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How Yorkshire won the Worlds

Yorkshire will again find itself at the centre of the cycling world when it hosts the UCI Road World Championships in 2019, a gig that will complete a transformation for Britain’s largest county from home of the dedicated amateur and occasional pro to a region rising in the cycling firmament to compete with the Ardennes or Lombardy.

Turn back the clock just five years and the chances for such transformation might have seemed remote, if not entirely impossible. In the giddy summer of 2012, with Bradley Wiggins trading yellow for gold, and the Lea Valley velodrome hosting the likes of Sir Paul and Stella McCartney, Welcome To Yorkshire’s bid for the Grand Départ of the 2014 Tour de France swiftly gained approval from ASO.

Yorkshire will host the UCI Road World Championships in 2019, having delivered the ‘Grandest of Grand Departs’ for the Tour de France in 2014 (pic: SWpix/Welcome to Yorkshire)

The fulfillment of Gary Verity’s subsequent promise to deliver “the grandest of Grand Départs” and two successful editions of the Tour de Yorkshire gave the UCI’s award of the 2019 worlds a sense of the inevitable. UCI president Brian Cookson and Philippe Colliou, the governing body’s road world championships manager, surely cannot be accused of stepping into the unknown.

And yet there is a marked difference between hosting two stages of a larger event, even when they are the opening engagements of the Tour de France, and staging eight days of racing for competitors of all ages and both genders, supported by a veritable army of coaches, soigneurs, administrators, mechanics, dope testers, media and more. Will the Worlds add to Yorkshire’s collection of greatest hits, or come to represent a difficult second album?

Yorkshire – the new Belgium?

“When people think about cycling now, they automatically think of Belgium, but we want Yorkshire to become of one the places in Europe that is synonymous with cycling.”

Gary Verity has never shied from ambitious targets. His drive to cement Yorkshire’s place as cycling heartland is no new desire and can be seen in recent (but still unsuccessful) attempts to extend the Tour de Yorkshire from three days to four.

He is under no illusion about the additional challenge of hosting a World Championships. The Grand Départ itself represented a lesser logistical challenge, even if media interest in the Tour outstrips every other event in professional cycling.

“They are two very different things,” Verity concedes. “What they have in common is they are both big events.

“One is 200 of the world’s finest male athletes competing in the world’s largest annual sporting event, but this is an event for 1,000 riders, male and female, racing for eight days in a mix of disciplines from time-trials to juniors to under-23 and, of course, elite riders.

Gary Verity wants Yorkshire to become synonymous with cycling after the phenomenal response to the Tour de France Grand Depart (pic – Alex Broadway/SWpix.com)

“There will be 75 nations taking part, not only athletes, but all the entourages of the various federations who will come automatically, where with the Grand Départ they may have chosen to come or not.”

Verity describes the bidding process for the worlds as “not dissimilar” to the process followed with ASO to win the Grand Départ but is quick to highlight one key difference, however: the worlds bid was supported by a host of agencies, from the UK government downwards. The championships will be supported by £24m of taxpayer’s cash, intended to create a genuine legacy for cycling in Great Britain.

Swift opinion

Administrators, however important to the process of winning the bid, will take a backseat when the championships begin. The riders will claim centre stage, and for the home riders, the desire to perform will be greater than most. The expectation levels will be ramped up still further for professional riders from Yorkshire, for whom the prospect of a ‘home’ World Championships must seem too good to be true.

Ben Swift will be 31 when the championships roll around in 2019 and, all being well, sitting on 11 years of experience in professional cycling’s top tier. Set to join the new, Chinese-backed TJ Sport squad from Team Sky next season, Swift, from Rotherham, is prepared to make an educated guess about the nature of the course and his chances on it.

“I’m going to try and make it a target,” he says. “It will be held on roads where I’ve grown up and trained. There won’t be any big mountains, but it will be a hard circuit, which I hope will be good for a rider with my characteristics. A ‘home’ worlds is really exciting and gives you that extra motivation to be in the best possible shape.”

Ben Swift will be racing on home roads, and believes the course could suit his characteristics (pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

Swift has the attributes to compete on such a circuit. The 29-year-old has made a name for himself as a wily sprinter capable of winning from small groups on hard courses. Two podium finishes at the Milan-San Remo in the last three years are evidence of that.

Swift admits Yorkshire’s award of the World Championships didn’t come entirely as a surprise, given the success his home county has had as host to races as different in scale as the Tour de France and Tour de Yorkshire.

Then there is the national picture: Britain has also hosted hugely successful Commonwealth and Olympic Games within recent memory. But the World Championships, Swift believes, will add something different to the mix.

