For a small band of British greenskeepers, the Tour de France’s arrival in England spells nothing but trouble
Author Thomas Patterson Illustration Wesley Merritt
Every July, like the turning of a tire on a trusty Schwinn, the grand fromage of the sporting calendar comes around: 198 gangly cyclists with sweaty brows and meaty thighs grimly pedaling onward, eyes on the fame and euros that come with a victory in the Tour de France—the only bike race that anyone can actually name. Across France they go, cycling through such charmingly named hamlets as Maubourget Pays du Val d’Adour, La Planche des Belles Filles, and Nancy—and, as has become semi-regular custom, this year they also travel outside France, to places that don’t sound like dancers at the Moulin Rouge.
Since 1954, when Amsterdam took the honors, the Tour de France has intermittently kicked off beyond France’s borders, and for this year’s race, cities
such as Edinburgh, Berlin and Florence fought for the prestige and tourist bucks that Le Grand Départ brings. So who won it? Was it Edinburgh, with its gothic spires, or Florence, with its Renaissance palazzos? It was neither. In fact, the place chosen to host the 2014 Grand Départ was … Yorkshire?
Yorkshire, a county in the northeast of England, is famous for many things—windswept moors, Def Leppard, Yorkshire pudding—but hosting prestigious international sporting events is not one of them. As Gary Verity, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, and a key player in bringing Le Tour to England, points out, “Nothing ever has happened in Yorkshire that’s as big as the Tour de France Grand Départ, and nothing in my lifetime will probably ever happen in Yorkshire to match it.” Seeing as one of the annual highlights in the Yorkshire sporting calendar is the World Coal Carrying Championship, in which competitors lug a hundredweight of, yes, coal up the main street of the town of Ossett, he may have a point.
Verity anticipates that 2 million spectators will line up in the usually sleepy Yorkshire Dales on Day One alone, and the excitement in the county is palpable. “Just cycle around the route now,” Verity says, “and you’ll see yellow bikes hanging up in shop windows. In town centers you’ll see banners. There’s a huge excitement and a passion for it.” Andrew Denton, head of media for the Grand Départ, adds, “The Cragg Vale Community Association have tasked themselves with breaking the world record for bunting.”
Yet it’s not all enthusiasm and local ladies knitting their way to Guinness World Record glory up Yorkshire way. A startling controversy has also emerged, one that’s rather different from Le Tour’s scandals of yesteryear, like its doping hysterias, race-fixing allegations or that time in 1904 when one of the entrants slightly cheated by using a car. This year, a small band of protesters has emerged with a target they consider even more dangerous than Lance Armstrong’s steroid habit: the need to keep the encroaching hordes, with their pelotons and porta-potties, off Yorkshire’s open grasslands. It’s an issue that has bitterly divided the community and has even reached the upper echelons of the British government. When it comes to open grassland in Yorkshire, c’est la guerre!
The 200-acre grassland, or “Stray,” as the locals call it, in the town of Harrogate is at the heart of this battle. As the center of operations for Le Tour’s Yorkshire finale, 48 acres of the Stray will be taken up with trucks, bikes, helicopters, temporary accommodations, grandstands, kiosks and 300 toilets. A ruling from 1985 called the Harrogate Stray Act, however, limits events on the Stray to no more than 8.5 acres, and some locals planned to invoke this law to keep the event at bay. In order to override such obstruction, however, the Conservative cabinet minister Eric Pickles passed emergency legislation to suspend the Stray Act—the first time such powers have ever been used. Some locals are understandably up in arms at this tyranny, with even Verity admitting, “Yes, some people say, ‘What do we want a crowd for?’”
Leading the protest is an organization called the Stray Defence Association, aka the SDA. With an acronym that sounds more like a paramilitary group than a band of respectable townsfolk, the SDA’s sole aim is to protect the Stray from “encroachment from all quarters and uphold the Act granting freedom of the Stray to all people for all time.” The arrival of Le Tour and its millions of fans is no doubt the biggest battle these local activists have faced since their group’s formation, in 1933. And how have they waged this war, with the Harrogate Stray Act temporarily revoked? With a delightfully English and oh-so-polite letter-writing campaign.
As SDA spokeswoman Judy d’Arcy Thompson protested in a dispatch to the editor of local newspaper The Harrogate Advertiser, “The Stray belongs to the people of Harrogate and its importance to the town is immeasurable. Let us hope that the suspension of its legal protection does not result in a Tour de Farce.”
Unfortunately, attempts to contact the SDA were to no avail, emails and letters going unanswered, their phone disconnected. Perhaps, like a true revolutionary force, they’ve gone underground (or, more likely, they’ve been forced to retreat by equally passionate Tour supporters in Yorkshire).
Still, anti-Tour sentiment continues to spread across Yorkshire, and even if the SDA have retreated into the shadows, others in Yorkshire have taken up the cause. Christopher Caine is another protester, from neighboring York, who is fighting the power with a disapproving letter-writing campaign of his own. As Caine points out, “Nobody in Yorkshire is against the Tour per se, and we understand the benefits it’s going to bring to our part of the world. But the Stray is an important part of our heritage, and they are riding roughshod all over it. Literally!”
Of course, this is not the first time Le Tour has incurred protests. Even the first Tour, in 1903, raised the anger of disgruntled locals, who threw tacks in front of the invading riders. Since then, Le Tour has been disrupted for all manner of reasons: anti-globalizationists briefly stopped the race in 2003; Basque separatists attempted the same in 2007; anti-gay-marriage protesters flanked the route in a bid for publicity in 2013; and pro-independence Corsicans have been scaring Le Tour away from their island for years. Now, the genteel protectors of Yorkshire grasslands can count themselves part of this rebellious history.
Harrogate Borough Council, meanwhile, has tried to extend an olive branch to opponents, stating, “The council is keen to stress that as custodians of the Stray … the land will be well looked after and will be fully reinstated (if necessary) after the Tour has taken place.”
Grand Départ spokesman Denton agrees, saying, “When the race comes I think [the protesters] will appreciate what it’s bringing to Harrogate, and we’ll leave the Stray as we found it.”
Some, however, remain unconvinced. “We’ll see if it’s true when the Tour’s been and gone,” says Caine. “We’re talking about a massive impact on the local environment, and I honestly don’t see how the Stray is going to remain unaffected by it. And if it is affected, I’m going to send the council another bloody letter.”
Thomas Patterson is a British film and TV writer who much prefers Bimmers to bikes.