Tour of Britain: Liverpool hopes Grand Depart draws crowds

Tour of Britain in Liverpool in 2008 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Tour of Britain last came to Liverpool in 2008, when stage eight was held in the city

On Sunday, some of the world's finest cyclists will line up beside Liverpool's Three Graces for the start of the Tour of Britain. But can the race live up to Yorkshire's successful hosting of the Tour de France?

Earlier this year huge crowds cheered riders from city centres to remote hillsides as the greatest cycling race in the world - Le Tour - visited Yorkshire for its Grand Depart.

Now the sport is back in the north of England for the increasingly prestigious Tour of Britain and Liverpool is hoping it will prove just as popular.

Britain's premier cycling event has been contested every year since 1945 - save for a five-year hiatus from 1999 until 2004 - but the sport has never been more mainstream in the UK.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Tour of Britain has visited various parts of Merseyside on several occasions

Local cycling hero Chris Boardman, who won Olympic gold in 1992 and took part in both tour races, is sure Liverpool can rise to the challenge of hosting the first stage.

"We've got such iconic landmarks in Liverpool - the whole seafront is littered with them," he said.

"The Tour will draw in many spectators, which is economically good for Liverpool, and the TV coverage will show the city off to millions more."

Liverpool's assistant mayor Wendy Simon said the city was capable of putting on an opening event which could stand beside the scenes witnessed around Yorkshire's Cote de Buttertubs in July.

"The city always shines under the spotlight and it's a great opportunity for people from across the country to be able to see how Liverpool excels when it comes to hosting major events," she said.

The Tour of Britain

Image copyright Getty Images
  • The Tour of Britain began as the Victory Cycling Marathon in 1945, a five-stage 463-mile (745 km) amateur race from Brighton to Glasgow
  • From 1960 until 1993 it was known as The Milk Race and was sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board
  • In 2011, the Kendal to Blackpool stage was cancelled due to extreme weather, as high winds littered the route with debris

Source: Sky Ride

"It is hugely exciting that the Grand Depart is being staged in the city [and] we expect it to attract tens of thousands of spectators who, as well as seeing a great sporting event, will also provide a significant boost to the local economy."

For Boardman though, the point of the race is not just about getting people to come to Liverpool.

"Firstly and most obviously, these events are wonderful, free to watch sporting spectacles, that are not just great for spectators along the route but are followed by millions of enthusiasts around the world," he added.

"But more deeply, they are a constant reminder to people of what a marvellous tool the bicycle is.

"From exploring countryside and spending time with family to commuting to work or just nipping to the shops, no other transport device can offer this versatility."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Huge crowds turned out to watch the first two stages of the Tour de France in Yorkshire

The Grand Depart in Liverpool, which will see riders compete on a looped circuit around the city centre, will be preceded by a free public event, where a 5 mile (8 km) route will be closed to traffic to allow ordinary cyclists on the course ahead of the elite race.

A British Cycling spokesman said the two events would combine to create a "huge celebration of all things two-wheeled" and were part of a larger effort, built on the growing interest in cycling, to encourage people to take up the sport.

"I don't think there can be any doubt that cycling has become a mainstream sport in recent years," the spokesman said.

"The unprecedented success of the Great Britain Cycling Team at events such as the London Olympics and the Tour de France is inspiring a new love affair with cycling, with more and more people enjoying riding their bikes as well as watching it as a sport.

"We know that over two million people are now cycling regularly and the challenge for us in 2014 has been to ensure that major events have a lasting impact on cycling, not only in the areas they visit, but throughout Britain."

'Tenacity was my best asset'

Image copyright Getty Images
  • Chris Boardman began racing when he was 13 and was part of the British cycling team at the 1984 World Championships, where he says he got "an absolute kicking"
  • He won pursuit gold at the 1992 Olympic Games, a victory which "opened the international door"
  • He says his other two career highlights were breaking the world one-hour record and winning the first stage of the Tour de France

BBC Sport: What's so special about Chris Boardman?

Over in Yorkshire, hosting the Tour de France was part of a 10-year project aimed at encouraging more people into cycling, something which the tourist board believes it has achieved.

Welcome To Yorkshire's Tom Swain said there was "still huge enthusiasm for the Tour de France, even two months on".

"For both Leeds and Harrogate, there's a real sense that they were important parts of something very special and it's the same for every town or village the first stage of the Grand Depart passed through.

"People have clearly been inspired by seeing the world's greatest cycle race pass by their front door.

"In terms of legacy, we want to get more people cycling and make cycling a more appealing method of transport and we are seeing more cyclists on the roads, enjoying the exercise and being out on their bike."

In order to achieve such an aim though, it is necessary to get people excited about the Tour of Britain.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Wiggins won the 2013 Tour of Britain, which included a stage through Knowsley Safari Park

For Boardman, that has been achieved through the quality of the field and the fact the race is now "properly on the calendar".

"The Tour of Britain is back now and it's a very prestigious event, so we get the very best of riders," he said.

"We've got eight UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, the international governing body for cycling) teams - these are the biggest 'Premier League' teams in the world - coming to take part."

The British Cycling spokesman said the Tour had been getting bigger every year since it returned in 2004.

"The race's status has grown internationally in recent years, with the UCI awarding it 2.HC status in 2014, meaning it has huge significance to all the major teams, who field strong teams to ensure it is a great sporting spectacle for the British public."

Boardman said there was one name involved that would bring out more supporters than the rest - that of the defending champion Sir Bradley Wiggins, who controversially missed out on this year's Tour de France.

"It makes an enormous difference to people who aren't already die hard cycling fans to have Bradley involved," he said.

"You need the Brit to support and him being back, everybody wants to see him.

"He's a real character and you're never quite sure what you're going to get. He could explode, he could win the race overall - seeing him back in the Tour of Britain is brilliant."

However, he said the enjoyment he would get from Liverpool's Grand Depart came back to one thing - the public learning to share his passion for cycling.

"I'm delighted to see the humble bicycle and the wonderful sport of cycling getting the limelight it thoroughly deserves," he said.

"The UK is falling in love with cycling and I'm delighted that Liverpool is one of the cities leading the way.

"I hope people enjoy the event and it reminds them they too can use a bike."

The Tour of Britain takes place between 7 and 14 September. BBC Sport will be providing daily reports from the race.

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