In which country would one find the world’s most famous bike race? Now there’s an easy point in the pub quiz. But, of course, there’s a catch. The Tour de France has often strayed over the borders of La République and even, on three occasions, made it into Britain, although always in the south of England. But now, at last, there is a bid to host the opening stage further north.
When I heard that Yorkshire was bidding to host the opening stages in 2016, I felt like jumping on my bike. I wanted to ride. A friend said: “Let’s do the Etape du Dales!” I whooped with delight. Who could resist such a clunking linguistic amalgamation? It conjures up visions of men in flat caps and Lycra, pitting carbon-fibre cycles against whippets through Swaledale. Better still, the president of the Etape du Dales is 81-year-old Brian Robinson, the first British rider to complete the Tour de France (in 1955) and to win a stage (in 1958). We signed up.
It was only later that I studied the route: a 112-mile mountainous monster that manages to rip 3,540m of climbing out of the heart of Yorkshire, many of those ascents on inclines of 20%, or worse. When I spoke to Robinson he chuckled. “It goes through some marvellous scenery,” he said. Then added, “Jacques Anquetil used to say that every time he did the Tour, it took five years off his life.” Since the Tour rarely ventures on to slopes as steep as some of Yorkshire’s, I wondered how many years this ride would cost me. I also wondered where in Yorkshire they might take the Tour. Training rides from my home in York proved to be the perfect shortlist of potential routes.
In late April, six weeks before the event, with the mornings still frosty I started with the Yorkshire Wolds, which must be one of the most under-appreciated parts of British countryside – something David Hockney has been saying for years. Thixendale, around 15 miles north-east of York, became a favourite for its deeply sculpted sinuous curves populated by sheep and hares, lots of hares. One day I stopped and counted 12 before also spotting a little owl perched on a fencepost. A few miles south there is a similar dale that drops down to the village of Millington from the north side. Although the hilltops and ridges of the Wolds are intensively farmed, and as far as I can see, with great chemical gusto, these narrow dales are often havens for wildlife and flowers. One Sunday I explored east towards Bridlington and found a lovely, if short, one that heads north out from the village of Wold Newtoncorrect.
Pretty as the Wolds are, however, they do not offer the climbs I needed, so I turned my attention to the North York Moors. Helmsley is a good starting point for a journey north to the Land of Cockayne, a village at the end of a long beautiful loop deep into the moorland. In spring, you ride accompanied by the mocking whistles of lapwings and the mournful trills of curlews. Doing it one blustery afternoon with the Guardian’s Andy Pietrasik, I came across a large beautiful adder squashed on the road – incredibly bad luck for the adder since this road sees barely one car an hour. On another occasion a slow worm was more fortunate and I watched it slide safely into the bracken.
Go further east on the moors and there is Britain’s steepest road – the 33% Chimney Bank in Rosedale – a brutal climb, or scary descent. Turn west and there are lovely rides around Rievaulx Abbey. My climb out of the nearby village of Hawnby was interrupted one day by a stoat dragging the corpse of an adult rabbit across the road. The predator’s efforts inspired me: I dropped down the western escarpment of the moors and climbed back up via the Kilburn White Horse.
Only once during training did I head to West Yorkshire, partly to meet Brian Robinson. Brian pointed me to some of his home area’s best-known rides – he still goes out on his bike twice a week. Cragg Vale is a famous climb out of Mytholmroyd on the B6138. Popular with anyone practising for the neverending slopes of the Alps or Pyrenees, it has the longest steady incline of any road in England: 286m over five-and-a-half miles. But the grandaddy is Holme Moss, which has been used several times in the Tour of Britain and must be a contender for Tour de France status. Starting in Holmfirth it climbs fairly steadily to Woodhead Reservoir before dropping down into Glossop, over the border in Derbyshire, on the B6105.
However, it was to the Dales that we were heading, praying that the rain would hold off, and the wind. The Guardian fielded a team of four and we assembled at Long Ashes Holiday Park, just a mile from the start in Grassington. None of us had cycled any of the course before. Some of us were secretly worried that our gears might not run to 25% slopes. It was a nervous and excited group that pedalled to the start at 6am.
Within minutes of starting our group was split, but we had a plan: to reconvene at the Tan Hill Inn, the highest pub in Britain, halfway round the course, for a convivial brandy. In fact when we reached the inn, we only wanted strong mugs of tea. Andy had settled into a meditative state, counting dead rabbits on the tarmac. He’d got to 86. Robbie was doing ornithology, checking out golden plovers and red grouse. Rick and myself were just riding with empty heads – less weight.
On and on we rode, sweeping through dales: waterfalls and crags, vast open panoramas and tight stone villages. How could the Tour organisers resist? It would have been heavenly but for the inevitable insertion of lung-busting climbs. We all made it to the finish. We raised our glasses of local beer and toasted the Tour de Yorkshire. We were all at least five years older, but we felt defiantly happy.
• The Etape du Dales (etapedudales.co.uk) is held in mid-May each year with proceeds going to the Dave Rayner Fund, a charity supporting promising young cyclists. Find out more about the area at yorkshire.com. Accommodation was provided at Long Ashes Park Holiday Park (01756 752261, longashespark.co.uk). Double rooms in the Gamekeeper’s Inn, the on-site pub, cost £75. Giant Bicycles (giant-bicycles.com) provided Kevin’s bike, an Advanced Defy 3 costing £1,995. Kevin’s cycle clothing was provided by Rapha (rapha.cc)