways around here that there are streams of folk emerging through the fields and over the skyline. If you host the Tour, they will come …
It’s insanely busy for a Yorkshire hillside at 9 in the morning. We pass a Julius Caesar, a Scottish Highlander in full kilt and regalia and a ridiculous number of families. The cops are worked off their feet, stopping riders from going up the climb. They unclip, take four steps and jump back into the saddle before taking off again.
It’s another stunning day, and the breeze sends the clouds whistling across the sky. The sun dapples the faraway hills. We’re wending our way through the land of the Brontë sisters and you feel like you can hear ‘Wuthering Heights’ out here.
Oxenhope has made a truly great effort for the Tour. We’re in a much smaller place than Otley (for stage 1), but there’s knitted bunting all over the shop. Little polka dot bicycles in flower beds, Yorkshire white rose flags in the tiny windows of pretty cottages.
How has the Tour picked up new fans? One kid we met had come into cycling the back-to-front route. He was a Wolverine fan, and saw Peter Sagan’s comic book-inspired bike at the teams’ presentation. So that was it – he’s now a bike nut and a Sagan guy, with a hand-drawn poster to prove it.
When the weather’s bad up here, it’s pretty damn bleak indeed. And we’re not awfully far from the location of the graves relating to the Moors Murders in the 1960s. Today, the moor has its best face on, in summer green, waiting for the Tour’s yellows.
Yorkshire Thé has been a major advertising highlight, but whether it will make a long-term replacement for the Tour’s continental obsession with coffee, I don’t know. Far below, the caravan makes an appearance.
There have been plenty cliche-grabbing opportunities in Yorkshire: the men all wear flat caps (the women, too), they all have pet whippets, they’re all a bit tight with money. And they like their tea.
Race time: there are no fewer than six helicopters vulturing above the Yorkshire countryside, searching for action. The break appears with Quemeneur and De Clerq, Busche and Lemoine among the escapees.
They were cruising smoothly up this climb, a third-category rise which was only outshone by Holme Moss on today’s route. Seeing the race gets you going, you get those butterflies in your stomach. You need to go and have a word with a cool head.
Jeff has been busy with his scythe, and the family are hoping for a bit of helicopter coverage. “But you’d know I’ve been kidding you on if I said I’d just done this!”, he laughed. I’m not sure if that meant he had a lawnmower tucked out of sight, or not. He looked like he knew how to handle a scythe, but the lush green TOUR DE FRANCE on his lawn was really, reeaaallly neatly cut.
The guys taking selfies when the police are coming through have knocked that on the head and are roaring and cheering like everyone else when the main field rides up, massed across the road. Tinkoff-Saxo yellow hugs the left of the road as the breeze comes down the slope towards the riders.
There’s no massive panic in the bunch just yet. The break is barely out of sight and the race is still 116 kilometers from the steel city, Sheffield. It’s a day to stay careful – the terrain really is like Liege-Bastogne-Liege or even Amstel Gold. The climbs are relentless and the descents need total concentration.
It looks truly stunning up here, easily matching anything on the Continent. The tourism bosses will have to break out extra biscuits when they have their post-Tour debrief because they really couldn’t have got it any better than this weekend.
I can’t guess how many people were here today, but they’re saying 60,000 on Holme Moss which is less than five kilometers long; and two-and-a-half million for the roadside. Incredible stuff.
After the pilgrimage to the holy mount of Oxenhope Moor, the thousands make their way back down to reality. But it’s a happy, inspired parting from a near-religious experience. There is absolutely no aggravation. Everyone is happy. The police don’t seem to mind drafting a few riders up through the descending crowds.
For some, seeing the Tour in the flesh has been the thrill of a lifetime. We’re throwing around words like legacy, challenge, investment, experience. For others, it’s just another day. Life will just roll on here the way it always has until it just stops in its own good time.
All the while we were in Oxenhope, we could hear church bells pealing. It was the same in Otley yesterday. A sound to draw in new converts to the religion of cycling.
We crawl out of the village post-race: there’s a miniature traffic-crush on tiny lanes. There are millimeters to spare on either side, but the smaller the car, the less confident or considerate the driver. It takes a looooong time – and the micromanagement of a local lady – to clear the jam and to get us out of the village. The old mills and pretty terraced houses look like they’ll still be here in another 200 years.
We’re away from the leg-snapping severity of the Yorkshire Ardennes and down to the less brutal charms of the Fens, Epping Forest and London tomorrow so Kittel should have it all his own way on the Mall.
Until then …