Tour de Yorkshire
With the world’s most famous cycle race is coming to my home city, it would have been sacrilege for me to not ride the route. So I arranged a weekend with my Dad, to ride stage 1 and 2 of this year’s Tour de France. We would be doing the stages a lot slower than the peloton, with a lot more stops in cafes and pubs, consuming far more steaks and glasses of vin rouge. It wasn’t going to be an easy weekend though, with two bike rides of over 100 miles and around 20,000 feet of climbing. We’d get an insight into the level of fitness that the pros have, and of the difficulty of the stages. We’d experience the pain of the hills and the beauty of the route and we’d find a good spot to watch it ourselves, in a month’s time.
STAGE 1 - LEEDS TO HARROGATE
We boarded the 07:51 train from Sheffield station armed with two beautiful Wilier road bikes and two large Starbucks coffees. As we left Leeds station, it started hammering it down, and it didn’t stop until the evening… character building! We passed the town hall, where this year’s race will start then headed out of Leeds on the A61 bound for Harrogate. We didn’t get far before our first stop. Cousin Phil lives in Leeds on the route of the tour and he had cake and coffee waiting for us. We didn’t stay long still 120+ miles to go.
On the way out of Leeds we started to appreciate the level of excitement in Yorkshire. Every mile or so, there was a spray painted yellow bike, there were signs everywhere, advertising camping, big screens and festivals. The route was signposted too, making navigation easy. From Leeds to Skipton, the route is fairly flat, along main roads so don’t expect anything to happen until later in the stage. We had to swerve around some fairly extraordinary driving from a bus driver but other than that our progress was swift and problem free, although we were both completely soaked. On warm and rainy days, it is difficult to get your clothing right. Wear your raincoat and sweat loads, or don’t wear your raincoat and get soaked from the rain. Dad chose the former, I chose the latter.
The towns of Otley and Ilkley are beautiful, particular Ilkley. We passed a wonderful bike shop on the west side of Ilkley (Ilkley cycles), which had a great café serving coffee, large bakewell slices and had some pretty awesome sugar pots (see pic)... it would be rude not too right? Third coffee of the day, second cake… 24 miles done, 11 o’ clock, still 100 miles to go! After Ilkley, the ride really started. We entered the Yorkshire Dales and followed a beautiful and quieter road to Grassington, passing pretty fields and rolling hills. It was still raining heavily but no matter, we were really enjoying ourselves.
The route between Grassington and Buckden follows the River Wharfe up Wharfedale. The road passes through some really beautiful little villiages, in particular Kettlewell: the Blue Bell Inn and Racehorses Hotel both look like excellent country pubs, are opposite each other, and have seating areas on the roadside – an excellent place to watch the tour me thinks, but it will be very busy! The large cliffs on the roadside at Kilnsley were a great sight too, dotted with climbers making their way up the giant overhang. At Buckden, the route leaves the River Wharfe, for the first real challenge of the route and the first king of the mountain points, so expect a breakaway or two on the climb up over Kidstones Bank. The climb is fairly easy by Tour de France standards, not too steep and not too long, so the peloton should cruise up it without any drama. It’s a beautiful climb though, following a small stream up to the summit, passing limestone formations and with sweeping views of Wharfedale behind. The climb tops out into Bishopdale, and a fast and fairly narrow descent. Some sections of this route are very narrow, particularly in the small villags, so hopefully the peloton will squeeze through unscathed.
At the bottom of the descent, the route joins the River Ure and a flat main road that took us to Hawes; one of my favourite towns on the route. Hawes is the highest town in England at 850 feet above sea level and more importantly, is home to the Wensleydale cheese factory. This excellent establishment has a counter where you can have as many free samples of the 20+ variety of cheeses as you like. My favourites were standard Wensleydale, Wensleydale with mango and ginger and a smoked one, but they were all fantastic. A pork pie, another coffee and another cake later, we headed back out into the rain ready for the highest point on the UK stages of the tour: Buttertubs Pass.
The climb starts very steeply, before levelling out. Overall it’s a gentle climb but is fairly long. It passes through stunningly beautiful countryside, as the road climbs the hillside and enters moorland. Over the pass, it’s even more spectacular, as the road disappears into the distance, following the river valley down to picturesque Swaledale. The descent from the top of the 526 metre pass lasts for 12 miles, although it’s a steep descent from the pass and a much shallower descent along Swaledale. The steep descent has a sharp right hand turn halfway down, that is approached at high speed, it will be exciting to watch the process tackle it.
At Reeth, another lovely Dales market town, the route climbs over the third and final pass of the stage. This one is steeper than the other two, but shorter and climbs up the side of Swaledale onto a vast moorland panorama. This is possibly the most beautiful part of the stage, just bleak, desolate Yorkshire moorland. This opinion may have been skewed by the emergence of the sun for the first time that day. Finally it was warm and sunny and we were drying out at last. The sun definitely makes the already beautiful countryside more so.
On the other side of the moor, we stopped for our fifth and final coffee of the day in a village pub in Middleham. We talked about the route so far, it had been incredible. We thought that the watching world will probably agree this July. From Middleham, the route is fairly flat all the way to Harrogate. We time trialled it as fast as possible; I was at the front tucked up and giving it my all, Dad tight behind me, in my air shadow. Before we knew it, the 30 miles had passed behind us and Harrogate was on the horizon. I started thinking about the stage from the eyes of Cav. At this point, he will (hopefully) be moving towards the front of the peloton, ready for the sprint into the town centre. There are a couple of fairly significant hills on the way into Harrogate, I’m not sure what effect they’ll have on the sprinters, hopefully not too much! Go on Cav! It would be great to see you in yellow for stage 2.
