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Yorkshire puts on a show

"All this for a bike race. This isn't Glastonbury, or for the World Cup. This is all for the Tour de France. I can't really believe it, it's absolutely incredible," said Simon Warren of Ilkley-based kit manufacturer Spirit Cycling as he surveyed the thousands sitting in the sun in the Yorkshire town's fan park watching the finale of the stage into Harrogate.

It was that kind of day in "God's own county". The police estimated that close to a quarter of a million people packed the centre of Leeds for the start of stage one. Three times that number lined the rest of the course through the Dales and into Harrogate.

For months, the Grand Départ has felt like it would be Yorkshire's Olympic moment. Just as the 2012 Games transformed London, the Tour de France has captured the imagination of Yorkshire folk. There are polka-dot houses, mini Eiffel Towers, sheep painted in all of the race's colours and, best of all, more people on bikes.

Travelling into Leeds first thing this morning, it quickly became apparent that Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive Gary Verity's prediction that there would be many hundreds of thousands of fans on the roadside would be spot on. Trains coming out of Leeds were so packed that fans waiting at intermediate stations couldn't get on them.

At Leeds station, thousands flocked through the barriers and headed past the yellow jersey-clad statue of the Black Knight – the hammer of the French at the battle of Crécy in the 14th century! – in City Square and up past Cuthbert Brodrick's magnificent Town Hall to fill the streets around the stage start. As the riders emerged from team buses to sign on and then gather at the start line, they received a huge ovation, which was even more clamorous when the Brits and the sport's biggest names took to the line.

Out on the road, the first sign that the Tour was approaching came with the buzz of seven helicopters. Moments later, Jens Voigt and his two breakaway companions breezed past, crowds on both sides yelling them on. Two minutes passed and the peloton cruised by, Lotto-Belisol setting the pace with Omega Pharma-Quick Step sat in behind them.

Getting such a brief glimpse of the race can be an anticlimax, but the peloton's passage through Ilkley was the trigger for a host of other events, most focused on the centre of the town, where two giant screens were showing the race. A food market featured steak haché instead of burgers, bouillabaisse instead of fish and chips.

As the peloton closed on Harrogate, anticipation grew. When Mark Cavendish's Omega Pharma-Quick Step team went to the front with 6km remaining, there was a roar, which came again every time Omega Pharma fended off attempts to dislodge them from the front. A kilometre out, a Cav victory looked odds on. But then came the crash and Marcel Kittel's final charge.

The atmosphere was slightly subdued for a few minutes, until King of the Mountains Jens Voigt said in an interview he had been overwhelmed by the size of the crowds and the response they had given the riders. According to one of the TV commentators, the crowds had been more impressive than London's Grand Départ in 2007.

Queuing for a post-stage beer, the man behind me explained how he had never really been interested in cycling until recently, but had enjoyed the day immensely. "It made me feel proud to be a Yorkshireman," he said. "It's really put us back on the map." Ultimately, that was the point. Bring on stage two…

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Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).