Given that the other cultural event making the headlines in the UK at the moment is the Monty Python reunion in London, Yorkshire’s Tour de France team presentation on Thursday evening at the First Direct Arena in Leeds could fittingly have been entitled, And Now for Something Completely Different…
From the riders parading through the crowd-packed streets between Leeds University and the arena, to the glitzy setting within the modernistic venue, almost everything about this team presentation was groundbreaking. In addition to the traditional parade of 22 teams on stage, the show featured some of the highlights from the Grand Départ’s cultural festival, including performances by bike-borne dancers Ghost Peloton in their magical LED light suits, a blast of Bizet’s Carmen from Opera North, and a rousing finale from Brighouse rock band Embrace.
Each of the 22 teams received a huge ovation when they were presented on stage, although the roar that greeted the arrival of Chris Froome and his Sky team-mates left no doubt about who most of the 9,000-strong audience were backing. Froome looked slightly overwhelmed by the reception, admitting it made it extra special to be starting the defence of his title on home ground.
The arrival of Mark Cavendish and Omega Pharma-QuickStep also generated a huge reaction. With his wife, daughter and other family members looking on in the audience, Cavendish paid fulsome tribute to Yorkshire, adding that he expects the reception over the coming weekend to be way beyond most people’s expectations. “So excited by the @letour presentation turnout tonight! The @TdF_FanPark is going to be buzzing if the atmosphere will be like that!” Cavendish tweeted after the presentation.
Many of Cavendish’s peers also praised the Tour’s curtain-raiser, Trek’s Gregory Rast admitting he “felt like Justin Bieber on the stage!” Giant-Shimano’s John Degenkolb tweeted: “A big THANK YOU out to every single girl/boy/lady/gentleman at the @letour @letouryorkshire teampresentation!!can't wait till sat.”
After the roars as Sky exited, there was just as much clamour when Tour director Christian Prudhomme and Welcome To Yorkshire chief executive Gary Verity strode onto the stage, like a budding presidential partnership. The Tour’s 198 riders apart, the pair are the most popular men in the county just now.
Prudhomme explained how two years ago Verity had promised him the grandest Grand Départ ever, and had fully delivered on that. When Verity took to the podium, the audience gave him a standing ovation, leaving the W2Y chief exec on the verge of tears.
He praised the team that has work with him over the past three years and, of course, the people of Yorkshire for buying into the Tour with such enthusiasm. “In the future, the Grand Départ will be seen a pivotal moment in Yorkshire’s history,” he said.
It would be easy to dismiss this as overblown rhetoric. After all, the Tour is only a bike race. However, not only has the Grand Départ raised the worldwide profile of Yorkshire, but it has only enthused its inhabitants in the same way that the 2012 Olympics did for Londoners.
Just as significantly, it has boosted cycling, both on the racing side and, more importantly, in terms of mass participation. This meshes perfectly with Verity’s long-term goal of making the county a world-renowned centre for cycling in all its forms. Yorkshire is not quite there yet, but the team presentation provided more evidence that it is well on its way.