We crossed the finish line and headed up to the Travellodge before heading out for our meal. Team “vin rouge” ordered some vin rouge and a couple of steaks. What a fantastic day. We were both tired though! 100+ miles tomorrow and 11,000 feet of climbing sounded like hard work!
STAGE 2 - HARROGATE TO SHEFFIELD
Stage 2 began with pots of oats so simple porridge, a great invention for this situation, all you need is a kettle and you can eat a decent breakfast in your hotel room. We left the hotel before 8 am ready for another long day on the road. We were cheating slightly as Stage 2 actually starts from York but as the first 20 miles of the stage to Harrogate are on a main road, we decided that it wasn't worth travelling to York, just to dodge lorries and buses for an hour or so. We noticed that all of our chain lube had been washed off by the rain the previous day so we came up with a novel solution - the low fat spray on olive oil you can buy in Tesco turned out to be an excellent chain lubricant! Our route started in the sunshine along a flat road followed by a long climb towards Skipton. We passed RAF Menwith Hill, which looks like a moon base! It's got giant white spherical structures called "radomes" that form a communications intercept and a missile warning site that was to monitor and protect from the Soviet Union in 1958, it was an impressive sight. The steady climb took us back into the moors, in the bright sunshine. Unfortunately though, we had a strong headwind blowing in the direction that we'd be heading in all day - not good news!
The descent to Addingham was fast and on a wide road, so expect the peloton to get up to speed here! We enjoyed the descent, before starting our next climb to Silsden on a smaller and steeper road. The fantastic Tour de France theming continued in the form of a giant bike created on the hillside across the valley from our climb. We descended to the historic village of Haworth, which was home to the famous authors, the Brontë sisters (Jane Ayre, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall...). After a bacon roll and a coffee in a small cafe by the railway station, we began the climb through the village, which was incredible... this will be one of the highlights of the stage, and possibly the best place to watch Stage 2. The route climbs straight through the centre of the village, on a cobbled (Pavé) road. It's steep and very narrow, with cafés, pubs, restaurants and shops lining the climb. Crowds will gather here and the riders will be passing through a sea of spectators; the atmosphere will be electric.
After Howarth was, yep... another climb, over to Hebden Bridge. The road crossed a dam at the end of a reservoir then climbed very steeply (16%) back into the countryside. A long descent then brought us to the beautiful town of Hebden Bridge, it was such a nice day that we had to stop for another coffee and a scone!
This stage is really, really hilly! 11,000 feet of climbing with over 10 significant passes. The one that took us out of Hebden Bridge was called Craggy Vale and went on and on. It's not very steep, but I think it is around this point that the riders may start to feel their legs. The largest climbs are still to come... Craggy Vale topped out on a spectacular moor, with a reservoir and a roaring headwind. After struggling against the wind for 45 minutes or so, we reached another road, that changed our direction so that we were no longer cycling into the wind. We descended quickly to Elland, climbed up over a low pass into Huddersfield, then found a pub at the base of the largest and most difficult climb in these parts; Holme Moss. Steak frites for lunch was required!
So, adequately refueled, caffeine levels topped up, stretches completed... can't delay it any longer... bring on Holme Moss! It starts gently, climbing past a few villages, which all seem to have "Holme" in their name. After the last of the villages, the moorland starts once more. A very short descent to a bridge then the steep part of the climb starts. This climb is tough because it gets steeper and steeper as you climb and you can always see the giant radio mast at the top, so you always know exactly how far there is to go. The climb starts in earnest after the bridge. There are a couple of switchbacks, then you're faced with a long, straight, steep road up to the top; we were blessed with the roaring headwind once more! I decided to push up Holme Moss as hard as I could to gain insight into what the tour riders will be going through at this stage. By the top, my legs were burning but it was exhilarating, and looking behind, the view was spectacular, a sweeping landscape, dotted with villages, a reservoir, the large TV tower near Huddersfield and the road, snaking up the hillside. I love Yorkshire...
...then things got even better. The descent from Holme Moss is incredible. Steep, sweeping, technical and so so fast. Keep an eye on the top speed of the tour riders here. I got up to about 45 mph, they'll probably be over 60 mph! The descent brought us to the start of yet another large climb; Woodhead Pass. It wasn't much fun because the traffic on the Woodhead road is horrible, we just kept tucked into the side of the road and avoided the cars and lorries that sped past. Obviously the tour riders won't have this problem. The climb is gradual and long, as is the descent to Langsett, we were approaching Sheffield now, and I was back in familiar riding territory.
The Pièce de résistance of Stage 2 is arguably the final section from Langsett to Sheffield. It's beautiful rolling countryside passing a number of pretty villages, with very steep climbs and descents thrown in. The road is simply beautiful, it's recently been relaid and the surface is just perfect, you could race an F1 car on it! We climbed from Langsett, then descended into a river valley before climbing a 20% incline up to the moors again. The road is flat for a while before descending to High Bradfield. At this point we left the tour route as we wanted to have a malt-based recovery drink at the Nags Head pub that serves all the beer from the local, and excellent, Bradfield Brewery. The tour stage climbs a couple more hills then enters Sheffield, passes Hillsborough then heads towards Meadowhall where there is a short, 30% incline to finish the riders off before they reach the Stage end point in Attercliffe. We rode back to my house near Hunters Bar and got a Greek kebab before Dad set off to drive home. What a weekend! Yorkshire really is an amazing place, the variety on offer on this route was quite incredible: moors, mountains, rolling hills, beautiful towns, historic villages, industrial heritage, cities, 2 national parks, difficult passes, a lot of cheese and 100s of spray painted yellow bikes! Thanks for reading, and don't miss Le Tour de Yorkshire (5th - 6th July). We were knackered, how the pros ride stages like that every day for the best part of a month I don't know, they are unbelievable athletes...