Entry fee makes grand departure from tradition

By Trevor Ward  /  The Guardian

Fri, Jun 27, 2014 - Page 17

The eyes of the cycling world will be on Yorkshire for the start of the Tour de France next week. However, amid all the yellow-and-polka-dot-painted ceremony will be one innovation I believe should be of concern to fans.

On Thursday, two days before stage one rolls out from Leeds, the team presentation will be held. This is traditionally a free event and usually takes place in a town square or other public space. However, the organizers of the Grand Depart in Yorkshire are holding it in Leeds’ newest entertainment venue — the 13,000-capacity First Direct Arena — and are charging fans £50 to £85 (US$85 to US$144) for tickets.

When originally announced in April, the news caused headlines in the local press and a backlash from cycling fans on social media, with comments such as “rip-off Britain,” “disgraceful” and “shameful.”

The event still has not sold out, though ticket sales remain “strong” according to the organizers, who say the event “could be a blueprint for future hosts of the Tour de France.”

This should send a shiver down the spine of cycling fans: Last year’s Tour team presentation against the stunning backdrop of Porto Vecchio Harbor in Corsica might have been the last free event of its kind.

The only previous time in recent history when fans have had to pay to attend a team presentation was in 2011, when the event was held inside a French theme park and fans had to pay the standard admission charge.

Yorkshire’s decision contrasts with Northern Ireland, where thousands of fans enjoyed free entry to the Giro d’Italia team presentation in front of Belfast City Hall last month.

“We always planned to offer free access as it’s the culture for this event,” event organizer Gerry Copeland said.

Philip McDonald, senior sports lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, believes any “legacy benefits” from Yorkshire’s hosting of the Grand Depart have been undermined by the decision to charge fans.

“The price range is not likely to be affordable for many of those the event is supposed to ‘inspire.’ The traditional format allowed young fans to get up close to the riders and see them in the flesh. This attempt to produce a spectacular event is no doubt well intended but in my view will actually make the teams more remote,” McDonald said.

Andrew Denton, spokesman for the Yorkshire Grand Depart organizers, says the team presentation is “not-for-profit” and had been organized “with the blessing of the Amaury Sport Organisation” (ASO), the owners of the Tour.

“Yes we have public spaces [in Leeds], but we also have the best new entertainment venue in the world and when we discussed our ideas with ASO and got their approval we pressed ahead with our plans to add a new chapter to the history of the Tour,” Denton said. “This is a new world for cycling, its popularity is at record levels, and we are unapologetic for trying to celebrate that popularity with a not-for-profit event that raises the bar for everyone involved, including the fans.”

This “raising of the bar” is to include performances from Yorkshire artists, including Britpop veterans Embrace and Girls Aloud singer Kimberley Walsh.

The “not-for-profit” line strikes me as disingenuous. Total investment for the Grand Depart — which is to see two stages in Yorkshire and a third finish in London — will amount to about £27 million, a BBC report said. However, when the Tour started in London in 2007 and included two stages, it brought in an estimated £88 million to the local economy. Other cities hosting the Grand Depart have reported similar returns on their investments over the years. And, with the exception of 2011, they achieved that without having to charge fans to attend the Tour’s traditional curtain-raiser.

Some fans have described Yorkshire’s decision as the thin end of the wedge. I would argue that it is nearer to the fat end. For me, the thin end of the wedge came two years ago during the London Olympics, when organizers charged fans up to £15 to stand on the side of the road to watch the road race go up Box Hill in Surrey.

Their argument was that it was to cover the cost of an environmental impact survey. Yet, with the greatest respect to the straw belle moths and brown hairstreak butterflies of Box Hill, the indigenous wildlife of various national parks in the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites has remained largely undisturbed by the annual incursion of thousands of fans during the tours of France, Spain and Italy (As turned out to be the case at Box Hill).

My fear is that Yorkshire’s Grand Depart could leave behind an unintended legacy — that of a once egalitarian, easily accessible sport being turned into a shameless money-spinner. Am I alone in thinking the next step could be turnstiles on the Tour of Britain?