In just over four months, the Tour de France will arrive in Yorkshire for the first Yorkshire Grand Départ. STEPHEN LEWIS speaks to the man who made it possible.
WHEN Yorkshire began to express an interest in hosting the Grand Départ of the Tour de France, it was made clear the county was a rank outsider. “We’re not sure Yorkshire is sexy,” was the message Welcome to Yorkshire boss Gary Verity got back after approaching the Tour organisers.
Two days in May 2012 changed all that.
Gary invited Christian Prudhomme, the Tour’s Director General, to visit Yorkshire. What followed was a bit of classic schmoozing that was to pay huge dividends.
After making sure Prudhomme and his team were “well looked after” on the way over on Eurostar, Gary borrowed a helicopter – as you do. “I used to have a successful career in commerce,” he says with a straight face. “People were very generous.”
He flew the Tour party straight to his sheep farm in Coverdale, making sure they had plenty of chance to see the sweeping Yorkshire landscape unfolding beneath them. It was a canny move. Anyone who has ever watched TV coverage of the Tour de France can’t help to have noticed the luscious aerial photography, lingering on a ribbon of cyclists threading their way through swooping French landscapes.
Looking down out of the windows of the helicopter, he says, they could see what a perfect fit Yorkshire was.
But he was just getting started. They had a fine lunch and drank some Yorkshire lager. Then he showed them around the farm, before giving them a quick tour of the Dales in limos he had ‘blagged’.
After that it was back into the helicopter for a flight to Scarborough to see the Yorkshire Coast from the air. They returned via York, circling over the Minster, and headed for Harewood House, where they landed on the lawns.
An impressive delegation was waiting there to meet them – Lord and Lady Harewood, the heads of the Yorkshire CBI and Institute of Directors, the chief constables of North and West Yorkshire, the heads of Yorkshire local authorities, including York’s Kersten England, and the head of Eurostar, among others.
Inside the house, they were served dinner cooked by a Michelin starred chef – and after the first course, Gary says, up popped Brian Robinson, the Yorkshireman who, in 1958, became the first Briton to win a stage of the Tour de France.
All in all it was a wonderful piece of chutzpah – and it showed Yorkshire really meant business.
The next day, the group visited York, where they took in the Minster, and walked through the city centre.
Afterwards, Gary accompanied M. Prudhomme back to London on the train. “And at St Pancras he gave me a hug, and said ‘Yorkshire is very sexy’.”
It wasn’t yet a done deal. There was still serious competition to host the 2014 Grand Depart from Edinburgh, Florence and a handful of other European nations – not to mention French towns.
“If you’re a mayor in France, the way to get re-elected is to get the Tour,” the 49-year-old says.
But the momentum had swung Yorkshire’s way.
The contract was signed in November that year and on December 14, it was announced to the world from Paris.
Gary was at Ripon Cathedral with his daughter Lily that morning attending a carol service.
“I spent most of the service standing outside the cathedral on the telephone talking to news organisations,” he says. “The rest is history.”
Winning the right to host the 2014 Grand Départ for Yorkshire was an expensive business, he admits. It cost “several hundred thousand pounds” – and that’s not including the goodwill and support he begged, borrowed and blagged.
Hosting the Grand Départ will cost even more: £20 million by some estimates, although that includes the time of staff employed at local authorities and at Welcome to Yorkshire itself, all of whom would have had to be paid anyway.
Some sceptics may question whether that is money we can afford.
But sometimes you have to speculate to accumulate, he says – and the benefits will vastly outweigh the cost.
When London hosted the 2007 Grand Départ, the economic benefits to the capital were said to be in the order of £100 million.
Yorkshire will do much better, he says. “Price Waterhouse have said that the benefits to the Yorkshire economy will be in the hundreds of millions of pounds.”
So what exactly will those benefits be?
The Tour is the world’s third largest sporting event, he points out, after the Olympics and the Football World Cup.
When he attended the 2011 Grand Depart in the Vendée, there were 2,500 journalists from all over the world covering the event. “When is the last time there were 2,500 journalists in York?”
The 2011 Grand Départ was shown on live TV in 190 countries, he says – and it will be the same this year. There will be five hours of live TV coverage every day in the UK alone – plenty to change the tired old perception of Yorkshire as the land of whippets and unemployed miners.
