Tour De France 2014: Crowds and Cobbles Test Riders Racing for Yellow Jersey

Stuart Howard-CofieldFeatured ColumnistJuly 9, 2014

Tour De France Crowds in Yorkshire
Tour De France Crowds in YorkshireDoug Pensinger/Getty Images

From the enormous crowds that lined the tiny roads weaving through the Yorkshire countryside to the treacherous cobbled lanes of northern France, the 2014 Tour de France has provided a gruelling first-week test for those riders vying for this year's yellow jersey.

First up, it was the grandest of Grand Departs. Towns and villages across Yorkshire and on the Cambridge to London stage were festooned with bunting and yellow bikes; houses were painted with red polka dots.

Britain's charismatic cycling superstar Bradley Wiggins may have been controversially left out of Team Sky for this year's race, but that certainly did not dampen the spirits of the millions of fans who lined the roads for the first three stages of the race.

Another British superstar found that his tour would go no further than Stage 1.

As Omega Pharma-Quick Step's Mark Cavendish and the sprint pack moved toward the finish line in Harrogate, they were surprised by a late attack from Fabian Cancellara. Jostling for the best position, Cavendish appeared to lean in to Orica-GreenEdge's Simon Gerrans, causing a crash that would end his own tour.

Still unperturbed, the crowds were out in force again on England's second and third stages.

They may not be the Alps, but iconic English climbs such as Holme Moss, the training ground for British stars such as Geraint Thomas, attracted incredible crowds, prompting Thomas to tweet:

It was widely reported that Thomas' praise of the Yorkshire welcome was echoed by Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme, among many others.

I work for the Tour, but I also love the Tour, and I have seen that the people of Yorkshire love the Tour too. I can see the Tour in their hearts, and in their eyes.

When you said you would deliver the grandest Grand Départ it was the truth, you have raised the bar for all future hosts of the Tour de France.

It was not all so rosy in Yorkshire's garden, though. Such large crowds can become a safety issue for the cyclists, and there were many pleas for people to stay well out of the way of the peloton.

William Fotheringham, writing for The Guardian, reported that Stage 1 winner Marcel Kittel pleaded for the crowds to give them room:

It's an amazing crowd here but they need to stay off the road and look out for themselves and their children.

Once back on home soil in France, and with Mark Cavendish out of the race, Kittel further added to his credentials as a front-runner for the green jersey with a third stage win out of four on Tuesday.

Dramatic scenes were witnessed on Wednesday as the race returned, in appalling weather, to the cobbles of northern France for the first time since 2010. Belkin's Lars Boom rode across as stage winner, but it is the race for the yellow jersey that is most intriguing.

Peter Dejong/Associated Press

Defending champion Chris Froome crashed twice during the Ypres/Arenberg Porte de Hainaut stage before the cobbles were even reached.

Already carrying a weakness from an injury to his wrist in an earlier stage, Froome took to Twitter to announce his departure from this year's race.

And so, less than a week in, the General Classification race in the Tour looks to be wide open.

Astana's Vincenzo Nibali looks to have taken a grip on the race so far, and he leads in yellow by two seconds over team-mate Jakob Fuglsang.

Alejandro Valverde is handily just over two minutes behind the leader, but it might be a little too soon for Garmin's Andrew Talansky and Team Sky's surprise new leader Richie Porte this time out.

Let's not forget El Pistolero, though.

Two-time winner Alberto Contador will see Froome's withdrawal as a real chance for victory this year. Even so, the Spaniard still found time to express his sadness at the Brit's withdrawal:

Only five stages in and there has been so much to talk about in this year's Tour de France with so much racing left to be done. With only a small dip in to the Alps this time round, the third week of the race will see the Pyrenees stretch the contenders to the limit.

Following up Team Sky's dominance in 2012 with Wiggins, Froome won the Yellow Jersey with ease last year. His sad withdrawal so early from this year's competition has posed a mighty question to both his team and the contenders left in the race.

It might just have created the most exciting finale in years.