Tour de France in our twin town of Luchon

Ashley and Jennifer Nixon enjoy Le Tour in Luchon
Ashley and Jennifer Nixon enjoy Le Tour in Luchon

Harrogate’s twin town Bagnères-de-Luchon has been a Tour de France stage town an incredible 52 times.

Stage 16 of the 2014 event finished in the town before the riders passed again the day after on Stage 17, in much the same way as Le Tour passed Harrogate on July 5 and 6.

As part of the bid to strengthen ties between the towns, the Harrogate Advertiser joined a team from Harrogate headed out to see how a town so well versed in hosting the event would approach it.

It was clear early on that the weather wasn’t going to be an issue, so I started by asking the hotel manager what to expect.

Monsieur Jean-Dominique Organ runs Hôtel d’Etigny with his wife.

He said: “The excitement builds throughout the day.

“There is always huge excitement for Le Tour. It visits Luchon a lot, but it is different every time. It changes, so it is always different for the riders and fans.”

Heading out, I was surprised by how calm everybody seemed. Early on July 5, with the roads shut and spectators keen to get the best spot, Harrogate was buzzing.

But Luchon was relaxed. The Gendarmerie were beginning to gather but it wasn’t until about an hour before the caravan was due that the barriers were closed and access from one side of the road to the other blocked.

This town has clearly seen it all before, but that familiar sense of anticipation hung in the air.

Former headteacher of St Aidan’s CE High School Dennis Richards is part of the team bidding to revitalise the link.

He told me: “Organisers are trying to keep Le Tour fresh in the minds of the French, so it doesn’t become stale.”

At 237.5km, Stage 16 was the longest distance of any in this year’s Tour, and included fearsome climbs, such as Port de Bales, involving an 11.7km section at a 7.7 per cent gradient. The road was resurfaced a few years ago for Le Tour, and provided a mean obstacle for the riders.

The final 2km of the stage involved a ride through Luchon’s main street, past cafes and bars, before turning on to the final straight near Lycée Edmond Rostand.

On the turn, among a sea of French and Italian flags, was the unmistakable white rose on a blue background.

The Nixon family live in Calgary, but hail from Yorkshire, and watched the Grand Départ in Harrogate before heading out to France.

Hanging up his flag, Ashley Nixon said: “We watched the Grand Départ at the Headrow in Leeds before joining a queue of 50,000 people to get a train to Harrogate for the finish.

“We managed to get there and it was ten people deep watching on the finish line.

“We watched the second stage in the Haworth house I grew up in. Yorkshire just looked magnificent, every town and village welcomed Le Tour.

“It is not quite the same in France, although they are still excited about seeing the riders.”

The family went on to watch the finish in Paris. Ashley’s daughter Jennifer was attending her first Tour.

She said: “It was so exciting! It is pretty amazing how many people came out to see it in Yorkshire.”

Speakers set up throughout the town alerted everyone to the imminent arrival of the riders, although they did not cross the finish line as one.

Stage winner Michael Rogers broke away on a descent outside Luchon to secure a first ever Tour stage win.

He actually finished nine minutes ahead of eventual Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali for the stage.

Tinkoff-Saxo rider Rogers was greeted on the podium by the elected mayor of Luchon, Louis Ferré.

Mr Ferré enjoyed the Grand Départ in Harrogate, and is due to welcome our own Mayor, Coun Jim Clark, to Luchon later this year.

Mr Ferré discussed Harrogate’s Tour: “The Grand Départ was a huge success for Harrogate and for Yorkshire,” he said.

“I enjoyed my visit hugely, it will encourage people across the world to cycle in Harrogate.

“I am sure there will be more cyclists in North Yorkshire from now on!”

There is an appetite in Yorkshire for Le Tour to return, and Luchon is proof the return can be just as special.