Exclusive: Welcome to Yorkshire's Gary Verity on next year's Tour de France Grand Départ
We spoke to agency's chief executive in Paris, as well as the Mayor of Porto Vecchio, the town that hosted this year's start
On Sunday evening in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, after the jerseys had been presented to Tour de France overall champion Chris Froome and the other classification winners, Welcome to Yorkshire’s chief executive Gary Verity took to the podium for the formal handover of the race’s Grand Départ.
Earlier in the day, road.cc spoke to him at a reception hosted jointly by Welcome to Yorkshire and the British ambassador to France, Sir Peter Ricketts, at the latter’s residence, the garden of which backs onto the Avenue des Champs-Elysées.
Foremost in everyone’s minds was the fact that after Sunday’s stage, the next time the riders would race the Tour de France would be on Yorkshire roads during Stage 1 of next year’s race from Leeds to Harrogate.
“Yes, which is hugely exciting,” said Verity. "Today’s the transition day, obviously we’re hoping for not just a Chris Froome victory but also a Mark Cavendish victory.
“If we don’t get one [a Cavendish win] today, then Mark’s next opportunity to add to his tally of stages as he chases the great Eddy Merckx’s total will be next year with us in Yorkshire on The Stray in Harrogate at the finish of Stage 1.”
While Froome's win was guaranteed given the margin of his lead on General Classification, in the evening Cavendish would finish third as Argos-Shimano’s Marcel Kittel became the first man to get the better of him in Paris.
Harrogate, however, is his mother’s home town – she was a guest at the reception before heading off to watch her son attempt to make it five Champs-Elysees wins in a row – and the Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider himself has acted as an ambassador for Welcome to Yorkshire’s Grand Départ plans.
He may not have got the yellow jersey he coveted in Stage 1 of this year's race, but he therefore has no shortage of an incentive to fill the one significant gap in his jersey collection come next year's race.
Corsica's President hands over TDF Grand Départ responsibility to Welcome to Yorkshire's Gary Verity (copyright Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)
With the conclusion of this year’s race in Paris, the prospect of that Yorkshire Grand Départ in less than 12 months’ time has been thrown into sharper relief.
“Now it’s real, it’s us now, it’s a dream that we had three years ago, through a lot of hard work by many people we’ve managed to pull that off, working with our good friends at ASO who are the most amazing organisation with some great people in it,” reflected Verity.
“We promised them we’d deliver the ‘Grandest ever Grand Départ’ and I’m more convinced than ever that we’ll do that now.”
While the exact sum Welcome to Yorkshire has paid to secure the start of the race hasn’t been made public – Verity puts it at “several million pounds” – he insists that “the payback on that will be enormous. London thought they had an economic impact of £88 million in 2007 [the only previous Grand Départ in Great Britain].
“I think cycling is much, much bigger now than it was then thanks to the success of British Cycling and obviously Bradley Wiggins in the Tour last year and Chris Froome this time round, and Mark Cavendish of course, and up and coming riders as well, Team Sky and their success.
“So we think that will be worth a lot more than that [the London economic impact figure] to us.”
Economic circumstances in 2007 were very different to what they are today, so was their any resistance to spending a significant amount of money to secure the Tour?
“I think most people realise this is a huge event, it’s the biggest annual sporting event on the planet.
“Cycling is the biggest spectator sporting event on the planet, and the beauty of cycling is that it’s so accessible, and it’s free.
“So a lot of the other events that are taking place, or will take place, or could potentially take place in the future, first of all you have to try and get a ticket, you have to pay to get the ticket, for the football World Cup, or rugby.
“The benefit of cycling is that you turn up at the side of the road with your family, it’s a hugely family-based sport, certainly on the spectator side, you bring your picnic and enjoy the day.
“And that’s what many people do, and there are millions of people doing that. On this stage today, this final stage from Versailles to Paris, there will be half a million people on the Champs-Elysees alone.
“It’s just the most amazing thing and we are so excited.”
An estimated 1 million people lined the Olympic Road Race route on the first Saturday of London 2012 Games last summer, so does Verity expect similar crowds in Yorkshire?
“Probably more, we’re anticipating about 1.5 million people for each of the two stages,” he replied.
Does that provide a logistical headache, given the type of roads it goes through and the length of road closures the Tour requires?
“No, it’s just about planning. For us it’s an opportunity, it means that we’ll be encouraging people to arrive two or three days beforehand and to make a festival of it, which we think is entirely possible.
“We just need to plan out where people can go, into blocks if you like, break it down, there’s some places where we can fit huge numbers of spectators, there’s others where it will be more restricted, clearly because of the topography of the whole situation.
