Pride and ambivalence: notes from an ageing cyclist on the Tour de Yorkshire.


Grimping a North Yorkshire berg, c.1988.


Scaling a similar nearby ascent, almost thirty years on.

In the summer of 2014 a bold move to bring the Tour de France’s Grand Depart out of the major cities and into the provinces, as part of its biannual excursion away from French soil, was realised. The ambitious project to start the iconic event in Yorkshire, and route the first two stages through some of the most visually stunning landscapes this island has to offer, created excitement across Europe, and not just for cyclists. On that sunny summer weekend, Yorkshire’s towns, cities and rurality were bathed in the light of a million eyes, smiling at the spectacle of our ministerial majesty, dry stoned, sheep-lined dale providing the pastoral backdrop for a sport which successfully encompasses that tricky continuum from tradition to modernity. Graphene, carbon and titanium carved this ancient topography, propelled by athletes precariously pushing their biological provenance to physical, legal and ethical limits. Local businesses harnessed this opportunity to showcase their surroundings with relish. Many benefited significantly from being situated on the race’s parcours, taking several month’s worth of profits on just one day in July. One other notable outgrowth was the Tour de Yorkshire.
That one time occurrence, ‘when I rode from my doorstep and back to watch Le Tour’, was to be replicated in a fashion, albeit on a considerably smaller scale. The lower profile stage race would take in local roads that myself and many of my cycling acquaintances had ridden countless times, in various states of exhaustion. It would swoop past cafés we’d sat ensconced in for hours, and it would scale the minor mountains that had tested us in training and in racing. We knew how physically demanding these roads were. We smugly differentiated our hard northern selves from our softer, southern other; who even cared about Ditchling Beacon when there was a climb like Rosedale to negotiate? Our hills provided that Holy Trinity of cycling challenges: gradient, crosswind and ‘grippiness’, a nebulous term used to sum up all manner of difficulties in road surface and general rideability. This new Tour of Yorkshire would illustrate just how tough us northerners were, are. We’d bask in the reflection of the sweat wrung out by these Continental riders. We would study their gearing, comparing esoteric notes. For those technologically switched on, digital GPS applications such as Strava measured the efforts and provided a numerical, though meaningless, hierarchy from which one could gauge levels of ability. It helped that we all knew someone participating who we rode with on a regular basis. A chance to rib and tease, but ultimately to respect.
More importantly for old-timers like me, the route provided a chance to congregate on hillsides with faces of shared, past endeavours. I stood on a cold, anonymous climb during the inaugural 2015 event only to be beeped and waved at by past team managers and teammates as they drove their lurid, laden team vehicles at speed along the twisty gravelly lanes. It brought a smile to my face knowing I had a tenuous place in this race’s nascent history. At pubs and cafés I encountered semi-familiar faces in varying stages of greyness and fitness, shaking hands and remarking upon appearance and well-being. It was reassuringly nice, to be rooted in some local community that was now brought to an international audience.
This year I’ll be indirectly connected again. One of my son’s bands is playing in a well-known local village as the the race passes through . He’ll be pumping out funky bass riffs to visitors and residents alike in celebration of the event. By virtue of my local knowledge, I’ll be able to watch the race in at least two places, relying entirely upon my bike, and ailing legs, to get me there.The inevitability of seeing ex-teammates by the roadside will mean I’ll once again be able to reconnect with my personal cycling heritage. Yet my deep love and history with cycling has been exposed to a bittersweet threat.
The increased popularity of cycling has been a product of many factors, many of which are external to the growth of this event. Yet there is a common outcome: the increasing numbers of cyclists taking to the roads, especially on weekends. This is of course great in itself. Mixed abilities now don cycling garments and both sexes participate in an activity which until recently had been the domain of the working-class male. There is a beauty to this burgeoning heterogeneity of cycling: it has become less impenetrable, more cosmopolitan, more Euro, and in some ways (though only some) less cliquish. However, this wave of popularity has spawned reaction. The centre-right press have fuelled the tirades of parochial residents averse to large groups of cyclists travelling, often discourteously, through their suburban and semi-rural communities. The gulf between motorist and other has grown, and it is growing. There is of course a certain irony here: most cyclists drive, and many motorists now own a bike. Yet the antipathy towards my kind is reaching a worrying hostility. I hear it a lot, especially as I reside in a small market town associated with this year’s event. Roads have been repaired, though much to the chagrin of disdainful drivers having been held up at temporary closures, and the day itself will incur frustrating diversions for those not bothered by the event’s imposition. I’m preparing myself mentally for this backlash.
There is one other facet to the swell of interest in cycling that irks. I’m no longer different. I’m lumped together with other middle aged men in Lycra. For almost thirty years I’ve been nonchalantly arriving in race headquarters and cafés personally harbouring that thrill of exoticism that was perceptible to me as a young lad, eyeing up the disciplined formations of shiny aluminum silently escaping the urban grime on Sunday mornings. The narcissistic vanity of cultivating the tan and tone of muscle still appeals, but the rest has evaporated. When asked about any aspect of my cycling, I feel compelled to add the rejoinder, “I’ve been doing this a while!” Yet like the miles I’ve clocked up in my legs, I’ll continue to slog those ribbons of tarmac that grace the Yorkshire landscape for long after the event, and perhaps cycling’s popularity, has passed.