There was a nervous apprehension at today’s village départ in Cambridge. Yes, the sun was shining and the crowd in sight was sizeable, but there was a feeling stage three of this year’s Tour might not quite compare to what had gone before.
It was a bit like being in the band who had to follow Queen at Live Aid after they stole the show nearly 30 years ago to the day: no matter how good you played, would you forever be overlooked?
Yet upon leaving Parker’s Piece this morning on the back of one of the race’s Kawasaki press motorbikes, it was clear this stage wasn’t going to be a pale comparison of those in Yorkshire.
The wall of spectators at one left-hand bend in Saffron Walden must have been at least 20 people deep, with those at the back taking advantage of a slight incline that made it look like the standing area at the Brixton Academy. It was almost as if Obama, or the Pope, were visiting. Finchingfield, with its beautiful duck pond and sloped village green, became an unofficial fan park for the day. It seemed like the population of Moreton (approximately 400) had tripled, even quadrupled, given the number of people there.
And, as expected, the Tour’s last hurrah on British shores (for now) ended with people lining the route at least one deep for virtually the 40 kilometres held on roads in the capital’s boroughs.
Epping Forest was louder than its Arenberg equivalent. The atmosphere within the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park felt like it did two summers ago. Seemingly everybody who works in Canary Wharf came out (and stayed out in the rain) to watch the race, while the Embankment didn’t do a bad job in replicating the crowd size in Harrogate on Saturday.
Then there was the noise on the Mall, which travelled down from Buckingham Palace towards Admiralty Arch like a Mexican Sound Wave as the sprint was contested.
Some may not be surprised to read this; “big crowds in England for the Tour, quelle surprise,” you may say.
But this was a working day. The route was rural for large parts. When it did become urban, it passed through places like the London Borough of Newham, hardly known for being a cycling Valhalla.
And don’t forget that, as a whole, England is still fairly naïve to cycling (twice when moto driver Gaeten stopped on the roadside so we could watch the two-man break pass, people asked us if they were the only two riders involved. Honest).
There were plenty of signs out for Mark Cavendish – he is particularly popular in Waltham Forest, it seems – while even publicity-seeking bookmaker Paddy Power set up a “Clean Urine Swap Stand”. Oh. Very clever.
Because it lacked the drama of Cavendish crashing in Harrogate, or Nibali’s brilliantly-timed move into Sheffield, perhaps in years to come this stage won’t be remembered as fondly, or spoken about as much, as those a few miles up the road.
But, the enthusiasm of the spectators out along the 155 kilometres this afternoon was contagious. It was a joy to see – and now it’s the French who have got to somehow match that.
I suspect tomorrow’s stage won’t come close; I wonder if the residents of Le Touquet and Lille are feeling how Simple Minds felt when they went on after moustachioed Mercury at Live Aid?