“You almost become used to it [the UK hosting major events] because of the success we’ve had, but the worlds is the cherry on the cake,” Swift says. “It will provide a massive drive for cycling in Yorkshire and in Britain because it’s a week-long festival of cycling.

“It’s something that we need now, given the growth in cycling in the UK and the success we’ve had. We’ve had the Tour and the Olympics, and with the success of both, it was only a matter of time until we were given the worlds. It was the final piece in the jigsaw.”

Family tradition

Becky Womersley will be 26 when the World Championships come to her home county, but, unlike Swift, she is not allowing herself to think that far ahead.

A comparative latecomer to cycle sport, despite a formidable pedigree (her grandfather is Brian Robinson, the first Briton to win a stage of the Tour de France, and she is the niece of Louise Robinson, a World Championship silver medallist in cyclo-cross), Womersley has just finished her first season of full-time racing with the Drops Cycling Team.

“I don’t want to get my hopes up too much,” she admits with a laugh. “I set the goals I want to achieve on a shorter time scale.”

Becky Womersley is not looking too far ahead, but the Yorkshirewoman admits her home country is a great place to ride (pic – Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

Womersley offers an unflinching account of cycling in Yorkshire: that when the weather sets in, as it does frequently, riding there holds little attraction.

In fact, hours before we speak, she had been forced by torrential rain to shelve a training session on the road in favour of the WattBike. But when the sun shines…

“A lot of people think that in Yorkshire the weather is always grim, but when the weather is alright it can be quite spectacular. I love riding abroad, but when I’m climbing Holme Moss, I just look up and think: ‘this is a great place to ride my bike’.”

The Etape du Dales takes in some of Yorkshire's toughest climbs (Pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWPix.com)
(Pic: James Creegan / Creative Commons)

Whether Womersley is allowing herself to think of 2019 or not, she is unlikely to be phased by the sight of elite riders on her training roads. Her perspective on the 2014 Grand Départ must be almost unique. As a grandchild of Britain’s first Tour de France stage winner, Womersley would have been keenly aware of the significance of the race.

“It was strange,” she admits. “I’d been to see it a couple of times in France, when I was younger. It was something you watched on television, or went on holidays to France to watch, and rode your bike. But when it came to Yorkshire, we just rode for 20 or 30 minutes to watch on Holme Moss. The roads I train on everyday were shut.”

She speaks in the tone of one who can still scarcely believe the events of that day. The effect remains. Womersley tells of the parents of a close friend who, before the visit of the Tour to Yorkshire, had never taken the slightest interest in cycling.

She had been shocked to see them on the slopes of Holme Moss the day the Tour came to town. Now, she says, they are addicts of the sport, live spectators at events as different as the Tour de Yorkshire and the Revolution Series.

Yorkshire calling

In one sense, Yorkshire has no choice but to make the 2019 UCI Road World Championships a success. A significant degree of public money will be spent supporting the bid. UK Sport has committed £3m of National Lottery cash, while central government, acting through the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, has pledged £24m, of which £15m will be spent building top-level cycle sport centres across the UK.

There is sporting prestige to consider, too. Having made such an impressive start to its mission to become a location synonymous with elite cycling, Yorkshire will not want to drop the ball on this second major engagement, despite hosting two successful editions of its own race.

Exemplar sporting events have become the norm in Britain since 2012, and cycling has more than held its own, from Verity’s Tour de Yorkshire to the relentless growth of the Tour of Britain. Add February’s successful track worlds in London to the mix, and even the superb round of the Cyclo-Cross World Cup held in Milton Keynes two years ago, and the pressure will be on Yorkshire to deliver a road worlds to remember.

Two successful editions of the Tour de Yorkshire have proved the Grand Depart was no fluke. A successful worlds would put Yorkshire on the cycling map for good. (pic: Chris Etchells/SWpix.com)

If Swift and Otley’s Lizzie Armitstead ride off with rainbow jerseys, little will be said for the quality of the circuit or the logistics; whether things ran smoothly or otherwise.

But the eyes of the wider world will be watching, and with cycling so closely connected to the greater prize of tourist dollars for a region, perhaps not everyone will wish Yorkshire well.

Verity has indicated what he considers to be the true legacy of the 2019 World Championships: making Yorkshire a destination synonymous with cycling.

The 2014 Grand Départ was the best possible start to such a challenging mission, and two editions of the Tour de Yorkshire have proved it was no fluke. A successful worlds would put Yorkshire on the cycling map for good.

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