With the Tour de France less than a month away, all cycling eyes are turning to Yorkshire as final preparations are made before some of England’s most green and pleasant land is turned yellow for the couple of crazy days that will be Le Grand Depart.
Leading the team charged with communicating the story of Yorkshire’s time in the spotlight is Head of Media, Andy Denton. The Jersey Pocket caught up with this Kentish Lad who found his home in the Yorkshire Dales and then helped win the bid to bring Froome, Nibali, Contador and everyone else to England’s largest county.
Andy describes himself as “a former sports & travel journalist (and failed footballer) who happened to meet a Yorkshire girl and relocate to the most amazing place in the world..” He moved up North, started a family and took a job as Press Officer at the county’s visitor/tourism vehicle ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’ before the thought of bidding for of Le Grand Depart was being discussed at all. So first off, now that he is at the forefront of the biggest cycle story of the year, is Andy a cyclist himself?
“Not a cyclist, but definitely a cycling fan. I’d watched the Tour, seen the Tour and bored my friends silly about the Tour for many years before it even came onto our radar here in Yorkshire. When, one cold dark day in the office, it was whispered that we would be bidding to host the Tour I knew how big that would be. I also knew how exciting it would be so I’m privileged to have led our bid and delivered our comms, even if that means the Commonwealth Games bid has faltered slightly.”
Before any of you think that Yorkshire is simultaneously running a covert bid to host the next Commonwealth Games, it should be explained that Andy is highly proficient Indoor Bowls player, who harboured serious ambitions of playing for England in this Summer’s games in Glasgow. In true cycling style however, Andy has put his own ambitions to one side to act as a ‘super-domestique’ to ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’ CEO, Gary Verity, who had overall control of the bid and who is, in Andy’s words, “the dynamic bid leader, who drove us all to succeed.”
Andy’s love for his adopted home is very strong and very clear – the kind of passion you would expect from a true-born Tyke, and one which I recognise in many of the friends and relations I grew up with in Hull. Andy’s wife, Nikki, was in my art class at Sixth Form College but she is not his only link to the Ridings. “If this were a World Cup I could claim playing for Yorkshire through my mum who is from Leeds,” reckons Andy, “and my extended family who are all still based up here. Growing up in Kent was funny because me, my brothers and sister always felt more at home in Yorkshire. Living here is a dream. I used to spend an hour and half commuting into London on a packed train, then a packed tube and then a crowded pavement. I love London for it’s constant pulse and it’s constant feeling of anything is possible but Yorkshire is just an amazing place to live. I wouldn’t swap now.”
But whilst Andy was no stranger to Yorkshire’s charms, one of the problems with delivering a credible bid was that many of the influential people in France, whom Andy and the bid team were trying to impress, were less familiar with the place, putting them at a distinct disadvantage in the early stages. He tells the story of how they turned the competition on it’s head within a very short space of time with obvious pride:
“I remember being at the Tour start in Liege in 2012 and talking to the UK press pack about our bid and their response was “I thought the Yorkshire bid was a PR stunt.” I knew we had work to do to convince people we were serious while at the same time using our creativity and individuality to make us stand out from the other candidates.”
I have mentioned to Andy before that my 7 second interview by Yorkshire’s local ITV news programme “Calendar” on the Champs Elysee in 2012 in support of the bid could have been a deciding factor in Yorkshire winning but curiously the media-savvy Andy overlooks that in his analysis.
“Yorkshire Terriers helped, Yorkshire Tea played its part. Fish & Chips and Mark Cavendish were all key components, but ultimately the success of Team Sky in 2012 swung the cycling pendulum of power towards the UK and that boosted our bid. However, a strong cycling success story without a strong bidding region wouldn’t have worked and we prided ourselves on exceeding the expectations of [TdF owners] ASO at every step of the way. So we knew our bid was strong and by the finish in Paris in 2012 the same press pack hunted me down and said: “There’s something in this Yorkshire bid… tell me about it.” So in three weeks, three weeks of hard work, we had come from the back of the pack to front runner.”
But all that hard work was never a guarantee of success against very strong competition from Florence, Berlin, Barcelona and Scotland. So what does he feel was the clincher?
“I think what clinched it was a combination of things. Our scenery is stunning, as Chris Froome and Team Sky recently discovered. We had the backing of the world’s best sprinter in Mark Cavendish, that was influential. We have a great emotional story surrounding Brian Robinson, the first British rider to win a stage of the Tour de France, but above all we have proud passionate people in Yorkshire and I knew if we could engage with them and get them to back our bid we would have harnessed something extremely powerful. In the end we had over 130,000 pledges of public support for my Back le Bid campaign. No other candidate city or location has anything as compelling as that.”
But since the win, even he has been surprised by the depth to which the folk of Yorkshire – often caricatured as either tight, grumpy or more often both – have got on board and made visible contributions to the already huge promotional work.
“I knew the Yorkshire people were proud but they have taken the Tour to their hearts and they really own it now. They want to show the world that the Grand Départ is not just a celebration of cycling but it will be a celebration of the place they live. So we have hundreds of yellow bikes across the routes, thousands of knitted jerseys, spray chalking has started, businesses have painted their premises the colours of the winning jerseys and communities are, in true Yorkshire style, trying to beat their neighbours down the road. The reaction and the passion and the pride in the event is going to surprise the fans and the riders. Guaranteed.”
