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THE FIRST DAY OF YORKSHIRE

With childlike excitement, I arrive at the finish line in Selby at least an hour and half before anyone else gets there from the ITV production team. But even on my way there, a brief exchange with one of the race organisation’s security team reminds me of what an odd little hybrid race this is.

Approaching a cordon, within sight of the TV compound and the finish arch (being noisily hoisted), I bring my hire car to a gentle halt next to a man with a shaved head, and a florescent green jacket. Unwinding the window to talk to him, as he shakes his head and wags his finger at me through the rain-sprinkled glass in front of me, I suddenly remember what language I need to speak.

‘Salut, ça va?’ I ask, smiling my most winning please-let-me-in smile, and holding up the car accreditation that I should have stuck on the windscreen so that he could see I was legit. He looks vaguely familiar to me. I sense that we probably have a shared history of a dozen such encounters on the roads of France in July. You see, ASO, who jointly own and run this race with Welcome to Yorkshire send their own folk across to man the barricades and to conduct confusing conversations in French with a local population that doesn’t really speak French.

There then follows a series of bewildering instructions as we pore over a totally inadequate map, trying to figure out how to get round the deviation and park up outside Selby Leisure Centre. We go our separate ways, but not before he has stuck my sticker on properly, and asked me to wear my accreditation at all times.

I spend the next hour eating a sublime bacon and egg roll in an otherwise completely empty café by the 50 metres to run sign. The lady who serves it to me, and then helps me clear up the entire jug of milk I manage to spill over the counter, seems most excited about the arrival of the race.

‘Mark Cavendish!’ she enthuses. ‘I like him. Is he going to win?’

I am not sure what to say to that. ‘It depends.’

I don’t offer any further explanation, but prefer instead to pay the £3 I owe for the roll and the tea, complete with a guilty £1 tip. Then I disappear into the commentary booth, from where I don’t emerge for the next seven hours or so, save for the need occasionally to relieve myself in a portaloo that is always occupied when I need it. Mercifully, ITV4s many commercial breaks are so substantial (there is a lot to say about funeral planning) that I am able to wait my turn and still stroll back in time to pick up where we left off.

‘156.3 kilometres to go…and the break’s still at just 2 minutes.’

The race is decent on day one. The weather, quite frankly, astonishing. ‘A horizontal storm’, as David Millar marvels when pictures of Doncaster come through. Welcome to Yorkshire.

Mark Cavendish, for some reason, doesn’t win, again.

Instead Jesper Asselman does, holding off the bunch sprint by the tiniest of margins. At one point, when Katusha start to chase, it is young Yorkshireman Harry Tanfield who is working on the front, which I think is rather a neat irony. He’d been last year’s Asselman; a ride that had earned him his gig at World Tour level. We pack away our stuff and head for the car.

That evening, David, my friend Jonathan, Phil Deignan and I eat a curry in Northallerton that will never be forgotten. Except, I can’t for the life of me remember anything about it.

THE SECOND DAY OF YORKSHIRE

And so, to Bedale! That’s the first time I’ve ever thought, or written that. It might be the first time the sentiment has ever been expressed in the entire history of human endeavour.

It’s a nice little market town, located in some ill-defined part of Yorkshire. Even now, having spent twelve hours there, I could not, with any certainty, place it on a map.

I have an early breakfast, and I’m joined by Lucy Martin and Dani Rowe on our way to work; the women’s race is due to start at 09.00, and there is plenty of preparation to be done. Not least because, outstanding though the quality of the start list is, there is a certain lack of pure sprinters represented. For example neither Jolien d’Hoore nor Kirsten Wild (a double TDY winner) have made the trip. That opens up the unpalatable difficulty of an “opportunist” sprint from someone perhaps not well known for their finishing speed. It’s a commentator’s worst nightmare. Not to be 100% sure of the identity of the rider who crosses the line, often with a last second surge from nowhere! This should be avoided at all costs. Over tea, Lucy and I mark up our start lists and cross fingers.

The race is excellent. Unlike so many men’s races, women’s racing tends to form and re-form in fascinating ways. This is no exception. And by the time Lorena Wiebes powers over the line to win (thank heavens we spot her!) it’s almost sunny for the thick crowds gathering in Bedale. Almost. This is Yorkshire, after all.

A short break, and then we go again, this time with the men. David Millar appears from nowhere, having spent an hour cruising the High Street in Bedale in search of a jacket, after travelling from Spain over-ambitiously lightly clothed. In the end, he finds a branch of Age Concern, and invests £7.99 in something that Alan Partridge found in his attic in 1995. It smells of garden sheds and kebabs. He’s curiously proud. He is a strange human.

 David Millar. Strange. David Millar. Strange.

This time, there is a sprint, and again Tanfield plays his part in bringing the race back together. Rick Zabel wins, and everyone (expect all those many people in the bunch who had wanted to win instead) can feel good about this. Zabel is one of those genuinely likeable riders, who’s battled the family name and the expectations for far too long.

