STEPHEN LEWIS joined spectators in Duncombe Place for Day 2 of the Tour de France
YOU could hear the cyclists before you could see them: a swelling roar from the crowds lining Deangate and Minster Yard marking their progress. Police bikes swept past the Minster into Duncombe Place. Bodies pressed against railings for a better view; children were hoisted on to shoulders, cameraphones raised high in anticipation.
"Here we go!" said an excited voice.
And then suddenly there the peloton was, swooping round the corner in a tightly massed group, the Minster rearing majestically behind. The crowds went wild. A thousand voices bellowed their welcome. Flags waved, handbells rang, children called excitedly, cameras clicked and clicked. The faces of the leading riders split into involuntary grins at the sheer warmth of the reception. They flashed past, some bikes almost brushing the railings, so close were they. Then, almost before we'd had time to register they were there, they were gone again, disappearing, still tightly massed, around the sharp bend into St Leonard's Place.
"That was so fast!" a little boy said. But there was no disappointment in his voice, or in the crowds lining the street: just a jumping sense of excitement; of occasion; of having been there for something special.
Four hours earlier, the centre of York had been oddly quiet. A couple of joggers were loping along New Walk beside the River Ouse; a dog walker passing them in the other direction. Could the world's biggest cycle race really be in town?
St George's Field car park was full of coaches turning and manoeuvring, however - the first indication this wasn't just any day.
Orange-jacketed stewards could be seen on Skeldergate Bridge, and at 7.20am the first spectators were gathering on a traffic island at the Tower Street roundabout, staking out their places.
A few early morning cyclists riding up deserted Clifford Street were cheered and clapped by a noisy group of spectators camped out at the junction with Coppergate. Clare Roberts, her friend Maxine Thompson, and Maxine's children Ben, Bethany and Francesca had come from Middlesbrough. "It's the Tour de France!" Ben said excitedly. Yes, but if they cheered every cyclist going past, wouldn't their voices be worn out by the time the peloton got there?
"We're doing it to keep warm!" Clare said.
On Coney Street, street-cleaning supervisor Paul Wiley was ensuring his territory was spick and span. "We've been on since 10pm last night!" he said, showing no signs of exhaustion.
There were crowds building in St Helen's Square; and more people lining Duncombe Place. As rain threatened then passed and the crowds increased, anticipation was growing. Just after 9am, the cavalcade arrived. Pretty girls bopping to the beat of blaring disco music tossed treats - pens, sweets, packets of Yorkshire tea - from floats shaped like giant wine bottles and ball-point pens. "Are you 'appy?" bellowed a French voice through a loudhailer. "If you are, make some noise!"
As 11am neared, the cacophony reached epic proportions: the Minster bells pealing, people laughing and shouting, handbells ringing, Klaxons sounding. A Lancaster bomber followed by a spitfire roared over our heads. And then, just after 11am, there they were, the ones we'd been waiting for: almost 200 cyclists, bunched into that peloton, not even racing yet, but loving every minute of what was happening. As were we.