When Le Tour came to Yorkshire and what it left behind
The postponed 2020 Tour de France has now begun – prompting memories of the 2014 Tour, which put Yorkshire on the map by beginning here in Leeds. Seven years later, Professor Karl Spracklen in the Leeds School of Social Sciences contemplates the legacy of the Tour de Yorkshire and asks, what has it left behind?
What people do in their leisure time, what people do when they are not working, is fundamental to human life. Without leisure time and leisure spaces, human culture and human society become impoverished. Leisure gives us wellbeing, meaning and purpose, and the belief that we have some control over our lives. This is the focus of all my research. As a sociologist, of course, I know how leisure has been used by rulers, governments and others in power to keep society and citizens under control.
When I heard that Le Tour de France was coming to Yorkshire, I was deeply sceptical about the supposed benefits. Modern sport is an industry that generates billions of dollars of profit for trans-national corporations. Professional sports with huge numbers of spectators and television viewers are deeply problematic because they are designed to sell things to the passive consumers – subscriptions to television channels; season tickets; and merchandise. Worse, these media sports seem to be designed to keep people watching television. These media sports, then, resemble the games and circuses of the Roman Empire, deliberately contrived by Emperors – as we are told by the Roman satirist Juvenal - to keep people in servitude and to stop them from rising up against the Emperors.
In the run-up to the event I carefully noted all the hyperbolic claims made about when Le Tour would pass through my home town Skipton. My dad was a cycling fan so I let him come to watch with us, but I had never seen the point of watching cycling or even being an active cyclist. There would be extra tourists spending money and the hotels and restaurants would be full. There would be a legacy of people encouraged to get on their bikes. I was a cynic then. But when I stood next to my wife and my dad and his partner, as the bikes of the professional racers rushed around the mini-roundabout at the top end of Newmarket Street, I was hooked. The thrill, the pleasure of seeing them race pass, made me seek the thrill out again the day after, up on Cringles near Silsden.
Since I wrote my research, the excitement has faded, and Skipton and the Dales still struggle to manage an economy that values tourism over other jobs. Statues of sheep and murals have gone, apart from a few traces here and there. Since Le Tour came to Yorkshire we have had the Brexit Referendum, the collapse of the northern white working-class Labour vote in the 2019 General Election (my local constituency, is a very safe Conservative seat, covering semi-rural market towns and the Yorkshire Dales), and a pandemic that has stopped any foreign cycling tourists from riding the British stages as they did in the preceding years. But there are still plenty of cyclists, even if they are all locals. And there remains in Yorkshire a residual attachment to French culture, a Europhilia that continues to be represented in the leisure choices of cyclists and diners.
Read more: Spracklen, K. (2019), ‘Cycling, bread and circuses? When Le Tour came to Yorkshire and what it left behind’, Sport in Society.
Images of Skipton courtesy of Tim Green
Karl Spracklen is a Professor of Sociology of Leisure and Culture based in the Leeds School of Social Sciences, and the Director of Research for Social Policy. He was previously a Professor of Leisure Studies here at Leeds Beckett University.