The perception that Yorkshire is sexy is already growing, he says – with ever more attention from the national and international press as the tour gets nearer.
That is already having a real effect. Lonely Planet recently said Yorkshire was the third best place to visit on the planet. “I’m sure that wouldn’t have happened without the Tour de France.”
The Grand Départ itself will be a fantastic sporting spectacle, he says – one free to enjoy by anyone standing at the roadside. It will be the kind of occasion children will remember in years to come, and say they watched with their mums and dads, he says.
And it will leave a permanent legacy. The 2007 Grand Départ was the springboard for making cycling a priority in London – and he can see the same happening in Yorkshire, with York leading the way as a cycling city.
Another legacy will be an annual three-day Yorkshire cycle race, organised by the Tour de France organisers Amaury, which will attract some of the world’s leading cyclists every year.
No name has yet been chosen, he says – but it could be something like The Yorkshire Classic. The route could be different each year, to take in as much of Yorkshire as possible. And would York be involved?
“I would hope so. York is so synonymous with cycling that it is important it is in the mix.”
Finally, there will be the business benefits.
There are still plenty of people and plenty of businesses in the UK – especially in the south – who couldn’t even point to Yorkshire on a map, he says.
“That won’t be the case after July.” Instead, there will be plenty of businesses then saying what a great job Yorkshire did of hosting the Tour, he says.
“They’ll be thinking ‘Yorkshire is sexy. It’s the place that did the bike race’ rather than ‘that’s where the miners used to be’. And they’ll be thinking, ‘If they had the Tour de France there, why don’t we have our HQ there?’”
Big ambitions, perhaps. But not unrealistic, he insists. He was inspired to bid for the Grand Départ after seeing what hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2002 did for Manchester.
In his previous business career, he spent several years working abroad. When he returned to the UK, it was noticeable that Manchester had a newfound dynamism and chutzpah, he says.
He puts that down to the success of the Commonwealth Games, and the confidence that hosting them had brought to the region.
That confidence was noticeable. “It meant that when the BBC turned up and said ‘we want a brown-field site to build a media village’, Manchester said ‘yes’.”
He believes hosting the 2014 Grand Départ will give post-recession Yorkshire a similar injection of confidence and dynamism.
“I think it will have the same impact on Yorkshire that hosting the Commonwealth Games had in Manchester.”
Let’s hope so.
Personal tragedy that lies behind Gary’s drive
WINNING the right for Yorkshire to host the 2014 Grand Départ became almost a personal crusade for Gary Verity.
In 2004 his wife, Helen, whom he had married less than a year earlier, was diagnosed with terminal bone marrow cancer. Their daughter Lily, a ‘honeymoon baby’, was just eight months old.
Helen was given 18 months to live. In fact, she survived until December 2009, when she died at home just before Christmas. Lily was six years old.
It was an appalling time of his life, Mr Verity admits.
He had known his wife was near death, so sent his daughter away to stay with friends for a couple of days. “I didn’t want her to be at home.”
Helen died in the early hours of Wednesday, December 16. Lily returned from her friends on the Thursday.
“She was so excited about Christmas. She said: ‘Daddy, I’ve made a Christmas card for you and mummy, let’s go and show mummy.’ “I said ‘Lily, I need to tell you something,’ and she said, straight away: ‘Has mummy died?’ And I could see her eyes filling up.”
You have two choices at a time like that, he says: you either keep going, or you don’t.
He kept going: and the campaign to bring the Tour de France to Yorkshire gave him something to hang on to. “I’m so grateful to have had that.
Gary Verity fact file...
Born: Leeds, July 8, 1964
Lives: Coverdale, North Yorkshire
Education: Leeds Grammar School
Career history: Left school to become a management trainee in a Yorkshire bank. Eighteen years with Royal Insurance, including three years in Hong Kong where he set up and ran the Hong Kong office. Also ran Bradford and Bingley’s Retail Property Services for two years, where he says he turned a £1million a month loss into a £1 million a month profit. Former Group MD of Prontaprint and Kall Kwik, and former MD of Johnsons Cleaners UK. Chief Executive of Welcome to Yorkshire since 2008.