It was the moment that Yorkshire officially welcomed the Tour de France after over 18 months of preparation.
More than 10,000 people packed out Leeds’ First Direct Arena tonight for a sparkling showcase of all 198 Tour de France riders, as the world’s greatest cycling spectacle was officially launched in the county.
Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive Gary Verity and Le Tour director Christian Prudhomme declared the Grand Depart officially open at the biggest Team Presentation in the race’s 111-year history. It came hours after Sir Rodney Walker, chair of UK Grand Depart organising body TDFHUB2014 Ltd, declared “we are ready to deliver a historic spectacle”.
Following an eye-catching tour of Leeds’ city centre by riders, the star-studded ceremony heralded the launch of the Grand Depart with a mass bell ring that echoed through both the arena and televisions across the county.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg joined sporting star names such as Hannah Cockcroft, Lizzie Armitstead and Brian Robinson as well as Harry Potter star Matthew Lewis at the event being broadcast nationwide.
Mr Verity said: “Its a huge honour to welcome you the champions of cycling and the world to Yorkshire. The dream we had four years ago to bring the Tour de France to Yorkshire is tonight a reality.”
Last year’s Yellow jersey winner Chris Froome said: “The reception has been absolutely unreal. For us and the rest of Team Sky we really can’t ask for more, this has been such an amazing experience.”
Produced by Martin Green, head of ceremonies from the London 2012 Olympics, the ceremony featured performances from both Yorkshire and French acts.
Brighouse indie rock band Embrace headlined a bill that featured the official Grand Depart theme song ‘The Road’ performed by Girls Aloud star Kimberley Walsh and York singer Alistair Griffin as well as French artist Pauline Vassuer, Opera North and Leeds band Hope and Social.
Fronted by ITV sports presenter Jill Douglas and voice of the Tour de France Sebastien Piquet, the show also featured interviews with the cycling stars themselves and the parade of Team Sky’s Pinarello Dogma F8 racing bikes which has been a year in the making.
Earlier the teams competing in this year’s race had cycled from Leeds University through Millennium Square and onto the Leeds Arena as excitement at the arrival of the world’s biggest race continued to build.
Thousands of fans took position along the pavements, office windows, lamposts and walls for a first sight of the elite riders preparing to compete on the Tour. Among the crowd were ardent cycling fans and people new to the sport but excited to see its main event happening in their home city. David Todd and his wife Hilary, from Birkenshaw, have seen Le Tour many times in France making their first trip in the 1980s. They said they had never expected to be able to see it in their home county. “Its is going to be fantastic and hopefully after its done it will inspire a few more people to give cycling a try.” Mr Todd said.
Some of the sports biggest names were greeted with massive cheers as their teams passed through the city centre. Chants of ‘Allez, Allez, Allez’ rang out from a pub along the route as Alberto Contandor passed by and there were loud cheers for home favourites Mark Cavendish and Froome.
The Tour de France Grand Depart stage one will begin on Leeds’ Headrow tomorrow before making its way to Harrogate via the Yorkshire Dales, day two’s stage will ride from York to Sheffield.
Cavendish, who hopes to win the first stage into his mother’s home town of Harrogate, also spoke of his excitement at the opening ceremony. When he was introduced with his Omega Pharma-Quickstep team he said: “The support for the Tour here is incredible. My first Tour de France was in London 2007 and there was probably the best Grand Depart I have ever witnessed but I am so confident that will be overshadowed this weekend in Yorkshire.”