By Ben Atkins in London
Britain's cycling press was joined by the mainstream media at a presentation hosted by Transport for London (TfL) yesterday, January 31. TfL Commissioner, Peter Hendy, was joined by Olympic Champions Chris Boardman, Bradley Wiggins and rower James Cracknell (a recent cycling convert) to outline the rationale behind London's successful application for this year's Grand Départ of the Tour de France, and the benefits that London would reap in the short and long term.
London - claims Hendy - was the first city ever to apply to host the Tour de France with an aim to do more than just showcase the city to the World. It is one of the busiest cities in Europe and is constantly searching for ways to entice and encourage people out of their cars - and on to their bikes. Measures introduced like the Congestion Charge (a flat daily rate payable by anyone driving within a certain zone in the city) - which is due to be extended into the West End this year have helped to increase cycle use greatly, as have incidents like the Underground and Bus bombings of July 7, 2005. It is hoped though, that the Tour de France and its entire associated spectacle will inspire Londoners to take up cycling in great numbers - for getting around, for general fitness as well as for sport.
The Grand Départ will also be one of the first of many major events to be hosted by Britain's capital in the run up to London 2012, and the world will be watching to judge. It will be a big year for London sport with the opening of the new National Stadium at Wembley. As well as the racing there will be a number of festivals and events scheduled in London's Royal Parks - particularly Hyde Park and St James' Park, which are on the prologue route. It has not been missed that the prologue will be held on the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks on London's transport system and there will be some events to commemorate this.
Chris Boardman spoke of his sense of personal disappointment last time the Tour visited the UK. He had been holding the yellow jersey since the Lille Prologue, but lost it to Johann Museeuw as his GAN team fell apart in the team time trial to the Eurotunnel Terminal, just before the race crossed the Channel. He talked up Wiggins' chances on what should be a fast and smooth course, adding a little pressure on his compatriot.
Bradley Wiggins was brought up just over a mile away from the Prologue course in Maida Vale, and so is obviously overjoyed that the race will be in London this year. Addressing the non-cycling media he described the Tour as like the Olympics every day for three weeks - the nearest thing he's ever been to the Tour Prologue was the Olympic pursuit final. He also spoke of the mental pressure of grovelling through the mountains one day and having to get up the next morning and do it again.
As well as the non-tangible economic benefits of increased cycle use, Hendy also announced that London - and the South East of England where the Tour passes on Stage 1 - stands to make around £115 million out of the Tour's visit. In fact, he confidently expected to make back London's financial outlay on the increased numbers of public transport users that weekend.
As a rather optimistic footnote, Hendy hopes to have the Tour de France in London at least one more time before 2012. (Also read Cyclingnews' feature Tourist's guide to London: Tour 2007's Prologue Route.)