Though the Tour de France made two previous trips across the Channel, in 1974 and 1994, it had never taken off in the United Kingdom and never graced the streets of its capital. In fact, London is the unofficial capital because the country has no constitution, so it is more a fact than a written reality. As they speed through the streets of London during the Prologue, riders will catch a glimpse of the Houses of Parliament and White Hall, home to the British government.
With an inner population of 7.5 million (for a global population between 12 and 14 millions), London is Europe’s largest city and accounts for 19% of British economic wealth. As well as a historic, political and artistic centre, London is home to the City, making it the major financial hub of the Old Continent, and second largest worldwide.
In keeping with the Swinging Sixties, London has found renewed buoyancy over the past 15 years, attracting investors and talented youth from all over Europe. Staging the 2012 Olympics keeps up the momentum and mayor Ken Livingstone sees the 2007 Tour de France Taking Off as a major rehearsal. The Olympic Triathlon cycling leg, for one thing, will take place over a course similar to that of the Tour Prologue. Note that riders will not be charged the toll motorist must now pay to get into the city centre. London’s mayor has gifted us with a journey into British history.
The 18th century was a time of great growth, London deemed to be the world’s most populated city from 1831 to 1925. Technological innovation, notably the railroad from the 1830’s onward, enabled the city to grow and gobble up neighbouring towns, leading to the 33 Boroughs, which now make up Greater London. With transport growing more and more complicated, not to mention industrial waste and tons of horse manure clogging up the streets, London built the world’s first metro network, the London Underground. During Victorian times, London also became the first city to top the 1 million inhabitants mark.
During World War II, facing relentless raids from German planes throughout the Blitz, which made 30,000 civilian casualties, London faced martyrdom with heroic courage. Completely in ruins, the city was gradually reconstructed in the 50’s and 60’s.
The post-war years also brought strong immigration from Britain’s former colonies and the Commonwealth. Today, it is estimated that around 300 languages are spoken in London.
Following the artistic and social feverishness of the 60’s, the 80’s were a time of great economic growth, London becoming the leading financial market in Europe. Struck by IRA and Islamist terrorists alike, the city keeps bouncing back.
The British Museum and the two Tates (Britain and Modern) are amongst the most famous cultural institutions in the world, but London boasts many more high-quality museums, often quite quirky.
Theatre has always held a special place in London, ever since Elizabethan times. It seems only fitting that the Globe, Shakespeare’s theatre, was recently rebuilt (in 1997) according to the original plans. The Nobel Prize for literature awarded to Harold Pinter in 2006 is a tribute to the vitality of British contemporary drama.
The cinema has also enjoyed some kind of revival, thanks to directors who often started out with the BBC, the likes of Ken Loach and Stephen Frears. Many films have become box office hits, like the Michael Ritchie gangster movies, Billy Elliot or Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Though classical music is more than well served in London, with world’s famous venues such as the Royal Albert Hall, ever since the 60’s the city has been the capital of rock. Starting with the Rolling Stones and the Who (London’s version of Liverpool’s Beatles), bands have cropped up by the hundreds. Following Blur, atop British pop in the 90’s, more recent success stories include the Arctic Monkeys and the Kaiser Chiefs. Other than New York, no other city holds as many concerts.
Finally, London has been a constant source of inspiration for writers, most notably Milton and Dickens. And contemporary British literature thrives like no other in Europe. The likes of Peter Ackroyd, who eruditely evokes London’s history, Will Self and Nick Hornby have used the city as setting for their works. Recent years have seen the emergence of minority writers, such as Hanif Kureishi, Monica Ali and Zadie Smith.
England, and London in particular, have played a major part in the growth of cycling and cycling competitions. Though run between Paris and St Cloud on May 31, 1868, the first ever-cycling race was won by English expatriate James Moore. Moore, a friend of the Michaux brothers who invented the rotating pedal and cranks system in 1861, prophesized that the bicycle would become a household object, like the umbrella…
In Britain, competition took the shape of setting records on set distances: London-Bath, Liverpool-London, London-Brighton… Maybe this is what led to the tradition of British riders mastering the time trial, the likes of Chris Boardman, David Millar and Bradley Wiggins. Since 1980, a cyclist riding between London and Brighton has attracted big crowds in a ride to publicise the fight against cardiovascular diseases.
