How Yorkshire won the yellow jersey

If the hills provide the backdrop, it is money that paves the route.

Yorkshire is not known as a particularly francophile county, nor, indeed, as particularly anglophile (an attitude encapsulated by Yorkshire County Cricket Club, which in 1992 was the last county to allow non-native players on to its books). Why, then, does the Tour de France start its 2014 incarnation on 5 July with a Grand Départ that rolls along the Headrow in Leeds – what some wags are calling the “Champs de Leeds-ay” – and finishes 190 kilometres later outside Bettys tea rooms in Harrogate? The answer, it seems, comes down to scenery, cash and dogs.

Three million people are expected to stand roadside to watch the Tour’s three English stages but 3.5 billion more, in 188 countries, will watch the race on TV. What they want are picturesque views to set off the thighs, Lycra and bikes. When Gary Verity, the chief executive of the tourism body Welcome to Yorkshire and the man who dreamed up the idea of a “Tyke Tour”, invited the organisers to Britain in 2012 to make his pitch, he cannily flew them from London by helicopter so they could see for themselves the sorts of aerial shots the race would give the 121 television companies that cover it.

If the hills provide the backdrop, it is money that paves the route. Aso, the company that owns the Tour, runs more than a dozen major cycling races but only two – the Tour and the Paris-Roubaix – make money. Leeds City Council is reportedly paying Aso a £4m “staging fee” for the privilege of hosting the race, while Yorkshire local authorities will be spending a further £2.5m to cover other costs (including road repairs for the route). According to Transport for London figures, in 2007, when the Tour last visited Britain, London and Kent benefited to the tune of £88m with a further £35m in free media coverage. Yorkshire hopes to finesse the £6.5m seed money into a £100m windfall.

Yorkshire’s hoteliers are the most obvious beneficiaries: 1,200 hotel rooms are reserved each night for the teams, staff, press and Tour personnel – and they will be in the county for five days. Other businesses will do well, too, as each spectator spends on average six hours by the road and will need fortifying with food and drink and diverting with souvenirs.

The sums involved help explain why Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Vienna and even, apparently, Qatar were among the places that also bid to hold the opening stage.

Yorkshire is adding a distinctive flavour to t’Tour. Otley’s 19 pubs have adopted French names for the duration (the Black Bull becoming Le Taureau Noir, the Horse and Farrier Le Cheval et le Maréchal-ferrant, and so on); the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has been tweeting his support and wearing cycling gear in lieu of a surplice; several tractors converted to wifi stations have been positioned along the route; and the county is playing up that, in 1958, the Ravensthorpe-born Brian Robinson was the Tour’s first British stage winner.

For all the enthusiasm, it may have been a Yorkshire terrier that swung the decision to award the county the race. On his way to a meeting with the Tour organisers in 2012, Verity took a selfie of himself holding one of the dogs and sent it to the race director, Christian Prudhomme. The Yorkie is France’s favourite small dog and the snap, it seems, put Yorkshire into the yellow jersey.

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again