“But it’s eminently possible to fit one and a half million people in, and if you can fit half a million onto the Champs-Elysées, then one and a half million around 200 kilometres of Yorkshire is eminently doable.”
That mention of “restricted” access raises memories of the ticketed entry to National Trust-owned Box Hill during the Olympics, but Verity is quick to clarify that there are no plans for similar limitations on spectator numbers in Yorkshire next year.
“To be clear, I don’t mean restricted from that point of view, just because of the topography; if the road is in the bottom of a valley, it’s very difficult to get people ten deep at the side of that road.
“Clearly there are other sections where the road is vast and open on moorland and you can get people going a lot further back. It’s just common sense really.”
Verity and colleagues from Welcome to Yorkshire had been on Corsica for the Grand Départ of this year’s 100th edition of the race, as well as at the team time trial in Nice once the race returned to the mainland. So what lessons had they drawn from that?
“Corsica was our third Grand Départ, we were in Vendée in 2011, we were in Liège last year and Corsica this year, all three very different Grand Départs.
“But you learn lessons from each of them, it confirms some of your thinking is right, it reaffirms that something that you think you need to do more work on is true, and there are also bits of detail you pick up on.”
Appropriately, he likens it to the marginal gains approach that has brought British Cycling and Team Sky so much success on the track and on the road.
“My background is turning round large businesses, sometimes big retail businesses that aren’t doing very well, so it’s all about the little elements of detail which is something that Dave Brailsford often talks about with Sky.
“It is the small percentage incremental aggregated up that gives you that performance of a champion, and that’s absolutely true in our case.
“We need to get all those minor points of detail just that bit better to give us what we’ve promised all along, the 'Grandest of Grand Départs'.”
Ahead of the race getting under way on Saturday 5 July next year, there will be a festival that will begin with 100 days to go until the Tour starts.
“The chairman of that is the Earl of Harwood, David Lascelles, we have about a £2 million fund now to commission work and organise all of that, so some of it will be existing events, some of it will be new events, or new commissions,” said Verity.
“It’s for David and that board to make a recommendation but we wouldn’t be surprised if they were looking at between four and six landmark big commissions around the route, around the stages.
“Some of that might be performance art, some of it might be permanent sculptures, or a mixture of the two.
“With that sort of resource, and the imagination going into it, we are expecting something quite spectacular,” he added.
Mayor of Porto Vecchio Georges Mela with Welcome to Yorkshire's Gary Verity (copyright Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)
Also at the reception on Sunday was the Georges Mela, Mayor of the Coriscan town of Porto Vecchio, which hosted the build-up to this year’s race and the start of Stage 1.
The Corsica Grand Départ provided spectacle, as well as a beautifully scenic but also very tough route. We asked the mayor what words of encouragement and wisdom he had for the organisers of next year’s Grand Départ?
“As mayor of Porto-Veccchio, we were chosen as the town for the Grand Départ of the 100th edition,” he said.
“It was more than an honour, it was necessary as the board of ASO said to do something original, something exceptional, something mythical, and I am still more than honoured that they chose Corsica for this 100th edition.
“But as far as Great Britain is concerned, while I don’t really know the Yorkshire region, I do know that it has magnificent open spaces, terrain that is perhaps similar to what we have on Corsica, and landscapes that are green all year round.
“I believe that in that part of the year, the month of July, it’s rare to have the opportunity to show off places like that.
“What’s more, the Tour de France is the third biggest sporting event in the world, and I was telling the mayor of Leeds just now that it will be a moment that will most certainly be unforgettable for its population.
“But at the same time, I see a very strong comparison with your island, because it’s an island too, a little like ours, even if it’s much more important than ours.
“I hope they get the economic benefits, the region that is at the centre of this event, because the race reaches 3.5 billion viewers, there are 190 international TV channels that transmit in their countries, on five continents.
“The potential for raising the image and level of promotion of a location is exceptional.”
As for his town hosting the Grand Départ this year, he said: “It was a very, very big success for us. Our town is a bit small, it’s a town of 11,000 inhabitants, it’s nothing if you compare it to Leeds, to Liege, which hosted the previous Grand Départ, to Monaco, or Rotterdam.
“For the 100th edition, people will remember Corsica, certainly, but in particular Porto-Vecchio, chosen as the town of the Grand Départ.
“That’s why I can say to my friend Gary that I hope he lives through the same moments that I’ve lived through at an emotional level, not only of expectation, but also once the Tour de France has passed by, of pride.”