The good thing, we agree, is that unpredictable races of indeterminate strength like The Four Days Of Yorkshire, can pick up a rider like Zabel, plonk him on the podium and make him smile.

At the finish, long after the race is done, I pass the time of day with Pippa York, working for Cyclingnews and mixing it with all the other hacks. I found this totally extraordinary. Pippa’s continuing re-emergence into public life is a source of great wonder, admiration and respect; but it’s nuts to see her, one of the greatest riders these islands have ever produced, hanging around the Dimension Data bus on the off chance that Mark Cavendish will come and talk to her. (He did, incidentally http://www.cyclingnews.com/features/philippa-york-analysing-mark-cavendishs-tour-de-yorkshire-sprints/. And he was very honest.)

And with that, Phil, David and I drive off to Scarborough. I am driving, and am in the middle of re-telling Phil Deignan a brilliantly vivid and entertaining story about when I thought his wife was dead (she wasn’t, obvs) after she crashed into the race director at the Women’s Tour, when I miss our turning for Scarborough, and the SatNav instantly adds twenty minutes to the trip.

It is rather quiet in the car after that.

THE THIRD DAY OF YORKSHIRE

I have not slept well. The windows have been rattling, and periodically they’ve been machine-gunned by hailstones.

In the morning, Dani, Lucy and I drive the short distance down to the familiar seafront finish line in Scarbados. It is howling outside. The sea is roaring, even though the tide is going out. Later, in time for the finish of the men’s race, it will return like some nightmarish horror. Just looking at its boiling fury sends the blood cold.

‘Miss racing, much, Dani?’ I ask.

‘I was just thinking that,’ she laughs. ‘God, no. I wonder how I ever lasted as long as I did.’

It’s a day for the very hardest, and the sight of Marianne Vos, whose work features in the 2018 Road Book, driving that group of three riders on towards the finish, is entirely fitting. From the moment that the second group start to lose heart, Vos is always going to win. The folk at the finish line are treated to something very special.

During the podium protocol I enjoy a brief break and head over to chat with Marianne’s Dad, Henk. He tells me that his wife, who normally travels with them has had to stay at home to look after the family cat, Sjekkie (named after a roll-up cigarette – I’m not making any of this stuff up).

‘Yah,’ he complains. ‘It is Brexit.’ I nod, like I know what he’s talking about.

 So Long, Marianne? So Long, Marianne?

The gap between the two races is shorter than scheduled because the women’s race has been slow. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there’s the small matter of an Arctic gale lined up with total precision into their faces. Secondly, the race is neutralised after someone spills oil over the Cote de Silpho.

Was this the first of the promised Ineos protests? David Millar arrives having snaffled himself a souvenir Jim Ratcliffe devil mask to go with his Partridge jacket. He’s building quite a collection.

 Frack Off! Frack Off!

The men’s race, too, is fantastic. We’re joined by Thomas Voeckler (“Monsieur Scarborough”) in the commentary booth. It’s genuinely fascinating to hear him talking about French racing and his attachment to this particular race.

‘Is it comparable to racing in Brittany, Thomas?’ I ask what I think is an excellent question. Turns out it’s a stupid question.

‘No. It’s like racing in Yorkshire.’

In the end, the final group is nearly taken out by a north sea wave as the Scarborough stage reaches another fabulous crescendo. We conclude that the Four Days Of Yorkshire must always spend a quarter of its life in Scarborough. Oh, and Alexander Kamp wins, which makes me smug, because I’ve been tipping him for days. Now I won’t shut up about it.

On the way to Leeds, I take a wrong turning, as I am telling Phil Deignan another very funny story about his wife.

THE FOURTH DAY OF YORKSHIRE

Leeds, again.

I am up and about early, heading out for a run, since I have a slightly later start. No double commentary shift feels almost like cheating. Over breakfast, Phil, David and myself, all of whom have been out running, discuss our separate routes. Turns out that the two ex-racers looked at a map first and found a beautiful park nearby with fields of bluebells, soft underfoot and trilling to the sound of birdsong. I found a dual carriageway.

We drop off the hire car at Leeds station, and walk to The Headrow, passing close by my favourite theatre venue for the Tour de Ned (and, before that, Bikeology); The City Varieties. I find it astonishing how often since 2014 and the “Grandest of All Grand Départs Etc”, my professional life has meant that I have returned to this county, and to Leeds in particular with such frequency. I worry slightly, that following Gary Verity’s sudden and ignominious departure, some of the impetus will go out from this love affair.

Before commentary begins, David and I have to film ourselves promoting a live stage show which we will be presenting from the Royal Hall in Harrogate during the World Championships in September. The UCI have given us official flat caps to wear. I am not even joking.

Anyway, one more commentary shift. And this is the best fun of all. The closing twenty kilometres, from the Chevin climb out of Otley, when Chris Froome suddenly attacks, are among the most furiously contested and finely balanced I’ve ever had the privilege of calling. When Greg van Avermaet and Chris Lawless cross the line, I am completely exhausted.

One by one, we gather in the pub across the road, waiting for our train home, just as we had done the previous year.

I love this place. I love this race.