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Ey Up Boss! Yorkshire’s Tour de France

Dominic Irvine

People watch the Tour de France in York

What is it about Yorkshire that inspired 2.5million people to turn out and watch two days of the Tour de France? Dominic Irvine asks if same spirit can be bottled so that organisations can inspire and motivate their employees

Tour de France officials were astonished at the high levels of support and enthusiasm during the Grand Depart stages from Leeds to Harrogate, and the following day from York to Sheffield. Many places along the route were lined with people ten deep and on just one of the hill climbs, Holme Moss, police estimated there were 60,000 people. In fact, the total number of spectators was calculated to be half the population of Yorkshire – and, incidentally, included both authors of this article.

People camped out all weekend to ensure they bagged a good vantage point; farmers cut ‘Bienvenue le Tour’ into the grass on hillsides. Some farmers went as far as dying their sheep the colours of some of the leaders’ jerseys (yellow, green and polka dot). Yellow ribbons and decorations adorned the route and young children supported the event by waving home-made flags. There was even a yellow Yorkshire rose proudly displayed, reflecting the colour of the race leader’s jersey.

In the multicultural district of Burngreave, Sheffield where John was watching, he observed a wide range of nationalities all with a great sense of pride at being a part of this little slice of history. A huge roar of encouragement sounded for one cyclist as he rode his bicycle down the middle of the empty road an hour before the peloton arrived. People shared food and drink and a Caeli band of neighbours played while children danced and swung one another around.

Excitement and anticipation

Similarly, on the side of Grinton Moor, Dominic watched people from all nationalities perched next to each on the edge of the road in excited anticipation of the arrival of the peleton. These spectators had walked or ridden several miles to get to their chosen vantage point.

A few weeks earlier, Chris Froome, last year’s victor, had ridden the route to gain some insights and develop strategies ahead of the race. He was spotted climbing Jenkin Road, with one 20-metre section making it the steepest hill of this year’s Tour de France. On Sunday, the television commentators said:

“This is a very steep climb. You can’t see it, but, their legs will tell you. Watch how they wobble, watch as they crack one by one… This is turning out to be a battle of the riders, Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador, and Chris Froome, who expect to be on the podium in Paris... and here we are on a little road in the back streets of the city of Sheffield in Yorkshire.”

But, why should an event such as this encourage and inspire so many people? Many of whom probably had little previous interest in the Tour de France. Cambridge and London and other cities on the Tour are known for cycling but you have to be a diehard cyclist to ride in Sheffield which is built on seven hills, a similarity it shares with Rome. As a recipe for a good time, watching the Tour De France does not, on the face of it, have a lot going for it.

  1. You spend hours getting to your chosen vantage point
  2. Over the course of an hour you watch hundreds of vehicles (some amusing) drive past
  3. Then the riders arrive in a flurry of sirens, helicopters and film crews
  4. Seconds later, they are gone

Communication and involvement

It seems that the Tour has tapped into a vein of communication and involvement. There had been considerable media coverage, but many local conversations revolved around how to celebrate and watch Le Tour. It became more than just a bike race. A sense of belonging and personal contribution drew people together in a remarkable demonstration of what can be achieved through inner motivation.

A farmer interviewed on the ‘Farming Today’ programme on Radio 4 was explaining how the tiny village of Muker, home normally to 45 people, was expecting 10,000 people and how they soon realised they needed to provide food and entertainment for them all. The mindset of the interviewees on the programme seemed to be ‘how do we make this a fantastic event that people will remember for the rest of their lives?’

Riding the route the following day, hundreds of enthusiastic amateurs were reliving the moment, battling the climbs in the dales, chasing each other down the valleys and having a fine time. The sense of connection through the shared experience of riding the same roads provides an experience that perhaps no other sporting arena offers.

Most of the world tends to overlook Yorkshire, despite its heritage and magnificent scenery. This was a brief moment for the ordinary person to experience the extraordinary. There is a ‘toughness’ and resilience in Yorkshire folk which often, but not always, enables people to dig deep and get to the finish. Although a degree of intelligence is a necessary ingredient in helping people achieve, the main factor in success is resilience, the ability to keep going after suffering set-backs.

There is also an enormous appetite for sport in the county. If Yorkshire had been an independent country during the 2012 Olympics, as some diehard Tykes would like, it would have finished in twelfth place with gold medals from Jessica Ennis (heptathlon), Ed Clancy (cycling team pursuit), Andrew Triggs Hodge (men’s coxless fours), Catherine Copeland (lightweight women’s double skulls), Alistair Brownlee (triathlon), Nicola Adams and Luke Campbell (boxing).

For four summers as a student, John literally shovelled manure at the local sewerage works and sometimes cycled home up Jenkin Road, an 800m 33% climb. He never imagined that the capacity to keep going when it became really tough would give him the life skills to transfer to the workplace. Dominic has created challenging cycle events for customers and colleagues as a form of what could only be described as ‘extreme networking’.

What could be observed everywhere, among the riders and the multicultural spectators, was a determination to succeed, and also to enjoy the event. Yorkshire has the innate capacity to be obdurate and resilient – it is attributes such as these that will help the north of England bridge the gap with the affluent South.

Written by Dr John WIlson and Dominic Irvine, founder of Epiphanies LLP. Dominic's regular blog posts can be found here

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