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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 July 2007, 18:29 GMT 19:29 UK
On your marks, get set...allez!
By Lucy Rodgers
BBC News

Fans cheered the riders outside Buckingham Palace

London was bouncing to the thumping beat of Europop, and the sound of beeping horns, as the carnival atmosphere of Le Tour de France came to the streets of the capital for the first time in the cycling race's 104-year history.

With crowds two to three people deep, the start of the largest annual sporting event in the world kicked off with its noisy but eagerly-awaited celebratory promotional caravan.

A cavalcade of wheeled devils, giant cheeses, lorries in the shape of drinks bottles, enormous furry lions and a fleet of tooting French cars rolled through the capital's streets past Whitehall, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park.

Pens, key-rings, sweets, T-shirts and hats were lobbed through the open windows of the vehicles to the delighted cheers of awaiting spectators - grown men fighting children for the free goodies.

"I got some!" shouted one.

But alongside the passing carnival floats, the greatest names in cycling, sporting a rainbow of coloured lycra, whizzed past on their aerodynamic steeds, preparing for the 7.9km (five-mile) prologue time trial around London's central streets.

The Tour de France publicity caravan
Sweets and gifts were thrown to the crowd during the publicity caravan

After all, the 22-day gruelling event is all about cycling.

And bikes were everywhere.

With much of central London closed to motorists and an additional 11,000 temporary cycle parking spaces on offer to those on two wheels, there was only one way to arrive at Le Grand Depart of Le Tour en Angleterre.

"Of course I came by bike," said John Daniels, 39, from east London.

Even the police and ambulance crews were on two wheels, and many cycling groups with stands at the event hoped the race's first ever start in Britain would encourage more to do the same.

Thousands expected

Up to two million people were expected to watch Saturday's prologue and Sunday's first stage, when the race's 200-strong peloton will thread its way from Greenwich to Canterbury.

I have never seen such a big start in France - never seen a place putting in so much effort
Patricia Connell, organiser of the French stalls

And thousands could be seen swarming though Hyde Park to the People's Village where fans tried their hands at the world marble championships, cycling assault courses, static speed trials or had their picture taken with a Madame Tussauds waxworks version of multiple Tour winner Lance Armstrong.

There was also the chance to sample the produce of our continental neighbour, with pastries, crepes, wine and cheese on offer in the French market.

Patricia Connell, organiser of the French stalls, believed Britain had got into the spirit of the Tour, which plays an enormous part of the summer across the Channel.

"I have never seen such a big start in France - never seen a place putting in so much effort," she said.

But there was one very British tradition which was much in evidence at the essentially European event - queuing. There were long queues for the toilets, queues for food, queues for drinks and queues to cross the road.

British fans at the prologue of the Tour de France
Fans cheered their favourite riders

And one British cycling fan who has been to many of the Tour's stages in France believed the facilities were not up to scratch.

Kevin Scott, 43, a gas fitter from Golspie in the Scottish Highlands, said: "The People's Village was a bit disappointing and there wasn't really enough going on. In France the start village puts on a real event."

But the buzz of being at the race was the same, he said.

"It is the history, the tradition and the camaraderie of it, as well as the courage of the riders."

Security concerns

With the international event coming after three failed car bombings in London and Glasgow and two years to the day after suicide attacks on the capital's transport system killed 52 people, it was widely seen as a test for security ahead of the Olympics in 2012.

And the 4,500 British police officers and 45 of their French counterparts patrolling the Tour took up high profile positions close to the crowds of spectators along the route.

A British police officer at the Tour de France
Police were high profile at the event

But many said security had not been a concern when deciding to watch the event.

Brian Bramble, 45, from Stoke Newington in London, said: "I hadn't even thought about it."

As the time trial's official start approached, the crowds got thicker as they took their positions to watch their idols fighting it out for the famous leader's yellow jersey - or le maillot jaune.

The first rider out of the blocks, number 214, Enrico Degano from Italy, passed in a blur.

But all British eyes were on David Millar, Mark Cavendish, Geraint Thomas, Charlie Wegelius and Bradley Wiggins - the biggest British contingent for 20 years.

But even if a British rider doesn't manage to pull on le maillot jaune and ride it through France, there was a sense that, for two days, Britain was sharing in the Tour de France's century-old history of cycling madness.


SEE ALSO
What makes a great Tour rider?
06 Jul 07 |  Health
Tackling Le Tour
29 Jun 07 |  Magazine
Understanding the Tour de France
03 Jul 07 |  Cycling
Le Tour prologue as it happened
07 Jul 07 |  Cycling

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