We've all spent many cold and dark hours on the couch watching SBS but what does it mean to actually be able to stand on the side of the road as the riders speed past? Now you see them, now you don't. 20 seconds and the bunch is gone. It's undoubtedly far easier to follow the action from the couch but, my word, what an experience.
Stage 2 would bring the riders almost past our door (a short 7km down the valley) but Stage 1 was a little further north. We decided to head to Skipton, a relatively easy couple of train trips with the girls (tip of the day: don't drive). Organisation was brilliant, the journey smooth and we arrived in good time. It was mayhem in Skipton. The crowds were insane. It was 8 deep up the high street but we managed to find a spot that accorded a view down the main drag with a bit of room for the girls to crack into the street art.
The caravan came and went, throwing out a sparse collection on non-collectables and the atmosphere was festive to put it midly. The sun was out, the beer was flowing and the party in full swing. When the breakaway and then the peloton arrived, it was like something I have never felt. First the helicopters appeared and everyone new they were close. Then you could hear the cheers coming up the street. It was like that moment when you are out camping and you can see and hear the trees swaying as a storm front comes in but you can't yet feel the force of the wind. It roared up the tunnel of on-lookers as the riders flashed past. Then it was over. The team cars flew through, everyone settled back, in an almost exhausted emotional state. We found a big screen, ordered a refreshing ale and enjoyed the sunshine and the racing, soaking in the atmosphere and the outpouring of disappointment as Cav went down hard within sight of the finish.
The second stage, and our positioning just over the top of Cragg Vale, took the experience from Stage 1 and turned it up to 11. This time we were literally on the white line, precariously balanced between the road and peat bog of the moor. Ever mm of white line was lined with spectators. When the helicopters arrived - there were 7 of them - they suddenly popped out from the valley flying in formation along the route. I expected to hear the Flight of the Valkyries on loudspeakers. It was goosebumpingly epic. This time the roar was almost scary, like you imagine the power of a bushfire accelerating up a steep gully. The riders were so close, they were creating their own wake. I felt like I was going to cry. What other sport can put you this close to the action, allow you to be in the theatre of the true gladiators, to ride the same roads?
Once the circus had passed, there were people and bikes everywhere. Within 20 mins the hillside was down to stragglers like ourselves slowly making our way across the moor in search of a beer and a big screen.
Yes, it's just a bike race and there are a lot more important things in the world - even making sure the kids get a proper meal when we got home was more important - but there is something so uplifting, exciting, almost cleansing in immersing yourself in such a powerful collective experience.
Getting around to see a Grand Tour is a royal pain in the arse, by, my, oh my, it is something I will never forget (and now have a taste for...) and, if you are a patient sort of type, worth all the hassle and the potential frustrations.