Yorkshire is gearing itself up for a spectacular start to this year’s Tour de France after thousands gathered to cheer British hopefuls in the opening ceremony at Leeds Arena.
Current champion Chris Froome joined his Team Sky colleagues on stage last night to huge applause from the 10,000-strong crowd as all 198 riders were welcomed ahead of the Grand Depart in the city centre.
Tomorrow’s opening stage is expected to attract up to three million spectators, and the three-week race is likely to draw a worldwide television audience of 3.5 billion people.
Prime Minister David Cameron has said it will showcase Yorkshire as ” one of the most beautiful places in the world”, adding that he hopes ” businesses right along the route reap the benefits”.
Day one will see the teams ride to Harewood House, just north of Leeds, where the ceremonial start will be conducted by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry.
The riders will then tackle the hills and lanes of the Yorkshire Dales before a sprint finish in Harrogate where the royal visitors will welcome the leading riders and the peloton.
On Sunday, stage two will take the Tour from York to Sheffield and feature some of the toughest climbs in British cycling.
Despite the opening two stages being billed as Yorkshire’s Grand Depart, the other side of the Pennines has also tapped into the excitement with Rochdale making the most of the fact that a 0.6-mile section of stage two passes through the borough.
On Monday, the entourage moves south to Cambridge from where the teams will race in stage three to London and a finish near Buckingham Palace, on The Mall.
Froome will be hoping to make it three in a row for British riders, continuing the winning streak started by Bradley Wiggins in 2012.
Last night’s ceremony – the first time a spectacular arena show has been included as part of the Tour’s traditional team presentation – was a colourful curtain-raiser to the race and something Froome described as “an amazing experience”.
As well as all the riders from the 22 teams being presented on stage, there were performances from Girls Aloud star and Bradford girl Kimberley Walsh, Yorkshire band Embrace and Opera North.
But it was the cyclists – especially the four British riders in this year’s Tour – who received most of the standing ovations and wild applause.
Froome said being the champion over the last year had been “massive”.
He said: “I can’t say enough how special it is to come back here as defending champion.”
Asked about the reception he has received, Froome said: “It’s been unreal, absolutely unreal. We really couldn’t ask for much more. This is going to be such an amazing experience.”
The other big star of the night was Mark Cavendish, who will be the focus of attention on Saturday when millions of people will watch to see if he can sprint to the yellow jersey in his mother’s home town of Harrogate.
Lining up with his Omega Pharma-Quickstep team-mates, Cavendish said he believes it will be the best ever Grand Depart.
He said: “It’s been incredible. I came here a few weeks ago to recce the course and the support for the Tour was absolutely phenomenal.”
The riders were cheered through the streets of Leeds as they paraded through the city centre on their way to the ceremony.
There was a huge cheer in the arena for the other two British riders in this year’s race – rookie Simon Yates, who is riding for the Australian Orica-Greenedge team, and Froome’s Sky team-mate Geraint Thomas.
Cavendish’s big sprint rival Marcel Kittel, from Germany, charmed the arena when he talked about the “awesome” welcome he had received in Yorkshire.
The Giant-Shimano rider said: “I’m feeling good, really good. My knees are feeling a bit soft now and shaking but thanks for the warm welcome here, it’s awesome.”
Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme was given a massive cheer when he referred to Yorkshire as “god’s county”.
“Yorkshire is gorgeous,” he said. “Stunning scenery. This weekend it will be showcased to the world.”
The biggest ovation of the night was reserved for Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive Gary Verity – the man who secured the Grand Depart for the county.
Mr Verity said: “This will be seen as a defining moment, if not the defining moment for the people of Yorkshire and beyond.”
He told the cheering crowd: “This is our destiny. You are part of history. Vive la Yorkshire. Vive le Tour de France.”