09/07/2014 08:29 BST | Updated 08/09/2014 06:59 BST

The Tour de France in Britain: Meeting the Champions


What is so amazing about meeting your favourite celebrity, famous personality, or in this case, oft-admired athlete, in person? Like meeting up with your Twitter/Facebook 'friend' for the first time, you're a bit stunned to discover that they exist beyond a 2D flat screen in flesh and blood, and that there's a beating heart behind some words on a page. It's a bit overwhelming, is it not, to come face to face with real people you have only dreamt or thought about?

I remember meeting Jennifer Aniston at her fragrance-promoting visit to Harrods in 2010.You just want to reach out to that perfectly formed, sun-tanned being to ensure you are experiencing reality. Equally, why do we say that the beautiful sunset, the view from the mountain, that glorious stretch of tropical beach, is 'just like a movie' or 'surreal'? I'm a little worried about that automatic response.

And so it was for us at Stage 3 of Le Tour de France/Yorkshire/Cambridge, as we stood behind the barriers, directly in front of the signing-on stage amidst the carnival atmosphere in Parkers Piece, Cambridge, the U.K.'s capital of cycling. Awaiting the arrival of the "fastest men on the planet", it was a little bit 'unreal'. I removed my sunglasses so I could better take in life, in 3D.

For us a cycling family, no, it is not about the lycra, but it really is about the bike, and the cycling, and the sheer magnificence of one of the most beautiful and gruelling sports on earth and this, its biggest race in the year and in the world. The estimated 4-5 million who lined the routes in England, and the further approximate 3.5 billion televiewers, attest to the exponential rise in popularity of British cycling over the last 7-10 years. Many would agree we have Sir Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish, heroes to millions across the country, to thank for that. But even in the absence of our knighted first-ever British Tour de France victor, and Cavendish, "the fastest sprinter in the world", not to mention the tremendously successful and popular Scotsman David Millar, this overwhelming response created a spectacle which Christian Prudhomme, Director of the Tour de France, declared to be "astonishing, unforgettable, unbelievable", including "the greatest Grand Depart ever", in Yorkshire.

And so it was, 'unreal', 'surreal', and 'just like a movie' when these great athletes, all bronzed sinews and cool, calm focus, descended from heaven (actually it was the stage) and came to sign autographs and exchange a few words with us, the first ones at the prime spot behind the barriers: Marcel Kittel, Tony Martin, Jens Voigt, Alberto Contador, Fabian Cancellara, Andrew Talansky, Jan Bakelants, John Degenkolb, and on and on they came, each a legend in their own right, each an actual 3D human being and each taking precious time and energy to acknowledge the avid support of the fans.


These are men, some of whom are as young as 20 years of age like Danny Van Poppel, who cycle 3,500 km over 3 weeks through exquisite countryside (another bonus of watching this beautiful sport), hurtling themselves down mountainsides at 80 km/h, through intense heat, rain, wind or storm and after an average day of about 200km, sprint to a wild and thrilling finish. Unimaginable. And then do it all again.

They appreciate your support; they appreciate the respect and your knowledge of cycling (this separates you from the annoying, mere groupie); they appreciate your not mentioning doping or Lance Armstrong, and they especially appreciate your not endangering their lives by taking selfies in the middle of the road whilst 200 of them bear down on you at 50kph.

Meeting the champions was a thrill for child and adult alike throughout England this week, and led to television commentators declaring that "the spirit that made the Olympics such a success two years ago is still very much alive today in Britain". Both cyclists and fans joined in that spirit, the British spirit. It created a spectacular 2012. It created a stunning Grand Depart 2014. That spirit is alive and well and kicking and was a joy to behold. May it ever prevail. Chapeau the Champions and Vive Le Tour! May it come again soon.