Fans from Belgium and Holland have been already been sighted, looking for the best spots to park their mobile homes. The hotels and B&Bs are booked solid. Roads are being resurfaced. The parish council is worrying about how many Portaloos they’ll be needing. Winter is coming to the Yorkshire dales, but in Ilkley this week thoughts were turning to high summer and the arrival of the Tour de France next July.
“It’s going absolutely mental up here already,” a friend exclaimed when I said I’d be joining him at a public meeting about the likely impact of the Tour on a West Yorkshire town famous in the Victorian era for its hydrotherapy centres and now best known for an old ballad about its moor.
Modern Ilkley is a place where 8% of the population of 13,000 are members of the local cycling club, a particularly remarkable statistic given that the institution, having faded into extinction during the 1960s, was resurrected only three years ago. Any day of the week now, it’s a rare journey on the main road or the surrounding lanes that doesn’t include an encounter with cyclists out on training rides.
On Wednesday evening more than 100 people turned up for the sort of meeting that is being held in towns and villages throughout the county, along the route of stages one, from Leeds to Harrogate, and two, from York to Sheffield, next July. And they were warned to expect something unprecedented. “Think of last year’s Olympic torch relay,” the emergency planning officer from Bradford council told them, “and multiply it. Then multiply it again. And again.”
Some are just looking forward to a gala occasion. Local businesses are wondering how they can get a slice of the commercial benefit – a total of anything between £100m and £300m, it is claimed – generated by the presence of an estimated three million extra visitors to Yorkshire during the week of the Grand Départ. A sizeable number of residents are concerned about the potential disruption caused by extensive road closures and the sheer scale of the whole enterprise.
In its three previous visits to the UK – in 1974, 1994 and 2007 – the Tour failed to venture north of London. It was the county’s cycling heritage, the man from Welcome to Yorkshire told the meeting, that had enabled Gary Verity, the tourist board’s chief executive, to win the bid for the 2014 Grand Départ against well-funded competition from Edinburgh.
“This is cycling country,” he said, introducing a couple of short films, the first featuring such local heroes as Brian Robinson, the first British rider to win a Tour stage back in 1958, Barry Hoban, winner of eight stages between 1967 and 1975, and Mark Cavendish, whose mum is from Yorkshire, and the second showcasing the spectacular landscape of the dales.
Given the explosion in cycling’s popularity in the five years since millions thronged Hyde Park and the lanes of Kent, and the vast numbers who endured filthy weather to watch this year’s Tour of Britain, even a town that isn’t hosting a stage start or finish is going to experience a huge impact, and Ilkley is priming itself. The shelves of the Grove bookshop, a few doors away from Betty’s famous tea rooms, already contain more volumes about cycling than all other sports put together. The local bike shop, JD Cycles, is readying itself for a move in February from its present location, hidden away in a former furniture store behind the railway station, to a smart new building on the main road, just a few yards from where the peloton will sweep by next summer.
“A lot of people have been saying: ‘It’s all very well, but it’ll be here and gone in 30 seconds,'” the tourist board man said, before explaining that the passage of the publicity caravan alone – with its free promotional caps, keyrings and bags of sweets – will occupy several hours. Preceding it will be an entire week’s worth of events: the opening of a campsite the previous Saturday, a sportive for 1,000 amateur riders on the Sunday, races in the town centre – following the example of neighbouring Otley’s popular annual event – on the Tuesday, a retro-styled Tweed Ride on the Thursday, an after-school family ride and barbecue on the Friday, a bike show in the Winter Gardens all week, and then the Tour itself on the Saturday, with big screens set up for spectators to follow its progress throughout the 191km opening stage.
The scope for initiative is vast, and the effort made by individual communities is crucial to the race’s unique character. “We want to put on a great show,” a man from the parish council said. A lady from Addingham, a village three miles away, through which the Tour will pass on both its days in Yorkshire, mentioned that children at the primary school are planning to create floral displays in the colours of the Tour jerseys. There will be banners honouring the race’s past winners, and thought is being given to providing the helicopter-borne TV cameras with a special display on the Cow and Calf, the distinctive rock formation on the ridge of Ilkley Moor, high above the town.
Members of the cycling club are working with local schools to create cross-curricular projects involving studies of related subjects, including geography and French. Thousands of “Tour makers”, recruited by the tourist board, will follow the example of the volunteers who contributed so much to the London Olympics. The Ilkley branch of the Soroptimists is in charge of a team of guides.
More sombrely, an inspector from the local police station announced that all leave has been cancelled for the week, given the need to match the French system of stationing a gendarme at each road junction on the closed route, no matter how minor, and to ensure that the lanes are kept unclogged, guaranteeing access for the emergency and utility services. She also warned of the potential influx of thieves with plans to steal expensive bikes and burgle houses and tents left empty while the race goes past. And should it rain, the man from Bradford council said, contingency plans will be needed for towing parked vehicles out of muddy fields. This is, after all, Yorkshire, not Provence.
But optimism is high. “Gary Verity claims he wants to make Yorkshire the world’s No1 cycling destination,” the organiser of the town-centre races told me. “It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But then we laughed when Dave Brailsford said there’d be a British winner of the Tour within five years. And look what happened with that.”
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk