Welcome back to part two of our interview with John Bagnall, a key player in bringing one of the biggest dates in the sporting calendar to Portsmouth in 1994. You can revisit part one here.
Hi John, in part one we discussed what it takes to begin paving the way for a Portsmouth stage. What else did you have to organise or overcome on your road to June 1994?
The next obstacle we had was the police, mainly due to the fact they had never dealt with anything quite so big before. At the time you had the Milk Race and the Kellogg’s Tour Of Britain as the biggest cycling events in the UK. And those were done by rolling road closures: a police car or motorcycle in front and behind which leapfrogged each other to stop the traffic. The Tour wouldn’t contemplate that, it had to be a completely sterile loop. The police have an organisation called ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers), that oversee combined or national large scale operations. We got assigned an inspector who was a bit full of himself and quite jack the laddish. You could see why he had gone far in the police force; a rather strong personality. He came to the first meetings saying, “well you know, I can’t see it working but we’ll go through the motions”, it was that sort of attitude. This was partly because, to start off with, they couldn’t get their mind round what the Tour was and how it felt to be part of it. So we took him and a couple of his deputies, including another guy assigned by Hampshire Constabulary, to France the next year to see the race. The Tour kindly decided to put them in their control car as guests, and for two days they were able to experience their operations first hand.
Unfortunately we thought we’d blown it on the first day. By then they were into the mountains, and this particular stage finished at Sestriere in the Alps, which is one of the very famous climbs if not one of the very legendary ones. Sestriere is now in all of the record books because Claudio Chiapuccino won it with the longest by distance and time break away in Tour history. Claudio came in forty five minutes ahead of the rest, it was quite an incredible ride, and probably drug assisted at the time if the truth be known… But Sestriere is a mountain top and it was just gridlocked. There was no way you could get anywhere for hours afterwards and yet we were supposed to collect these ACPO guys in order to look after them. We just couldn’t make the physical connections. Mobiles were very new technology and there was no coverage on the tops of the alps, so we had no means of getting in touch with them. We thought we had really blown it, they will be pretty hacked off at being left stranded with French men. As it turned out our French counterparts realised the situation and said “don’t worry, we will look after you”. They dished up a really nice dinner, got them suitably drunk and they had a really good time. When we met up with them the following day we fully expected them to pull the plug on the whole affair, however they expressed a different kind of concern; “After what we saw yesterday I’m not sure that we, the English police force, could manage something so awe inspiring. It was so well organised, it is going to give us real problems matching it”. Thankfully this soon became an ego thing and before we knew it, the challenge had been set to do it better than the French.
I recall in the first half of this interview you briefly mentioned the issue of legislation having to be created specifically for the Tour, could you give us more details on what had to be put into place?
What the police soon realised was that road cycling at that time, took place under a minor clause-of-a-sub-statute-of-a-bit-of-legislation dating back to 1948. This simply didn’t give them the powers they would need to create a completely sterile road closure. The existing legislation meant that it was okay for a police car to stop and for a policeman to halt traffic with his hands for 15 minutes, but not for a full day. So we shaped and drafted an Act of Parliament that was taken through as a private member’s bill. It was very discreetly done because this was still subject to confidentiality, all very hush hush. The bill went through Parliament and was enacted; giving all the relevant authorities the power to do whatever necessary to close the road and such like. This is the same legislation under which the Tour can take place in Yorkshire on Saturday.
That then just left all the towns and villages. We had numerous meetings with the county councils: Kent, East Sussex, West Sussex and Hampshire because the Tour want money to come. To be a start of finish town back then was around £100,000.00, which is quite a lot of money. And that was just for the Tour to come, so not including your organisation costs. All of that had to be negotiated through all of the various councils, but I think we had the political network working for us, everyone at Portsmouth City Council was up for it. By then a momentum was gathering and rumours started to appear. Cycling Weekly would phone up every so often and ask “what is going on?” “well what do you think is going on? I haven’t heard anything?”, all this bluff and counter bluff. Cycling is a small world, so they recognised that if they blew it then it could lift the lid on the whole thing. They were bound into it as well. Gradually we ticked off all the councils putting up the money for physical improvements. After this operation had been put into place the roads on the planned the route had never better for cycling; whole stretches were re-tarmacked because none of the councils wanted to be known for having bought a rider down.
The next part of the operation was to simply identify all the businesses that would be affected; banks, supermarkets, retail outlets, etc. Staff would have problems getting in due to the roads being closed at five in the morning. Deliveries would not be able to take place and cash points would not be refilled. Memorably I researched every crematorium, cemetery and undertakers on 25 miles either side of the route in order to write to them saying “please be aware that on this day restrictions will be in place and you might not have access for mourners, don’t book funerals for that day”. Similar to this, part of the route was going up Ditchling Beacon where a very rare orchid grows, so rare that its location is kept a secret. Naturally the Environmental Agency were worried about it, so the area was coned off and marshal placed there specifically to protect this plant from cycling fans and plant collectors alike.
