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Lionel Birnie explains why west Essex and East London will be part of something 'absolutely huge' when the Tour de France arrives on Monday
This country is set to witness something on a scale it has never seen before.
There is nothing new about the world’s biggest cycling race visiting these shores – the Tour de France arrived for the first time in 1974 when a stage was held in Plymouth, it returned 20 years later for two stages on the south coast from Dover to Portsmouth before starting in London in 2007 and then heading to Canterbury – but it is the sheer size of what’s about to unfold that is expected to be unprecedented.
It is estimated that in the region of four million people will take to the streets to watch the first three stages of the 101st edition of ‘Le Tour’ in Yorkshire for two days before Monday’s third stage heads to the capital from Cambridge via west Essex and East London. In short, Lionel Birnie believes it will be “absolutely huge”.
The cycling journalist, who will be covering the race for the 12th time and co-hosting The Telegraph Cycling Podcast, said: “This is one of the wonderful things about the Tour and to a lesser extent the Giro [d’Italia] because it’s not quite the same level of event – there are not many events that are so synonymous with one country that can then also start in another country. You couldn’t have the first round of Wimbledon played at Roland Garros or vice versa but that is almost what it’s like.
“The whole of that culture and all of that history will come to Yorkshire and it will just absorb a little bit of what Yorkshire’s all about – the Dales and the cream teas and the Yorkshire Pudding and the real ale and the flat caps. The Tour is this kind of chameleon event that as it moves around it picks up a little bit from every area that it goes through and it will be no different in Yorkshire and also Cambridge and London.
“It’s an enormous event. The organisers say it’s like a mobile Olympic Games but it really is. The people of Yorkshire will be stunned at just how big the whole event is. It will completely take over for the whole time it is over here.”
The 2007 start in London is regarded as one of the best in the Tour’s history but the sport’s profile has changed in this country since then. Cycling may still not be as big as football but it is now arguably becoming a mainstream sport.
Birnie said: “London in 2007 was just the start of cycling’s huge growth spurt here. Mark Cavendish had only just turned professional, Bradley Wiggins was still a track rider, the London start was amazing – they say a million people were out over the weekend watching the race and it took over London – but I think this will be even bigger because people now do know who Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish are, they do know who Chris Froome is, and I think there will be just as many watching to see those guys as they are just to be curious about the event.”
Wiggins ultimately didn’t make the cut for Team Sky’s nine-man squad as Froome aims to win the race for a second successive year. Fellow Brits Alex Dowsett and David Millar were also left out by their respective teams earlier this week for health reasons, meaning just four domestic riders are set to be on the start line in Leeds – Froome, his teammate Geraint Thomas, Simon Yates and Cavendish.
The 25-time Tour de France stage winner, who has a home in Ongar, is aiming to win the opening stage into Harrogate, his mother’s home town, as he bids to pull on the race leader’s yellow jersey for the first time in his career. And if the ‘Manx Missile’ , pictured above, achieves his aim, Birnie believes it could be a defining moment in British sport.
He said: “If the first stage finishes in sprint and Mark Cavendish wins it and pulls on the yellow jersey for the first time in his career, not just in cycling terms but in sporting terms that’s almost like the Andy Murray wins Wimbledon moment.”
Birnie has always had an interest in cycling and first covered the Tour as a journalist in 1999 after he joined Cycling Weekly.
“I think I did about a week and it was totally bewildering,” he recalled.
“It was like being dropped in the middle of the Olympic Games with no knowledge of any of the sports going on.
“Although I thought I understood how cycle racing worked, the Tour is such a vast event – it’s a real odd, unique, wonderful community from the riders and the teams, a huge press room full of journalists from all Europe and all over the world. And of course ‘99 was the first Tour Lance Armstrong won which at the time was a huge story for the group of magazines I worked for as they were distributed in America as well.”
It was during the 1999 race though, that Birnie came into a contact with a fellow journalist who became the key figure in exposing Armstrong and his US Postal Service’s team doping program which ultimately led to the seven-time champion being stripped all of his Tour titles.
Birnie explained: “I do remember on that first Tour being introduced to David Walsh and being a fan of his books, I said ‘really nice to meet you, who do you think is going to win the Tour? Do you think Lance can hold on?’ And he said something that really struck me and stuck with me: ‘I’m not really interested in who wins. I’m interested in how he does it’.
“That planted a seed in my mind. I wasn’t totally naive at that point but it took a lot of peeling away at the layers and talking to a lot of people to realise exactly how the sport operated and obviously in the late nineties, early 2000s it was a pretty grim and depressing reality for almost all of the riders at that time.
“Knowing what I came to know and the restrictions of what you could write in magazines and knowing there was a lot of lying going on, by 2001 I’d had my fill if you like. I’d really fallen out of love with it and I left the magazine.
“Armstrong by then had won three Tours in a row, I didn’t believe in him and I didn’t want to be part of the machinery that was building him up as some kind of demigod.”
You can read more about Birnie’s thoughts on the Tour and it’s darker doping days on this website tomorrow. But by 2005 the reporter and author had returned to reporting on the sport and he has followed every Tour de France from start to finish since 2006, with the exception of one year.
Asked why he keeps going back, Birnie replied: “It is a job but it’s almost an addiction. In 2010 I came home after about a week, I intended to go back but for a reason completely unconnected to work I didn’t and I felt completely discombobulated for about ten days knowing it was going on and not being there.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m an absolutely irrelevant part of the entire circus; as individual journalists we are not important at all. It’s all about the riders and the race and the people that are making the event special. But just to be part of that, I’ve never experienced any other sporting event like it.
“It moves every day, you’re seeing France unfold in front of you, there’s a real anticipation about getting to the mountains, there’s certain areas of France that I really enjoy and look forward to, whether it’s just the countryside or the weather or the food or the wine. It’s the closest thing to being part of your dream student sabbatical while also earning a living.”
The peloton streams down a mountain in last year's Tour. Pictures: Action Images.
The start of this year’s Tour coincides with another great sporting event, the World Cup, and Birnie remarked: “For a football fan the World Cup is a fantastic event to sit and watch on TV and I’m sure for the football journalists, travelling around Brazil this summer will be amazing. But I don’t get the feeling there’s the same sense there is with the Tour where literally everybody on the race packs up and moves on. It’s like being part of one big circus that moves on every day.”
He continued: “If you’re a journalist and you can’t find a story on the Tour de France you should do something else because there’s always something going on.
“One of the joys for me is there’s this huge overarching narrative, the main stories, but then it’s talking to other people and getting the flavour of the race, what’s going on for them. It might be a guy who’s crashed and he’s bandaged up and he’s suffering through and just looking forward to getting to Paris.
“There’s always something going on to pique your interest and keep you going because it is knackering, it’s absolutely knackering.
“After a week you feel tired and you wonder whether you’re going to be able to carry on but two weeks later you arrive in Paris and you realise how tiring it’s been. It is totally full on from morning to night because, quite aside from anything else, you’ve got to do all the driving as well. The riders might ride 100 miles but the course for the journalists might be double that.
“But you do feel closer to it all and you try and convey that to people who aren’t fortunate enough to be there, particularly now with social media you get more feedback on what you do. In so many ways it is just a rewarding experience.
“In a way I don’t look forward to leaving home because you do go a few days early and yet the idea of not being there is much worse than the thought of being away for three-and-a-half weeks.”