By Ben Atkins in London
London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone addressed a reception for London's media at the Leadenhall Market in the city's financial quarter last night. He spoke passionately about his vision to make London the premier cultural, artistic and sporting city in the world, and how hosting the Tour's Grand Départ this year will play a major role in that.
The 2007 edition will be the first time that the Tour has visited Britain's capital - and only the third time it has visited the UK - but Red Ken, as he has always been known, is confident that it will not be the last time. British cycling fans has waited thirteen year's for the race to return, but he's hoping that not only the race, but the Grand Départ itself will be back again before too long.
"As soon as it is decently possible, we will bid to do this all over again," and with the spectacular course on offer, and viewership expected in the "hundreds of millions of people," he is pretty confident that future bids will be successful.
The Tour de France is just one event that Livingstone and the city authorities have encouraged and attracted to the city, and all of London's sporting events will be building up to the crescendo that will be the Olympic Games in 2012.
The Grand Départ, and other events, are all part of the grand plan to put London at the top of the list of cities to visit and to do business in: "When I was a young man, it seemed like everything that was happening in the world was happening in New York, great business, great culture, great art, the whole world wanted to come to New York. We're close to getting to that point for London."
Adding a note of defiance, after recent attempted bombings in central London have had the potential to disrupt many of the capital's events, Livingstone praised London's status as one of the most multicultural and tolerant cities in the World. "The single most important thing," he said, "is that in this city, you can be yourself. You can live your life as you choose, so long as you allow everybody else to do the same." It is of course a coincidence, but the fact that Saturday's Prologue falls on July 7th, the second anniversary of the suicide attacks on London's public transport system is not lost on him.
As well as a sporting and cultural event, to add to London's standing throughout the world, and a massive marketing opportunity, the Grand Départ is a fantastic chance to enthuse London's youth about taking up cycling as a sport. "This weekend there will be kids in this city who will watch the fastest people on cycles hurtle through the streets of London and... say: "I want to do that!"" This theory does have a great precedent to draw upon, as Bradley Wiggins was famously inspired by his trip to watch the Tour as a boy, last time it visited the UK.
As well as in a purely sporting sense, Livingstone and Transport for London see the humble bicycle as one of the solutions to London's traffic congestion issues. Cycling in Britain's capital has increased by over 80% in the last five years, and getting cycling to levels seen in cities like Berlin and Copenhagen is the target. Getting more and more Londoners out of their cars and on to their bikes will have the triple effect of "reducing congestion, reducing pollution, and making those who do it very much healthier."
More and more, Ken Livingstone hopes to see London as the number one city in the world, in terms of arts, culture, and - most importantly - cycling.
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