In 1994, the Tour de France didn’t make it to London but roamed the south of England, between Dover, Portsmouth and Brighton. 3 million fans lined the roads to cheer on the riders, most notably Chris Boardman, winner of the Prologue at a record average speed of 55.152 km/h and proud wearer of the yellow jersey.
The first British riders to take part in the Tour were Bill Burl and Charles Holland in 1937. The first to make it to the finish were Tony Hoar and Brian Robinson in 1955. To this day, 52 British riders have taken part in the Tour, pulling off 23 stage victories. Barry Hoban put up the best numbers, notching up 8 stage victories in 12 Tour participations. 4 British riders have worn the yellow jersey: Tom Simpson (1962), David Millar (2000), Chris Boardman (1994, 1997, 1998) and Sean Yates (1994).
French prejudice notwithstanding, London has truly become a capital of gastronomy. The city has made up lost ground over the past twenty years. Fine restaurants can be found in all parts of town, with a wide range of cuisines.
The Tour will take off in what once was the heart of the British Empire and remains the heart of the United Kingdom. Whitehall is the generic name given to all government institutions. Prolonged by Parliament Street, from Trafalgar Square to Westminster Palace, this wide thoroughfare is lined with government departments and commemorative monuments.
Built on soggy marshes by a spy and speculator, scene of murders and terrorist bombings, the official residence of British Prime Ministers has not been the most peaceful of havens throughout its long history. Riders will pass by its iron gates, put up in 1969, at the start of the Prologue.
In 1735, Robert Walpole was the first Prime Minister to settle there, as it was the official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury, a post that in modern times has always been held by the Prime Minister. In fact, it still says “First Lord of the Treasury” on the mailbox.
Though dispensed of stopping, riders can spare a thought while crossing the Bridge Street and Great George Street intersection: it was here that the world’s first traffic light was installed, in 1869. Powered by gas and operated by a police officer, it exploded only two weeks after being put in service, killing the poor guy!
Originally a royal residence, though no monarch ever chose to live there, in 1834 Westminster Palace became home, reconstructed in its present state following a fire, to one of Britain’s most splendid inventions: parliamentary democracy.
Erected by Edward the confessor in 1065 as his final resting place, Westminster Abbey was built on the site of a place of worship. Besides the sovereigns, here is a list of people buried there: Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, the Unknown Soldier, Robert Browning, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, George Frederic Handel, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Laurence Olivier, Henry Purcell.
A lovely house which originally belonged to the Duke of Buckingham, it was bought by George III in 1761 for his wife Charlotte. In 1820, George IV decided to undertake some extension to make it more comfortable and got carried away.
Queen Victoria was the first monarch to make Buckingham her home, in 1837. 108 metres wide and 120 metres long, the Palace is the official seat of the monarchy, and most of its political and social functions take place there. It has 775 rooms, including 52 bedrooms for the royal family and its guests, and 188 for staff.
George IV commissioned Wellington Arch in memory of British troops who had fallen in the Napoleonic wars. It was built between 1826 and 1830, according to the plans of Decimus Burton. Its austere appearance is due to financial cuts following George IV’s outlandish renovation of Buckingham Palace.
While crossing Hyde Park, riders will chase precious seconds with as much valour as Henry VIII hunting game with his men. Indeed, the king of seven wives took away this land from the monks of Westminster Abbey in 1536, turning it into a hunting reserve. A century later, Charles I opened it to the public and had its main waterways designed, notably the Ring.
The Mall is to London what the Champs-Élysées is to Paris. On this wide avenue running alongside the Thames, lined with trees and statues of great British heroes, official processions make their way from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace, the Union Jack and the honoured guest’s flag flying high on both sides. Major ceremonies highlighting the Kingdom’s life take place there.
Rumour once had it that the Mall was built as an escape way for the royal family in case of a major crisis. Though this is perfectly false, the Mall should provide the ideal setting for the 2007 Tour de France to take off.