Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Tour de France

You might have been wondering when the Tour would put in an appearance. Well, I'd better own up right now and say that the Langsett household's interaction with The Most Watched Sporting Event in the World was pretty tangential, but enjoyable nonetheless. It went like this:

Thursday 3rd July
"We should go and see the Grand Depart!" said Mrs L, surprisingly. Mrs L does have a bike. It is a Raleigh Pioneer, from the heartbreaking period in Raleigh's history where they had learned to build bikes that were absolutely bulletproof, but sales declined nevertheless. It is The Bike That Will Not Die. For five years, my mum didn't ride it. And during all the time that she didn't ride it, it stood in the back yard of mum and dad's house getting snowed on, baked in the sun, refrigerated, blown over and drenched in rain. I borrowed it for Mrs L to have a go on. It needed a wipe down and some new tyres in order to be ready for the road again. It basically looks like new. Unfortunately Mrs L shows no more respect for the Pioneer's fierce will to survive than my mum did, and it is enjoying a comfortable semi-retirement in the shed outside. So I was, as I say, a bit surprised that she wanted to go and have a look at the Tour, which I imagined would be a bit like being hit around the head with a bicycle while someone bellows the Marseillaise at you, if you don't like cycling. Still, I jumped on Destination Yorkshire's website to have a look at how we might manage it. I wanted to see the peloton climb Holme Moss, the bleak and beautiful Pennine pass between Woodhead and Holmfirth. I had a bit of a moment, and couldn't work out a way to get up to the summit - all the roads seemed to be closed for miles on either side of the route. I thought about trying to explain to my daughters why we were hiking through the Pennines to the top of a windy hill to watch a race pass, when the passing would be over and done with in a few minutes at most. I imagined it raining while I was doing this. I wrote it off.

Saturday 5th July
I honoured the Tour by getting up early and sneaking out of the house for an early morning ride. It had been raining, so I needed mudguards but I was (naturally) feeling all roady, so I took the Sludgy Green Bike rather than the Inferno. The Sludgy Green Bike is a relatively recent arrival in the Langsett bike cave, and it is another Viscount. However, it occupied a less illustrious position in the catalogue than the mighty Aerospace Pro when it was new, and mine is a bit dog eared and tired. In addition it is, as the name suggests, a sludgy green colour. And as you can see, it has all been co-ordinated pretty thoroughly to create a slightly camouflaged effect:

In the right conditions, the Sludgy Green Bike can actually disappear entirely, merging seemlessly with the greenery behind it.

It was a great little ride - out past the paper mill at Carrington with its weird freshly braked bread mixed with sweaty socks smell, up the hill after Oughtrington (with the gradient issuing its customary reminder that a bit more self control when it comes to late night snacks and all-Pasty lunches would be no bad thing) and then right on to the empty A56 and the long run downhill into Lymm. Through the S bend down onto Lymm Dam at a positively conservative 29mph, through Lymm village and then home.

I got back and stuck ITV's wall to wall coverage of Stage 1 on. Kate looked at me askance, while I excitedly rattled off a series of unrelated Tour facts, the closest I could come to actual conversation.

" Look, there's Ned Boulting!" I said excitedly, bouncing up and down a bit. I read Ned's book about the Tour de France earlier this year and it was nice to see him doing his day job.

"Daddy, why do you like bike races so much..." said Kate in a pitying tone of voice.

We were in and out for the rest of the day, so I caught bits of the coverage. I heard about how the stage ended, but I didn't see it.

Sunday 6th July

The Bike that Will Not Die's former owner came over in the middle of the day to visit my uncle in hospital, and I had a secret mission to a classified location in North Yorkshire to complete later that afternoon, in connection with Mrs Langsett's new job. The Tour was impossible to avoid completely. It was on whenever the television was on. My uncle lives up the hill from Langsett, and my aunt described seeing the peloton coming down to the hill before taking on the Cote de Midhopestones when we spoke to her from the hospital. Later on, when I set off for North Yorkshire, the westbound lane of the M62 was full of cars with bikes on the roof or hanging off the back - more than I'd ever seen before - all returning from watching the Tour. Crossing over the stage route outside Huddersfield, there was a brief glimpse of blue lights and the debris that was the race's aftermath being scrupulously collected.

Checking Facebook later, it seemed that everyone in the world had managed to catch the race. Helen and Martin had made it to Holme Moss with their lads, as had Kate and Rick. The sun had shone, and this bald hilltop between Manchester and Sheffield looked thoroughly tamed, with thousands of people (accompanied by thousands of bikes) spread out along the final few hairpins to watch Blel Kadri storm the last ramp before the summit.

Monday 7th July
I got to work on my TdF television coverage backlog, watching the bits of stage 1 that I'd missed. The speed that Yorkshire whipped by at was eye opening. Familiar landmarks and places that we've been meaning to visit for years tripped by in turn as the peloton rolled onwards, until it felt like there wasn't a bit of the county that I'd seen where the TdF hadn't also swooped past. There was that side road on the way to Malham where Mrs Langsett demanded a comfort break, only to be surprised by a farmer on his tractor! There was the bit on the Harrogate road where, in the minibus on the way back from Kate and Rick's wedding, I'd realised that getting stuck into the chocolate fountain was going to have toilet consequences! And then there was that stage finish....

I haven't watched that much cycle racing. So the way in which the peloton sorted and distilled itself as the last few kilometres wound down was like a magic trick done in plain sight. One minute, there was a huge, chaotic, multicoloured group of riders rolling along in a way that looked almost relaxed. The next minute, the speed was up, and the group had separated into neat little lines formed of the riders of each team, each working to move their sprinter into the best position.  Mark Cavendish's Omega Pharma-Quick Step team in their black and white jerseys came hammering down the right hand side; Cavendish was tucked away third from the front. I instinctively wanted to duck out of the way. The Katusha team jinked and swerved to the left, trying to find a way through but had nothing. They were coming up on the last kilometre. I knew what would happen next. Those first two Omega Pharma riders would fall away. Cavendish would engage warp drive, treating the whole peloton like his own personal launch pad. The background would blur. The Manx lad would scream across the line and punch the air. Except nobody had told Cancellara that: he put the hammer down over on the other side of the road, racing ahead of the pack so fast he looked like he was leaving his bike behind. Omoega Pharma's hold on the front broke. I lost Cavendish and only saw him again when the crash happened, Simon Gerrans' bike going under his front wheel. Mark of course, was trying to find a gap to get himself back to the front.

Here's the thing: I knew the end result before I sat down to watch. But it was still the most exciting bit of televised sport I've ever watched. It was just incredible watching the peloton form up for the sprint, and just as incredible seeing it suddenly come unstuck.

Like I said - tangential, but enjoyable.

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