My roadside vigils are lonley no more, Tim Dawson (2011)

Original article first published at 20 Sep 11

It is a shade over 30 years ago since I first stood beside the road to watch the Tour of Britain whizz past. I I’m not quite sure now how I knew that it was happening, but I stationed myself at a crossroads on the A65 along which the Milk Race (as it was then known) was scheduled to pass at the start of a loop of the Yorkshire Dales.

To my slight surprise, there were half a dozen other people at the same spot and more unexpectedly still, I was on nodding acquaintance with a couple of them. They were, of course, fellow members of Masonic order of cyclists, bound together by our shared interest, and at odds with the crowd. When the racers came, they were preceded by a couple of cars. An amplified voice from one of them told us that the race leader would be wearing a yellow jersey.

Then they were upon us, and for a few seconds, a whirring stampeed of brightly-coloured, pedalling bodies sped past. It was a fleeting experience, but the effect was that of visitors from another, more vivid world, flashing through the dull northern landscape.

I watched the Tour of Britain again this Saturday. This time, it was passing through Ipswich. The brilliantly conceived route took the race through Christchurch Park – the jewel at the centre of Suffolk’s county town. The path is the width of a single track road, runs through grassed parkland, and over the course of slightly more than half a mile, rises by around 1,200 feet.

On a sunny, Saturday morning it provided the most perfect conditions in which to watch a cycle race pass by. There was plenty of space and the ascent slowed the peloton’s progress. Several thousand people took the opportunity of momentary exposure to the Tour. Ipswich Bicycle Club, the Suffolk CTC and Sustrans had stalls, there was a Rollapaluza comptiton and there was a children’s fun fair. Mark Cavendish would later that day tweet: “Impressive! I haven’t seen so many spectators for a bike race in UK since Tour De France 2007”.

Among the crowd enjoying the spectacle there were no shortage of gnarled men in lycra. But there were plenty of others for whom competitive cycling was a complete novelty. Those that I spoke with agreed that short-lived as the moment was, it had an unexpectedly electrifying quality.

It would be naive to think that the rise of cycling – as a transport of delight and a spectator sport – will continue unchecked. But experiences of this quality surely indicate that it is gaining a purchase on the public imagination as never before. The Tour of Britain might never be a grand tour, but the evidence now suggests that Britons have finally caught up with what continentals have known for a century, or more.

A bicycle race flashing by may provide only a very partial exposure to a sporting event. But as visceral thrill that can be had for free and at the bottom of your own road, it is without compare.

TD Sep 11

A video of the event made by Ray Wand

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