Then it was just down to getting people along the route to buy into it; we persuaded villages councils and the Department for Education to allow schools to close for the day so that their pupils were able to watch the race. By the time we had the national launch, Cycling Weekly was planning events and their editor, Martin Ayres, came on board on a freelance basis to help with the writing of our newsletter. Through our newsletters we were having to inform people who had never heard of the Tour de France what it was about. We had to get out there and convince the people who, not only did not cycle, but disapproved of cycling in general. All whilst keeping the cycling clubs and the aficionados happy. It all came together amazingly well, but it was a lot of hard work. During the winter of 93 -94, for three to four nights a week I was in village halls somewhere along the route; showing a film and telling people what would be happening. Often you would get people sitting there with their arms crossed saying “why should I pay my rates so that French men can race bikes past my house?”, we were dealing with that sort of mentality.
By all accounts this was a successful stage, but can you tell me if there were any incidents that you had to deal with? With that amount of people massed together surely some issues cropped up?
The only incident in the whole thing was during the Portsmouth leg, when a child stepped out onto the curb after the peloton came round. Unfortunately he was clipped by the wing of one of the official’s cars who were following the riders, and momentarily we were quite concerned. Thankfully the Tour stopped one of its medical cars and called up one of their helicopters. The helicopter landed just behind where it happened and took the child and his mother to the hospital for the check-up. He had a headache and was slightly bruised but nothing serious. In truth it was fantastic PR on the Tour’s part to of done that, it added hugely to the concept of goodwill.
Over the two days, the police estimated between two and three million people had watched at the roadside. It had huge television coverage relative to the time, I remember Mr Leblanc saying that we have already seen the biggest stage crowd for the whole Tour, and we were only on stage four and five. The goodwill that was generated was just amazing, it’s fantastic anywhere you go on the Tour anyway, but the friendship and fun that was being had was truly magic. It laid the groundwork for the Tour to come back to England.
What would you say the aim was in bringing the Tour here, and what legacy did it leave? What do you think it brought to the city?
The immediate aim was to inform as many people as possible across the world, that there is a city called Portsmouth on the south coast of England. A city with an important heritage and history. A city that is open for commercial business. We were the people that started this whole thing, we are a city with a “can do” spirit. We are international and friendly. This was general promotion of sorts, for all kinds of different reasons and messages, and we very much hoped to ignite greater interest in cycling. Not to mention greater investment in cycling on the part of the city. We are on an island, the highest point in Portsmouth is twelve meters above sea level, it’s difficult to think of somewhere better, perhaps Cambridge apart, in physical terms for cycling. And yet the provision within the city is not good. Unfortunately I think Portsmouth just didn’t managed to capitulate on the immediate legacy of the Tour to achieve a tipping point that could be built on. In a way that you could argue that London has done with the Boris Bikes. There is still more work to do and I don’t entirely see who is doing it and where it is coming from. Southsea Cycle Club and various community projects are doing a great job in making it visible, but I don’t think it’s really come together as a critical mass in Portsmouth.
What really makes me sorry is if you cycle up of down the back or Portsdown Hill, you can see where the cycling tracks have been laid and marked out, but the tarmac has almost worn off. There is just the faint trace of a bike as you come up from Waterlooville and I think that is ever so sad, it’s symbolic of the tokenism that prevailed in the end in Hampshire and Portsmouth. They were given an opportunity to make themselves famous permanently in England as the cycling city, but the momentum was never really achieved in the first place. It was a very successfully stage and I think the longer term legacy wasn’t in the immediate benefits to the people who ride bikes in Portsmouth. However, to the cycling community in Britain as a whole it has had enormous benefits; it worked by laying one of the first foundation stones in what you could describe as a cycling wall. In the next course of bricks above Portsmouth 1994 you have Dublin in 1998, and then a couple courses of bricks above that you have London in 2007. Next you have smaller bricks above that: Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins. Riders who, as kids, might of watched Portsmouth on Channel 4. I would love to know if Mark Cavendish did and whether it fuelled his desire to be part of such a legendary event. You cannot quantify this part of the legacy. By this weekend, Yorkshire 2014 will be at the top of the wall. Yet when you look closely; Portsmouth is still right there at the bottom, as a foundation stone. This is where it all began.
I would like to express a huge thank you to John & Jan for allowing me into their home and sharing this great story with me. The 101st edition of the Tour De France begins on Saturday the 5th July, with ITV and ITV4 covering live stages and providing nightly highlights.