Andy reckons that his team’s work for the visit of Le Tour has already given the region £70million worth of media coverage since December 2012. Having all those wonderful personal, public interest stories to tell has, no doubt, made his job a bit easier but that is not to belittle the task he has taken on. With the clock now furiously ticking down to the roll-out from Leeds on July 5th, he is mentally preparing himself for a manic month ahead. It should be remembered that, up until now, Andy has also been working on Yorkshire’s other tourism events like the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, a David Hockney initiative in the Wolds, the upcoming annual agricultural event The Great Yorkshire Show, and a million other things that don’t flag up on my London-based, cycling-centric world.
“I have a team of five and in the last 30 days we will be working flat out on the Tour. Every day is different but when I joined ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’ over five years ago we wanted a ‘moment’ like this to put Yorkshire on the map. So although every day is high pressure, with little time for distraction if at all, we know that the pressure we are under is what we craved and we are rising to every challenge we face. Going back to the World Cup scenario, there are some players who freeze and some who thrive when the big moment comes. I like to think we are thriving.”
The ramping up of events since the end of last year’s Tour has been steady with various visits from Race Director Christian Prudhomme, Tour Ambassador Bernard Hinault and now all the various teams and riders as they complete their final recce rides. Which seems like a good point to bring up Andy’s claim to fame, which is listed on the intro page of the World Communication Forum in Davos where he was a guest speaker earlier this year. It says that he ‘once interviewed David Beckham but forgot to get his autograph’, an omission which ‘still haunts him’. So, how did the autograph hunting go with Hinault, Cav, Froome and all the other celebs he has been escorting around the county for the last 12 months?
“Funnily enough I’ve not got any autographs from them,”he replies laughing, “I tend to get them for other people who are doing auctions or as thank yous for their help. I must get better at getting autographs!!”
The visits to and and from the Gallic contingents have also been the source of Andy’s hardest moments. When I ask him about what has been the biggest challenge so far he simply says, “Not speaking as much French as my fluent wife.” As a person who spends a great deal of my time trying to communicate quite specific issues with people across various different languages, I know exactly how he feels.
In order to try and give Andy a short break about thinking about the next few weeks I thought I’d ask him about what he is looking forward to most. Unsurprisingly he returns to the public, who have already become so integral to the Grand Depart flavour. “When Froome, Porte and co visited last weekend the crowds were fantastic and I’m looking forward to the goosebumps of race week as the teams start to arrive and the county fills up. Its going to be amazing. It’s going to be the biggest party Yorkshire has ever seen and hopefully it will all pass without incident or accident.”
And what about during the race. I expect most most of us think of the media entourage of major sporting event organisers swanning about in special cars – or, in the case of Le Tour, even helicopters – before trying to ensure that the Maillot Jaune doesn’t get pissed off with all the doping questions and call everyone ‘C***s’ on live TV. But the truth is, surprisingly, a little more prosaic, and fittingly, a little more Yorkshire. “I will be working alongside our colleagues at ASO, shadowing Gary and Christian as well as being in the media centres”, reveals Andy (who, in his media role, maybe more than most has mixed feelings about the lack of Sir Brad from this race), “but I have no special travel dispensation so I will be catching a train like everyone else from Leeds to Harrogate and then to Sheffield and I’m looking forward to eavesdropping on the excitement.”
I suspect that a Cav win on Stage 1 would be the dream scenario for the ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’ team but getting through without a hitch is also high on the agenda. I also have another suspicion that the Orica-Greenedge bus will be preceded around the narrow Yorkshire lanes by a tow-truck of some magnitude just in case but I am genuinely excited about soon being in the middle of what Andy and the team have created. After watching the first two stages in the Skipton area around the Rapha Tempest event, I will be heading back to London for Stage 3 and then taking up my more usual position in front of the TV. But what does the rest of the race hold for Andy? Does he get to follow the race over to France, or does he have to stop at the borders of the ‘Shire?
“I won’t be going to France.” he says, with a hint of mixed emotion. “I will follow it to London to see the riders and teams safely out of the country and then return to Yorkshire because the same week we are heavily involved in The Great Yorkshire Show…no rest and all that.”
And after that, then what? With exception of the birth of his second child last year, the project has been at the forefront of his mind for a number of years now. What comes next? How do you follow the biggest party the county has ever seen?
“We have a 10 year plan to use the visit of the Tour de France as a springboard to greater participation in cycling in Yorkshire, improved infrastructure for cycling, greater awareness, a thriving cycling community and businesses and increased events.“, he says, effortlessly slipping back into ‘bid’ mode, “We are also working on a new international pro-race for May 2015 onwards with the ASO and British Cycling, which will be incredibly exciting.”
Indeed it will. Describing Le Grand Depart as a ‘springboard’ is a key part of the vision. Andy, Gary Verity and perhaps the whole of Yorkshire know that this is their time to shine and they intend to ensure that the White Rose’s time in Yellow has as lasting a legacy as those who get to wear the Maillot Jaune, even for a short time, also get to enjoy for the rest of their lives..
All photo’s courtesy of ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’